27 November 2015

The British Institute of Human Rights (BIHR) and others have written to the Prime Minister to express concern about the removal of references to international law and the administration of justice from the Ministerial Code, our government’s handbook. International law sets the standards which are expected of all governments across the world, including the UK. In the letter, we emphasise how important it is that the UK continues to obey international law and for this duty to be made clear to all members of the government through the Ministerial Code.

Prepared by the Prime Minister, the Ministerial Code, is the benchmark of conduct for all members of our government, and sets out the consequences of failing to meet these expectations. The 2010 Ministerial Code made explicit reference to “the overarching duty on Ministers to comply with the law including international law and treaty obligations and to uphold the administration of justice”.

Worryingly, the most recent version of the Code has deleted these references to international law and replaced them with a simple, and we believe diluted, duty on Ministers “to comply with the law”. We are concerned this sends the message to Ministers that there is no longer a duty under the Code to comply with international law. Or worse still, that the UK’s international legal obligations now have less significance.

Of particular concern is the fact that the Conservative Party’s proposals for changing our human rights law, published in 2014, stated they would “amend the Ministerial Code to remove any ambiguity in the current rules about the duty of Ministers to follow the will of Parliament in the UK”. If the revised Ministerial Code is implementing this commitment, there is a real risk that the whole system of international law – which governments cannot disregard simply by passing home-grown laws to opt out – would be significantly undermined. This would send a deeply damaging message that Ministers should feel free to ignore the UK’s international legal obligations where existing legislation is inconsistent with international law.

BIHR hopes that the Prime Minister heeds the call within the letter to revise the Minister Code to re-insert the deleted references.

The letter was co-ordinated by Rights Watch (UK) and signed by the British Institute of Human Rights, the Children’s Rights Alliance of England, the Howard League for Penal Reform, JUSTICE and Liberty.

For further information please contact Richard at rwingfield@bihr.org.uk or on 0207 882 5088.