10 Mar 2011

Bill of Rights Commission: headless and toothless?

So we now know that the Commission on the Bill of Rights will be set up (probably next week) and we know at least some of the members (veteran Eurosceptic and barrister Martin Howe for the Tories, Baroness Helena Kennedy for Labour, Lord Lester for the Lib Dems). But I hear the hunt is still on for a chairman of the commission and that the numbers sitting on it keep going up. This is how David Cameron trumpeted the looming announcement in Prime Minister’s Questions 3 weeks ago as he fended off Tory anger over the European Court of Human Rights judgement that prisoners should get the vote:

“…a commission will be established imminently to look at a British Bill of Rights, because it is about time we ensured that decisions are made in this Parliament rather than in the courts.”

But it is far from clear that the Commission will ensure that the ECHR decisions don’t trump Parliament (some might argue that the Commission will find it very difficult to agree the time of day).  Quite a few Tory MPs grumble that they have been marched up the hill again only to be marched down.

So what is David Cameron’s policy now on fending off judgements from the ECHR? He’ll be carving out a distinctive policy for the 2015 Tory manifesto but that’s a while off.  There will be an appeal to Strasbourg to take note of the vote in the Commons against prisoner voting but the court will not be terribly impressed by that and will not want to bow before Parliament and create what it would see as a precedent for other ECHR members to flout whatever rulings aren’t popular with their voters.  Ken Clarke has said the government will be hoping to use its chairmanship of the Council of Europe starting in November 2011 to bring about changes in the remit, personnel and reach of the ECHR.  But that is at best a very slow burn of a policy.  What happens immediately?  Not much.  The policy appears to be foot-dragging on paying heed to the ECHR judgement on prisoner voting and seeing how far you can stretch it out until they fine you (potentially up to £143m, according to government legal advice).

Plenty of Tory MPs are already muttering that this is looking like another Clegg victory (Lib Dems support the ECHR) and another reason to be less than cheerful right now.

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