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Sunday, March 11, 2012

Tory British Bill of Rights commissioner set to quit

Tory British Bill of Rights commissioner set to quit

By Giles Dilnot Sunday Politics reporter

A government commissioner asked to advise on a British Bill of Rights is expected to resign in protest later after accusing the commission of ignoring the wishes of the prime minister and most Conservative MPs.

Dr Michael Pinto-Duschinsky is one of eight commissioners brought together in March last year by the government to fulfil a pledge in the Coalition Agreement to "investigate" a British Bill of Rights "incorporating and building on the European Convention on Human Rights".

A month previously, Prime Minister David Cameron had said it "was about time we started making sure decisions are made in this Parliament rather than in the courts".

The issue of who has the final say over rulings of the European Court of Human Rights - Parliament or the court - has divided the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats for a number of years.

But after 12 months of deliberation, Conservative commissioner Dr Pinto-Duschinsky sent an e-mail to the chairman of the Commission on a Bill of Rights, Sir Leigh Lewis, in which he raised his concerns that the views of Mr Cameron and the "overwhelming majority of Parliamentarians" were being ignored.

He wrote: "The underlying strategic decision that needs to be made about the work of the commission is whether or not the concerns of the overwhelming majority of Parliamentarians and of the PM are to be taken seriously and whether the alternatives to the Human Rights Act system are to be investigated in detail within the commission.

"So far the commission has engaged largely with proponents of the status quo and is set to do the same... "

He was not alone in voicing his concerns.

Last July, just four months into their work, fellow Conservative commissioner Anthony Speight QC wrote to Dr Pinto-Duschinsky and others, saying: "I shall be failing in my duty if I stand back and allow every trace of distinctive Tory thinking to be squeezed out of the picture."

Row escalated

Just six days ago, in further emails seen by the BBC's Sunday Politics show, the row escalated dramatically when Sir Leigh threatened to go to Justice Secretary Ken Clarke and resign because of Dr Pinto-Duschinsky's presence on the commission and alleged accusations of bias against commission staff.

The next day all seven commissioners, including Dr Pinto-Duschinsky's Conservative colleagues, signed a letter to the justice secretary stating: "Dr Pinto-Duschinsky's continuing presence on the commission is significantly impeding its progress."

The failures Dr Pinto-Duschinsky has alleged have already drawn criticism from senior Tory backbencher David Davis, the MP for Haltemprice and Howden.

Mr Davis said: "The point of the commission was to bring human rights home, not to do them down, not to reduce them, but to bring them back under British democratic control and that's fundamental.

"If you don't do that, if there's no parliamentary control of it, no final parliamentary override if you like, then they've not delivered on the promise that they were set up under."

In a statement, the Ministry of Justice said: "We are aware that there have been some internal difficulties within the commission on process rather than policy. The MoJ has received a letter to that effect from the commissioners and we will be responding in due course."

The commission told the BBC: "The Commission on a Bill of Rights is making good progress on its work and will continue to do so.

"We have already discussed the issues of parliamentary sovereignty and democratic override at length. The commission will issue its final report to government by the end of the year in accordance with its terms of reference."

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