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Leaving the EU: Human Rights

Attorney General – in the House of Commons on 16th January 2020.

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Photo of Afzal Khan Afzal Khan Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Immigration)

What assessment he has made of the potential effect on the protection of human rights of the UK leaving the EU.

Photo of Geoffrey Cox Geoffrey Cox The Attorney-General

The United Kingdom has a long tradition of ensuring that rights and liberties are protected domestically and of fulfilling its international human rights obligations. Our departure from the European Union will not change that.

Photo of Afzal Khan Afzal Khan Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Immigration)

There are real concerns about whether the UK will remain a signatory to the European convention on human rights as we leave the European Union. The convention has led to changes in UK law that protect victims of trafficking, tackle workplace discrimination and ensure the rights of disabled people. Can the Attorney General guarantee that this Government will never withdraw from the convention in any circumstance?

Photo of Geoffrey Cox Geoffrey Cox The Attorney-General

I am grateful for this opportunity to reassert the Government’s complete commitment to our membership of and subscription to the European convention on human rights.

Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I welcome what the Attorney General has just said. Will he take the opportunity to remind many people that the United Kingdom is one of the founding fathers of the convention that gave rise to the ECHR—not least in the person of Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, a distinguished Conservative lawyer-politician? I know my right hon. and learned Friend will want to continue in that tradition.

Photo of Geoffrey Cox Geoffrey Cox The Attorney-General

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend and, if I may, I offer him a word of congratulation on his recent knighthood. I am delighted to welcome him in his new incarnation as Sir Bob.

My hon. Friend will know I agree with him that, as we leave the European Union, the country and the world should know that this nation stands for liberty, freedom and human rights. One mark of our standing for those values will be our continued vigorous participation in the Council of Europe and our subscription to the convention on human rights. That should not mean that we do not turn a critical eye to elements of the human rights structures in our country, and we will look at those in the time to come.

Photo of Nick Thomas-Symonds Nick Thomas-Symonds Shadow Solicitor General, Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Security)

Although I welcome most of what the Attorney General has just said, the Tory manifesto says:

“We will update the Human Rights Act and administrative law”.

Yesterday, at Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister said that judicial review should not be

“abused to conduct politics by another means or to create needless delays.”—[Official Report, 15 January 2020;
Vol. 669, c. 1019.]

Can the Attorney General tell us which recent court decisions have been about conducting politics or causing needless delays?

Photo of Geoffrey Cox Geoffrey Cox The Attorney-General

It has been an enormous pleasure to appear opposite the hon. Gentleman. He is a distinguished historian, a distinguished politician and an experienced barrister.

Photo of Geoffrey Cox Geoffrey Cox The Attorney-General

Of course it will.

Nick Thomas-Symonds knows I will not be drawn into commenting on individual cases, but what I can say is that there are widespread concerns throughout our society and throughout this House as to whether judicial review is sometimes being used in a manner, often through frivolous applications, that needs better focus and care in its procedures and tests. We will have a look at that to see whether the elements of judicial review could be better designed to serve its purpose of holding the Government to account for their administrative decisions.

Photo of Nick Thomas-Symonds Nick Thomas-Symonds Shadow Solicitor General, Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Security)

I always welcome compliments, but I did not detect an answer to the question from the Attorney General. He often says that he is a lawyer first and a politician second. He knows that Governments are sometimes vindicated in the courts and that they also face decisions from the courts that are uncomfortable. The answer is never to attack the independence of our judiciary or our courts system. There is a real worry that the Prime Minister is seeking some sort of vengeance because he did not like the Supreme Court’s decision that his prorogation of Parliament was unlawful. Does the Attorney General agree that if we are to weaken judicial review, it will be not the Prime Minister who loses out, but all our constituents whose rights to hold public authorities to account are watered down?

Photo of Geoffrey Cox Geoffrey Cox The Attorney-General

There is no question of weakening judicial review. The question is whether we can make it more efficient and streamlined, and more focused on the purpose: holding the Government to account for their administrative decisions. Even the hon. Gentleman will have to accept that some judicial review cases have been brought that should perhaps never have been started—often they are indeed thrown out by the courts—and we can prevent the courts being clogged up with those applications. So I say to him: let us wait and see. The Government are looking at this extremely carefully, but I want him to understand one thing: there is no question of backsliding upon the fundamental principle of the independence of the judiciary.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Attorney General)

I welcome the Attorney General back to his place on the Government Bench, but it was from the Back Benches, in February 2017, that he made a superb speech on the human rights of unaccompanied asylum seeking children, calling on the Government not just to pay “lip service” to those rights, but to make them “practical and effective”. So if the Government are genuinely committed to making those Dublin rights effective post-Brexit, why do they not just unilaterally decide to continue to accept unaccompanied children with family members here? Why are the Government seeking to repeal even the modest obligations to negotiate their rights under the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018?

Photo of Geoffrey Cox Geoffrey Cox The Attorney-General

We are not seeking to repeal this; we are simply removing the statutory requirement to negotiate it. The Government wrote in October last year seeking commencement of negotiation on family reunification. The principle is fundamental and one to which the Government are committed: vulnerable, unaccompanied children must be able to reunite with their family members in this country.