The Conservative MEP and one-time solicitor talks about the importance of the European parliament and his dislike of the human rights ‘industry’.
A solicitor in private practice before winning seats at Westminster and then the European parliament, Timothy Kirkhope sees no conflict between the two roles. ‘My profession is not politics, it is the law,’ he tells the Gazette. ‘Politics is my vocation, renewable by the public every four or five years – if I’m lucky.’
Kirkhope fits the David Cameron mould of Tory politician, expressing his support for ‘fair, but firm’ immigration rules and for reforms to the UK’s relationship with the EU, rather than its withdrawal. He declares himself ‘not amused’ by the UK’s Human Rights Act and brands human rights an ‘industry’. He is a member of the Institute of Directors, a governor of his alma mater, the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle upon Tyne, and belongs to a golf club.
And yet, as a Young Conservative, he was something of a firebrand, leading a protest march in his native Newcastle in 1968 – five years before qualifying as a solicitor.
The Gazette asks about his earliest years in the law. ‘I am one of those strange lawyers who never went to university,’ he recalls. ‘I was articled for five years to another five-year man at a Newcastle firm called Williamson & Jackson [now part of Thomas Magnay & Co].’ Altogether, including articles, Kirkhope was in private practice for around 20 years, rising to senior partner in another Newcastle firm, before leaving the profession after the 1987 general election as MP for Leeds North East.
‘But I achieved a lot as a lawyer in politics,’ he stresses. In October 1995 he was made under-secretary of state at the Home Office, where – among other duties – he was the architect of the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC). ‘Before the CCRC was established [in March 1997], suspected miscarriages of justice were referred to the Home Office, which in turn could refer them back to the Court of Appeal (CoA),’ Kirkhope explains. ‘I was at the Home Office when the final case, the Carl Bridgewater murder, was referred to it before the CCRC took over.’
Bridgewater was a 13-year-old newspaper delivery boy who, it is suspected, stumbled upon a burglary on 19 September 1978 and was shot and killed. The police arrested and charged four men: Patrick Molloy, Jim Robinson and cousins Vincent and Michael Hickey. All four denied murder, but Molloy received a 12-year prison sentence for manslaughter (he died of a heart attack in 1981), Robinson and Vincent Hickey were given life imprisonment, and Michael Hickey, then 17, was sentenced to detention at Her Majesty’s pleasure.
Kirkhope says: ‘I spent three weekends reading the papers and concluded that the grounds for appeal were sound. The case was referred back to the CoA, which ruled that the Bridgewater Four had been the victims of a miscarriage of justice and ordered that the surviving three should be released [in February 1997 after 18 years in jail].’
At around the same time – 1995-97 – he was also involved in formulating Home Office policy on immigration and asylum. ‘Our stated aim was to be fair, but firm,’ Kirkhope says. ‘The 1951 UN Convention for Refugees sets out exactly what is required to be identified as a refugee and it seemed right that we should apply the same principles – as we did for several thousand refugees from the Bosnian war [1992-95], for example.’
The 1951 convention defines a refugee as a person who is outside their country of nationality or their usual country of residence; is unable or unwilling to return to or to seek the protection of that country due to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion; and is not a war criminal and has not committed any serious non-political crimes or acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the UN.
‘Some 75% of applicants to this country did not meet all the UN criteria,’ Kirkhope says, ‘but we decided that those people who were close to meeting them should be granted leave to remain.’ Nonetheless, he adds, the legal profession did everything it could to ‘blur the lines’.
His other major responsibilities while at the Home Office included developing policies on gambling and horse racing, his work eventually culminating in the Gambling Act 2005. Kirkhope also worked on licensing policy. He lost his Westminster seat in the 1997 general election when Labour won a landslide victory. In June 1999 he was elected as the member of the European parliament (MEP) for Yorkshire and the Humber, becoming the Conservative spokesman on justice and home affairs.
‘The gap between the national and European parliament is greater in the UK than in most other European countries,’ Kirkhope says. ‘I had very little time for my MEP friends while still in Westminster, but now that I have been an MEP for 15 years, I see the European parliament as an opportunity, not a threat. It is a supplement to the domestic parliament, not a replacement. It does a good job of scrutinising legislation that affects us all.’
Since moving to Brussels, he has continued to be involved with immigration and asylum, heading commissions on both issues. On his website, he calls for ‘a balanced and sensible debate’ that is evidence-based. He writes: ‘There’s a need for the public debate on asylum and migration to be less polarised (with) a greater emphasis on the facts. We should not allow the extremes on any side to take control of the immigration issue.’ He says he supports the need for strict immigration rules, which should be ‘firm statements about the criteria for entry into this country’.
Other issues also demand his attention. ‘We have set up an inter-group made up of different political groupings to counter the trafficking of children,’ he says. ‘As MEPs, we should take the battle lines to the countries where the problem starts, such as the persecution of gay men or child trafficking. The UK is better than some countries, but we have still some way to go.’
A member of the European parliament’s justice committee, Kirkhope is now the rapporteur – the person responsible for presenting the eventual report to parliament – on the fourth anti-money laundering directive. He says: ‘The fourth directive is designed to allow member states more proportionality in how they apply it. I hope the Financial Conduct Authority takes note and uses it to get rid of the more irksome requirements that the present directive – which is simply an excuse for more ticked boxes – places on banks and businesses.’
Freedom of movement, one of the fundamental building blocks of the EU, is another aspect of his justice committee work. ‘The UK government is not arguing against freedom of movement,’ Kirkhope notes, ‘but is concerned about the abuse of social benefits which could arise from everyone within the EU having access to a lawyer and the legal aid to fund it.’
He is also in favour of centrally stored, EU-wide passenger name record (PNR) data. PNR data is information provided by passengers during the reservation and booking of tickets and when checking in on flights. Allowing law enforcement agencies access to this data could help them prevent, detect and investigate terrorism and organised crime, he says. ‘This was blocked by Labour on data protection grounds, but PNR could be a valuable tool in the right hands. I would be opposed to random PNR set-ups in individual member states because of the expense.’
We move on to human rights, which, although more the preserve of the Council of Europe than the EU, is a subject that raises passions in many Conservative politicians. ‘Human rights worry me,’ Kirkhope says. ‘I am not amused by the Human Rights Act (HRA) or the industry of human rights that has grown up around it.
‘I am not an academic lawyer,’ he continues. ‘But I have an interest in our common law, which assures justice and fairness to the British people. I am also a supporter of the Strasbourg Court [the European Court of Human Rights].’
He argues that the domestic HRA, despite its prescriptive nature, leaves gaps open to interpretation and allows measures such as article 8 rights to respect for private and family life to override the UK’s own laws and let criminals go free. The Gazette points to our overcrowded prisons and asks: What price article 8? Kirkhope responds: ‘It is perfectly legitimate for this government to revisit the legislation.’ Does he envisage a new Magna Carta to replace the HRA? ‘That depends upon what goes into it,’ he says. ‘Ideally, any such written constitution should strike a balance between rights and responsibilities. It would be a hell of a thing to draft.’
Finally, the Gazette asks him to revisit the firebrand days of his youth when King Olav of Norway formally opened the Newcastle Civic Centre in November 1968. Newcastle is twinned with the Norwegian city of Bergen, which every year gives it a Christmas tree as a gesture of friendship. The opening and the gift of a tree both mark the historic, cultural and economic links between Norway and Newcastle dating back to the Vikings. Kirkhope says: ‘I led a march of Young Conservatives demanding that the dignitaries at the opening ceremony paid for their own food and drink rather than, as one newspaper colourfully put it, enjoying a “blow-out and booze-up on the rates [the forerunner to the council tax]”.’
BORN Newcastle upon Tyne
EDUCATION Royal Grammar School, Newcastle upon Tyne; Guildford College of Law, Law Society finals, parts I and II
CAREER Five-year articles, Williamson & Jackson, Newcastle upon Tyne; admitted 1973; set up own firm in 1974; merged with Wilkinson Marshall Clayton & Gibson, 1977; Conservative member of parliament, Leeds North East, 1987-97
KNOWN FOR Yorkshire and the Humber member of the European parliament 1999-