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Cameron's Half-Baked Assault Would Leave Our Rights and International Standing in Tatters

03/10/2014 16:36 BST | Updated 03/12/2014 10:59 GMT

David Cameron plans to scrap the Human Rights Act and drop out of the European Court of Human Rights. If the international body that oversees human rights in Europe, the Council of Europe, has a problem with this, then the Tories say will pull us out of that too. Despite Cameron's rhetoric about democracy and sovereignty, in truth this is another dismal, half-baked assault by the Tories on the ability of citizens, through the courts, to hold the government to account. It risks leaving our rights and our international standing in tatters.

The Human Rights Act is not a terrorists' charter. It enables ordinary citizens to seek redress when the government breaches fundamental freedoms enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights such as the right to a fair trial, the right to life and free expression. It has been used by the victims of the rapist John Warboys to hold the police to account for failing to investigate their case, as well as by the patients of Mid-Staffordshire NHS trust to force the authorities to give them redress for their treatment.

Under these proposals, UK citizens would not have the full protection of the Convention in domestic courts. They will have to rely on a much narrower and party-political document cooked up by the Tories instead. It will make arbitrary distinctions between "serious cases" (admissible) and "trivial" ones (not admissible) and people who are "responsible" and those who the Tories deem not to be "responsible". While restricting access to justice, it's not even clear the reforms would result in different outcomes in the sorts of cases that have enraged the government. Former attorney general Dominic Grieve has said judges will reach the same outcome under these reforms in the vast majority of cases.

If you have the time and the money, you may still be to take your case to Strasbourg, but even if you win, the ruling party in Westminster will, in tinpot fashion, be able to ignore it. This is where Cameron's plans collapse into incoherence: He wants to remain signatory of the European Convention of Human Rights, while at the same time reserving the right when it suits him to pretend that the Court that enforces it does not exist when it suits him.

The international body that oversees the Convention has already said that this is not consistent with membership. I am not surprised. The whole point of the Convention is to achieve a minimum standard of human rights across the continent with no backsliding. If governments start picking and choosing the judgments that suit them, you can be guaranteed that there will be backsliding - in the UK and elsewhere. I am sure Vladimir Putin is rubbing hands together with glee that he has found in Cameron and his colleagues such a bunch of useful idiots.

So what happens if the Tories are told that their proposal cannot stand? The Tories say it's simple. We will threaten to leave. And what if the European Union, which requires its members to be signed up to the Convention have a problem with that too? Do we leave them too? And will it be possible to take the devolved nations of the UK out of the Strasbourg Court, or the Convention for that matter, without unravelling the devolution settlements? Looks like the Tories forgot about that tiny matter.

As the former attorney general, Dominic Grieve, has said, this would be an utterly puerile way for the United Kingdom to conduct itself on the international stage. Labour is aware of the Strasbourg Court's shortcomings, but we will address them by working with the court to improve the quality of judges, reduce backlogs and promote greater sensitivity to different national political cultures and traditions.

David Cameron and his fellow Tories often like to pay homage to Winston Churchill and the war-time generation, yet in their deeds they seem determined to take an axe to the treaties, the courts and institutions that were their legacy. Any party that believes that trading in not just our fundamental rights but our place in the post-1945 international order just to hoover up a few votes off Ukip in the Clacton by-election is not fit for office.