Excellent debate on the HRA

A debate on the Human Rights Act was held in Southampton

UPDATE: 12 March

A fuller version of the talk is now to hand and can be accessed here:

soton talk (pdf)

On Friday 19 February, the Southampton and Romsey groups of Amnesty hosted a debate on the HRA.  The speakers were Dr Clare Lougarre of Southampton University and Dr Alan Whitehead, the MP for Southampton Test.  A representative from the Conservatives was invited but did not take up the invitation.

Clare began by placing the HRA in its context as a natural consequence of the Euroean Convention on Human Rights [1950].  In the context of the debate on the current government’s manifesto commitment to annul the HRA, articles 2, 3 and 4 were significant.

  • art 2 says that court’s decisions must take into account the decisions, declarations or advisory opinion of the European Court
  • art 3 UK laws are compatible with the European Convention
  • art 4 says that if our laws are not in accordance with the convention they may issue a declaration of incompatibility.

She said there were two options for the government: they repealed the act but we stayed within the convention or, it withdraws its signature from the convention altogether.  In the first case, there would be little difference as we would ultimately be bound by the European Court.  In the second instance however there would be no recourse to the EC and the most likely affected by this are the vulnerable in society.

Dr Whitehead said he was puzzled by what the government wanted to do.  The animus against the HRA was based on myth, semi-truths and half truths he said.  One myth was that it was ‘Labour’s Human Rights Act.’  This was a frequent phrase used by conservative critics.   It simply wasn’t true he said, it was a cross party bill supported by many conservatives.  He was moved to ask ‘what part of the act don’t you like?’  He reminded the audience that it was a conservative – Winston Churchill – who was one of the prime movers in creating the ECHR in 1950.

One of the charges against it was that the court had ruled on areas which were never intended by the original convention, in other words there was ‘mission creep.’  This was inevitable since the articles were widely drawn and also, attitudes had changed over time with, for example, our approach to abortion.

The case that is frequently brought up is Abu Qatada.  This was presented as a failing of the HRA.  It was not.  The Home Office had made mistakes in its original paperwork and the reason he could not be sent back [to Jordan] was because either he, or the witnesses, would be subject to torture.  [He might have added that abolition of torture was subject to another treaty altogether.]

A further point made by Dr Whitehead was that it should not be for a single government to make law on something as important as this.  He did not think we would see anything before the end of the parliament and what would emerge would be a ‘mouse’ of a bill.

It was a lively and informed debate and all credit to the two Amnesty groups for organising it.  For further information on the HRA go to (among other sites) British Institute for Human Rights and Rights Info.  Now that the movement to come out of the EU is getting underway, the HRA will be a whipping boy for those that want us to leave the union.  Both these sites help counter the frequent flow of misinformation by some sections of the media and some politicians.

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