Dominic Grieve, the former attorney general has said the government could still “have difficulties” enacting the policy to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, even if it left the European Convention on Human Rights.
Grieve, who served as the government’s top legal adviser under David Cameron and was a prominent opponent of Brexit, told PoliticsHome that a number of the barriers ministers would face to the policy do not have “anything to do with the ECHR at all”.
“It doesn’t matter whether we’re signed up or not,” to the ECHR, Grieve explained.
“The chances of it actually enabling [the Rwanda deportation] policies to operate correctly are, I think, fairly negligible.”
The UK’s place in the ECHR has become a heated debate among MPs in the lead-up to the next general election, which is due to be called before the end of 2024.
A number of MPs on the right of the Conservative party want the government to withdraw from the treaty, arguing that scrapping it will make it easier to stop illegal migrants arriving in small boats.
In June, The Court of Appeal ruled that the government’s policy of deporting illegal immigrants to Rwanda was unlawful as it breached protections contained within the ECHR. The Supreme Court will hear the government’s appeal against that verdict in October, with a ruling expected in November. MPs who want Sunak to adopt a harder line on illegal immigration say he should be prepared to quit the ECHR if the Supreme Court rules against the government.
In a speech in Washington on Tuesday, Home Secretary Suella Braverman said she rejects “the notion that a country cannot be expected to respect human rights if it is not signed up to an international human rights organisation,” reigniting debate on ECHR ahead of Conservative party conference in Manchester this weekend.
But Grieve told PoliticsHome that he thinks “leaving the ECHR is likely to be politically counterproductive” and would not deliver the government’s goals around immigration.
He added that it would be “politically counterproductive at domestic level and at an international level be little short of catastrophic”.
Asked if Braverman would be able to enact the policy if the UK were not a member of the ECHR, Grieve added: “I still think she’s going to have difficulties.
“She will have difficulties obviously with the Refugee Convention, but in any case, the major problem that she has is that the numbers of people coming into this country are vastly exceeding the number that she can send to Rwanda.
“And the major problem with processing people and getting them out of the country if they don’t qualify for asylum is that their countries of origin won’t have them back.
“None of that has anything to do with ECHR at all.”
Grieve also said that he thought leaving the ECHR would leave a “reputational” and “economic” hit to the UK.
“Our non-adherence would be very damaging to a whole range of international cooperation at a European level,” he added.
Grieve was dismissed as attorney general by Cameron during a reshuffle in 2014, and went on to be a prominent figure during the Brexit years in Parliament, suggesting a number of amendments to the government’s plans to leave the EU, including one asking for a meaningful vote on the deal.
He lost the Conservative whip under Boris Johnson in 2019, after he voted with a number of other rebel colleagues to block a no-deal Brexit.
PoliticsHome reported on Thursday that moderate Conservatives who oppose abandoning the ECHR treaty have been confident that despite Braverman’s rhetoric, Sunak would not actually contemplate doing so.
However, one moderate Tory said they were “spooked” by the home secretary’s rhetoric on Tuesday.
Former Cabinet minister Damian Green, who chairs the One Nation group of moderate Tories, has told a forthcoming edition of The House magazine that staying in the ECHR is a “red line” for the group of around 80 Conservative MPs – setting up a major row between Sunak and that wing of the parliamentary Tory party if he decides to put leaving the treaty on the table.
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