DO NOT confuse human rights with national rights, the Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, warned the Government during a debate in the House of Lords last week.
Dr Smith said that there was a “very real danger” that the proposed “Bill of Rights” would “remove levels of accountability from Government, particularly in areas such as immigration”.
Last month, all 26 of the C of E’s bishops in the House of Lords, including the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, signed a letter condemning the Government’s plan to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda (News, 17 June).
In the debate on Thursday of last week, Dr Smith drew attention to the letter, saying that it “spoke of our Christian heritage, which should inspire us to treat asylum-seekers with compassion, fairness, and justice, and, above all, that when they arrive on these shores they are given due process so that their claims can be examined”.
The first deportation was cancelled at the last minute after a temporary ruling from the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, which has effect in English law through the Human Rights Act 1998.
Dr Smith suggested that the Government’s proposal to repeal the Act and replace it with a Bill of Rights would prevent such a ruling in the future. The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, described the court’s judgment as “scandalous”.
Among the candidates to succeed Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, only Penny Mordaunt had explicitly ruled out leaving the European Convention on Human Rights, and thereby severing UK law from the authority of the Strasbourg court.
In the debate, Lord Sandhurst, a Conservative peer, argued that the influence of the Strasbourg court revealed “structural flaws” in the Human Rights Act that “the Bill of Rights would go some way to remedying”.
Dr Smith commented, however, that when previous governments had had deportations prevented by the courts, “their reaction was not to leave behind this well-established convention that bound us to a higher authority.”
He warned against isolationism in rights policy: “The defence of each human being should apply just as much to refugees, even to foreign criminals. . . Either they are human rights — universal and overseen by a supranational authority — or they are national rights. I sense that our Government may want to argue for both, when actually we are moving towards the latter.”
The debate in the Lords was opened by Baroness Whittaker, a Labour peer. The stated purpose of the session was to “take note of the practical impact of the Human Rights Act 1998”.
Dr Smith observed, however, that “this is a discussion not simply about the importance of the Human Rights Act 1998, but about many of the concerns . . . that noble Lords have with the proposed British Bill of Rights.”
Dr Smith voiced his own “fear” that, “in altering or tinkering” with human-rights legislation, “a precedent is being set that would encourage future governments to further tinker with our human-rights legislation when it conflicts with other agendas.”