Archive for the ‘Human Rights Act’ Category


Worry about dilution of human rights in the UK.

Increasing concern is being expressed about the future of human rights in the UK and it is one of the issues the Salisbury group are keeping a watching brief over. This is an extract from ‘Each Other’ – the new name for Rights Info:

The government has pledged to “update” the Human Rights Act as well as judicial review – the means by which courts can assess the lawfulness of decisions made by public authorities. 

The proposed changes to the Act and judicial review will be recommended by a “Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission” (CDRC) which the government said it will set up this year. 

While the CDRC’s changes will not be looked at until “after Brexit” – it will be important to pay close attention to, among other things, who is appointed to the commission, what their records on human rights issues are and how they arrive at their recommendations.  Aaron, New Editor 

There are many in government who dislike the act and there have been several statements and manifesto promises to abolish it and replace it with something else, what is not known.  Brexit consumed so much time that there was none left to do things like this.  The right wing press has kept up a fairly relentless campaign which influences government thinking. 

Our own MP, Mr John Glen is recorded as ‘generally voted against human rights’ by the Hansard ‘They Work for You web site so is likely to support any damaging changes. 

Read the full piece in Each Other

 

 


Happy New Year to our followers and supporters. This is likely to be an interesting year on the human rights front and we shall be keeping an eye on the new Conservative government’s wish to repeal or do something with the Human Rights Act which they dislike so. We do not know what is proposed – indeed it has been under threat for some years now but details of what is proposed are scarce – but with a large majority, they will be able to do more or less as they will.


The Salisbury Amnesty group is politically neutral.  We have an interest in the Human rights Act passed with all party consensus in 1998.  The Conservative Party’s manifesto for the 2019 general election says:

Once we get Brexit done, Britain will take back control of its laws.  As we end the supremacy of European law, we will be free to craft legislation and regulations that maintain high standards but which work best for the UKWe want a balance of rights, rules and entitlements that benefits all the people and all the parts of our United Kingdom.

After Brexit we also need to look at the broader aspects of our constitution: the relationship between the Government, Parliament and the courts; the functioning of the Royal Prerogative; the role of the House of Lords; and access to justice for ordinary people.  The ability of our security services to defend us against terrorism and organised crime is critical.  We will update the Human Rights Act and administrative law to ensure that there is a proper balance between the rights of individuals, our vital national security and effective government. We will ensure that judicial review is available to protect the rights of the individuals against an overbearing state, while ensuring that it is not abused to conduct politics by another means or to create needless delays.  In our first year we will set up a Constitution, Democracy & Rights Commission that will examine these issues in depth, and come up with proposals to restore trust in our institutions and in how our democracy operates.  Page 48 in the section: Protect our Democracy (our italics)

We can find no similar pledge in the other two main party’s manifesto.  To some extent this is a familiar promise.  In the past, the party has promised to repeal the act and to introduce a bill on rights and responsibilities.  Probably because of the pressure on parliamentary time with Brexit, such a bill has never emerged.  Promises to abolish the act also have never emerged.  We have asked what part of the act they want to abolish but this has never been answered.  The Party does seem to have a problem with the act as it is currently drafted.

The words themselves tell you little and may even seem on the face of it, benign.  What does ‘update the act’ mean?  Seeking a balance between the rights of individuals and our vital national security and effective government is a bit of a clue.  A regular theme of the right wing press is the threat posed by the act to our national security.  This for example from the Daily Mail in 2015:

Another day, another insult to common sense courtesy of the Human Rights Act and the lawyers enriched by this toxic piece of legislation, which allows them so profitably to ride roughshod over the wishes of Parliament and the British public.   Editorial, 1 August 2015

We shall be keeping a watching brief on Conservative party plans if they assume power on 13 December 2019.

Visitors to this site may like to visit Rights Info where this manifesto promise is also discussed.

 


The risk to human rights legislation and specifically the Human Rights Act seem to have risen in past week.  This concern has come about because of some equivocal statements by ministers in a recent House Of Commons debate.  Dislike of the HRA by some members of the government is well known and there have been plans to abolish it for some time.  They seem to have been kicked into the long grass because of the all consuming nature of the Brexit process and also because it has proved difficult to introduce a fresh piece of legislation – HRA2 we might say – that would get through parliament.

The recent row has emerged because a junior minister, Edward Agar, said the HRA ‘would be reviewed post Brexit’. SNP politician Tommy Sheppard was quoted as saying at the end of a 90 minute debate:

[he] felt he was “left without the unequivocal and categorical assurances I was seeking, in terms of the commitment to the existing Human Rights Act and the protection that it affords” Source; RightsInfo 13 February 2019

So it seems that once we leave, a review of the Act and its possible replacement is a possibility.  This story has a long genesis going back to when David Cameron was prime minister.  Theresa May was a keen abolitionist as home secretary.

The problem that some politicians have with it are several.  Firstly, a failure to appreciate the positive effects it has had on various issues large and small.  In countless cases, involving individuals and their dealings with government or local authorities, the act has been a key element in the defence of their rights.  Only rarely do these get reported and frequently, the role of the act in the proceedings is omitted.

Secondly, there is a belief that British rights are somehow superior to anything Europe could do and go all the way back to Magna Carta.  The imperfections of the British system are brushed aside.  Before the HRA was in place there was a steady procession of litigants going to Strasbourg to get justice denied them in the UK.  These judgements were often embarrassing to the British legal system.

Thirdly, the issue of human rights has got caught up in the Brexit debate and a belief among those wishing to leave that anything with a European tag to it is to avoided.  As Anthony Lester QC puts it:

Because the Human Rights Act use the [European] Convention rights as a substitute for homegrown constitutional rights, it arouses the hostility of euro sceptics, our system has come under increasing onslaught, not from activist judges but from political opportunists supported by right-wing newspapers that have made ‘human rights’ a dirty word.  Five Ideas to Fight For, One World, 2016 p39

Finally, and perhaps crucially, the HRA alters, in a quite fundamental way, the balance of power in our society.  For the first time in our history, the people have a set of rights.  Since we do not have a written constitution, this is a significant development.  It is perhaps not surprising that those – especially from the privileged classes – who enjoyed the power and influence it gave, feel a little resentful at its loss.

What happens after Brexit we will have to see.  Perhaps there are people who think coming out of Europe will mean coming out of the Convention.  They are in fact two different bodies and the Convention stems from the Council of Europe which we entered long before we entered the EEC.  It will still be in place.  It is possible that some will be disappointed to discover that we are still in the Council post March 29.

The local Amnesty group will, along with Amnesty International itself, be keeping an eye of events and will be campaigning if the plans to repeal the act become real.


Government minister gives equivocal answer

The threat by the current Conservative government to do away with the Human Rights Act (HRA) has lain dormant for some time due to the considerable time being devoted to the Brexit negotiations.  However, it reared its head again this week when a House of Lords EU Justice subcommittee asked a government minister for reassurance that it (the government) will not repeal or replace the act.

The Parliament Website has the following piece:

The House of Lords EU Justice Sub-Committee wrote to Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice David Gauke in December regarding the rights of citizens post-Brexit.  The Committee sought an explanation for the dilution of the Government’s commitment to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

Last week the Committee received a troubling response.  While again pledging an unchanging commitment to human rights and fundamental freedoms, the letter from Edward Argar MP, Undersecretary of State at the Ministry of Justice, ended with reference to the Government’s intention to revisit the Human Rights Act once the process of leaving the EU is concluded18 January 2019 [accessed 22 January 2019 our italics]

This is very troubling.  The hostility of many ministers and politicians to the HRA is well known and echoes the frequent stories and campaigns in the tabloid press.  It is seen by some as a threat to our way or life and to giving terrorists and criminals a ‘get out of jail card’.

On the contrary, it is in our view, one of the most important pieces of legislation in the last 20 years.  It has shifted power away from the state and given ordinary people a means to challenge faulty decisions.  The Hillsborough enquiry is a recent example and would not have happened without it.  As an Amnesty spokesperson put it:

The Human Rights Act has been central to the vital pursuit of justice in this country for the last 20 years.  It is the unsung hero of UK life, holding powerful people and institutions to account when ordinary people are let down.  It is deeply concerning that the Government refuses to acknowledge that reality.

The Human Rights Act is a critical safety net for everyone in our society.  Any attempt to dilute or remove the essential protections the Human Rights Act provides should be categorically ruled out.

They are mounting a petition which you can take part in if you wish.

If the act is abolished, all that will happen is that we go back to the bad old days of people having to beat a path to Strasbourg to get justice.

Sources:  Amnesty, Rights Info, Parliament Website


If you live in the Salisbury or South Wilts area and would like to join us, you would be very welcome.  Keep and eye on this site or on Facebook @salisburyai for one of our events and come along and make yourself known.

 


Letter published in the Salisbury Journal

A letter in support of the Human Rights Act was published in the Salisbury Journal today – 8 November 2018.  We have often discussed the threat to the act in this blog as it remains Conservative policy to abolish it.  There is little chance of this happening in view of the enormous amount of time and energy being expended on Brexit negotiations, nevertheless, the intention is there.  We do not know what will happen after March 31st of course. 

We have a meeting tonight, 8 November at 7:30, Attwood Road.


How will our rights be affected post Brexit?*

UPDATE: 26 April

An article in the current edition of Prospect by Vernon Bogdanor entitled ‘Brexit will erase your rights’ (May 2018) discusses

in detail the effects of leaving the jurisdiction of the European Court, the avowed government policy.  One of the important effects is that the ability of judges to disallow legislation which conflicts with the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights will no longer be possible.  Bogdanor makes the point that we shall be moving away from a codified and protected system to an unprotected one.  This is probably the first time this has happened.

For people keen on the sovereignty issue and see all things European to be harmful,  then this is what they seek.  For them the supremacy of parliament is a key principle.  But what has been happening over many decades – and preceding our entry into what was then called the Common Market – was that judges were becoming more willing to interfere in some aspects of legislation.  Because we have signed up to the European Charter, where our legislation conflicts with that, then judges are willing to rule against it.  The fundamental problem the UK has is a lack of a constitution.  The charter was a kind of stand-in constitution against which the legislative process could be tested.

The Human Rights changed that.   In regards to the HRA, Professor Gearty stated that:

In the breadth of its ambition and in the potential reach of its terms, British Law has never seen anything like this piece of legislation’.  The way in which the Human Rights Act 1998 changed the legal landscape was by inserting a new method of interpretation into British Law which required the courts to read and give effect to legislation in a way which is compatible with the Convention rights ‘so far as it is possible to do so’(s3); requiring that the courts take into account decisions of the Strasbourg Court when determining a question concerning a Convention right (s2); allowing the Court to make a declarations of incompatibility (s4); making it unlawful for public authorities to act incompatibly with the Convention (s6); and by creating a cause of action for breaches by a public authorities and providing for remedial damages for breaches. (s7 and s8).  (Church Court Chambers)

For critics of the involvement of the European Court, there is a kind of misty eyed reverence to the British system which does of course have many strengths and has evolved over many centuries.  This was particularly noticeable during the Magna Carta celebrations two years ago.  But historians will know that it has been a struggle for some simple rights and laws of benefit to ordinary people, to be enacted.  Legislation such as the factory acts and public health for example, took decades to enact against fierce resistance by vested interests in parliament.  Full enfranchisement itself did not happen until 90 years ago in 1928.

Recent events surrounding the Windrush scandal have shown a legislature and an executive all too willing to inflict misery on thousands of people.  The idea that parliament is there to protect the welfare of ordinary people such as those who came here in the ’50s, does not stand up to examination.  There is thus a real concern that once we exit the ECJ and the Withdrawal Bill becomes law then some of our rights will be taken away.    This will not happen straight off but over time using the infamous Henry VIII powers.  The role of the courts will be weakened.  The Charter of Fundamental Rights will no longer apply and we will be at the whim of parliament.  The key issue behind the scandalous treatment of the Windrush generation was that although there were two immigration acts, a lot of the day to day nastiness was done administravely.  So the idea that parliament is sovereign is flawed.

One of the curious anomalies of our political discourse is that people do not usually trust politicians.  If someone at a public meeting said ‘I think we should trust politicians’ it would likely engender laughter and ridicule.  But by removing our country from the aegis of the charter we will be giving power to politicians and the executive which amounts to trusting them with our rights.  Since parliament is rife with self-interest, secretive lobbying by special interest groups, the revolving door enabling ministers and others to take up lucrative positions with organisations which they were supposedly in control of, and behind closed door influence from powerful media barons: to expect it to take interest in the rights of ordinary individuals is a big ask.  There are honest politicians and many with consciences but they are few against the party machines.

Bognador ends his piece by saying that ‘the tide of history is towards greater protections, but the coming change threatens to make us more lawless.  And it may well be that a country, which wasn’t primed for this sort of change, will not be content with that.’

The arguments over the role of European law and the remit of the ECJ might seem esoteric, the sort of thing lawyers get enthused about and no one else is the least bit interested in.  But the effects of a loss of control over the executive and a dysfunctional parliament will eventually be experienced by all and there won’t be anyone to protect us.


Update: See the Amnesty blog post on the reaction of young people to the threat to human rights post Brexit.

*Amnesty has no position on whether to remain or leave the EU: this blog is just about human rights if we leave


We have reluctantly decided to cancel an event – planned for June this year – which was designed to highlight the positive aspects of the Human Rights Act and the benefits we all receive from human rights legislation generally.  It was to consist of a week of talks and other events in Salisbury with the overall theme of emphasizing how human rights have improved the lot of citizens in the UK.  It was arranged during the anniversary week of Magna Carta.

The idea for the event was spurred by the negative press this legislation receives and the drubbing that European institutions get from our media.  It is connected loosely to the Brexit debate where one of the guiding principles of those who wish to leave the EU is to be free of what they perceive as interference in our justice system by the European Courts.

In planning the event we had assumed that legal firms in Salisbury would be willing to support it and it was something of a surprise that none would.  Indeed, the majority did not reply to our requests.  One firm even hosts a human rights organisation but still did not reply.  We did eventually secure some financial support (from Poole) but it arrived probably too late for us to be able to do the planning.

So it will not now take place which is a pity.  Salisbury has recently become associated with the poisoning issue and allegations that Russia was to blame: highly likely in view of their previous behaviour and the nature of the attack.  At base is the issue of human rights.  Russia – if it is them – is a state in which lawlessness is now the norm.  There is no free press and corruption is the order of the day.  ‘Dirty’ money is looted by the Putin regime and much of it finds its way into the City of London.  Journalists are murdered and anyone looking like they might be a threat is prevented from standing in elections.

In the UK, despite many unsatisfactory aspects in our political process and the revolving door corruption, we are still able to vote them out – a luxury the Russians do not enjoy.  Ordinary people have more rights as a result of the Human Rights Act than previously yet they are constantly told that the act is a menace and needs to be got rid of.   It is sad that we were unable to celebrate this fact.

 

 


Book on human rights published

Conor Gearty. Picture: LSE

As we wait to see what the government brings forward to replace the Human Rights Act it seeks to repeal, a book was recently published which is recommended to all those who believe in human rights and – despite its faults – that the HRA is a major step forward in granting rights to its citizens.  The book is called On Fantasy Island* by Conor Gearty who, amongst other things, is professor of Human Rights Law and Director of the Institute of Public Affairs at LSE.  He has written several other books including the Struggle for Civil Liberties (2000)

The HRA has come under sustained attack in the media particularly but not exclusively at the tabloid end of the market with regular stories of criminals and terrorists escaping justice because of it.  Positive aspects of the Act including use by the media themselves to protect sources, seldom get a hearing.  A recent example from the Daily Mail gives a flavour of the type of reporting which is common at that end of the media market:

Folly of human rights luvvies: As actors fight plans to axe Human Rights Act, how thousands of foreign convicts use it to stay in Britain
  • Number of foreign offenders on UK’s streets has spiralled to a record high
  • Includes killers, rapists and paedophiles who have avoided deportation
  • Left-wing luvvies lining up to oppose plans to scrap the Human Rights Act
  • Benedict Cumberbatch and Vanessa Redgrave condemn Tory proposals

    25 June [accessed 31 October 2016]

Conor Gearty methodically discussed the history of rights in the UK and tackles head on some of the absurdities regularly reported in papers like the Mail and the Sun.  Myths abound and include the case of Abu Qatada; the murderer of Philip Lawrence outside the school and Denis Nilsen’s request to access pornography and write a book.  In each case, the HRA is in the frame when it was either irrelevant or the event complained of was not going to happen anyway.  Perhaps the most famous instance was the absurd statement by Theresa May at the Conservative Party conference in 2011 about a Bolivian student who could not be deported because of a cat.  ‘I’m not making this up’ she said: problem was she did make it up and had grossly exaggerated a small part of the case.

The government – now led by Theresa May – is apparently preparing a British Bill of Rights.  Gearty discusses this and says:

…attentions shifted to the Human Rights Act.  Here we find uppermost the fantasies that drove the much of the first part of this book – you cannot change a law for the better if it has never been what it you have claimed it to be in the first place.  (p189f)

He sets the context of hostility to the Act in terms of a deadly combination of the nostalgic and the negative.  For a country which until the recent past, ruled a large part of the world and whose power and influence was supreme, we now have to form partnerships and accept that our writ no longer runs as it once did.  Strasbourg is just one of the elements of this.  Nostalgic because were we not the inventors of common law so who are these overseas people interfering in our law making?  The role of the media is discussed and a fuller account of the media’s role in ‘monstering‘ the HRA is provided by Adam Wagner of RightsInfo.

Human rights offer a route to a society where all are equal before the law and where each of us has a chance to engage in political activity on a level playing field if we so wish.

Several years have gone by since the Conservatives announced their desire to abolish the act and we are still waiting to see what happens.  The new Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, has reaffirmed that and of course Theresa May is now prime minister.  We wait and see …  Our Local MP, John Glen, is on record in the Salisbury Journal as someone who agrees with abolition so we wait and see when the time comes.

The book is highly recommended.

*Oxford University Press, 2016 – £18.99 RRP


Conservatives and right wing press exult over plans to remove the services from the Human Rights Act

The plan by the government to enable the armed forces to derogate from the Human Rights Act have been greeted with great glee by newspapers like the Mail and the Telegraph.  The Conservatives at their annual conference in Birmingham have also been delighted by the announcement by the Defence Minister Michael Fallon.

The media has presented it in a lurid fashion.  Lawyers are described as ‘parasitic’ and ‘money grubbing’; the claims are ‘vexatious’ and that there is an ‘industry’ of people pursuing our soldiers.  The overall impression created by various generals, politicians and elements of the media is of service men struggling to do their best in extremely difficult and dangerous conditions only to find a lawyer presenting them with a summons for entirely spurious reasons (that is, to make money for themselves).  Here is former head of the Army General Dannatt for example in the Daily Mail:

It also frees up soldiers from limitations under the act on their ability to hold detainees, so they can get on with their job. [he] said: ‘I very warmly applaud this imaginative and bold move by the present Government.  It will go some way to reassuring our armed forces personnel that they can operate in future without looking out for lawyers over their shoulder.  Daily Mail [accessed 4 October 2016]

Theresa May said at the conference:

And what we’ve seen is human rights legislation being used to generate all these vexatious claims and troops finding themselves in some difficultly in worrying and concerned about the future as a result of that.

‘So I think it’s absolutely right that the Government should say to our troops: “We are on your side”. (ibid)

The only problem with it is that it is largely untrue.  We have to start by asking why are we at war in the various theatres?  The answer is because we are seeking to put in place civilised values.  We went to Iraq, not just on the spurious grounds that there were weapons of mass destruction, but because Sadam Hussein was a tyrant and abused the rights of many of his subjects.  There were similar reasons in Afghanistan.  Behind our military activities is this belief in a better world and that countries run by despots are not stable or fair on their citizens.  We believe that the democratic process is superior and countries should be run by the rule of law.  The very same people who were cheering in Liverpool are the same folk who talk about ‘British values.’

So if our soldiers are engaged in torture or abusive actions against prisoners, this is contrary to the reason why they are there in the first place and is also contrary to our values.   It is these abusive actions which are the cause of a great deal of the claims made against the MoD.

It is also presented in terms of claims against our service people by foreigners.  In fact, many of the claims are by service people against the MoD.  These claims arise because of poor treatment of soldiers by their commanders on training exercises which can lead to their deaths, for example in the Brecon Beacons.  Or they arise because of inadequate equipment which means service people are needlessly at risk and are injured or lose their lives.  The ill-equipped land rovers in Afghanistan are an example.   These actions are seldom mentioned by the right wing media.

There is something depressing in the glee of the conference goers and sections of the media about the decision.  There seems not an inkling of pride in the fact that we fought a war to defeat tyranny and that afterwards, we were the key players in setting up the Convention of Human Rights in Europe led by a conservative prime minister.  That just seems to have been forgotten.  If there were solid reasons for doing so that would be fine.  But the arguments are selective and ignore the fact that the MoD has paid out something like £20m in compensation, not because the claims were spurious, but because they were genuine.

Will it in fact happen?  The court in Strasbourg may well see things differently as Conor Gearty argues in the Guardian and we may not be successful in the derogation as we hope and as has been promised (The Tories are using the army to take a shot at human rights, 5 Oct 2016).

Also forgotten is the effect this will have overseas.  We are currently watching the horror of Syria with either the Syrians or the Russians deliberately bombing hospitals and civilian targets generally.  If one of the leading architects of the European Convention and one of the members of the Security Council, decides to ignore the actions of some of our soldiers with prisoners, what influence do we have left?

And not a word about our activities in the Yemen where we are supplying weapons to the Saudis to enable them to carry on a terrible war there.

The last word goes to Liberty:

The Convention on Human Rights isn’t just a document whose origins lie in the brutal lessons of 20th century wars.  It is directly relevant today. Our Government has a duty not only to implement it during its own military operations, but to uphold its standards as an example to others – both friends and foes. 

To save the Ministry of Defence from the shame of having to admit that civilians suffered abuse on its watch, ministers are prepared to rob our soldiers of this sensible legal framework that both clarifies their use of force and offers them redress when their own rights are breached.  For a supposedly civilised nation, this is a pernicious and retrograde step that will embolden our enemies and alienate our allies.

 


Conor Gearty’s book On Fantasy Island, published by OUP has just been published

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