Posts Tagged ‘British Bill of Rights’


Minutes of our July meeting are available thanks to group member Lesley for compiling them.  We discussed the death penalty report (see the full version here); North Korea; the forthcoming film evening; the summer BBQ and plans for a Celebration of Human Rights event in 2018 in partnership with the Cathedral.  This has come about because of the governments desire to take us out of the European Court of Justice and abolish the Human Rights Act.  Although it is doubtful if either will actually come about, it does reveal a mindset in the government which is very worrying for the future of human rights in the UK.  It also goes hand in hand with our increasing deals with dubious regimes abroad who are serial human rights offenders such as Saudi Arabia.

July minutes (pdf)

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Talk organised by the Romsey group

Dr Claire Lugarre. Picture, Salisbury Amnesty

On Monday March 19 the Romsey group of Amnesty hosted a most interesting talk by Dr Claire Lugarre who is a lecturer in Human Rights Law at the Southampton Law School, part of Southampton University.

An element of the desire of those who wish for the UK to come out of Europe is a wish to regain our (i.e. the UK’s) sovereignty.  There is also a desire, expressed most strongly by some members of the Conservative Party, to abolish the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights.  This has been promised in the party’s manifestos and has been talked about for about a decade but details of what the BBoR will look like and how it will differ from the existing HRA is still largely opaque.  It seems to be a solution in search of a problem.

The Conservatives are not alone in wanting us to come out of the European Convention along with Brexit: most of the media have kept up a barrage of criticism and denigration of the Court and all its doings.  As the example on the right of the Daily Mail shows, there is talk of a ‘triumphant week for British values,’ the ‘crazy decision’ making by European Court judges – usually referred as ‘unelected’ judges and the ‘human rights farce’.

The talk

Claire Lugarre explained some of the background issues surrounding the issue of the European Court and what it might mean for the country if we left.

Her first point is that the notion of human rights is not just a western construct and similar ideas are seen throughout history even if they were actually called that at the time.  She also emphasised that the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) had a utilitarian purpose not just a moral one.  There was an urgent desire after the carnage of WWII to construct a legal basis of good behaviour between states.

States have to comply with European Court judgements.  The Human Rights Act – often referred to by critics as ‘Labour’s’ Human Rights Act which it isn’t as it received all party support – incorporates the ECHR into British law thus removing the need for litigants to go to Strasbourg to get justice.

One matter is the vexed question of prisoner voting she said.  The European Court rejected the Government’s case which banned all prisoner voting and said that to ‘prescribe general, indefinite and automatic deprivation of a right to vote’ infringed a prisoner’s article 3 rights.  Thus far the government has ignored the ruling.  The issue was one of proportionality.

She spent some time on the often confusing difference between the Council of Europe and the European Union the latter being what we wish to leave (it was announced yesterday that the Article 50 notice to depart will be served on 29th of this month).  The Council of Europe consists of 47 states and within which the European Court sits.  This deals with human rights issues.  The European Union consists – at present – of 28 states and is a political and economic union.  There seem to be many who think that Article 50 means we will no longer be subject to ‘crazy decisions’ of the European Court.  To do that we have to leave the European ConventionThere have been reports that the prime minister Theresa May wishes to do that as well.

All legislation and legal judgements have to be in accordance with the HRA she said.  Indeed, the number of judgements already made by the courts represent a considerable body of precedent based on the HRA and the European Court.  Even if we come out of the European Convention the effects will be present for a considerable period.  It is also forgotten that the European Court is not the only thing which binds us, we are also signatories to a host of other treaties which will still be in existence.

BBoR

One of the arguments frequently heard is that it is not just about rights but also about responsibilities.  It was this principle which led to the desire to have a British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities.  This is a difficult argument to fathom.  Sometimes, people talk about responsibilities in terms of the government’s responsibilities to its citizens to uphold the Act.  Others argue that the citizen has responsibilities not just rights.  There are other arguments about the need to fight terrorism because the act has undermined this ability, it is claimed, and this requires responsibilities in some ill-defined way.   Claire was unclear what the BBoR would contain.

The relationship between rights and responsibilities needs to be understood.  Most rights are qualified in any event and, in practical terms, depend on the responsibility of everyone in society to respect one another’s freedoms (so that one party’s right to free expression, for example, does not impinge too far on another’s right to a private and family life).  These rights cannot be subjected to any all-encompassing limitation, such as that they are legally contingent on performance of set of duties and responsibilities. Their application regardless of such considerations is precisely the point of their existence.

It is often claimed by critics that the European Court was ‘imposed’ on the UK.  It wasn’t and the UK was a key participant in its formation after the war with many British lawyers involved.  It is also argued that the HRA should only be used for the most serious of cases but what this would mean in practice is not clear.  Who would decide on seriousness?

If, as is threatened, we do come out of the European Convention the effects could be traumatic.  At present countries like Russia and Turkey are part of it.  Russia’s human rights record is already poor and Turkey has arrested tens of thousands of judges, lawyers, academics and police.  If the UK pulls out of the Convention, of which it was a founder member, the effects could be even more serious in those countries.

The HRA has had a steady and beneficial effect on many people’s lives in this country.  In countless day to day decisions by authorities of various kinds, its provisions have to be adhered to and lawyers regularly use it to defend their client’s interests.  Perhaps its chief problem is that it shifts some power down to the individual, a fact which those who were in control find uncomfortable.

This was a most interesting evening about a subject which is bound to be in the news for some time to come.


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Government plans to withdraw from the European Convention of Human Rights

The Conservative government has long disliked the European Convention and is now proposing to put withdrawal in the next manifesto.  This will be a serious mistake and will affect the human rights of many individuals in the UK.  It will also send a message to many other countries around the world whose record on human rights leaves a lot to be desired.

Theresa May MP. Picture: ibtimes

One of the problems with discussing this issue is that it is clouded by a programme of disinformation by the tabloid press.  Being a European creation it is damned by association.  It is also, in their eyes, a serious threat because it gives people some rights concerning privacy.  Since large parts of the British press are concerned with the private lives of celebrities and profit from such stories (which to be fair have an avid readership), anything which inhibits their ability to publish such material is going to harm profits.  There has thus been a continuous series of stories which rubbish the Human Rights Act and the European Convention (ECHR).  Small wonder therefore that politicians follow this line and brave it is for those few who stand up for the Act.

Theresa May has a particular animus against it and is famous for her fatuous remark about someone not being deported because of a cat.  “I’m not making this up” she famously said: only she was.  The person involved was a Bolivian who wasn’t an illegal immigrant anyway but was a student who had overstayed his visa.  At the tribunal and later at appeal, part of the evidence for his right to stay, was his relationship with a British woman, various other domestic matters, and their ownership of a cat.

A more serious case which caused Mrs May angst whilst at the Home Office was the case of Abu Qatada.  The Home Office spent many years trying to deport him and the HRA was blamed by her and the right wing media for being unable to do so.  In simple terms, he could not be deported because either he – or the witnesses against him – would be tortured by the Jordanian authorities.  He was eventually deported following diplomatic negotiations which led to Jordan agreeing to renounce torture.  It was never really explained during all the months of dispute about the need to deport him, why he was never put on trial here.

In a speech in April last year Theresa May (then Home Secretary) set out her reasons for wishing to depart from the ECHR:

[…] The ECHR can bind the hands of Parliament, adds nothing to our prosperity, makes us less secure by preventing the deportation of dangerous foreign nationals – and does nothing to change the attitudes of governments like Russia’s when it comes to human rights. So regardless of the EU referendum, my view is this. If we want to reform human rights laws in this country, it isn’t the EU we should leave but the ECHR and the jurisdiction of its court. (26 April 2016)

Almost every part of this paragraph is nonsense but one element is ‘[it] does nothing to change the attitude of governments like Russia’s’.  We have just seen the brutal activities of Russian forces in action in Syria and prior to that, in Ukraine and Chechnya.  Human rights in Russia are at a low ebb and the murder of opposition leaders and journalists a fairly frequent occurrence.  But Russia has been subject to the ECtHR for some years and something like half their judgements are against Russia, Turkey, Romania and Ukraine.  It is, in a small way, a civilising influence.  It has had an effect on their activities.

On the other hand there has been a miniscule number of judgements against the UK – 10 in 2012 for example.  Indeed if one looks at the statistics, between 1959 and 2015 there have been 525 judgements concerning the UK of which 305 decided that there was at least one violation.  That is 305 over a period of 56 years.  From all the sturm and drang in the media you would imagine it was at least ten times greater.

The chief worry is that if we – one of the founders of the European Court – pull out it will give the Russians the perfect excuse to do so as well.  One of the lawyers acting for the survivors of the Beslan massacre in Russia said:

It would be and excuse for our government to say we don’t want it either.  Putin would point at the UK straight away.  It would be a catastrophe.  [the UK] has to understand; we all live in the same world and we all have impact on one another.  (quoted in A Magna Carta for all Humanity by Francesca Klug, Routledge, 2015, p193)

At the end of the extract from Theresa May’s speech she goes on to say ‘if we want to reform human rights laws in this country, it isn’t the  EU we should leave but the ECHR and the jurisdiction of its court.’   But what laws do we want to reform?  We still wait after more than five years for sight of the British Bill of Rights although it is still promised.

There are two aspects to the proposed withdrawal: internal and external.  Internally, it will reduce the rights of individuals in their claims against the state.  People like the Hillsborough survivors would never have succeeded in their quest for justice without article 2.  The parents of the Deepcut shooting would never have received justice without the ECHR.  On that subject, Theresa May also wants to remove the armed services from the act, a view echoed by the local MP for Devizes.

Behind all this anti-ECtHR rhetoric, are the assumptions that all EU rulings are wrong and that we have a superior and infallible legal system.  We do indeed enjoy a very good system – witness the low number of rulings against us by the European Court – but it is not perfect and judges have shown themselves to be too keen on supporting the establishment.  There is also the issue of sovereignty and a belief that it is only our parliament who should decide our laws.  The problem here is the weakness of parliament in challenging the executive.

Externally, it will send a harmful message to countries like Russia and Turkey where human rights are fragile.  It is astonishing to recall that it was a conservative, Sir Winston Churchill who was instrumental in forming the Convention.  Yet now it is the same conservatives who want to abolish it because, now and again, we fall foul of it and have to change our procedures or right a wrong.

Coming out of the European Convention would be a serious error and a backward step.  Our influence in the world would be diminished.  As a result of Brexit, we will be desperate to secure trade deals with whoever we can.  Such limited concerns as we do have for human rights will all but disappear in the rush to sign a deal.  Witness our activities in the Yemen where we are more concerned with selling £3bn of arms than we are with the results of the bombing.   In the UK, the ability of ordinary people to uphold their rights in every day situations will be diminished.


The local group hopes to campaign in favour of the Human Rights Act and related issues as when we get some details from government.  If you believe these matters are important, as we do, both for people’s rights in this country and our influence overseas, you would be welcome to join us.  Details will be here and on twitter and Facebook

 


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


Liz Truss announces that the British Bill of Rights is back on the agenda

The new Lord Chancellor, Liz Truss, said in an interview that the abolition of the Human rights Act and its replacement with the British Bill of Rights is back on the agenda.  On the 10 August, The Times had suggested that it was not going forward.  As we speculated on this blog a while ago, the sheer amount of work needed to negotiate new trade agreements with the world and our exit from the EU, is going to consume parliamentary effort and ministerial time on an enormous scale.  Will they have time and energy to spend time haggling with the Lords over a new bill with all the rest that is going on?  Then there are the complex relations with Scotland and Northern Ireland to consider.  This pledge has been around for 10 years now yet Liz Truss gives no timetable.

We are committed to [abolishing the Human Rights Act]. It is a manifesto pledge. We are looking very closely at the details but we have a manifesto pledge to deliver that   Liz Truss

Liz Truss – picture gov.uk

The result will at best be a modest change in the law unless we are going to withdraw from the European Court itself.  This will have widespread effects especially in eastern Europe where the Court’s activities has had a positive effect on human rights.

The shame of it is that the public anger about the ‘terrorist’s charter’ and other nonsenses are fostered by the media and few of our MPs and Ministers seem to have the courage to stand up to them.  The Daily Mail, the Sun and the Daily Express are often loud in their criticisms but connection to actual facts is often weak.  But even periodicals like the Spectator – a venerable political weekly – is not above publishing tendentious material.  The hostility to the act is in part we argue, due to the privacy clauses which give some protection to those who have suffered press intrusion for no good reason other than boosting newspaper sales.

Abu Qatada is frequently produced as evidence that the act doesn’t work and meant, allegedly, that we were not able to deport him.  Firstly, if he was such a terrible man, why was he not arrested and prosecuted here?  Secondly, the failure of the Home Office and the then Home Secretary Theresa May to deport him was not the HRA but treaties we have which prevent us returning people to countries where torture is routine (as well as the HRA).  Qatada would not have had a fair trial in Jordan because, at the time torture, was common there.

We often read that duties and responsibilities are to be added as there are many – not just on the Conservative back benches – who are unhappy with ‘rights’ and feel that such rights should only be available to those who act responsibility.  How this would work is not explained.  Who’s to judge what ‘responsible’ means?  A police officer at the time of arrest feels that the person behaved irresponsibly and therefore decides not to allow the person access to a lawyer – a provision in the HRA?  Some rights are absolute and do not depend on good behaviour.  Other rights are qualified anyway.

It is hard not to see a parallel with the Brexit debate.  Years were spend denigrating the EU and then when it mattered, those like the previous prime minister, David Cameron, wanted to persuade country to Remain, he lacked conviction.  He was hoist by his own petard, or more colloquially, ‘stuffed’.

A concerted campaign has been waged by the media against the act and stories produced which only occasionally have any relation to the truth.  We have suggested before to refer to Rights Info to get the background and a sober assessment of some of the fictions.

Whether the BBoR ever sees the light of day remains to be seen.  It is likely that this is a rash statement by the new Lord Chancellor which may quietly drift into the background when the difficulties and disadvantages are explained.  But it will continue to lurk until a sufficient number of MPs – like those in the Runnymede group – stand up and speak positively about the act and the benefits it has brought to thousands of ordinary citizens who have used it to secure basic rights, stories that rarely find their way into print.

Salisbury MP, John Glen is among those who have publicly called for the act to be abolished.


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Sources: The National; The Times; http://www.parliament.co.uk; Spectator; Daily Express


Act is likely to be doomed whoever is Prime Minister

Both the leading contenders to become the new Prime Minister, Boris Johnson [UPDATE: 30/06 Johnson rules himself out.  Michael Gove is standing]  and Theresa May, are committed to getting rid of the Human Rights Act [HRA] and want to introduce a British Bill of Rights [BBoR].  It is also true of Salisbury’s MP, John Glen who has written to that effect in the Salisbury Journal.  The commitment was in the Conservative party’s manifesto in last years general election.  This is yet to see the light of day and how it will differ from the existing act has still to be made clear.  We have suggested that the only thing which may stop this happening is that considerable time will now be needed to negotiate our exit from the EU; negotiate new trading arrangements with the EU and the rest of the world, together with a mass of budgetary issues once we no longer are in receipt of EU regional, sectoral and other funds.  Whether there will be time for a long battle with the Lords over the HRA is in doubt.

Perhaps now is timely to ask why is it that the HRA has become almost a dirty word and why the media in particular has waged a relentless campaign against the act and against the EU itself, culminating in the Brexit vote last week.  Part of the answer is in that last sentence: the HRA is the embodiment in British law of the European Convention on Human Rights and as such is tainted by its association with Europe generally.  But that is not the whole answer because it would be possible to be against the EU for economic reasons – slow growth, high unemployment and low investment for example – but still be in favour of the act.

RightsInfo in a recent post has argued that we need to learn 5 lessons from all this and argues for a changed approach to countering the inbuilt media bias against the EU project and the ECHR.  While this is true it is nevertheless important to understand where this bias comes from.  Why is a large section of the media (roughly 70%) so viscerally against the act and dedicated to writing misleading or plain wrong stories about Brussels and Strasbourg?  Unless we can gain an understanding of this then efforts to counter it and change minds are probably doomed.

Loss of Britishness

The first reason may be the sense that we have lost a sense of Britishness acquired over the last eight hundred years, especially as far as the law is concerned.  This was very evident during the Magna Carta celebrations last year.  There was this sense of 800 years of seamless progress culminating in the corpus of law we now have.  Then along came Europe and imposed a new law upon us which had wide ranging implications for all our law in the UK.  It said that human rights had to be respected and for some this came hard.  Despite the fact it was Churchill who pushed for the European Convention and our support for the UN Declaration of Human Rights in which we played – at times reluctant – part, the ECHR was seen as an intrusion into our affairs.  We simply did not need it and there was resistance to its application in the UK.

Magna Carta was about the release of power by the king to his barons.  Much of subsequent legal history has been about the steady release of power by those elites who hold it to the ordinary people.  As industrialisation gradually took hold in the nineteenth century for example, there were prolonged battles to obstruct and delay public health reforms; improved safety in factories; better housing, and for ordinary people to be educated.  The HRA turns this approach on its head and says that there are basic rights that everyone should have.  It also gives people the chance to challenge, using the legal process, those in power.  It comes as no surprise therefore that those who have the power are miffed at its loss or at least diminution.

One can also detect a kind of arrogance.  We won the war and helped put in place a set of rules for them (the Europeans) to live by.  We didn’t need them because we have this ancient and trusted system.  When we started allowing appeals to Strasbourg it came as something of a shock when rulings started to go against us.  Suddenly, this superb system didn’t seem so wonderful after all.  Ordinary people spoke and something of a shiver went through the political elite.

Gift to the world

Linked to this is that the British system is now used around the world principally by countries that used to be colonies.  From the USA to New Zealand,  much of Africa and the subcontinent, the system of justice is based on what was developed here.  Europe on the other hand has a different legal system and does not (with a few exceptions) have a corpus of common law.  It is difficult in these circumstances for some people not to feel that Europe is a ‘Johnny come lately’ to the legal scene so why should they tell us what to do?  After all, fascism was rife in Europe so who are they to lecture us on human rights?

The media and neo-liberalism

One of the strangest paradoxes of the EU debate and the passions the referendum unleashed is that our close links to the USA are almost never mentioned.  Yet the effect of the USA and its major corporations have arguably as equal an effect on life in the UK as do the machinations of Brussels.  We have witnessed major tax dodging by US corporations such as Google, Amazon, Starbucks et al amounting almost to plunder.  Starbucks graciously agreed to pay a voluntary amount and Google a trifling sum.  Europe has shown itself to be keener and tougher in its approach to taxing these behemoths.

Throughout the whole debate following the Snowden revelations, it was the linkage between the American spy agency NSA and GCHQ which was a significant fact.  NSA used GCHQ to hoover up information on US citizens which, under their Constitution, they were not allowed to do.  Both were engaged in mass surveillance largely uncontrolled by our politicians who were – on this side of the pond at least – asleep at the wheel.

A large chunk of our media is owned by Americans, most particularly the Murdoch family.  This was allowed to happen to help Mrs Thatcher gain power.  The important point however is that these proprietors are keen believers in the Neocon agenda.  For them good government is small government.  They still believe in the merits of unfettered free markets.  The emphasis on the social chapter in Europe is not something they are at all keen on.  Power is also important and as we saw during the Leveson hearings, they were used to slipping in and out of the back door of Downing Street for surreptitious and unminuted meetings with the Prime Minister of the day.  Europe makes all this harder.  Instead of a ‘quiet word’ with the PM, there are 27 other countries to deal with.

American power is therefore widely felt and in many areas has greater influence than anything coming out of Brussels.  Yet it is Europe and Europe alone which fills the media and the airwaves.  There is thus an inbuilt bias in the reporting of Europe and American power almost never gets a mention.  It wasn’t Europe which took us into the Iraq or Afghan wars.

Media and privacy

Still on the media but taking in the tabloids in particular, is the issue of privacy.  The phone hacking story revealed many parts of the British media to be acting outside the law.  People’s phones and emails were hacked, bank accounts blagged and for some celebrities and politicians, they were almost unable to communicate with anyone without the risk of their message being intercepted.  The full story can be read in Nick Davies’s book Hack Attack [1].  Aspects of this was illegal but recourse to the police was largely a waste of time since the police themselves were selling information to the tabloids or were afraid to tackle the media with whom they had an unsavoury relationship.  It has been argued that the phone hacking scandal only saw the light of day because of the HRA [2].  Regulation into interception was introduced because the UK fell foul of the ECHR.

The print media were feeling the pinch however with falling advertising revenues, fewer people buying newspapers, preferring the internet to gain access to stories, and increasing costs.  Much easier therefore to hack into celebrities’ phones to get a juicy front page.  They were free to do this because there was no law of privacy.  The HRA does provide some privacy protection and this poses a threat to their business models.  So parts of the media have a problem, both ideologically with its adherence to free market ideas and, its business model based on intrusion.  Europe is a threat to both these aspects, especially the latter from the HRA.

Thirdly is the concept of freedom and responsibility.  To be able to reach millions of people either in print or online is a huge responsibility, a responsibility to give as balanced a view as possible to impart the key facts.  Freedom of speech is a precious thing but it does also come with some responsibilities.

To end this section it would be unfair to blame all the media’s woes on the media themselves.  They are there to sell papers and, as with all forms of marketing, it is based on the principal of giving people what they want.  Clearly, they have picked up a mood or anti-Europeanism and they have provided the stories to match.  One can argue that they have failed to provide a balanced view.  They, however, might argue that the Independent newspaper was balanced, but is now only available on-line and the only other paper trying to give an even handed view is the Guardian which sells only a derisory number of copies.  If the public were interested in balance and wanted to read the benefits of EU membership they can do so.  They don’t.  The tabloids can fairly argue that they reflect the public’s view.  People buy their papers by the million, not the ones with balanced views. The Daily Mail has the world’s biggest on-line readership.

Politicians

Which brings us to the final point.  Against the tide of misinformation and negative stories about the HRA and Europe generally most of our politicians have either joined in or remained silent.  A few Lib Dems were proponents but they were reduced to a rump at the last election and are now scarcely a political force.  Whereas Ukip and Nigel Farage are rarely out of the news, the Lib Dems have all but disappeared off it.  Saying positive things about Europe to try and keep Britain within the EU came late to many of our politicians during the Referendum campaign and resulted in them not being believed anyway.  Anthony Lester refers to the ‘love-hate relationship’ between politicians and journalists in his book Five Ideas to Fight For  [3].

They are mutually dependent and yet proclaim their independence, each side claiming to represent the public interest better than the other.  (p159)

The media and politicians are both part of what has been termed the ‘Establishment’.  In his book The Establishment and how they get away with it [4] Owen Jones attempts a definition:

Today’s Establishment is made up – as it always has been – of powerful groups that need to protect their position in a democracy in which almost the entire adult population has the right to vote.  The Establishment represents an attempt on behalf of these groups to ‘manage’ democracy, to make sure it does not threaten their own interests.  (p4)

In a chapter entitled ‘Mediaocracy’ he describes how the media plays a role within this Establishment by focusing people’s ire on those at the bottom of society.  The success (if success be the right word) of this blame game could be seen in spades with the Brexit campaign and its focus on immigrants and Europe as the cause of many of our woes.  That immigrants contribute at least £2bn to the UK’s economy and are a mainstay of hospitals, the food industry, transport and much else is something you would not be aware of from much of the media.

It can be seen that the dislike of the HRA is the result of several forces.  The shift in power away from the elites and the provision ordinary people with rights is resented especially by those who have sense of being born to rule.  A right to privacy threatens those parts of the media whose business model depends on the wholesale intrusion into the lives of celebrities, sportsmen and women, and politicians (but never you notice other media folk).  An arrogance concerning the age of our legal system and its alleged superiority to the continental one makes us reluctant to accept correction or a different perspective from across the channel.  A loss of power and influence by media proprietors of the political establishment is also a factor where Europe more generally is concerned.  All these forces come together to result in an assault on the act.   Very little good is allowed to be said of it but plenty which is bad – whether true or not – can.  The HRA enabled a light to be shone into the Establishment and what was revealed was murky.  Is it any wonder they are so keen to see it gone?

This is the backdrop to the likely demise of the HRA.  And it seems little can be done to halt the process.  Good news stories rarely get into the media and are unlikely to be believed anyway.

Sources:

[1] Hack Attack, How the Truth Caught up with Rupert Murdoch, 2014, Nick Davies, Chatto & Windus

[2] A Magna Carta for all Humanity, 2015, Frances Klug, Routledge

[3] Five Ideas to Fight For, 2016, Anthony Lester, Oneworld

[4] The Establishment, and how the get away with it, 2014, Owen Jones, Allen Lane

On Liberty, 2015, Shami Chakrabarti, Penguin


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The country (UK) has decided to leave the EU: so what next?

In the early hours of yesterday morning, the referendum was concluded and the country decided to leave the EU on a high turnout.  The Prime Minister is to resign and there may be an election by Christmas.

One of the key issues that decided the referendum was the question of immigration and the other was sovereignty.  While those politicians who were in favour of remaining in the EU, went on about the economy, security, jobs and so forth, it was obvious from interviews in the street (vox pops) that very many people were concerned about more basic matters.  As far as many of them were concerned, they were suffering from the effects of austerity and the people who were making matters worse were the immigrants.  They were ‘flooding’ into the country and were putting a strain on public services and bidding down wages (it was claimed) thus making their own lives a misery.  Membership of the EU made matters worse as we were unable to stem the tide because of their rules.  Coming out was clearly a solution to their woes.

Sovereignty also reared its head from time to time and a familiar line was taking back our sovereignty so that we can make our own laws and run our own affairs, free from interference by Brussels bureaucrats and unelected judges in Strasbourg.  The election of our own judges is something that must have passed us all by.

So what of the Human Rights Act?  The Conservative’s manifesto made clear their desire to scrap it and replace it with a British Bill of Rights.  Months have gone by since the election and no sign has been seen of this document.

But if anything is clear from yesterday’s events, it is that hatred of the EU and its alleged interference in our affairs – including our legal affairs – is very strong and was one of the deciding factors which enabled the Brexiters to win the referendum.  This has been whipped up by a right-wing press and not a little xenophobia.

The problem now for the new government – expected at the time of writing to be formed by Boris Johnson – is that they just cannot leave the BBoR to one side in view of the fervour generated and promises they have made to the electorate.  But, the EU will be wanting a speedy departure by the UK from the EU, and not on painless terms either, to prevent contagion spreading to other disaffected countries.  So considerable time will need to be spent by thousands of civil servants negotiating new terms, agreements and treaties to enable our new relationship with the EU to continue.  Enormous parliamentary time will be needed as well.  The question is therefore – will there be the time or energy for this battle?  Getting a diminished set of rules through the Lords will not be easy.

It is a great pity that so many politicians have allowed the untruths and exaggerations by the right-wing media to gain such traction and to go unanswered.  Many believe that all red tape and rulings from Brussels are automatically bad news and diminish our lives.  We would be so much better off without them they say.  The word ‘free’ is used a lot: free of such rules, free to trade where we will, free to rule our lives and free of encumbrances generally.   The HRA has been a lifeline for many, many people in the UK.  They have used it to secure redress against arbitrary decisions which affect their lives.  Public authorities have to be cognisant of the act in their policy making.  Is all this to go?

We may ask the question ‘free for whom?’  Axing the HRA will not provide ordinary people with more freedom, but less.

So whether we will see the end of the HRA remains to be seen.

 


Text of letter sent to Salisbury Journal

The following letter was sent to the Journal in Salisbury but regrettably for space or other reasons it was not published (14th April).  We do not know at present what the current situation is with the promised bill to abolish the Human rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights (or whatever it is to be called).  It is a manifesto promise and a draft was to be published in the Autumn but has not yet appeared.  It is possible that the arrival of Michael Gove into the Justice Dept. had something to do with it.

Now that we are in full swing with the debate about leaving the European Union, it is possible that this has been shelved for the moment.  Mr Gove is a leading proponent for the Brexit camp who – if current polls are to be believed – are doing well at the moment.  The calculation may therefore be that if they win then the scene is set to dump the HRA as well.

On the other hand, there will be a heavy workload in managing our exit and carrying out the negotiations to secure access to the European market once we leave, so there will be limited civil service and parliamentary time to spend on a new Bill of Rights.

But back to the letter and our local MP John Glen is keen to abolish the HRA and it would be a pity if he is given space in the Journal again to put forward his views and the opportunity is not given to those who disagree with him.  The unpublished letter:

Britain has had a proud history of leading the charge on human rights progress from the aftermath of the Second World War when we were key drafters of the European Convention of Human Rights, to the suffragette movement, to gay rights and other equality legislation. We have often been champions of progress.
What a shame, then, that this year the UK was singled out for criticism in Amnesty International’s annual report on the state of the world’s human rights.  Amnesty is warning that the government’s plan to tear up the Human Rights Act is a gift to dictators all over the world.  Russia recently drafted legislation which allows it to ignore human rights rulings it doesn’t agree with. Far from being able to condemn that action and call on Putin to uphold basic human rights, the UK is actually talking about following suit.  Music to the Kremlin’s ears, no doubt.
Here in Salisbury, the local Amnesty group is campaigning to save the Human Rights Act.  Britain should be a world leader on human rights.  The Human Rights Act protects ordinary people – from the elderly to hospital patients, to domestic violence victims – and we want to see those protections spoken about with pride by our politicians.  We should be redoubling our commitment to enduring human rights principles in these troubling times, not undermining them.
Let’s hope next year’s annual report on the UK reads: “much improved”.

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Government plans ‘seriously concerning’

Plans by the Conservative Government to modify the Ministerial Code are ‘seriously concerning’ according to Rights Watch.

The ministerial code issued in 2010 says;

Overarching duty on Ministers to comply with the law including international law and treaty obligations and to uphold the administration of justice and to protect the integrity of public life

The plan is to omit from the new code including international law and treaty obligations.  Phillippe Sands QC, a professor of law at University College London described the changes as ‘shocking’.  The government claim that this is merely a matter of simplification.

Why it matters

It matters because of the promise by the Conservatives in their text blockmanifesto to scrap the Human Rights Act and replace it with the British Bill of Rights a draft of which has yet to see the light of day.  Removing the international law will reduce the respect for judgements by international courts such as the European Court in Strasbourg.

Another aspect is that going to war and the use of things like drones are covered by international treaty and the UN Charter and not by UK laws.  Removing the international element therefore leaves ministers free to use this kind of weaponry unfettered.

In 2014, the government – then in coalition – wanted to remove what was termed an ‘ambiguity’ in the rules.  This has now been changed to simplification.

An observer of these events was Paul Jenkins who was a Treasury solicitor and he witnessed the intense irritation felt by the Prime Minister over our need to comply with foreign legal obligations.  This was largely in connection with the arguments over prisoner voting but the prolonged tussle over Abu Qatada was also likely to have been an irritant as well.

In a letter to the Guardian, the former legal adviser to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Frank Berman QC said ‘it was impossible not to feel a sense of disbelief at what must have been the deliberate suppression of the reference to international law.’

What is troubling about these changes is that they have to be seen in context.  We have restrictions on Freedom of Information; reductions in the ability of people to receive legal aid; court charges; and the threat to the Human Rights Act.  We will soon have the ‘snooper’s charter’ which will enable the security services to eavesdrop communications however they wish.

All these changes add up to an assault on the ability of individuals to hold the executive to account.  Ministers were quick to celebrate the anniversary of Magna Carta when it suited them but now seem keen to reduce freedoms wherever they can.

Sources: The Guardian; Rights Watch; the BBC; Financial Times; Daily Mail

UPDATE

Further responses and condemnation of this change in the code

British Institute of Human Rights warning


The government is proposing to issue a public consultation on scrapping the Human Rights Act sometime in the autumn.

abolish hra