Archive for the ‘Human Rights Act’ Category


Devizes MP Danny Kruger has written a chapter in a book by the Common Sense group

In recent years some members of the Conservative party seem to have a problem with the Human Rights Act and some would like to see it abolished.  Far right newspapers typify the act as being a means by which terrorists, murderers and others escape justice because the act provides lawyers with a range of loopholes to get their clients off. They call it a ‘criminal’s charter’.  Many of the stories, on closer examination, turn out not to be true or wanton exaggerations. 

The current corpus of human rights law started life after the Second World War and there were a number of Conservative politicians who were active proponents, including Sir Winston Churchill and David Maxwell-Fyfe. 

Since 2015, the tone has changed and in the manifesto of that year, David Cameron promised to scrap the act.  Little happened and by the time of the 2019 manifesto, ‘scrap’ had gone and a review was promised.  What is to be reviewed and how a new act would look and what it would contain has never been clear.  At the time, the Salisbury group raised the matter with our MP Mr John Glen, but we were not much clearer what they wanted it replaced by. The review of the act is currently underway.

A new book has just been produced by a group of backbench Conservatives called Common Sense: Conservative Thinking For a Post-Liberal Age. In it, is a chapter written by the Devizes* MP Danny Kruger entitled Restoring rights: Reclaiming Liberty

His chapter contains odd reasoning and some curious logic.  His first claim is that the European Convention on Human Rights, drafted by British Lawyers after World War II [lawyers from other countries were involved so it is incorrect to say ‘British lawyers’] ‘sits uncomfortably with the English tradition of preventing tyranny’.  This will come as something of a surprise to the millions of people who were enslaved and were worked to death in the sugar plantations or those who worked in fearful conditions in nineteenth century factories.  The acquisition of Empire also has many horror stories. Quite where this ‘prevention of tyranny’ was taking place is not made clear.

Human rights are misnamed he claims. ‘The rights we really need, and the only ones we really have, derive from something higher and something lower than mankind.  They derive from the idea of God, and from the fact of nations: from a Christian conception of law …’  It would be difficult to locate in the Bible many of the principles enshrined in the ECHR or HRA if only because these ideas and principles were a long way from a society colonised by the Romans and where practices like slavery were common.  There are many favourable references to slavery in the Bible for example.  The ‘lower than mankind’ element is not explained.

He quotes approvingly of the American author Patrick Deneen who wrote Why Liberalism Failed (2018).  Many do not agree with Kruger’s admiration of Deneen’s book regarding his blame of a huge range of society’s ills on excessive liberalism to be odd not to say ridiculous.

His analysis seems to go seriously awry however with the following passage:

“And so, from an early stage we came to think of rights as the means by which we are set free from external pressure, set free from obligations to others; and from there it is a small step to the hypocritical assumption that rights confer obligations on others to satisfy us.” P49

It is incorrect to say that requiring the state to act in a lawful and reasonable way towards its subjects is in anyway hypocritical.  What is hypocritical about requiring the State not to torture us? What is hypocritical about having a fair trial?  Nor is it true to argue that rights set us free from external pressure.  This seems to go to the heart of the objections raised by some Conservatives about the HRA, and the attempts to weave in duties.  The argument seems to be you only deserve these rights in limited circumstances and in a conditional way. 

This argument is further developed in this passage:

“This conception of rights must be rooted in the existence of a community – a real community, not the abstraction of ‘humankind’.  A real community entails reciprocal duties, situated in institutions that can enforce them and mediated by the conventions of people who know each other and share a common culture.  This is the nation.  We derive our rights from our citizenship (or more properly, our subjectship)”. p52 (our italics)

The problem all along with the objections to the HRA is trying to tie them down to specifics.  In an earlier Conservative document Protecting Human Rights in the UK, the examples seem to be stuck on deporting foreign criminals as an example of obligations. 

The Human Rights Act, brought in following cross party consensus – and falsely characterised as ‘Labour’s Human Rights Act’ – represented a significant shift in power.  Ever since the Norman conquest, power rested with the elites: the king, the barons and gradually the landowners and aristocracy.  Concessions were drawn from them as a result of unrest, riots or events such as the Peterloo massacre.  Magna Carta sought to restore some of the rights enjoyed during Saxon times.  The ‘Glorious Revolution’ brought further changes.  The Great Reform Act some more.

We were subjects not citizens.  The HRA changed that and gave citizens a range of fundamental rights (some of which are conditional).  It would appear that for a small number of Conservative backbenchers in the Common Sense group this is troubling.  Yet Mr Kruger’s chapter never gives solid reasons for change, only rather nebulous arguments which crumble away on close reading. 

*Devizes is a small town 25 miles north of Salisbury.


Report of a Zoom meeting

This is a report of a Zoom meeting on 28 April 2021, organised by Young Legal Aid Lawyers on the subject of protecting our human rights. Young Legal Aid Lawyers (YLAL) is a group of lawyers who are committed to practising in those areas of law, both criminal and civil, that have traditionally been publicly funded. YLAL members include students, paralegals, trainee solicitors, pupil barristers and qualified junior lawyers based throughout England and Wales. We believe that the provision of good quality publicly funded legal help is essential to protecting the interests of the vulnerable in society and upholding the rule of law.

We are grateful to group member Mike for preparing this post.

The panel of speakers were:  

Ciara Bartlem, Barrister (Chair); Michael Mansfield QC (HR Specialist); Audrey Mogan, Barrister; Katy Watts, Solicitor, Liberty; Chai Patel, Policy Director, JCWI; Shami Chakrabarti, Barrister, House of Lords.  

Two questions posed were: a) is government becoming increasingly authoritarian, and b) what can be done to curb the progression towards authoritarianism? 

The panel all agreed that government is becoming more authoritarian. Michael Mansfield QC said that activist lawyers are now Home Office targets with the Home Secretary tending toward aggressive oppression. He referred to May’s total dislike of the ECHR as well as other examples.  

The main concerns are the three Acts that we have already identified: CHIS, Police Crime Bill and Overseas Trade. The UK HR Act is not under immediate threat though it is under review but the panel agreed that the three acts do undermine our HR and the trajectory is increasing.  

While the Police Crime Bill does not directly make protesting illegal, it provides the police with huge powers to determine when a protest is causing a ‘disturbance of the peace of others’; it gives ‘guilty’ protestors a criminal record and excessive sentencing powers to the courts. ‘Disturbing the peace of others’ is not specified and could be about noise, inconveniencing shoppers to holding up traffic.  

Shami Chakrabarti was particularly scathing about CHIS and how it can be used in conjunction with the Police Bill. She warned of agent provocateurs being used to create/encourage violent protests thereby giving the police powers to act, and the courts powers to sentence ‘undesirable’ protestors.  

They all agreed that these, and the general trend, is a back door threat to our freedoms and towards an increasingly authoritarian government.  

There was also a lengthy discussion about the ending, or curtailing, of Judicial Reviews. Judicial Review is the ability for courts (lawyers) to challenge the legality of a government action (or a government agency such as the police). Either in the three Acts or elsewhere the government wants to end (restrict) the process of Judicial Review, thereby rendering government unaccountable to the law. There has been an continuing debate as to whether judges, enabled in part by the Human Rights Act, have expanded their reach into what some consider to be inherently political areas of decision making.  Judicial Review is subject to a review at present.

Sadly, what can be done was far more directed towards lawyers and actions in the court than activists. They talked about the increasing importance of using Legal Observers at protests.  

Though an interesting and simple suggestion was: get ready to use your mobile phone, learn how to video quickly. The George Floyd case in America was blown open by video. We are unlikely to see a lot of such incidents in Salisbury, but the inference is to stop abuse in the streets before it gets to the courts.  

The panel also recommended two videos:  

The Brink: [trailer] Steven Bannon in the US and his involvement in UK, particularly, Brexit politics. 

The 13th: [trailer] after the emancipation of slaves the 13th amendment was used to criminalise black people.  

The Salisbury group is concerned – along with many others – about the government’s stated desire to abolish the Human Rights Act. Curtailment of liberties, including the right to protest and Judicial Review, is part a drip, drip of actions the government is engaged in.


We decided to reconvene via Zoom for a group meeting in March 2021 and ended up having a great deal to talk about. The minutes of that meeting are available thanks to group member Lesley for writing them up. The group will be taking a great interest in the forthcoming debate in parliament where it looks as though the government will be using the cover of Covid to limit the right to demonstrate and to give the police and Home Secretary greater powers to limit such demonstrations. We are also keeping a watching brief over the plans to alter the Human Rights Act, promised in several Conservative manifestos.

We were pleased to welcome a new member. New members welcome of course and leaving a message here or on Facebook is the best way.

March minutes (Word)


The Conservatives have had a long-standing dislike of the HRA and a review of it has appeared in its last two or three manifestos. It has not always been so and indeed it was Conservative politicians who were instrumental in setting up the European Convention which preceded the HRA.

The government is making various claims in a bid to justify its desire to amend the act and by inference, to weaken it. Recently we have had claims about alleged vexatious claims against British soldier’s mistreatment of prisoners in conflict areas such as Iraq. They have also, erroneously claimed that the act prevents them tracking potential terrorists.

The various reasons put forward by the government combined with a steady stream of stories in the right wing press suggest deeper reasons at play. The current home secretary, Priti Patel and Michael Gove MP have both been reported as being keen to reintroduce the death penalty although the home secretary has resiled from that claim. Her proposed draconian measures for handling asylum seekers and immigrants however, reveal an illiberal attitude of mind. We have reported on this site, the shameful views of the Attorney General, Suella Braverman, concerning torture about which practice she seemed quite ‘relaxed’.

The HRA has perhaps shaken the establishment more than has been realised. It has led to a shift in power and enabled ordinary people to pursue injustice through the courts. We have seen in the Covid-19 crisis a government which has been reluctant to involve local government, much preferring to award contracts – without tender – to private firms who have shown a dazzling array of ineptitude. It seems to indicate a firm desire to retain the levers of power in Whitehall.  Challenge by private citizens is not welcome. 

The attempt to prorogue parliament and the proposed Internal Market and the Overseas Operations bills all show a government willing to break international treaties if it deems it necessary. We should be extremely concerned if the act gets abolished or its protections seriously watered down.  

 


Appointment of Sir Keir Starmer is an encouraging development for human rights

In previous posts, we have noted the campaign by some members of the Conservative government and  some parts of the press, against the Human Rights Act and the desire to abolish it.  The election of Sir Keir Starmer as opposition leader is an encouraging development therefore.

Sir Keir Starmer, the new Leader of the Opposition is, famously, a barrister.  He was also, famously, the Director of Public Prosecutions, a man who decided what charges should be brought and against whom. So what should we expect from a party led by someone deeply involved in human rights questions at a time when rights are under enormous pressure, not just globally but also in this country?

Once the coronavirus episode is over and normal(ish) political business returns, one of the first matters to be considered will be the increased power the government has accrued during the emergency, and what to do about it in the future.  The Labour Party has supported the emergency powers for the next 6 months, but will clearly need to review this at an early opportunity. Starmer has not expressed a view as yet, but we know that much of his previous work has been in defence of persons threatened by an overweening state.

Starmer’s career was built on work in the human rights and civil liberties field, notably in cases like the McLibel affair (environmentalists sued by McDonald’s over claims made in a factsheet) and East African and Caribbean death penalty cases.  He was named as QC of the Year in the field of human rights and public law in 2007 by the Chambers & Partners directory and in 2005 he won the Bar Council’s Sydney Elland Goldsmith award for his outstanding contribution to pro bono work in challenging the death penalty throughout the Caribbean and also in Uganda, Kenya and Malawi.  From 2003 to 2008, Starmer was the human rights adviser to the Policing Board in Northern Ireland.

Now we have (more or less) left the EU, extremists within the government may well want to detach us from the European Convention on Human Rights (nothing to do with the EU, remember), as well as rescinding the Human Rights Act.  Starmer has publicly defended the ECHR in debate (see The Lawyer 15/9/15).  In his Blackstone Lecture of 2015, he refuted the arguments against the existing HRA in considerable detail.  He has also written text books on the HRA, so is fully versed in the minutiae.

Martin Kettle has noted the change in outlook on human rights within the legal profession following the Act (see Prospect Magazine Feb 2020), and Starmer’s position at the forefront of this change.  With a liberal judiciary under pressure at the moment, his support may be important in the coming period.  Starmer will face attacks from left and right, but will be used to that.

It is notable that the Daily Mail is already leading the charge against the new man, tarring Starmer as a defender of IRA bombers (but then the Mail’s grasp of what lawyers actually do has always been rather tenuous).  The tabloid press are, of course, hostile to Starmer anyway since his decision as DPP to prosecute them over phone-hacking.

From the left, he has been criticised for – during his time as DPP – not pursuing the prosecution of the police officers accused of killing Jean Charles de Menezes and Ian Tomlinson (although in the latter case, he changed his mind in 2011 when new evidence came to light).  Also, he announced that MI5 and MI6 agents would not face charges of torture and extraordinary rendition during the Iraq War, concluding that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute, as James A Smith has pointed out in the Indy (9/1/20).

Sir Keir has given a clue as to his approach by appointing as his chief legal colleague on the front bench, David Lammy, while Lisa Nandy will be at foreign affairs, both of them with good records on human rights issues.  Lammy has been leading in parliament on the Windrush scandal, while Nandy has been strongly supportive of making businesses report on the human rights impacts of their operations.

 


The appointment of Suella Braverman as Attorney General raises further fears for our human rights

The Attorney General is an important legal post in the UK and is responsible for advising the Crown and the Government on legal aspects affecting their decisions.  They are not usually present in Cabinet meetings to preserve a degree of independence although the previous incumbent, Geoffrey Cox, did so because there were frequent matters to do with Brexit to discuss.  The appointment matters therefore and their views and opinions on issues such as human rights are important.

The new person in the role is Suella Braverman and she has strong legal credentials having been a barrister for seven years.  Her views on human rights are worrying however and are worth examinining.  In an article in the Daily Telegraph entitled: Britain is so obsessed with human rights it has forgotten about human duties (16 December, 2015) she sets out her thinking.

  • the mission (Universal Declaration of Human Rights) has failed.  She instances the lack of equality for women in the Islamic world, political authoritarians in Turkey, Hungary and Venezuela
  • the treatment of detainees in Guantanamo Bay means the United States has lost credibility on civil liberties
  • the plight of millions of people belies the noble ambitions of the Universal Declaration.

She goes on to explain that the one reason for this is that Universal Declaration was never a treaty in the formal sense and never became international law.  Another reason is that the rights are ‘described in imprecise, aspirational terms which allow governments to interpret them in any way they see fit’.

And there are:

hundreds of international human rights – rights to work and education, to freedom of expression and religious worship, to non-discrimination, to privacy, to pretty much anything you might think important in a perfect world.  The sheer volume and array of rights imply an all-embracing protection.  This is impossible, because there will always be trade-offs in which some rights are sacrificed to uphold others.

She marries this with an approving comment about Prof. Eric Posner of Chicago who has written a book called Twilight of Human Rights in which he dismisses the value of these rights.  It is clear that Suella Braverman has taken his ideas on board since they crop up frequently in her writings and posts.  For example, the comment above about the sheer volume of rights is a Posner point as is the fact it was never a treaty.  But the significant and chilling example is the issue of torture.

Torture

Posner explains that a poor country has a choice or trade off.  So if the police are torturing its citizens to obtain confessions, then the state can decide to spend its entire budget in eliminating this practice by retraining and monitoring the police’s behaviour.  Then it would have insufficient funds to improve the medical care of its people.

Braverman puts it thus in an echo of Posner’s argument:

In Brazil, there have been several cases of the use of torture by the police in the name of crime prevention.  They justify this by putting a general right to live free from crime and intimidation above their rights and those who are tortured.  To wipe out torture, the government would need to create a robust, well-paid policing and judicial services to guarantee the same results.  The government might argue that this money is better spent on new schools and medical clinics, protecting wider rights to freedom of education and health.  These sorts of value judgements, inherent in the practical application of human rights (whether we agree with them or not), undermine their universality.

We should be horrified that someone who has been appointed to become our new Attorney General, one of the high legal offices of the land, promotes the view that there is some kind of trade-off as far as the use of torture is concerned.  She has clearly swallowed Prof Posner’s arguments without pausing for one moment to think of the moral issues or the fact that torture is neither efficient nor effective in getting to the truth.

The practice was abolished in Britain in the long parliament of 1640.  Yet here we have a barrister, a member of parliament and now a senior law officer, responsible for advising the government and cabinet, that, under some curious reasoning, it might be justifiable because the money might ‘better spent elsewhere’ rather than eliminating it.

Her other main complaint is about the judges.  She was a keen proponent of Brexit and in Conservative Home she says:

Restoring sovereignty to Parliament after Brexit is one of the greatest prizes that awaits us.  But not just from the EU.  As we start this new chapter of our democratic story, our Parliament must retrieve power ceded to another place – the courts.  For too long, the Diceyan notion of parliamentary supremacy has come under threat.  The political has been captured by the legal.  Decisions of an executive, legislative and democratic nature have been assumed by our courts.  Prorogation and the triggering of Article 50 were merely the latest examples of a chronic and steady encroachment by the judges.  Conservative Home 27 January 2020  [Dicey was a Whig jurist and wrote an important book on the British constitution]

Clearly, she and others in government are still smarting from the decision of the Supreme Court not to allow Boris Johnson to prorogue parliament.  In August, Prime Minister advised the Queen to prorogue Parliament from the end of 9 September until 14 October.  The Supreme Court subsequently ruled that this advice, (and the prorogation that followed), was unlawful and of no effect because it had the ‘effect of frustrating or preventing, without reasonable justification, the power of Parliament to carry out its constitutional functions’.  Gina Miller has also left her mark.

A review of her comments and articles paints a worrying picture of someone who does not truly value human rights. They Work for You concludes that she consistently voted against laws to promote equality and human rights.  She voted against largely retaining the EU Charter on Fundamental Human Rights for example and for more restrictive regulation of Trade Union activity.

UPDATE:

This blog was written before Nick Cohen wrote about Braverman in the Observer.  It seems her career and claims of experience have been markedly exaggerated.  

 


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.