House of Commons Committee taking evidence on human rights issues
A recent post by RightsInfo discussed the evidence given to the House of Common’s Joint Committee on human rights. The committee’s investigation is to be welcomed. It consists of 12 members drawn from both houses and its work includes scrutinising government bills for their compatibility with human rights legislation. It is chaired by Ms Harriet Harman.
On 9 May it took evidence from three witnesses: Prof. David Mead from the school of law at UEA; Ms Martha Spurrier a director at Liberty; Dr Alice Donald a senior lecturer at Middlesex University and Adam Wagner of RightsInfo. They were asked a range of questions on the issue of human rights, how they are perceived and how they work in the UK today.
Those of us who are concerned about human rights and campaign on the subject are often dispirited by the fairly constant stream of negative press coverage about human rights generally and the Human Rights Act itself. The most vociferous critic and publisher of tendentious or misleading stories has been the Daily Mail under its editor Paul Dacre and the paper was frequently mentioned by witnesses during this session. Coincidentally, this week it was announced the Dacre is to retire as editor of the Mail which is welcome news. As the Guardian put it:
His sheer bully-power often frames the national debate by warping broadcasters’ news agendas, because they know the Mail makes politicians quake. Theresa May – his candidate – caves in to him every time, as paralysed on paying for social care as on Brexit. Polly Toynbee 7 June 2018
Criticism of the act is of course acceptable, likewise pointing out flawed or questionable decisions. We have a free press which is important. But along with the Sun and the Express, the right wing media has carried on a campaign of ‘monstering’ human rights painting them as a threat to the safety and wellbeing of ordinary people. Why this should be is difficult to understand. Perhaps it is because the act shifts a degree of power to ordinary people and minorities in society – some of whom are unpopular – and this shift is in some ways distasteful to the elites (or the establishment as they used to be known). Many readers of these papers will have benefited from the working of the act. Indeed, Hampshire was mentioned where the authority has incorporated its principles into all its policies.
[Update, 11 June 18] For those interested in this subject, you may like to read an earlier post ‘Why do they hate the Human Rights Act?
The committee discussion focused on several main themes:
- the role of the press and in particular the right wing press
- education both of the populace as a whole and in schools
- the role of judges
- legal aid and
Prof. David Mead said he had done research specifically on the Daily Mail because
it sticks out like a sore thumb in its reporting across a whole range of topics. I have done research exclusively on that newspaper and on other across the board. The findings I have reached are that it misportrays human rights law quite significantly.
He then went on to admit that he did not know of any causative effects of these stories on people’s attitudes to human rights. As with Brexit, was it a case of the media picking up on reader’s misgivings and supplying the stories to suit or was it the media setting the tone and persuading people to their point of view? Martha Spurrier said that sections of the press like the Daily Mail, ‘will fan the flames of attitudes and values which are pretty contrary to human rights project’. She noted that the paper will cover stories about soldiers’ rights ‘sympathetically and accurately whereas with migrants there was a different approach’. Part of the reason she thought was because these kinds of stories had traction not only in society but in ‘upper echelons of power.’
So if senior leaders are saying they want to create ‘a hostile environment for migrants’ is it any wonder that newspapers will then peddle stories about migrants being a pernicious group of people to sell those papers. We cannot divorce rhetoric in one part of the system from rhetoric in another. Martha Spurrier
This argument seems a little weak since there are newspapers and weeklies which do divorce the two.
Adam Wagner from Rights Info was a little more robust and said:
… however, I do think that certain right wing newspapers have ‘monstered’ human rights. They have created a monster out of human rights in a deliberate and specific campaign. […] when you talk to people, you find that they are generally influenced by the way that human rights are framed in the Daily Mail, the Sun and the Daily Express. They talk about human rights being for other people not for us. They refer to them fundamentally as being about stopping people being deported or crazy European Judges.
There was discussion about the role of education – or rather the lack of it – in generating better understanding of human rights and their importance to us. Wagner thought that human rights was removed by the Coalition government. There was a lot of talk about the rule of law but he thought that they have been removed because they were seen as ‘a kind of leftie political thing.’
Going out to schools they thought was important which in fact is something the Salisbury Amnesty group does every year.
Significant budget cuts to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) made the issue of educating the public at large more difficult. They now had around a quarter of the funds they had when they were formed.
The role of judges is important and Adam Wagner noted that a new generation of High Court judges have grown up in their careers with the Human Rights Act. He said you cannot underestimate how important this is and how it has marked a fundamental change in our entire legal system.
He went on to describe how politicians and ministers in particular, use or rather misuse the judicial system. They frequently, he claimed, passed difficult or contentious cases to the courts to decide so that the ‘judges can take the blame for this.’ When there was a furore following the decision, the Home Office would say that they are considering appealing the case which in fact they never did because the judge got it right.
Another topic discussed was legal aid the severe cuts to its funding. There were now ‘advice deserts’ all over the country where you will not be able to seek advice.
We have seen legal aid being decimated across areas of fundament importance to ordinary people’s lives: debt, welfare and benefits, housing, employment, clinical negligence, and immigration. Martha Spurrier
This is just part of this committee’s deliberations on this important topic. A consistent theme of the evidence given was the malign role played by the right wing media. Although no one wanted to limit press freedom, the ‘monstering,’ as Adam Wagner put it, of all things to do with human rights was clearly regretted by the witnesses. It was not clear however what the ‘direction of travel’ was. The tabloids have been successful by giving the readers what they want. If the public do not like migrants for example, then providing stories of their misdoings are going to sell papers. Are the papers stirring things up or are they reflecting what their readers already think? After all, the right wing papers sell in great numbers and the online version of the Daily Mail was the most read paper in the world.
The role of politicians and in particular ministers, was another theme running through the evidence. A failure to give a lead and using judges to get out of receiving bad press for themselves showed them up in a poor light.
No doubt we will be hearing more as time goes by.
If you want to join the local group – which is free – you are very welcome to do so. We suggest coming along to one of our events and making yourself known. We have a stall in the market place on the morning of Saturday 23rd of June and we are hosting a film on Thursday 14 June at the Arts Centre starting at 7;30 pm.