The Salisbury group invited John Glen MP to speak to the group following his comments in the Salisbury Journal that – in common with other MPs, the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary Teresa May – he would like to scrap the Human Rights Act [HRA] #HRA. The Conservatives in their election manifesto had said they wanted to enact a Bill of Rights [BoR] and appointed a Commission to review the matter. It failed to reach an agreement and there the matter has rested with no current work being done to draft a BoR. Nevertheless, there is still political agitation to abolish the #HRA. A key theme of the evening was trying to determine what would the difference be between a new Bill of Rights and the existing HRA. In other words what would be included and what left out.
Andrew – chair of the local group – welcomed Mr Glen who began by saying he was a keen supporter of human rights. He was a member of The Westminster Foundation for Democracy and had recently visited Iran, Egypt and the Maldives. In the first two countries he discussed the plight of Christians with the authorities. He had recently asked a question* in the House of Commons concerning the Israel/Palestine conflict.
As far as the HRA was concerned the main issue was the question of the interaction with the European Court: Strasbourg [rulings] should be taken into account, not be binding. A proposal for a British BoR will possibly be in the party manifesto. He was concerned about some of the claims made using the act and he mentioned the issue of equipment in Afghanistan. Various points were put to Mr Glen by members:
- The HRA was passed into UK law to enable claims to be made in this country and to reduce the need to go to Strasbourg. JG said this may have been the intention but was not always the case in practice
- If a Bill of Rights is to be introduced, how would it in fact be different from the HRA as it is?
- The HRA was of enormous benefit to ordinary people – some of whom are [your] constituents. For example, art. 8 protects the elderly and vulnerable. The problem is made worse for many by the reductions in legal aid. JG said he saw people every day with these problems and he was not happy with the Justice reforms. But he was concerned at perverse outcomes and it needs the will of Parliament. It was pointed out that the HRA was by will of Parliament.
- He was asked if the point of a BoR was to fetter the judiciary and again, how will it be different from the HRA?
- It was reported that Strasbourg was concerned at the risk of the UK abandoning the HRA. As we (the UK with France) were the countries behind the original convention, it would concern them if we turned our back on it. The convention had had enormous beneficial effects in Russia and Belarus who might be less keen to change if we were not there. It was also pointed out that the FCO web site was a keen supporter. JG said that without knowing what would replace the act this was a hypothetical question.
- The point was made several times that the positive effects of the act and the cases which fail in the courts, rarely receive publicity. JG agreed with this point. For the most part, there was an anti-attitude fostered by the tabloid press. JG said he was not following a tabloid agenda. He had to read them to know what would be in his post from constituents. He felt had demonstrated his commitment to human rights through his overseas work.
- Prisoner voting rights were a topic that caused a lot of anxiety. Would it not be appropriate to allow prisoners the vote towards the end of their sentences to help prepare them for re-entry into society? JG talked about the importance of education in prisons. He was reminded that funding had been cut for this.
In conclusion, he said he would reflect on the problem of a lack of balance in the public dialogue. He will also consider how refinements to the HRA might obviate the need for a Bill of Rights.
Group members were no clearer on what would be the difference between a Bill of Rights and the HRA but welcomed Mr Glen’s statement that his comments on the latter would be more balanced in future.
Reported on 17 July that the Conservatives are planning to introduce a British Bill of Rights in their manifesto.
View the South region site of Amnesty International
*John Glen’s question in the House:
Ken Clarke MP resigned as a minister in the Government at his own request yesterday and issued a parting warning to the Conservatives on the European human rights convention #ECHR.
In a strong warning to his party, he said: “I personally think it is unthinkable to leave the European convention on human rights. It was drafted by British lawyers after the second world war to protect the values we fought the war for. Now it is a long way from the war, but members of the European council covered by the convention include Russia and Belarus and so on. It is the way we uphold the values we strive for which are the rule of law, individual liberty, justice for all, regardless of gender. The convention is the bedrock of that.”
He added: “A slightly absurd debate takes place in this country. We are occasionally taken to the European court in Strasbourg but we win 98% of the cases because of our human rights record. We only lose 2% of cases and all these mad mullahs that the press love to vilify and blame for our terrorist problems – which is a somewhat uncomplicated way of analysing the situation – are thought to win in Strasbourg. Well, we have won all the cases in Strasbourg.
View the South region site
Last week, the Government announced that the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill (DRIP) #DRIP is to be rushed through Parliament with almost no time for debate. Various human rights groups, including Amnesty International, have launched a case against the Government to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal.
Why the panic? The need for a law arose because the European Court of Justice in April nullified existing data retention powers. The obvious question therefore is why wasn’t something done before? David Davies MP has called this rush to legislate ‘a theatrical emergency’. Tom Watson MP said it was a ‘stitch up.’
The Snowden revelations have shown the extent and reach of interception by the Government to be on an enormous scale. Over half a million requests for data have been made. It was revealed that RIPA — the act which is supposed to limit how much snooping can go on — is widely sidestepped because emails, Skype calls, Facebook messages and tweets are routed through American servers and are thus exempt. Cables which carry traffic across the Atlantic are tapped by GCHQ.
In parallel with this panic legislation, is the scandal concerning alleged child abuse activity in Parliament. Here, the files have disappeared or have been shredded. In recent years we have had the expenses scandal, the Leveson enquiry which exposed serious wrongdoing in the Metropolitan police, government and the Murdoch group and now the child abuse allegations. Files possibly revealing extraordinary rendition flights to Diego Garcia are also believed lost.
Yet we are invited to give the government more — or rather reinstate — powers lost because of the CJEU judgement. It is to be hoped that even at this late stage, parliament will act to prevent further intrusions into personal liberty in the name of catching ‘terrorists, serious and organised crime and paedophiles’. Interesting that arms dealers were not on the list.
It may be worth recalling the words in a report by the International Commission of Jurists, the Geneva based NGO, which carried out a three global study on the ‘War on Terror’.
In the course of this enquiry, we have been shocked by the extent of the damage done over the past seven years by excessive or abusive counter-terrorism measures in a wide range of countries around the world. Many governments, ignoring the lessons of history, have allowed themselves to be rushed into hasty responses to terrorism that have undermined cherished values and violated human rights. The result is a serious threat to the integrity of the international human rights legal framework.’
These words are echoed by Dame Stella Rimington the former head of MI5:
”[the Government] … attempt to pass laws which interfere with people’s privacy … it would be better that the Government recognised that there are risks, rather than frightening people in order to be able to pass laws which restrict civil liberties, precisely one of the objects of terrorism: that we live in fear and under a police state.’
Ray Corrigan, Senior Lecturer in Technology with the Open University, writing in Open Minds said;
I would argue there is no balance to be achieved between ‘individual right to privacy and the collective right to security’ [quoting Malcolm Rifkind, chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee]. The collective right to security requires an individual and collective right to privacy. It is fundamentally incompatible with the rule of law – and a healthy society – to collect information about every member of the population in the hope of conducting post hoc fishing expeditions to look for evidence of misbehaviour.
At present, the public are surprisingly relaxed about this continuing and increasing intrusion. If however, a policeman turned up at someone’s doorstep, without a warrant or any reason or cause, and insisted on searching the house and looking through personal documents, there would be an outcry. Protestations by the policeman that the person ‘might be a terrorist or paedophile’ would be swept aside in a torrent of media and public fury. MPs would rush to the airways to express their concern and the prime minister would be challenged about it at PMQ. Yet the routine interception of emails and the like evince almost no concern. Only a handful of MPs are likely to vote against the Government. Yet ultimately, what is the difference between a policeman on the doorstep and the state bugging your phone?
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We held our monthly meeting this evening Thursday, 10th July. Among the matters discussed were the following:
- Market stall. This took just over a £100 and is well below the results of previous years. The usual crowd of people waiting for us to open and almost climbing into our cars, was absent this year. The main reason was lack of stock.
- Death penalty #deathpenalty. Lesley reported it was relatively quiet this month. The ‘World Day Against the Death Penalty‘ is coming soon and a meeting will be held in the Black Horse at Great Durnford to plan actions. [The DP report will be a separate post here in a few days]
- North Korea. Karen said there were plans to invite a speaker and October 9th or November 13th were likely dates.
- John Glen. #HRA The meeting with him [was] on Friday 11th July (details in the previous blog) and he had noted this in his ‘View from the Commons’ piece in the Journal. Open to Amnesty members and supporters – at the Methodist Church, 7:30. Lesley circulated a leader in the Guardian commenting on the relevance of the Human Rights Act
- Conference. The planned conference in September was not gaining a head of steam Peter reported. The City Council had given their funds to the Cathedral and were unable to help in other ways such as free use of the Guildhall.
- Magna Carta #magnacarta. Peter had held a meeting with Seif el Rashidi and this had been very positive. They were keen for our involvement and various ideas were discussed. A group was set up to take these forward. Once we have a draft plan then we can approach AIUK for help and assistance. The Cathedral is willing to help with graphics and has offered us a stall. The involvement of Kate Allen and the discussion between her and Rob Key who is the chair of the Cathedral group was discussed. Caroline, the regional rep. said that it had been a brief conversation only and that Kate Allen was delighted that the Salisbury group were involved and that they were best placed to take things forward.
- Strategic issues. There was a long discussion on strategic issues with Caroline and group members voiced various concerns about lack of response from AI. Lack of materials was an issue; finding out what was available was difficult; and lack of response another problem. Caroline responded by saying that the restructuring had had major effects with many staff leaving or being made redundant. It had also consumed a lot of senior management time. She will raise these issues nationally and she said they were similar to concerns raised by other groups. Southern region news can be found here.
- Web site. 217 views of the site since launch. Most from the UK as expected with 12 from USA and 11, Brazil. People from 19 countries were now shown as viewing it. There 18 blog followers; 8 twitter followers and 3 from Facebook.
- Stop Torture. A possible date for a stall on 15 November was discussed.
- Citizenship. This to be taken forward with Bishop Wordsworth. The competition will be repeated this year with more schools involved.
Minutes will be posted soon.
View the South region site of Amnesty
Next week we hope to hear John Glen MP (member of Parliament for Salisbury) explain his wish to see the Human Rights Act #HRA repealed. The original idea was the act to be repealed in favour of a bill of rights which the UK has never had. This died the death in 2012 yet many on the government’s front bench and many back benchers – including Mr Glen – want to see the HRA got rid of without being that clear on what would replace it.
In a leader in the Guardian on July 4, the European convention on human rights is described thus:
‘… it distilled the protections that the English common law had evolved over the centuries, as a gift to a broken continent. […] after two-thirds of a century, by now it might have been edging towards sacred status. Instead it is widely derided. The Conservative party is gripped by a decidedly unconservative urge to chuck this product of experience out of the British courts by repealing the Human rights Act, which incorporates it into British law. The Home Secretary floats the idea of walking away from the convention entirely, a suggestion that the Tory right is bent on getting into the next manifesto.’
Like all laws, it has its absurdities and some questionable decisions are arrived at using it. Nevertheless, it embodies fundamental rights of the citizen and enables them to challenge decisions made by the state or its agencies. It is probably this ability which so narks those in positions of power. We learned this week how a collection of mega-wealthy individuals paid £12,000 (about $18,000) each to have a meal with David Cameron and some of his ministers. Huge efforts were made to keep this secret but the Bureau of Investigative Journalists secured the guest list. Such people are unlikely to be that sympathetic to those at the bottom of the heap or who struggle to have their voices heard. Nor can we rely on the Labour party who are organising their own dinner and are busy courting the corporate community.
As the political class drifts away from the concerns and problems of ordinary people it is acts like the HRA which gives them – occasionally – some kind of chance to even the balance.