Should we leave the European Convention on Human Rights?

Battle of Ideas festival 2023, Sunday 29 October, Church House, London


Most people acknowledge that there is an issue with Britain’s borders. The question is: who or what is to blame? For many, the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), and its courts in Strasbourg, has become the focus – either as the bulwark against anti-refugee sentiment, or the block on democratic process. With deportations being halted on the grounds of ‘human rights’, one’s view on membership of the ECHR has become shorthand for where you stand on the issue of refugees, asylum seekers and illegal migrants.

Rows over the ECHR have been brewing for some time. In 2000, the Human Rights Act made the Convention an integral part of domestic law, that individuals could enforce in British courts. Since then, many, particularly on the Right, have questioned the wisdom of what they increasingly refer to as Labour’s Human Rights Act. In recent years, the Conservative Party has been committed to reforming human rights by replacing the HRA with a British Bill of Rights. But no such legislation is forthcoming – and many have pointed out that, as long as Britain remains signed-up to the ECHR, a British Bill of Rights would be superfluous. Much like the European Union, the ECHR seems to have split the Tories. Some MPs hope to cut ties completely – nearly 70 Tory MPs, many from Red Wall seats, backed quitting the ECHR in a vote on a Private Member’s Bill last year. Others – like Tom Tugendhat’s Tory Reform Group – remain concerned about what a Brexit-style exit might do to the UK’s international reputation.

In the aftermath of the Second World War the European Convention on Human Rights was seen as a protection against the tyranny and oppression that some European nations had recently endured. Nowadays, those who support it stress the importance of human rights as setting a minimum standard which democracies should guarantee. Is the problem therefore simply one of European judicial overreach, or is it essentially about the very notion of ‘human rights’ themselves? Are human rights and democratic, collective action doomed to forever be at loggerheads? With courts in Strasbourg and London ruling to impede government plans to stop small boats crossing the Channel, are human rights making popular government impossible? Or is the ECHR being scapegoated for inadequacies in our own backyard?

Steven Barrett
barrister, Radcliffe Chambers; writer on law, Spectator

Jamie Burton
founder and chair, Just Fair; barrister (KC), Doughty Street Chambers; author Three Times Failed: why we need enforceable socio-economic rights

Luke Gittos
criminal lawyer; author, Human Rights – Illusory Freedom; director, Freedom Law Clinic

John Oxley
writer, New Statesman, Spectator,and UnHerd; consultant; barrister

Angelica Walker-Werth
writer, editor and programmes manager, Objective Standard Institute

Jon Holbrook
barrister; writer, spiked, Critic, Conservative Woman