At the heel of the hunt, the Tory hue and cry on human rights needs to die down

The Prime Minister is “physically sick” at the prospect of any prisoners winning the vote because of a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights. He and the Home Secretary Theresa May are “appalled” by the Supreme Court’s ruling that to deny people placed on the sex offenders’ register for life a right of appeal is contrary to human rights. Is this appropriate language for one pillar of the constitution to use about another? Even more to the point, does this so-called “firestorm” over two HR rows presage a Cameron-led assault not only on the ECHR but on the human rights plank of the constitution upheld by judges?

The suspicion must be raised that campaigns against the ECHR waged down the years by tabloids like the Sun and Daily Mail have affected the tone of debate and have emboldened the Conservative Right. Conservative ministers like Lord Chancellor Clarke and Attorney General Grieve have on the whole chosen to keep their heads down rather than boldly correct the grossly distorted visions of wholesale removals from the sex offenders’ register or mass vote -ins by prisoners. On the other hand the commission now being expedited jointly by Ken Clarke and Nick Clegg to examine a British Bill of Rights is unlikely to satisfy the objectors to “ interference by unelected judges.” A separate Tory review may take a different view.

On these issues the Times is leading the hue and cry. On Thursday in a double-page spread the paper reported that a  Tory policy review will examine whether the party can back withdrawing from the (European) Court after the next election, recognising that such a move earlier would be vetoed by the Lib Dems.

Today the Times eagerly spun  “leaked documents” showing that

Britain would face no serious sanction if it ignores the Strasbourg court’s diktats.   The papers, prepared for Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, reveal that the UK would face only ‘political rather than judicial pressure’ if it took a stand against the unelected Euro-judges.

However it went on to quote the documents, adding:

Britain would open itself up to charges of hypocrisy since it has consistently criticised Turkey for failing to pay compensation awarded by Strasbourg.

If the Government made a “genuine attempt” to introduce legislation to allow prisoners to vote, but this was then defeated in the Commons, it could be enough to “persuade Strasbourg that the UK has done its best” and could reasonably expect to avoid any further sanction.

If Britain left the convention it could risk the country’s membership of the European Union. “Both the Council of Europe and the EU require member states to adhere to their value, including respect for human rights. Ultimately, whether to expel the UK from either would be a political decision, but the UK would clearly lay itself open to expulsion by withdrawing from the ECHR,” the note concludes.

While there are real issues in contention, the controversy smacks of internal Conservative politics, throwing the Right a bone to pick and a blue line to draw to differentiate them from the their coalition partners. As the Times acknowledges, the party itself is “ hopelessly split” on the HR issue. However an outcome in favour of ” human rights plus”  must be less certain than it was just after the general election. It would help, to moderate the language and offer dispassionate accounts of current controversies and exactly what are the powers and influence of the European Court.

Adds Saturday 19 Feb.  The media appetite for the topic may be slaked by what the Mail calls this ” common sense” judgement in the High Court – for the time being.

Extract from Daily Mail article:

It is a momentous development but Britain’s courts and Parliament – at long last – could be on the verge of restoring this country’s sovereignty over the unelected judges of Strasbourg.

First, following a campaign by this paper, ( my italics)  MPs voted overwhelmingly to reject the European Court’s human rights ruling that prisoners must be given the vote.

Now, in an outbreak of common sense, the High Court in London has refused compensation claims brought by 588 convicts barred from taking part in last year’s general election, and ordered each of them to pay £76 in costs – equivalent to two months of prison wages.

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