Brexit and human rights

Human rights will be diminished if we leave Europe

Human rights have not directly figured much in the vexed debate about whether to remain or leave the European Union.  The arguments seem to have settled on immigration, which has become a toxic topic, with the Brexiters claiming that a leave vote will enable us to regain control of our borders.  The Conservative government has promised to repeal the Human Rights Act but progress has been slow so far.  Reporting on the many issues has been poor with the main focus on the scrapping between the Tory party factions rather than on a measured debate.

The crucial question on how our rights will be affected after a vote to leave – if that should happen on Friday – has received little coverage.  Partly this is because of the complexity of the subject and also detailed discussions of legal judgements does not make for racy copy.  As ever, Rights Info has done an excellent job of discussing the issues with a link through to the Independent newspaper (now only online) which has also done a detailed analysis.

Despite its faults, the European Convention, which in turn led to the Human Rights Act, has been of considerable benefit to ordinary people.  For many this will come as a surprise and for readers of the right wing press in the UK, a statement at variance to the facts as they know them.  And this has been a large part of the problem: a deliberate and sustained attack on the act which has included misreporting, non-reporting and the running of scare stories many of which have no foundation in fact.  For readers of the Daily Mail in particular but also the Sun, the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Express, they are treated to lurid stories of terrorists going free, criminals living the high-life in prison and murderers demanding pornography as their ‘human right’ (they didn’t).

Why the right wing media should be so hostile to the act (as opposed to airing proper criticism of it) is discussed by Francesca Klug in her book A Magna Carta for all Humanity (Routledge, 2015).

As the late, great former Lord Chief Justice Lord Bingham put it: there is ‘inherent in the whole of the ECHR … a search for balance between the rights of the individual and the rights of the wider society.’  For the press to mention this inherent approach would not only spoil a good story, it could draw attention to an inconvenient truth: that Article 10 ECHR, the right to free expression, explicitly states that free speech comes with ‘duties and responsibilities’.  This is not a very popular statement with many journalists.  But, I suppose – with notable exceptions – the press is hardly alone in thinking that responsibilities apply to everyone but themselves.  (p265)

She goes on to explain that there was little legal remedy against press intrusion before the act was passed.  Common law provided no real protection.  An example was Gordon Kaye, the star of the TV series Allo, Allo who was recovering in hospital after a car accident.  Two Sunday Sport journalists entered his hospital room and interviewed and photographed him.  In view of his medical state it is unlikely he knew what was happening.  Under existing English law he had no redress.

Brexiters like to portray English law as some kind of noble construct which has been diminished by Europe and that by leaving, we will be able to get rid of all this interference by ‘unelected European judges’ and get back to the way we were.  Europe is presented in purely negative terms and acting to diminish our rights.  British law is indeed a fine system in many respects, but without the HRA we would never have had the investigation into the activities of the press and phone hacking; no Leveson enquiry and the Murdochs (father and son) being asked to come before a select committee.

The benefits of the act to ordinary people in their struggles for justice against the police or public authorities are seldom mentioned.  The use by the media themselves to defend their sources or to prevent unjust interference by the police or security services is likewise rarely mentioned.  The rights ordinary people enjoy have almost in every case been achieved after a struggle and the current government is keen to erode these rights still further.  Access to the courts and the availability of legal aid has been seriously curtailed; further legislation to diminish the – already limited – rights of trades unions is planned, and the Snooper’s Charter is well on its way to becoming law.

The idea therefore that we will be better protected if we leave is not supported by the evidence.  If we leave Europe and the process begins to abolish the Human Rights Act (which our MP, Mr John Glen is keen to do) and other treaties, it will only result in diminished rights for the ordinary people of this country.

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