Government plans ‘seriously concerning’
Plans by the Conservative Government to modify the Ministerial Code are ‘seriously concerning’ according to Rights Watch.
The ministerial code issued in 2010 says;
Overarching duty on Ministers to comply with the law including international law and treaty obligations and to uphold the administration of justice and to protect the integrity of public life
The plan is to omit from the new code including international law and treaty obligations. Phillippe Sands QC, a professor of law at University College London described the changes as ‘shocking’. The government claim that this is merely a matter of simplification.
Why it matters
It matters because of the promise by the Conservatives in their manifesto to scrap the Human Rights Act and replace it with the British Bill of Rights a draft of which has yet to see the light of day. Removing the international law will reduce the respect for judgements by international courts such as the European Court in Strasbourg.
Another aspect is that going to war and the use of things like drones are covered by international treaty and the UN Charter and not by UK laws. Removing the international element therefore leaves ministers free to use this kind of weaponry unfettered.
In 2014, the government – then in coalition – wanted to remove what was termed an ‘ambiguity’ in the rules. This has now been changed to simplification.
An observer of these events was Paul Jenkins who was a Treasury solicitor and he witnessed the intense irritation felt by the Prime Minister over our need to comply with foreign legal obligations. This was largely in connection with the arguments over prisoner voting but the prolonged tussle over Abu Qatada was also likely to have been an irritant as well.
In a letter to the Guardian, the former legal adviser to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Frank Berman QC said ‘it was impossible not to feel a sense of disbelief at what must have been the deliberate suppression of the reference to international law.’
What is troubling about these changes is that they have to be seen in context. We have restrictions on Freedom of Information; reductions in the ability of people to receive legal aid; court charges; and the threat to the Human Rights Act. We will soon have the ‘snooper’s charter’ which will enable the security services to eavesdrop communications however they wish.
All these changes add up to an assault on the ability of individuals to hold the executive to account. Ministers were quick to celebrate the anniversary of Magna Carta when it suited them but now seem keen to reduce freedoms wherever they can.
Sources: The Guardian; Rights Watch; the BBC; Financial Times; Daily Mail
Further responses and condemnation of this change in the code