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Saturday, August 06, 2011

Human rights reform panel 'won't confront' power of Euro judges

Human rights reform panel 'won't confront' power of Euro judges

By Jack Doyle

Last updated at 11:58 PM on 5th August 2011

The panel set up to reform human rights laws was denounced as a ‘stitch up’ last night after it refused to confront the key issue of the power over British cases wielded by European judges.

The commission was established by David Cameron following outrage over a string of rulings by the European Court of Human Rights – including its insistence that Britain gives prison inmates the vote.

Yet the commission has already run into criticism from one of its most senior members for publishing a discussion paper which ignores Britain’s relationship with the Court.

Dr Michael Pinto-Duschinsky, said he ‘strongly regretted’ that the paper, the panel’s first major publication, did not even mention the row over voting rights for prisoners.

Critics claimed the omission showed that the panel was a fix.

The Commission on a Bill of Rights was set up by the Prime Minister after the Strasbourg Court refused to reconsider its judgment that prisoners must have the vote by October this year, despite MPs voting overwhelmingly against such a step.

Members include Liberal Democrat peer Lord Lester QC, a key architect of Labour’s Human Rights Act and Labour peer and human rights lawyer Baroness Kennedy QC.

Dr Pinto-Duschinsky also criticised the discussion paper for including a ‘tendentious’ interpretation of the Human Rights Act, suggesting it had not undermined the sovereignty of Parliament.

He wrote: ‘Some four months after its appointment, the Commission on a Bill of Rights has produced a paper asking for opinions from members of the public, legislators, and the devolved administrations.

‘While I welcome and support this consultation, I strongly regret the terms in which it has been presented.

‘The key issues of Britain’s future relationship with the European Court of Human Rights and the recent decisive protest in the House of Commons against that court’s ruling on the issue of prisoner voting are not even included in the commission’s list of questions.’

He said attempts by panel members to include a statement by Mr Cameron in which the PM attacked the European Court had been vetoed by other commissioners.

In the statement, which Mr Cameron made to Parliament in February, he said: ‘The commission we are establishing to look at a British Bill of Rights will be established imminently because I think it’s about time we started making sure decisions are made in this Parliament rather than in the courts.’

The paper, published yesterday, outraged backbench Tory MPs and critics of the power wielded by the ECHR.

Backbench Tory MP Douglas Carswell said: ‘This has been fixed in such a way that the commission can only look at giving judges and human rights lawyers additional power.
‘They are not looking at substituting the power of the European Court. It’s a fix, it’s a stitch up and it’s further evidence that we can have no confidence in the final outcome.

‘The Government needs to do what it promised.’

Britain takes over the presidency of the European Council – the governing body of the court – in November, and ministers have pledged to use that as an opportunity for reform.

However, the discussion paper makes clear the issue of the court’s powers over Britain will not be addressed in detail imminently.

It sets out four questions: whether the UK needs a Bill of Rights, what it should contain, how it should apply, and if readers have any other views on the issues it is to discuss.

But it states that as far as the ECHR is concerned ‘we are not asking detailed questions at this stage’.

Blair Gibbs of the Policy Exchange think-tank said: ‘This Commission needs to have all options on the table and not to be ducking the difficult issue.

‘The conduct and powers of the Strasbourg Court are at the heart of the problem of human rights.’

Dr Pinto-Duschinsky, a former human rights consultant to the Foreign Office, the UN and the World Bank, is an expert on democracy and electoral systems.

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