Blog: UK withdrawal from ECHR would send out ‘entirely wrong’ signal

Joanna Cherry QC MP

Joanna Cherry QC MP reminds us that the UK has set standards for the world in safeguarding human rights and that ensuring those rights apply to everyone is not a mere inconvenience but is fundamentally necessary in a country that wishes to be governed by the rule of law.

On 8 May 2015 I was elected as the MP for Edinburgh South West. I am proud to be the latest in a long line of members of the Faculty of Advocates who have represented my constituency. The late Norman Wylie QC, formerly Lord Advocate and latterly Lord Wylie, a senator of the College of Justice, was followed by the right hon. Malcolm Rifkind QC, who was succeeded by the right hon. Lynda Clark QC, formerly Advocate General and now Baroness Clark of Calton, also a senator of the College of Justice. My immediate predecessor was the Right Hon Alastair Darling, Advocate.

My maiden speech took place during the Justice and Home Affairs portion of the debate on the Queen’s speech and was given in my capacity as the SNPs Front bench Spokesperson on Justice and Home Affairs. As a lawyer, it was appropriate that I should make my first speech in the House in defence of human rights and the rule of law. I wanted to underline the importance of upholding international human rights standards and to lend my voice to the cross party campaign to save the HRA. Here is what I said:

“The tone and tenor of the Government’s approach to human rights and civil liberties issues give me and my party grave cause for concern. While the Government appear to have been blown off course in their zeal to implement their manifesto pledge to repeal the Human Rights Act, I note that the Home Secretary has confirmed that a Bill will be brought forward to introduce a Bill of Rights and to repeal the Human Rights Act. Lest there be any doubt, I and my party are fundamentally opposed to the repeal of the Act and would consider it a thoroughly retrograde step if that were to be done. Any reduction in current human rights safeguards will threaten the fundamental freedoms to which everyone is entitled in a modern democratic society governed by the rule of law. We should not forget, as the shadow Home Secretary reminded us, that the people who have benefited from the human rights protection afforded by the Act are often the most vulnerable in our society—for example, disabled people affected by welfare reform and the families of military personnel killed on active service because the Ministry of Defence supplied them with outdated equipment.”

Nor, as the shadow Home Secretary reminded us, should we forget that the United Kingdom was in at the foundation of the European convention on human rights and that it was brought forward largely at the suggestion of Winston Churchill. Since we became a signatory to the ECHR, both Scotland and the UK have been setting standards for the world in safeguarding human rights. The Scottish Government take pride in that, and I really wish that the UK Government would do the same.

The right-wing press likes to run stories about what a poor record we have in Strasbourg, but contrary to the impression in the press the UK loses less than 1% of the cases brought against it in Strasbourg. The right-wing press also likes to run scare stories about alleged—I stress the word “alleged” because everybody is entitled to a fair trial—foreign criminals who cannot be deported, but the UK has successfully managed to deport alleged foreign criminals, such as Abu Qatada, who was deported in a way that meant he faced trial with proper safeguards against the use of evidence obtained by torture. That is only right in a society that believes it ought to be governed by the rule of law.

It might have taken time to deport Abu Qatada, but the UK Government should be proud of doing things properly. Instead they have managed to give the impression that respecting human rights and upholding the rule of law are an inconvenience. Such an attitude is not the way forward. As the shadow Home Secretary said, every country in Europe, save Belarus, is a signatory to the ECHR. A UK withdrawal would send out entirely the wrong signal on the international stage.

In Scotland, the Human Rights Act is part of a larger picture. The rights in the ECHR are written into the devolution settlement by virtue of the Scotland Act 1998. In Scotland, we have a national action plan for human rights and a UN-accredited human rights commission. The SNP’s commitment to human rights extends beyond the civil and political rights in the Act to economic, social and cultural human rights. We believe in Scotland that human rights are central to the way we address the overall challenge of building a fairer and more equal society. Repeal of the Act is strongly opposed in Scotland. Indeed, last November, the Scottish Parliament voted overwhelmingly to endorse the Act.

Last year during the independence referendum campaign, the Prime Minister invited Scots not to leave the UK but to stay and lead the UK. With the overwhelming mandate we have received from the people of Scotland in the recent general election, I and my fellow SNP MPs intend to do just that, at least for the time being—to lead the UK. On this issue in particular, we would be proud to join other friends among Opposition Members, and possibly among Government Members too, in a progressive alliance of all Members who believe in the Human Rights Act and the value of participation in international instruments such as the ECHR.

The nationalism of the SNP is a civic nationalism that looks outwards and wishes to play a full part on the world and European stage. For so long as Scotland remains part of the UK, that is the approach that the SNP will advocate. I urge the House not to indulge in the narrow, inward-looking nationalism of withdrawing from the ECHR and drawing up its own Bill of Rights.

My message to the House, and in particular to those on the Government Benches, when considering whether to repeal the Act and leave the ECHR, can best be summarised by the words of my fellow countrywoman, Mary Queen of Scots, when she was on trial for her life before an English court:

“Look to your consciences and remember that the theatre of the whole world is wider than the kingdom of England”.

Share icon
Share this article: