By Ann Higgins

 Photo by Deniz Fuchidzhiev on Unsplash

Though at the time of going to press Westminster has only been back at work for about 10 days, quite a lot seems to have happened which may be of interest to my reader.

Perhaps foremost amongst the pieces of legislation being debated in the Commons was the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill which despite trenchant opposition from all the opposition parties and in one case from three Tory MPs as well, received its third reading and was duly shipped off to the Lords. There is hope in some quarters that common sense may prevail in the Lords and that they will at least extend the “sunset clause” cut-off date from the end of 2023 to 2026. Numerous concerns have been expressed about the potential effect of the Bill which could lead to as many as 4,000 pieces of legislation disappearing from our statute books overnight, unless by the end of 2023 a minister decides to incorporate them in UK law in some way either by adopting them or amending them. As has been pointed out elsewhere, it is by no means clear that they will all have been identified by the end of 2023 let alone studied for their full effect and the implication of repealing them. A further criticism is that the Bill removes the power to carry out this exercise from Parliament and hands it over to ministers, thus giving the government immense and unfettered power over areas of law such as food standards, gas safety certification and airline safety as discussed here in this interesting article by Dr Joelle Grogan and Professor Catherine Baird.

A cross party amendment giving Parliament a degree of oversight and control over what exactly was to be repealed was put down, but despite the support of Tory MPs David Davis, Bob Neill and Daniel Poulter, it was defeated by 291 votes to 236. So now it falls to the Lords to try to “take back control” from our power hungry government; let us hope that they are up to the task.

Also in the news is the Online Safety Bill which as well as having the laudable aim of trying to protect young people from online abuse and inappropriate content (though it’s not clear that it will achieve this), is believed by some to be being used by the government to try to stifle dissent and criticism particularly in the sphere of immigration. This is exemplified by the most recent amendment to the Bill which would criminalise video footage which “shows people crossing the Channel in a positive light”. Leaving aside the difficulties of defining what sort of footage might fall into such a category, it would severely hamper the freedom of broadcasters and the mainstream media to show footage of landings and other videos featuring asylum seekers. Whilst it might be convenient for the government not to have film of migrants landing on the beaches of Kent appearing on our TVs on a regular basis, to use the Bill effectively to ban such footage is a clear infringement of free speech. And that is not the only concern about the Bill as set out here in this article by Victoria Hewson.

Moving now to the festering sore of the Northern Ireland protocol, it’s hard to know whether the negotiations are progressing or if the negotiators are stuck in a modern equivalent of Dante’s Inferno, damned forever to go over the same sterile territory. How some of the problems arose is addressed in a new book about the history of the negotiations called “Inside the Deal: How the EU got Brexit done” reviewed here by RTE.

As for the present situation, whenever progress is made, as it seems to have been last week, up pops the DUP to scupper it.

And now to the courts where there is some surprising news that staunch anti-ECHR former MP Owen Paterson has launched a case in the ECtHR against the UK for its “unfair” parliamentary procedures. Although he resigned rather than face the judgement of his peers, he is challenging the way in which accusations against him were dealt with by the parliamentary standards commissioner and the Standards Committee, both of which found that that he had breached the MPs’ code of conduct by accepting sums in excess of £100,000 pa from a company called Randox for which he lobbied ministers for covid contracts. In his defence, he stated that the two events were completely unrelated and he now claims that the investigation was a breach of his privacy contrary to Article 8 of the ECHR, against which he campaigned for many years. Whether the court in Strasbourg will accept his case remains to be seen. However, it has accepted a separate case against the UK in which according to the Byline Times a group of MPs is claiming that “the government is infringing our ‘right to free and fair elections’ by failing to act on the findings of the Russia Report. The court in Strasbourg has now indicated the case both has merit and may be designated an “impact case”. It has written to the government inviting it to respond in detail to the allegations by 26 April.”

Finally, leave to appeal to the Court of Appeal has been granted to some of the claimants in the Rwanda case as summarised in this tweet from junior counsel instructed on their behalf: “permission to appeal granted to most of the claimants on various grounds relating to safety of the Rwandan asylum system, fairness of UK process to decide who gets sent there, compatibility with ‘no penalties’ part of the Refugee Convention & with retained EU law”. A stay has also been granted until after the case has been decided by the Court of Appeal, probably sometime in the spring. Further details and the judgement can be found here.

Stop Press: Despite the continuing lack of a date for the second reading in the Commons of the Bill of Rights Bill, the Joint All Party Parliamentary Committee comprising MPs and peers has continued to do its work and yesterday produced a damning report which says that the Bill:

  • weakens rights protections;
  • undermines the universality of rights;
  • shows disregard for our international legal obligations;
  • creates legal uncertainty and hinders effective enforcement;
  • will lead to an increased caseload in Strasbourg; and
  • will damage our international reputation as guardians of human rights.

It also suggests that it’s not a Bill of Rights at all, and that, if it proceeds, should have a name change, going onto to say that it should not proceed in its current form. Hardly a ringing endorsement. It will be interesting to read the government’s response, if one ever emerges. Further discussion and a link to the report itself here.

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