Withdrawing temporarily from the European Convention on Human Rights will not free soldiers from the threat of litigation, former attorney general Dominic Grieve QC has warned.
Taking questions at a fringe event on human rights at the Conservative party conference yesterday evening, Grieve (pictured) said the government’s announcement to protect armed forces from an industry of 'vexatious' claims would make a slight difference, ‘but I don’t think it will make as big a difference as is being suggested’.
Acknowledging that claims of ill treatment ‘may be largely spurious’, Grieve, MP for Beaconsfield, said such claims still needed to be investigated as they are also criminal offences under the Queen’s regulations, and court martial and military law.
‘They’re a breach of international humanitarian law – the Geneva Conventions. And we are under a duty to look at it. And in that sense the European Convention on Human Rights does not really add anything to the burden that it places on us in terms of carrying out proper investigations of such complaints,’ he added.
‘I’m afraid we live in a litigious society where it’s possible for anybody to go online and see that there may be a firm of solicitors in the UK that is prepared to run with their claim.
‘It’s deplorable if there have been examples of solicitors’ firms abusing their professional status in order to facilitate such claims. There appears to have been some evidence that this has happened in one case.
‘But I’m very wary of extending that complaint elsewhere.’
Grieve said he was ‘perfectly content’ with defence secretary Michael Fallon’s comments at the conference yesterday, but emphasised that the announcement was not a revolutionary step.
He said: ‘The derogation mechanism is provided for within the convention itself, should be used very sparingly, and in my judgement it’s not going to make a substantial difference to the number of claims actually brought.’
However Reigate MP Crispin Blunt, chair of the House of Commons foreign affairs select committee, voiced his support for the derogation, despite being ‘very attached’ to the convention.
Blunt, an army officer for 12 years, said: ‘It was my view when this was being considered back in the late 1990s - when I was first in parliament and rather more closely in chronology attached to my military service at that point - that soldiers could not be subject to the kind of oversight that the European Court of Human Rights and the convention would do, when they were already subject to the Geneva Convention when they are on the battlefield.
‘I’m afraid I support a derogation for the military in exactly the way France has, so that when we send our soldiers into harm’s way and expect them to fight, kill and die on our behalf, they do it under the law of the Geneva Convention, under the laws of war – not under a construct that was created for wholly different circumstances of nations at peace in Europe.’
Asked to share their views on a British bill of rights, the panel, which also included Maria Miller MP, chair of the women and equalities select committee, and Liberty director Martha Spurrier, questioned its purpose.
Grieve noted that unless the government wanted to add to European convention rights - which could be done by passing other legislation - there wasn’t much point in creating a new bill of rights.
He added: ‘The alternative is the possibility that we want to use the bill of rights to actually encapsulate other rights, like fundamental constitutional rights, like the right to vote or a five-year parliament or other things like parts of our devolution settlement.
‘That might be a British bill of rights that would have some value - or a UK bill of rights rather, than a British one - but otherwise we are going to waste a great deal of time doing something which proves to be ultimately rather unnecessary.’
Unless it could be demonstrated that the bill adds considerably to the European convention, Miller suggested there are ‘probably a great many other things we could be doing with parliamentary time in the coming years with the challenges we face’.
Spurrier questioned whether the bill would offer enhanced protection compared to what is provided by the Human Rights Act.