By Sue Jones
The Government are planning to fast-track a British Bill of Rights, aiming to get the extremely controversial legislation made statute by next summer.
A Bill of Rights was a Conservative manifesto pledge, but is strongly opposed by civil liberties groups that say it will restrict freedoms that are guaranteed under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
The Independent reports that a 12-week public consultation on the Conservative Bill of Rights will start in November or December this year. It will be worded to clarify that the UK will not pull out of the European Convention of Human Rights, as some critics have feared, (and actually, as David Cameron has pledged previously) it will even mirror much of the ECHR language in an effort to “calm opposition.”
The Conservative Bill of Rights will go straight to the House of Commons without a Green or White Paper, which are usually introduced before legislative scrutiny.
Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron MP, said not allowing proper scrutiny of the Bill “makes a mockery of parliament”. He added: “Fundamental British rights should not be treated in this haphazard way. Generations before us died for them.”
Mr Farron’s concerns have been echoed by the leading human rights barrister Geoffrey Robertson QC, who described the Government’s intention as an “outrage”.
“To sacrifice our liberties to the exigencies of internal Conservative Party politics would be a terrible legacy for David Cameron”, he said.
It is understood that the former Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove MP, will visit Scotland before the consultation is published, where he will try to convince the Scottish government to back the Bill of Rights. He will also need the support of Wales and Northern Ireland. The Bill will need to be carried over to the next Queen’s Speech, expected in May, if it is to become law before MPs leave for summer recess in July.
A cabinet minister told The Independent on Sunday that the summer timescale was “aspirational”, because the Bill could be “really clogged up in the House of Lords” and predicted it was more likely to be law by the end of next year. The upper chamber has some seasoned lawyers, many of whom fear the consequences of scrapping the HRA, and the Tories do not command a majority in the Lords.
The rights protected by the Human Rights Act are quite simple. They include the right to life, liberty and the right to a fair trial; protection from torture and ill-treatment; freedom of speech, thought, religion, conscience and assembly; the right to free elections; the right to fair access to the country’s education system; the right to marry and an overarching right not to be discriminated against. Cameron has argued that it should be repealed since just 10 years after its implementation (the Human Rights Act (HRA) came into force in October 2000) … so that he can pass another Act.
No other country has proposed de-incorporating a human rights treaty from its law so that it can introduce a Bill of Rights. The truly disturbing aspect of Cameron’s Bill of Rights pledge is that rather than manifestly building on the HRA, it’s predicated on its denigration and repeal. One has to wonder what his discomfort with the Human Rights Act is. The Act, after all, goes towards protecting the vulnerable from neglect of duty and abuse of power.
The HRA incorporated the ECHR in British law, it is a straightforward statute, that works by allowing individuals in the UK to enforce their rights in their local courts. The Act makes available a remedy for breach of a Convention right without the need to go to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
It was designed to supplement the ECHR. It also requires public authorities to respect the rights of those they serve. As a part of Labour’s 1997 commitment to a new constitutional settlement, it represented a new way of thinking about law, politics and the relationship between public authorities and individuals.
The rights protected by the HRA are drawn from the 1950 European convention on human rights, which was a way of ensuring that we never again witness the full horrors of the second world war, and overwhelmingly, one of the greatest stains on the conscience of humanity – the Holocaust. Winston Churchill was one of the main drivers of the Convention, it was largely drafted by UK lawyers and the UK was one of the first countries to ratify it in 1951.
This was the establishing of a simple set of minimum standards of decency for humankind to hold onto for the future. The European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR) was drafted as a lasting legacy of the struggle against fascism and totalitarianism.
Yet the HRA is quite often portrayed by the Right as a party political measure. However, whilst the Human Rights Act is ultimately recognised as one of the greatest legacies of Labour in government, Cameron seems oblivious to the fact that Human Rights are not objects to be bartered away. They arose from struggles that were begun long ago by past generations who gave their lives for these rights to be enshrined in our laws.
The case for the HRA is a strong one. It is a moral case based not only on learning from the history of some of the worst violations of human rights before and during the second world war, but also from recent history – the here and now. If a new settlement based on social inclusion and greater equality is to be reached, the HRA should not be viewed suspiciously, as a burden, but promoted as an instrument of equality, social cohesion and public purpose. It is expected of a democratic government to improve the understanding and application of the Act. That is an international expectation, also.
There is no justification for editing or repealing the Act itself, that would make Britain the first European country to regress in the level and degree of our human rights protection. It is through times of recession and times of affluence alike that our rights ought to be the foundation of our society, upon which the Magna Carta, the Equality Act and the Human Rights Act were built – protecting the vulnerable from the powerful and ensuring those who govern are accountable to the rule of law.
Observation of human rights distinguishes democratic leaders from dictators and despots. Human Rights are the bedrock of our democracy, they are universal, and are a reflection of a society’s and a governments’ recognition of the equal worth of every citizens’ life.
One sentence from the misleadingly titled document that outlines how the Tories plan to scrap the Human Rights Act – Protecting Human Rights in the UK, (found on page 6 ) – is particularly chilling: “There will be a threshold below which Convention rights will not be engaged.”
Basically this means that human rights will no longer be absolute – they will be subject to stipulations and caveats. The government will establish a threshold below which Convention rights will not be engaged, allowing UK courts to strike out what are deemed trivial cases.
The Tories’ motivation for changing our human rights is to allow reinterpretations to work around the new legislation when they deem it necessary. The internationally agreed rights that the Tories have always seen as being open to interpretation will become much more parochial and open to subjective challenge.
Any precedent that allows a government room for manoeuvre around basic and fundamental human rights is incredibly dangerous.
During their last term, the Conservatives contravened the Human Rights of disabled people, women and children. It’s clear that we have a government that regards the rights of most of the population as an inconvenience to be brushed aside.