Sunak criticises ‘complete overreach’ of ‘illegitimate’ ECHR ruling

Rishi Sunak
Rishi Sunak has raised the possibility of the UK leaving the ECHR if it continues to block his delayed Rwanda plans - Getty/Danny Lawson

Rishi Sunak has hit out at the “complete overreach” of an “illegitimate” ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that imposes a duty on governments to achieve net zero.

The intervention from Downing Street comes ahead of a final round of votes on the Rwanda Bill, which could pass by the end of this week, allowing the Government to press ahead with plans for deportation flights. However, there are fears among Tory MPs that the long-awaited flights could yet be thwarted by judges in Strasbourg.

Mr Sunak’s comments will fuel speculation that Mr Sunak is considering including a pledge in the Conservative Party’s manifesto to pull out of the ECHR, with sources saying this has not been ruled out.

On Saturday night, a No 10 source said: “The PM’s view was that this judgment is a complete overreach and an illegitimate interpretation of the ECHR text. No doubt about that.”

In the first judgment of its kind, the court ruled that the human rights of a group of elderly Swiss women had been violated by the failure of their government to act quickly enough to tackle climate change. The ruling also applies to the UK.

Two more Cabinet ministers have made known their dissatisfaction with Britain’s involvement in the ECHR, adding their voices to that of Claire Coutinho, the Energy Secretary.

A source close to Steve Barclay, the Environment Secretary, said human rights in Britain “did not begin with the ECHR and won’t end with it either”.

They added: “The Government was democratically elected on a mandate to deliver tougher border control and stop small-boat crossings. It is a fundamental threat to our democracy if an unelected overseas court is stopping that delivery and Steve has been clear to successive prime ministers for several years that leaving the ECHR must be on the table if it is the only option to uphold that promise to the British people.”

Revolt spreading to top of Government

Another Cabinet minister told The Telegraph they would be “perfectly relaxed about pulling out” of the ECHR, adding: “I don’t think the public would be sorry to see the back of it”.

Ms Coutinho has already expressed “concern” that Strasbourg judges were taking decisions best made by elected politicians.

Earlier this week, Strasbourg judges issued a landmark ruling that governments have a duty to protect people from climate change.

Aided by Friends of the Earth, some 2,000 elderly women claimed that the Swiss state was exposing them to an increased risk of death from extreme heat.

A British judge, Tim Eicke, issued the sole dissent, writing: “I fear that in this judgment the majority has gone beyond what it is legitimate and permissible for this court to do, and unfortunately, in doing so, may well have achieved exactly the opposite effect to what was intended”.

The ruling prompted a Tory backlash, with several senior MPs urging Mr Sunak to take Britain out of the ECHR in the wake of the ruling.

The revolt is spreading to the top of the Government, with Cabinet ministers breaking ranks to call for Mr Sunak to bow out of the convention, particularly given the difficulties it may also pose for implementing the Rwanda policy.

Other MPs, including Robert Jenrick, the former Home Office minister, and Danny Kruger, the co-chairman of the New Conservatives group of MPs, have accused the court of acting in a “profoundly undemocratic” way and being “bent out of shape” by “progressive” activists and politicians.

However, the Cabinet ministers opposed to leaving the ECHR are believed to outnumber those in favour by two to one. The remainder are said to be either undecided or to have not disclosed their position to colleagues.

The European Court found the Swiss state had breached Article Eight of the ECHR, which guarantees the “right to respect for private and family life”.

The ruling is binding to states that are signatories to the convention, like the UK, and will trickle down to influence the law in 46 countries in Europe, including Britain.

It means individuals and groups could sue for a breach of their human rights if the UK Government fails to meet its net zero or environmental targets.

In the UK, attempts to make such cases on the basis of the European Convention on Human Rights have, until now, not succeeded. However, in a landmark net zero case last year, the High Court suggested UK courts would “keep pace with Strasbourg jurisprudence” as it continued to evolve.

This month, Mr Sunak raised the possibility of the UK leaving it if the Strasbourg court continued to block his delayed plans to deport illegal migrants to Rwanda.

He said controlling immigration is “more important” than membership of the convention. Polling found that half of Conservative voters believe Britain should quit the ECHR. Mr Sunak said “enough is enough” and vowed to ignore the Strasbourg court if it tried to ground deportation flights.

He signalled that he would go ahead with the flights even if the court issued a Rule 39 injunction in an attempt to prevent their departure.