Bill of Rights consultation


Government invites consultation on its Bill of Rights – but are they listening?

Dubbed by some as the ‘Rights Removal Bill’ the Bill of Rights is currently before Parliament and the government is inviting comments which can be accessed via the EachOther site. The bill has attracted considerable criticism and overall is likely to reduce the rights that people currently enjoy. A number of Conservative politicians have been unhappy with the Human Rights Act which they wish to see replaced with this Bill of Rights. Successive party manifestos have promised its abolition.

In a previous post we drew attention to a book published by the Justice Secretary Dominic Raab which goes someway to explaining the thinking and beliefs which led to this bill. We looked at some of the arguments in the book, Assault on Liberty (Harper Collins, 2009), which have led to the current bill. It claims that there is now an ‘arsenal of rights’ and this is reflected in the introductory remarks which refer to ‘mission creep’. We said that the history was of doubtful merit: the argument being that the country achieved greatness because of its freedoms and liberties and by inference, its decline came about because we have become rule bound of which the HRA is but one culprit. It is part of the small government and limited regulation which some conservative MPs desire. Significantly, the book is peppered with quotes from the Daily Mail which has carried a large number of stories critical of the act. The paper has also directly criticised judges on its front page, calling them ‘enemies of the people’ yet Liz Truss, when she was Justice Secretary, failed to support them until shamed into doing so.

Print media influence

The paper, along with others newspapers from time to time, have produced a series of stories critical of the act. Some are pure inventions and some claim the act is responsible when in fact it has been other legislation which has stoked their ire. Where positive stories appear, for example Hillsborough, the role of the act in achieving justice is downplayed or not mentioned. Readers of the Daily Mail where not told when it itself used the act to protect journalistic sources. The role of the media is important because over the years they have encouraged a negative view of the act to take hold claiming it aids criminals and help all sorts of undesirable people to escape justice by using, in a spurious way, some clause or other thus alleging justice cannot be served because it is their ‘human right’. It has enabled politicians to bring forward this bill safe in the knowledge that sections of the public have been primed over a period of decades to view the act as a thoroughly bad lot and the sooner it is done away with the better. Throw in Europe and the European Court overruling parliament and the scene is set.

If we look at the range of bills and acts, we see a pattern of thinking where laws are introduced to limit protest, restricting access to judicial review, proposals to limit the right to strike still further, and increased police powers amounting collectively to a real step backwards for the liberties of the individual. Taken with the Bill of Rights if it becomes law in its current form, the trend is worrying.

The Bill

The bill has a number of aims. It seeks to dilute ‘positive obligations‘ on public authorities. In view of the current state of the police – one such authority – where a number of forces have been hit by scandal after scandal and several are in special measures, this seems to be particularly inappropriate. It is claimed that the bill will further hurt women’s rights. The already abysmally low level of prosecutions for rape with an even lower level of convictions, will not be helped if the requirement for positive obligations is diluted.

It introduces a permissive stage, a kind of trial before a trial. Since the justice system is already in a state of crisis with extensive delays before a case can come to court, this will have the effect of delaying matters still further. It will also add to costs.

European Court judgements will no longer be part of domestic law. The Supreme Court will also have superiority over the Strasbourg court which is where we came in really. The problem was always that people failed to get justice in the UK courts and had to go to Strasbourg to get it. In a significant number of cases, Strasbourg overruled the UK courts and this became more and more embarrassing. Hence the introduction of the HRA. The Assault on Liberty referred to above is notable for its romantic view of the past and our justice system. The desire to remove Strasbourg from the scene relies on the fantasy of the British justice system being somehow superior. Yet many of our judges, being a product of a very narrow education and from a small part of society, have often shown themselves to be reactionary and out of touch. There was no glorious past which the Justice Secretary seems to think has been taken away. This is discussed in more detail in Conor Gearty’s book, On Fantasy Island (OUP, 2016).

Finally, the desire for rights and responsibilities to be introduced. This is connected in some way to the idea that rights are conditional on good behaviour and that irresponsible behaviour – however that is defined – makes someone less deserving.

The Chair of Joint Committee on Human Rights JCHR, Joanna Cherry QC MP has said that the bill is an ‘unfortunate regression in rights protection’ and has written to the Justice Secretary in those terms.

The local Amnesty group is opposed to the bill. The local Salisbury MP, Mr John Glen has stated he wishes to see the HRA abolished and will be supporting the new bill.

We urge people to submit their views to government while there is still time. As we write (2 August), Liz Truss, seems favourite to become the new prime minister in which case it is certain to become law.

Human rights and armed forces


Claire Perry writes in the Salisbury Journal

Claire Perry MP. Picture: thedrum

Claire Perry, the Conservative MP for Devizes in Wiltshire, said in her piece in the Salisbury Journal that:

[at the recent Tory party conference] … there were other important announcements to celebrate including the news that the government will put an end to the vexatious and damaging legal claims against members of the Armed Forces that arise from applying European Court of Human Rights judgements in the battlefield.

It is scandalous that highly trained and professional soldiers have been subjected to vexatious legal claims second-guessing their decision-making and that since 2004, the MoD has spent over £100 million on Iraq-related investigations, inquiries and compensation – money that should be spent on our troops not lawyers.   Salisbury Journal 27 October 2016

The problem with Claire Perry’s piece – largely copied from the statement by the Defence Minister at the conference – is that it is highly selective and largely untrue.  The picture painted is of our soldiers, operating in difficult and extremely dangerous environments, being pursued by lawyers, sorry ‘vexatious lawyers’, on the make.  The reality is quite different.

Firstly, it is part of a consistent and long running campaign by the right-wing media and tabloids against the Human rights Act and the European Court.  They do not like it because it provides protections for ordinary citizens and in particular, against the invasion of privacy by those self-same papers.  So at a party conference, appealing to that part of the media is only to be expected.

But more specifically, to take one element the statement: ‘claims against members of the armed forces …’ gives the impression that the claims are only about the soldiers themselves.  Many of the claims are against the MoD for not taking sufficient or reasonable care of their men.  So one claim for example was on behalf of a soldier who died of heatstroke serving in 50 degrees of heat in Iraq.  There is also the whole business of Deepcut and the soldiers who died there.  Others involve the Army sending men off in insufficiently protected land rovers.

The phrase ‘applying European Court of Human Rights judgements in the battlefield’ is doubly disingenuous.  Firstly, it is the application of the Human Rights Act which is causing the problem.  Adding the ECHR is just to appeal to those who do not like Europe and trying to shift the blame to Strasbourg who often have little if anything to do with it.  ‘Battlefield’ is also slipped in to create the impression of brave soldiers being pursued by lawyers (keep forgetting – vexatious lawyers) with outrageous claims.

What many of the claims are about is how prisoners are treated once they are taken captive, not on the battlefield.  One such claim was a man thrown into a canal in Baghdad and left to drown.  Many others relate to beatings and other mistreatment of prisoners.  If the courts have investigated claims and the MoD has been forced to pay compensation it argues that something is adrift.

Perhaps Claire Perry should ask herself why do we go to war in the first place?  Part of the answer is to promote our values.  We want to promote democracy and the rule of law.  We become involved in part to try and instill those values.  If our soldiers – not on the battlefield but back at base – are mistreating prisoners then those are not our values.  Although there was a lot of nonsense about weapons of mass destruction, one reason we went into Iraq was because Sadam Hussein treated his people abominably.  The results of bad treatment in places like Syria are visible to us every day with the refugee crisis.

It is a great pity that nonsense like this is both written and then published without challenge.

 

 

 

 

 

RightsInfo extends its range


rightsinfo-logoRights Info has only been going four months but has already begun to establish itself in the human rights world.  It is dedicated to providing accurate information on the subject of human rights. This is extremely important now because the present government would like to repeal the Human Rights Act (HRA) and replace it with their own Human Rights and Responsibilities act (or whatever it may be called).  This has been promised for several years and we await details in due course.

The government is egged on by a media which regularly produces inaccurate or exaggerated stories of the workings of the act, often tying it into the European Convention on Human Rights, presenting it as an unwarranted intrusion into our legal processes.  The fact that it was British and French lawyers who prepared the ECHR – at Churchill’s behest – based on basic principles of justice established over many years, seems to have been forgotten.  As we have noted before, the act is of great benefit to ordinary citizens in the UK who use it to secure justice from authorities.

Rights Info has been providing a source of information to counter the tide of misinformation from newspapers and some politicians. They have just launched a similar exercise to provide information about the European Court which also gets a bad press.  It is called The European Court of Human Rights Uncovered.  One of the examples it gives concerns the total number of applications and judgements.  There have been 22,781 applications against the UK.  Number of judgements is just 513 of which the court found at least one violation to be 301.  301 over 22,781 is 1.32%.  The Sun newspaper reports this as ‘UK loses 60% of cases’.

Terrorism cases get a lot of publicity with the impression given that they are winning cases all over the place.  In 40 years (1975 – 2015) out of 297 cases, just 14 were terrorists.  203 were ‘other people’ that is ordinary citizens in their fights against authorities of one kind or another.

Over the coming months we are likely to see an increase in bad news stories about the HRA and the European Court as the government seeks to soften up the public ahead of its plans to abolish it.  It is useful to know that there is a source of accurate information to go to.

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