Tag: Rule of Law

Theresa May considering scrapping Human Rights Act following Brexit


The prime minister is to consider repealing the Human Rights Act after Brexit, despite promising she is “committed” to its protections, a minister has revealed. This is, after all, a government that has always tended to regard the human rights of some social groups as nothing more than a bureaucratic inconvenience. Many of us have been very concerned about the implications of Brexit for human rights in the UK.

The House of Lords EU Justice Sub-Committee has exchanged correspondence with the Government about clarifying the wording of the Political Declaration regarding the European Convention on Human Rights. 

There is no justification for editing or repealing the Human Rights Act itself, that would make Britain the first European country to regress in the level and degree of our human rights protection. It is through times of recession and times of affluence alike that our rights ought to be the foundation of our society, upon which the Magna Carta, the Equality Act and the Human Rights Act were built – protecting the most vulnerable citizens from the powerful and ensuring those who govern are accountable to the rule of law.

Observation of human rights distinguishes democratic leaders from dictators and despots. Human Rights are the bedrock of our democracy, they are universal, and are a reflection of a society’s and a governments’ recognition of the equal worth of every citizens’ life.

Nonetheless, the government will decide on the future of the landmark legislation once “the process of leaving the EU concludes”, according to a letter submitted to a parliamentary inquiry.

This disclosure comes despite the Brexit white paper stating last year that the UK would remain in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), after  following a warning from the European Union (EU) that pulling out would jeopardise a future security deal. However, the prime minister has previously pledged to leave the ECHR, expressing frustration because there was no Commons majority for doing so. 

It is in this context of previous statements of intent that the wording of the letter was described as “troubling” by the Lords EU Justice Sub-Committee, which has warned that the letter casts doubt on more recent, repeated pledges from the government to protect the ECHR.

“Is the government sincere in its commitment to the ECHR?”, Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws, the committee’s chair, asked.

“If so, why has it failed to give assurances that it will not repeal or reform the Human Rights Act, which in essence incorporates the rights set out in the ECHR into domestic British law?”

The committee wrote to the Ministry of Justice after the alarm was raised by the wording of the political declaration, which was agreed with the EU in December alongside the legally binding divorce deal.

The declaration said the UK would merely agree “to respect the framework of the European Convention on Human Rights” – dropping the previous pledge of being “committed” to it. Previous plans to replace the Human Rights Act with a ‘British Bill of Rights’ appeared in the 2010 Programme for Government, and in the Conservative manifesto in 2015. included an emphasis on interpreting rights more subjectively, rather than regarding them as ‘absolute’. 

In response, Edward Argar, a junior justice minister, wrote: “The difference in wording does not represent a change in the UK’s position on the ECHR

A central tenet of our future relationship with the EU is our mutual belief in the importance of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

But he went on to suggest that the Human Rights Act may be scrapped when Brexit is concluded.

He wrote: “Our manifesto committed to not repealing or replacing the Human Rights Act while the process of EU exit is underway.” 

“It is right that we wait until the process of leaving the EU concludes before considering the matter further in the full knowledge of the new constitutional landscape.

Many Conservatives are critical of Labour’s Human Rights Act, claiming it gives “too many rights to criminals” and some have even claimed it undermines “personal responsibility.”

However, in 2015 Amnesty UK commissioned a poll that indicated the British public are not particularly willing to see any change to existing Human Rights legislation, with only one in 10 people in the UK (11%) believing that scrapping the Human Rights Act should be a government aim.

It’s extremely worrying that a government thinks it should pick and choose which rights we are entitled to and select who they deem worthy of them. The whole point of rights and protections is that they are universal: they must apply to everyone equally in order to work at all.

It took people in the UK a very long time to claim the rights we have and we mustn’t let the Conservatives take them away with the stroke of a pen.

The peers said it would imperil human rights if the government “intend to break the formal link” between the UK courts and the EHCR.

Baroness Kennedy said: “Again and again we are told that the government is committed to the European Convention on Human Rights, but without a concrete commitment, and with messaging that is changing and becoming diluted.”

The government have played a long game, however, and have almost certainly always intended to repeal the Human Rights Act. One issue that prevented that happening over the last few years is the Good Friday Agreement, as the Labour government also committed to incorporate the European Convention of Human ECHR into the law of Northern Ireland and to the establishment of a Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. 

The politics of regression

In 2015, wrote about how the government has quietly edited the ministerial code, which was updated on October 15  without any announcement at all. The code sets out the standard of conduct expected of ministers. The latest version of the code is missing a key element regarding complicity with international law.

The previous code, issued in 2010, said there was an “overarching duty on ministers to comply with the law including international law and treaty obligations and to uphold the administration of justice and to protect the integrity of public life”.

The new version of the code has been edited to say only that there is an“overarching duty on ministers to comply with the law and to protect the integrity of public life”.

Conservative party policy document had revealed that the ministerial code will be rewritten in the context of the UK withdrawing from the European convention on human rights. In order to help achieve these aims the document says: “We will amend the ministerial code to remove any ambiguity in the current rules about the duty of ministers to follow the will of Parliament in the UK.”

In the original Conservative proposals to scrap our existing human rights framework, and replace it with their own, one sentence from the misleadingly titled document –Protecting Human Rights in the UK, (found on page 6 ) – is particularly chilling: “There will be a threshold below which Convention rights will not be engaged.”

Basically this means that human rights will no longer be absolute or universally applied – they will be subject to state stipulations and caveats. And discrimination. The government will establish a threshold below which Convention rights will not be engaged, allowing UK courts to strike out what are deemed trivial cases.

The Conservatives’ motivation for changing our human rights legislation is to allow reinterpretations to work around the new legislation when they deem it necessary. The internationally agreed rights that the Conservatives have always seen as being open to interpretation will become considerably prone to ideological bias, prejudice and open to subjective challenge.

Breaking the formal link between the European Court of Human Rights and British law would mean any judgement from Europe would be treated as “advisory” only, rather than legally binding, and would need to be “approved” by parliament. Such a Bill would profoundly disempower citizens because it will shift the balance of democracy completely, placing power almost entirely in the hands of the state.

Whatever constitutional or political configurations emerge following Brexit, the present threat to rights and equality is a major threat to citizens’ liberties and freedoms. It demands coherent and collective action in the public interest.  



Concerns about the impact of Brexit on the human rights of disabled people in update report to UNCRPD

A strong case for the Human Rights Act


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Benefit Sanctions and the Rule of Law – Michael Adler

In this paper, Michael Adler, Emeritus Professor of Socio-Legal Studies, School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh, highlights the enormous growth in the severity, the scope and the incidence of benefit sanctions in the UK since the turn of the century, and assesses the compatibility of the current sanctions regime with the ‘rule of law’. 

This blog is based on a paper presented at the Annual Conference of the Law Society of Scotland, held at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre on 2nd October 2015. The author is very grateful to David Webster, Jeff King and Colm O’Cinneide for their help.

Few people have written as clearly on the ‘rule of law’ as Tom Bingham, formerly Master of the Rolls, Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, and Senior Law Lord in the UK Supreme Court, and I use his analysis as my starting point. According to Tom Bingham,[1] the ‘rule of law’ comprises eight principles. These are set out in Table 1 below:

Table 1: The eight principles of the Rule of Law

1. The law must be accessible and, so far as possible, intelligible, clear and predictable.
2. Questions of legal right and liability should ordinarily be resolved by application of the law and not of discretion.
3. The laws of the land should apply equally to all, save to the extent that objective differences justify differentiation.
4. Ministers and public officials at all levels must exercise the powers conferred on them in good faith, fairly for the purpose for which the powers were conferred, without exceeding the limits of such powers and not unreasonably.
5. The law must offer adequate protection of fundamental human rights.
6. Means must be provided for resolving, without prohibitive cost or inordinate delay, bona fide civil disputes which the parties themselves are unable to resolve.
7. Adjudicative procedures provided by the state should be fair.
8. The rule of law requires compliance by the state of its obligations in international law as in national law.

Since few members of the audience will have any personal experience of sanctions and most of you will probably only be dimly aware of their existence, the paper starts with an account of recent changes in the sanctions regime.

The origins of benefit sanctions

There is nothing new about benefit sanctions. When unemployment insurance was introduced in the UK under the National Insurance Act 1911, claimants could be disqualified from benefit for periods of up to six weeks for a limited number of reasons (mainly for having left work voluntarily, lost their job as a result of ‘misconduct’ or not being available for work). What is new is the striking increase in their scope and severity, and in their incidence. Most of these changes can be traced back to the Jobseeker’s Act 1995, which inserted the principle of ‘activation’ into social security for those deemed capable of work (or of progression towards it), made the receipt of benefit conditional on claimants’ job-seeking behaviour, required claimants to undertake training and job-search, and introduced sanctions for non-compliance.

THE increasing scope and severity of benefit sanctions

Benefit sanctions are now very much wider in scope (in that they are applied to more misdemeanours), greater in severity (in that they apply for longer periods) and more extensive in application (in that they apply to more people) than was formerly the case.

The main changes in the scope and severity of benefit sanctions since the 1980s are summarised in Table 2 below.

Table 2: Benefit Sanctions Then and Now

 THEN (pre-activation)  NOW (post-activation)
only passive ‒ mainly for ex-ante offences e.g. leaving work voluntarily, losing their job as a result of ‘misconduct’ or not being available for work also active ‒ mainly for ex-post offences, e.g. not ‘actively seeking work’, failure to participate in a training or employment scheme and missing an interview
applied to unemployed also apply to single parents and long-term sick and disabled people
applied to applicants for insurance benefits apply to applicants for all the main out-of-work benefits
applied for up to 6 weeks (1911-1986), 13 weeks (1986-1988) or 26 weeks (1988 onwards) now apply for up to 156 weeks (three years)
sanctioned claimants had a right to claim means-tested social assistance (at a reduced rate) immediately sanctioned claimants can apply for discretionary ‘hardship payments’ but, in many cases, only after a two week delay

The increasing incidence of benefit sanctions

In 2001, about 300,000 sanctions and disallowances were imposed by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) on JSA claimants. This figure remained fairly static for the next five years but started to rise quite sharply in 2006 and exceeded 1 million in 2013. Thus, the increase over the period was nearly 250 per cent. The number of sanctions fell to just over 700,000 in 2014, mainly because of the decline in unemployment and the corresponding reduction in the JSA caseload, which fell by about 30 per cent. However, this is more than twice the number imposed in 2001.

In addition to JSA sanctions, 34,000 sanctions were imposed on ESA claimants in 2013. The detailed statistics for sanctions and disqualifications are set out in Table 3 below.

Table 3: JSA and ESA Sanctions and Disqualifications, 2000-2014

Year Number of JSA sanctions imposed Change since 2001 (%) [see note below] Number of ESA sanctions imposed
2000 no statistics available
2001 300,104
2002 305,080 +1.65%
2003 282,096 -6.00%
2004 258,985 -13.70%
2005 267,172 -10.93%
2006 278,827 -7.09%
2007 351,341 +17.07%
2008 380,028 +26.63%
2009 471,476 +57.10% 19,087
2010 742,030 +147.26% 30,298
2011 738,850 +146.20% 4,817
2012 904,965 +201.55% 14,361
2013 1,046,398 +248.67% 34,022
2014 702,000 +133.92% 36,808

Note: 2001 was selected as the base year for comparisons because the statistical system changed in that year.

Source: The statistics are based on the DWP’s quarterly sanctions statistics, published in Jobseeker’s Allowance and Employment and Support Allowance sanctions and available at https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/jobseekers-allowance-and-employment-and-support-allowance-sanctions-decisions-made-to-june-2014

Comparing benefit sanctions with court fines

To put these figures into perspective, we can compare changes in the number of benefit sanctions with changes in the number of fines imposed in the criminal courts in the period since 2000. While the incidence of benefit sanctions in Great Britain increased from about 300,000 to more than 1,000,000 over the period 2001-2013, the incidence of fines imposed in the criminal courts in England and Wales decreased from about 1,000,000 to about 800,000. Although it is not generally known, the incidence of benefit sanctions overtook the number of court fines in 2012. The gap opened up in 2013 but the number of benefit sanctions fell quite sharply in 2014, due mainly to a fall in the number of unemployed people. However, the number of benefit sanctions is still very high indeed. These changes are shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. The Incidence of Criminal Fines and Benefit Sanctions 2000-2014

 Figure 1

Court fines are preceded by court proceedings and these provide a reasonable level of procedural protection. They are set at ‘moderate levels’ but, because judges impose fines without inquiring into offenders’ circumstances or ability to pay, and because many offenders are unemployed and/or poor, the extent of proportionality in imposing fines is not all that high. Fine default is quite a serious problem and, although it is being tackled, a few fine defaulters still end up in prison. The imposition of court fines is not, in principle, inconsistent with justice although the justice inherent in the process could be enhanced.

Benefit sanctions are not preceded by legal proceedings. There are established reconsideration and appeal procedures although, since there are no time limits, reconsideration can take a long time and sanctions are implemented without waiting for claimants’ cases to be considered. The number of appeals to an independent tribunal increased by more than 600 per cent over the period but Mandatory Reconsideration (MR), which was introduced in 2013, was designed to choke this off and appears to have done so. The number of appeals in the three month period October-December 2012 fell from 130,606 to 28,142 in the same period two years later, i.e. in 2014.

Until October 2013, when MR was introduced, claimants could either ask for the DWP’s decision to impose a sanction to be reviewed, in which case, this would be undertaken by a different decision maker, or they could appeal directly to a tribunal. Now they must first make an informal request for reconsideration (there is no form). The claimant is then telephoned by the original decision-maker and given a verbal ‘explanation’ or, on request, a written statement of reasons (WSOR), and may be given an opportunity to provide further information relevant to the decision. If the claimant accepts this explanation, the matter ends there. However, if the claimant disputes anything, the initial decision-maker will consider what they have to say, including any new evidence they present. The initial decision-maker may change his/her decision at this point but, if not, and the claimant insists, the initial decision maker (not the claimant) will request a formal Mandatory Reconsideration (MR), which is undertaken by a new, remotely-located Dispute Resolution Team (DRT), and only if they are turned down at this stage can they appeal to a tribunal. Claimants who wish to appeal must submit an application to HM Courts and Tribunals Service within one month of the date on which they were given the result of Mandatory Reconsideration. It is hardly surprising that the numbers of reviews and appeals have plummeted.

Thus, the combination of internal review and external appeal procedures does not provide an acceptable level of procedural protection. Those who receive benefit sanctions are, because they were on benefit and have had their benefit stopped, among the poorest people in society and the sanctions themselves are extremely severe since they can deprive claimants of all their income for periods ranging from four weeks to three years. If the courts were to impose fines set at the level of the offender’s disposable income, and go on doing this for lengthy periods, there would be an outcry. Sanctions for a non-criminal offence that are set at 100 per cent of the alleged offender’s income and applied repeatedly are, clearly, totally lacking in proportionality.

Vulnerable claimants are most likely to be sanctioned and, despite the availability of hardship payments, many of those who are sanctioned experience enormous hardship. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many of them end up becoming homeless, using food banks and resorting to crime. It is hard to see how these shortcomings could be rectified and it follows that benefit sanctions, as they have developed in the UK, are incompatible with justice. salient characteristics of court fines and benefit sanctions are compared in Table 4.

Table 4. The salient characteristics of court fines and benefit sanctions

Screenshot 2015-10-08 09.07.37

We now come to the question of whether benefit sanctions are compatible with the rule of law. My conclusions, and I must stress that these are my personal conclusions and that other people may wish to take issue with them, is that they are not. The consistency of benefit sanctions with Bingham’s eight principles is summarised in Table 5 and discussed in more detail below.

Table 5: Benefit Sanctions and the eight principles of the Rule of Law

Principle Assessment  Compliance
1 unclear whether the law is either accessible or intelligible, clear and predictable doubtful
2 most decisions involve discretion, disputes are handled internally and adjudication is rare no
3 sanctions apply to everyone in receipt of benefits yes
4 sanctions are often applied unreasonably and for trivial misdemeanours no
5 the right to a fair trial, guaranteed under Art. 6, is inadequately protected no
6 appeals to tribunals have virtually disappeared no
7 MR procedures weighted against claimants no
8 international law does not apply no
  1. Although the Decision Makers’ Guide provides guidance for DWP staff who make decisions about benefits and pensions and helps them make decisions that are accurate and consistent, claimants have not been provided with any comparable account of the law which sets out when sanctions can be imposed and how they can be challenged. However, since October 2013, new jobseekers have been required to sign a ‘Jobseekers’ Agreement’, which sets out what they need to do in order to receive state support, and they will have to renew this on a regular basis. They also have to provide evidence to prove they have met the requirements in their Jobseekers’ Agreement or a Jobseekers’ Direction, which specifies exactly what they are required to do, and those who fail to do so ‘without good reason’ risk losing their benefits. Although this is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, there must be very real doubts about whether the first principle is satisfied.
  2. The phrase ‘good reason’ is not defined in the legislation and depends on the circumstances of the case. Most disputes involve the exercise of discretion and are handled internally while independent adjudication is only used in the very small number of cases that are appealed to a tribunal. Whether this is sufficient to satisfy the second principle is an open question.
  3. Since the sanctions regime applies to everyone in receipt of benefits, the third principle appears to be satisfied.
  4. There is an accumulating body of evidence that sanctions are often applied unreasonably and for trivial misdemeanours. In addition, the absence of comprehensive quality assurance procedures and the failure to hold individual members of staff who have acted unfairly or unreasonably to account for their decisions, even where these overturned as a result of review or appeal, raise serious doubts about whether the fourth principle is satisfied.
  5. The attenuated arrangements for challenging the imposition of sanctions, which can leave people without any income, indicate that the right to a fair trial, guaranteed under Article 6 of the ECHR, it is inadequately protected. This suggests that the fifth principle is probably not satisfied.
  6. Cost is not an issue since there are no financial barriers to challenging the DWP’s decision to impose a sanction but delay is, mainly because there are no time limits for the DWP to reconsider its decision As a result, a claimant who wishes to challenge the imposition of a sanction may have to endure a long period without any income. Under MR, so many obstacles have been put in the way of getting to an independent Tribunal that Tribunal appeals have virtually disappeared; the right of appeal has become effectively purely theoretical. This indicates that the sixth principle is also probably not satisfied.
  7. The adjudicative procedures provided by the state in tribunals that hear appeals are undoubtedly fair. However, the MR process which is now the last recourse for almost all claimants is clearly unfair as it is completely one-sided. Moreover, the difficulty that claimants experience in accessing these procedures raises doubts about the fairness of the whole set of procedures for challenging sanctions. Thus, the seventh principle is also probably not satisfied.
  8. Benefit sanctions probably violate the International Covenant on Social and Cultural Rights. In addition, although Article 13 of the European Social Charter permits benefit sanctions, they must not deprive the person concerned of his/her means of subsistence. The situation in the UK is currently under review but, on these grounds, the eighth principle is also probably not satisfied.

The number of counts on which the current sanctions regime in the UK fails to satisfy the rule of law principles proposed by Lord Bingham indicate that there are serious questions about its legality ‒ in addition to its efficacy and humanity.

The most significant reform, which would undoubtedly make the sanctions regime more consistent with the rule of law, would involve giving claimants an opportunity to attend a hearing before a sanction is imposed (as is the case in in the USA) and continuing to pay benefit until the hearing has taken place. Another significant reform would involve abolition of the Mandatory Reconsideration procedure. Claimants who wished to challenge the imposition of a sanction would appeal directly to a tribunal. Cases could be reconsidered by the DWP before the hearing but, if the claimant’s case was not met in full, the appeal would then be heard by the tribunal. A further reform would involve reducing the severity of the sanctions that are imposed. In addition, some serious thought also needs to be given to reducing the scope of conditionality so that fewer sanctions are imposed in the first place. Unfortunately, given its commitment to conditionality and sanctions, it is most unlikely that any of these reforms will be accepted by the UK Government.

Minor reforms, such as issuing written statements of what claimants can expect from staff as well as what staff expect from claimants that would explain what the consequences for each party of failing to meet the expectations of the other are, and giving claimants a right to seek a review of these statements and to appeal against them to a tribunal, would help to make the administration of benefits fairer and more humane, as would strengthening the provision of hardship payments for those who are sanctioned. However, the prospect of minor reforms such as these being supported by the UK Government is, to say the least, unlikely.

In a recent Report, the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee (2015) reiterated its previous call for a comprehensive, independent review of sanctions and for a serious attempt to resolve the conflicting demands on claimants made by DWP staff to enable them to take a common-sense view on good reasons for non-compliance. The Committee concluded that there was no evidence to support the longer sanction periods introduced in October 2012 and recommended the piloting of pre-sanction written warnings and non-financial sanctions. Sadly, these recommendations seem to have fallen on deaf ears and to date there has been no response from the DWP to the Report.

[1] Bingham, Tom (2010) The Rule of Law, London: Allen Lane.

You can read the original article here

For more about the origins of the extended use of sanctions, see here

Government turns its back on international laws, scrutiny and standards: it’s time to be very worried


Concerns have been raised by lawyers and legal experts that Conservative ministers have quietly abandoned the longstanding principle that members of the government should be bound by international law.

The rewritten ministerial code, which was updated on October 15  without any announcement, sets out the standard of conduct expected of ministers. It has been quietly edited. The latest version of the code is missing a key element regarding the UK’s complicity with international law. 

The previous code, issued in 2010, said there was an “overarching duty on ministers to comply with the law including international law and treaty obligations and to uphold the administration of justice and to protect the integrity of public life”.

The new version of the code has been edited to say only that there is an “overarching duty on ministers to comply with the law and to protect the integrity of public life”.

Legal experts say key issues affected by the change could include decisions about “whether to go to war or use military force, such as the use of drones in Syria, any decision made by an international court about the UK and any laws not incorporated into English law, such as human rights legislation and the Geneva conventions.

Ministerial code changes between 2010 and 2015.
Photograph: Government handout – courtesy of the Guardian

This comes as the UK government is facing another United Nations inquiry regarding widespread allegations that the Conservative welfare reforms breach the Human Rights of disabled people. It also comes following the government announcement this week that there are plans to scrap the Human Rights Act by next summer, to replace it with a controversial “British Bill of Rights.”

Raquel Rolnik, the UN’s special rapporteur for housing, found the bedroom tax to contravene human rights and in 2013, she called for the Tory “spare room subsidy” to be suspended immediately. In a wide-ranging report she also calls for the extension of grants to provide more social housing, the release of public land, build-or-lose measures to target landbanks and increased private rented sector regulation. None of these are recommendations which the Conservatives have been remotely willing to entertain, instead they have directed hostility towards the United Nations.

The Conservatives have already taken away access to legal aid from the poorest and most vulnerable citizens, in a move branded contrary to the very principle of equality under the law. Last year, Grayling, then the Justice Secretary, was accused of turning legal aid into an instrument of discrimination by a court, because of his attempt to introduce a residency test to legal aid access, a move which exceeded his statutory powers when he devised it.

He has also tried to dismantle a vital legal protection available to the citizen – judicial review – which has been used to stop him abusing his powers again and again. Judicial review is the mechanism by which citizens can hold the government to its own laws. With the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill, the justice secretary tried to put it out of reach.

Grayling, suffered a defeat in the House of Lords vote on his plans to curtail access to judicial review, which would have made it much harder to challenge government decisions in court.

Peers voted by 247 to 181, a majority of 66, to ensure that the judges keep their discretion over whether they can hear judicial review applications after a warning from a former lord chief justice, Lord Woolf, that the alternative amounted to an “elective dictatorship”.

He has tried to restrict legal aid for domestic abuse victims, welfare claimants seeking redress for wrongful state decisions, victims of medical negligence, for example.

It’s very worrying that this is a government that wants to leave Europe behind and sever the connection with the European Convention on Human Rights.  It’s a government that wants to do as it pleases, free from international scrutiny and what it clearly sees as the constraints of international law and the judgments of international courts.

The Conservatives have demonstrated an eagerness to take away citizens’ rights to take their case to the European court, with many of their actions clearly based on an intent on tearing up British legal protections for citizens and massively bolstering the powers of the state.

The Guardian reports that a legal challenge against the change will be lodged on Friday by Rights Watch, an organisation which works to hold the government to account. Yasmine Ahmed, its director, said:

“This amendment to the ministerial code is deeply concerning. It shows a marked shift in the attitude and commitment of the UK government towards its international legal obligations.”

In his preamble to the new ministerial code, David Cameron says: “People want their politicians to uphold the highest standards of propriety. That means being transparent in all we do.”

However, I reported last year that in terms of international standards of conduct, the Conservatives are not doing well. Transparency International flagged up many areas of concern in their report: A mid-term assessment of the UK Coalition Government’s record on tackling corruption

The Cabinet Office has of course denied there was any intention to weaken international law and the administration of justice by omitting the phrases from the new code.

A spokesman said:

“The code is very clear on the duty that it places on ministers to comply with the law. ‘Comply with the law’ includes international law.

The wording was amended to bring the code more in line with the civil service code. The obligations remain unchanged by the simplified wording. The ministerial code is the prime minister’s guidance to his ministers on how they should conduct themselves in public office.”

However, a Conservative party policy document promises that the ministerial code will be rewritten in the context of the UK withdrawing from the European convention on human rights. In order to help achieve these aims the document says:

“We will amend the ministerial code to remove any ambiguity in the current rules about the duty of ministers to follow the will of Parliament in the UK.”

Lord Falconer, Labour’s shadow lord chancellor, said:

“If this is what ministers are planning to do it is shocking. We are a country that prides itself on operating in accordance with the rule of law. That has always meant both domestic and international law.

This is a message we have sent out both internally and externally. If we are now regarding compliance with international law for ministers as optional that is staggering. If ministers breach international law it will no longer be misconduct.”

The Guardian cites Ken Macdonald QC, the former director of public prosecutions, who said:

“It is difficult to believe that this change is inadvertent. If it’s deliberate, it appears to advocate a conscious loosening of ministerial respect for the rule of law and the UK’s international treaty obligations, including weakening responsibility for the quality of justice here at home.

In a dangerous world, the government should be strengthening its support for the rule of law, not airbrushing it out of the ministerial code. On every level, this sends out a terrible signal.”

Ironically, on the same day that the new code was quietly released, the attorney general, Jeremy Wright, gave a keynote address about the importance of international law to an audience of government lawyers at the Government Legal Service International Law Conference.

Wright said:

“The constitutional principle to respect the rule of law and comply with our international obligations is reflected in the ministerial code – which applies to me as much as to any other minister. The code states that there is an overarching duty on ministers to comply with the law, including international law and treaty obligations and to uphold the administration of justice and to protect the integrity of public life.”

It is not clear whether or not the attorney general was informed about the changes to the ministerial code at the time of his speech. Both the Cabinet Office and the attorney general’s office have declined to answer this question.

Tory ministers are a major source of national embarrassment when they denounce the European Court of Human Rights whilst instructing the rest of the world, including other European states, to respect our collective international human rights obligations and “the rule of law.” Human Rights legislation exists throughout the free world. Free speech, the right to a fair trial, respect for private life and the prohibition on torture are values which distinguish democratic societies from despotic states.

There is no justification for editing obligations to upholding international laws, human rights or for repealing the Human Rights Act: that would make Britain the first European country to regress in the level and degree of our human rights protection. It is through times of recession and times of affluence alike that our rights ought to be the foundation of our society, upon which the Magna Carta, the Equality Act and the Human Rights Act were built – protecting the vulnerable from the powerful and ensuring those who govern are accountable to the rule of law.

Update: Former head of government’s legal service says obligation that ministers must comply with international law – dropped from revised ministerial code – had irritated PM: No 10 ‘showing contempt for international law’

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Watchdog that scrutinises constitutional reform is quietly abolished and Tory proposals are likely to lead to constitutional crisis.


The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, which was originally established for the duration of the 2010 parliament, has been very quietly scrapped following a meeting of party whips.

Originally, the cross-party committee was established to scrutinise the plans of the Coalition government, such as the House of Lords Reform and the Alternative Vote – many of which never made it onto the statute books.

The parliamentary committee’s main role was to scrutinise proposed major constitutional changes. This undemocratic development is especially worrying given the likelihood of significant constitutional changes in the forthcoming parliament, with the referendum on  membership of the European Union set to be held within the next two years.

There are further plans for devolution of powers to Scotland and Wales, as well as to cities, and it is expected that these will be delivered at the same time as the government repeals the Human  Rights Act, and draws up a bill of rights to replace it.

Considerable doubt exists among experts that the Council of Europe, a human rights watchdog responsible for ensuring the Convention is upheld, will accept the Tories’ proposals. In fact the plans are highly unlikely to be accepted. As a result, it is quite widely believed Britain will disengage from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and undermine Europe’s’ civil liberties framework in the process.

Cameron has previously pledged to withdraw from the ECHR, indicating plainly that he is indifferent to the fact that such a withdrawal would very likely spark a complex constitutional crisis in the UK.

If the Human Rights Act is repealed in its entirety, the repeal will apply to the whole of the UK. The Scotland Act gives powers to the Scottish Parliament, provided that they comply with the ECHR (among other things). This would not change with repeal of the Human Rights Act alone.

However, human rights are also partially devolved (the Scottish Parliament, for example, has set up a Scottish Human Rights Commission), and so any unilateral repeal of the Human Rights Act by Westminster would violate the Sewell Convention, which outlines that the Westminster government will: “not normally legislate with regard to devolved matters in Scotland without the consent of the Scottish Parliament.” Nicola Sturgeon has stated clearly that the Scottish National Party oppose the repeal of the Human Rights Act.

And similar principles apply through the memoranda of understandings with each of the devolved legislatures in the UK.

In Northern Ireland, human rights are even further devolved than in Scotland, and the Human Rights Act (HRA) is explicitly mentioned in the Good Friday Act in 1998. To repeal the HRA would violate an international treaty as the Agreement was also an accord between two sovereign states – the UK and the Irish Republic.

Repealing the HRA unilaterally would put the UK in violation of the Good Friday Agreement, and its international treaty obligations to Ireland.  This would certainly damage our international reputation, as well as having consequences for the reciprocity on which the Treaty depends.

It’s quite possible that it would also be understood within Northern Ireland as a violation of both letter and the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement,  signalling that the UK government were no longer committed to the Agreement.

The Good Friday Agreement was also subject to a referendum in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, both having to consent for the Agreement to be implemented.  The referendum enabled the Agreement to have widespread legitimacy, but importantly, because it took place in both parts of Ireland, it answered historic Republican claims to be using violence to secure the “right to self-determination” of the Irish people.

It was also necessary to changing the Irish Constitution. So a unilateral move away from UK commitments carries serious bad faith and democratic legitimacy implications, potentially with deeply problematic historical consequences.

The Conservatives also have plans to reintroduce the redefining of parliamentary constituency boundaries in a way that will be advantageous to the Conservative party. It is estimated that the planned changes will help the Tories to win up to 20 extra seats at a future election.

It was during the last term that the proposals were originally put forward. Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs were joined by those of smaller parties – including the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the DUP,  the Greens and Respect – to defeat the proposals, giving them majority in voting down the Tory plans for boundary changes.

The Tories are also committed to implementing a form of “English vote for English” laws – a move which will further undermine ties within the UK. But this pre-election pledge placed an emphasis upon English voting rights to undermine the nationalist appeal of UKIP south of the Border, whilst spotlighting the constitution to bolster the Scottish National Party in Scotland, again using nationalism tactically  to disadvantage the Labour Party.

At a time when the government is planning potentially turbulent constitutional changes in the forthcoming parliament, the move to abolish the watchdog – The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee – will serve to insulate the Tories from democratic accountability and scrutiny.

The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee had instigated an inquiry in 2013 regarding increasingly inconsistent standards in the quality of legislation, which resulted in several key recommedations, one of which was the development of a Code of Legislative Standards, and another was the creation of a Legislative Standards Committee.

The government response was little more than an extravagant linguistic exercise in avoiding accountability, transparency and scrutiny. Having waded through the wordy Etonian etiquette of paragraph after paragraph in the formal responses to each recommendation, the meaning of each may be translated easily enough into just one word: no.

For example: “A bill when it is published is the collectively agreed view of the whole Government on how it wishes to proceed. The process by which it has arrived at that view is a matter for the Government, not for Parliament.”

“The Government does not believe that a Code of Legislative Standards is necessary or would be effective in ensuring quality legislation. It is the responsibility of government to bring forward legislation of a high standard and it has comprehensive and regularly updated guidance to meet this objective. … Ultimately, it is for Ministers to defend both the quality of the legislation they introduce and the supporting material provided to Parliament to aid scrutiny.”

It’s troubling that the House of Lords Constitution Committee raised concerns during the inquiry that there is currently no acceptable watertight definition of what constitutional legislation actually is. The current ad hoc process of identifying which bills to take on the Floor of the House of Commons in a Committee of the whole House lacks transparency: it is clear that differentiation is taking place in order to decide which bills are to be considered by a Committee of the whole House, but the decision-making process is “unclear.” The very worrying response:

“The Government does not accept that it would be helpful to seek to define “constitutional” legislation, nor that it should automatically be subject to a different standard of scrutiny. The tests suggested by Lord Norton and the list of characteristics suggested by Professor Sir John Baker are themselves subjective: whether something raises an important issue of principle, or represents a “substantial” alteration to the liberties of the subject [citizen], for example, are matters more for political rather than technical judgement.

Well no, such matters may be more for legal judgement, given the current framework of Human Rights and Equality legislation. The idea that the law is superior to the megrims of rulers is the cornerstone of English constitutional thought as it developed over the centuries. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights both refer to the Rule of Law.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, is the historic international recognition that all human beings have fundamental rights and freedoms, and it recognises that “… it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law…”

And of course there are implications for our current understanding of the word “democracy.”

Oh. There you have it: the government does seem to regard the liberty of citizens to be enclosed within their own doctrinal boundaries. Those Tory boundaries are entirely defined by partisan dogma and value-judgements, ad hoc justifications, all of which distinctly lack any coherence and rational expertise. Or independence and protection from state intrusion and abuse.

This is a government that has taken legal aid from the poorest and most vulnerable, in a move that is contrary to the very principle of equality under the law.

The Tories have turned legal aid into an instrument of discrimination. They have tried to dismantle a vital legal protection available to the citizen – judicial review – which has been used to stop the Conservatives abusing their powers again more than once. The Tories have restricted legal aid for domestic abuse victims, welfare claimants seeking redress for wrongful state decisions, victims of medical negligence, for example.

Reflected in many Conservative proposals and actions is the clear intent on continuing to tear up British legal protections for citizens and massively bolstering the powers of the state.

The hypocrisy is evident in that this is a government which claims to pride itself on its dislike for the state. But in every meaningful way, the Tories are vastly increasing state powers and intrusive authoritarian reach.