LONDON (Reuters) - Britain could leave the European Convention on Human Rights if it does not get the changes it wants to the way the rules are applied, Prime Minister David Cameron said on Wednesday.
Cameron’s Conservative Party, which won a surprise majority in last month’s election, wants to overhaul existing human rights laws to reduce the influence of the European Court of Human Rights, based in France, which enforces the convention.
The move is part of his broader plans to reform Britain’s relationship with the European Union ahead of a membership referendum by the end of 2017, although the court is not an EU institution but an arm of the separate Council of Europe.
“We are very clear about what we want, which is British judges making decisions in British courts,” Cameron told parliament when asked by a Conservative lawmaker whether he had plans to withdraw from the convention.
“Our plans set out in our manifesto don’t involve us leaving the European Convention on Human Rights but let’s be absolutely clear, if we can’t achieve what we need ... I rule out nothing in getting that done.”
Critics of the Conservatives’ plans, who include high-profile figures within the party, say quitting the convention would weaken human rights in all 47 signatory nations because other governments would feel free to ignore it.
But Cameron said the problem of foreign criminals invoking their right under the convention to a family life to avoid deportation from Britain despite repeated offences “needs to change”.
A source in Cameron’s office said the British leader was confident he could get a better deal within the convention.
The convention, ironically drafted under a British Conservative politician lawyer, David Maxwell-Fyfe, after World War Two in response to Nazism and Stalinism and ratified by Britain in 1951, was incorporated into British domestic law by the Human Rights Act of 1998.
The Conservatives have pledged to scrap that act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights, although they have yet to provide details. The party is divided on the issue with several prominent figures, including former cabinet minister Andrew Mitchell, who asked Cameron the question, in open opposition.
The opposition Labour Party said it would oppose any attempt to scrap human rights protections.
“Withdrawing from the convention would do incredible damage to the UK’s standing in the world and it is shocking that the government should dither over this issue,” Labour’s justice spokesman Charles Falconer said.
Cameron has a majority of just 12 seats in the 650-strong House of Commons so the new human rights plans would have to win support from the dissenters to pass into law.
Editing by Estelle Shirbon and Paul Taylor