Latest gaffe by David Davies shows MPs are out of their depth on human rights issues

Just a day after the terrorist attack which claimed the lives of twelve people at the office of France’s satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, Conservative MP David Davies posted on his official blog that the Paris attacks were proof the UK should scrap the Human Rights Act.

Davies claims that while working as a special constable in London, a post he has recently been forced to relinquish, he was involved in the detainment of a man who had declared himself to be a former member of the Taliban. The man, who Davies was told to ‘let go’ happened to be an asylum seeker. The Tory MP said the incident had always worried him because “under current laws, including the Human Rights Act, anyone can come to the UK and make a claim for asylum”.

However, human rights barrister Adam Wagner has pointed out the right to claim asylum is not contained in the Human Rights Act, but in the 1951 Refugee Convention. This should have been all rather embarrassing for the Monmouth MP, yet his last tweet on the subject showed a defiance many colleagues in his party would have been proud of.

Unfortunately Davies is not alone in making what appear to be sweeping ideological statements that at best could merely be described as mistakes, but at worst as deliberate mistruths or just plain dumb.

Writing in The Telegraph in August 2013, the Mayor of London Boris Johnson suggested there should be a “swift and minor change in the law” to introduce a new “rebuttable presumption” meaning those who travel to war zones without notifying the authorities have done so for “terrorist purposes”.

Other examples include the home secretary, Theresa May, who at the Tory party conference alleged that “some judges chose to ignore parliament and go on putting the law on the side of foreign criminals instead of the public”.

While in December, during the ping-pong stage of the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill, the Lord Chancellor Chris Grayling was forced to admit to misleading the Commons having “inadvertently” suggesting clause 64 of the Bill contained a provision for the court to grant permission for judicial review in situations where conduct was highly likely to have not made a difference in “exceptional circumstances”.

The latest gaff by Davies gives greater credence to a suggestion made by Dinah Rose QC in October last year when she raised her “genuine concern about the level of understanding of the constitutional and legal system in parliament and the effects of the relative ignorance that now prevails on the delicate balance that ought to subsist between parliament, the executive and the courts”.

Rose continued: “Few MPs have a legal education and not surprisingly they know very little about the history or operation of the common law. Might it not be an idea to provide new MPs with a short but authoritative course on the constitution and the operation of the legal system?”

I put this question to the shadow attorney general, Lord William Bach, who agreed there can often be problems with new MPs, but many, regardless of whether or not they have a legal background, come to parliament with a considerable amount of understanding in what making new law actually involves. He did, however, admit that the proposition of more training was an interesting idea.

“Law making is a very complex matter these days,” said Bach. “I’m not sure I would make training compulsory, although it is hardly for me to say sitting in the Lords. But the rule of law and access to justice is such a fundamental part of our way of life that when it is at risk, which at some extent it is at the moment without meaning to exaggerate, I would say it is important for new members of parliament to understand how high the stakes are.”

Former attorney general and supporter of the Human Rights Act, Dominic Grieve, was in agreement but says it may be difficult to make such training a requirement for new parliamentarians.

“There would be a great deal of merit for incoming MPs having opportunities for far more induction on a number of issues than they historically get,” admits Grieve. “Although, in fairness, there is more now than when I was elected in 1997 when there was absolutely nothing. There is now a lot more work and the Institute for Government has done a lot of work in training incoming ministers but we really ought to extend that to MPs. I think it would be very valuable and Dinah has a very good point.”

Regardless of who comes out on top in the general election in May, those privileged few who have the opportunity to make legislation and govern the country and its people should receive a crash course in how not to mislead either their parliamentary colleagues or, more importantly, the electorate.

This blog post was first published in Solicitors Journal on 14 January 2015 and is reproduced with kind permission.