Michael Gove gives a little away on the forthcoming draft British bill of rights.
Nobody pours scorn like a lord. So when Lord Judd (Frank Judd, former Labour MP and head of Oxfam) had Michael Gove in the dock - sorry, in the witness seat at the Lords EU sub-committee on justice - yesterday, he delivered with style.
If the forthcoming British bill of rights were to derogate from any rights in the European Convention, Lord Judd wanted to know, would the lord chancellor agree that this would put the UK in breach of the convention?
This of course is a nuanced version of the Twitter pundit’s favourite: ‘So which rights would you do away with, then, eh, Mister Tory?’
It fell a little flat. The secretary of state for justice had already made clear, to opening questions from committee chair Lady Kennedy (Helena Kennedy QC), that derogations were the last thing on his mind. With his trademark courtesy he had put the forthcoming bill in the context of revisits to the others of the Blair government’s constitutional reforms and said that it would merely be a matter of changes in emphasis between one right and another. ‘It is not our intention to say that any individual right in the convention no longer applies in the UK.’
The current balance, Gove said, has ‘a bad name in the public square’. It is a ‘source of regret that human rights are seen as something done to British courts as a foreign intervention’, despite the proud common law traditions laid down by Coke and Mansfield.
A critic of course might question whether the best way to restore the golden thread of common law rights was to impose a statute from Westminster. But none of the noble Lords seemed inclined to listen to what a mere elected politician holding one of the great offices of state had to say.
Instead, Lord Richard (Ivor Richard QC) continued the flow of scorn by ostentatiously failing to understand Gove’s thoughts on to the issue’s Schleswig-Holstein question. Essentially, this concerns the relationship between a British bill of rights and the European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights at a time when the EU’s aspiration to accede in its own right to the European Convention on Human Rights is stymied by the Court of Justice of the European Union.
As a snappy unequivocal exposition on that would probably tax even Joshua Rozenberg after a month on an all-fish diet, it is scarcely surprising that communications broke down. However Gove did agree that the charter would trump the British bill – so long as no novel rights were introduced in the process. And of course, presuming that the UK remained in the EU.
One exchange degenerated into an undergraduate-level dispute over the UK constitution, with Gove correcting Richard’s assertion that there was no such thing. ‘Then why don’t you write it down,’ Richard sniffed – a little sulkily, in my opinion.
Mercifully, Kennedy drew proceedings to a close by summing up with what is likely to be the gist of the committee’s final report. If the Conservatives’ cherished bill seeks only minor tweaks - in a direction towards which jurisprudence is already proceeding - why risk the furore in Scotland and Northern Ireland that would accompany abolition of the 1998 Human Rights Act? She even drew on a line from the musical Guys and Dolls (now playing just up the road at the Savoy): ‘Sit down, you're rocking the boat.’
Gove was equal to the challenge. The bill would be introduced not through the swaggering of centralised power, he said, but with an approach more like that of Guys and Dolls character ‘Nicely Nicely’ Johnson.
We shall see. Kennedy extracted a promise that the draft bill would appear 'soon'. But I couldn’t help wonder how Helena Kennedy QC would have reacted to being told by some unelected establishment figure to sit down because one of her rights campaigns was rocking the boat. I bet she wouldn’t be nicely nicely about it.
Michael Cross is Gazette news editor