Opinion: Human Rights – A call to arms

“David Cameron will launch a 100-day policy offensive…” states the Sunday Times, reporting on the Conservatives’ predicted assault on Europe and Human Rights just days after they secured the most surprising election victory in living memory.

While Liberal Democrat and Labour Party opinion-formers are calling for internal debates on the future of their respective parties, the Conservatives are moving in and preparing to push through legislation that is dangerous, destructive and most of all, frightening.

The Human Rights Act (HRA) should be esteemed as highly as the NHS. Receiving Royal Assent in 1998, the HRA is, in my view, the cornerstone of our liberal and democratic way of life. It protects our basic freedoms, our right to life, privacy and fair trial and protest. Conservatives, in their somewhat warped sense of reality, disagree. They believe that the HRA gives too much power to the EU, saying it gives the British Government little say over how it can deal with issues surrounding terrorism and other criminal matters.

They are wrong.

The Human Rights Act, OUR Human Rights Act, is used to protect people from an overbearing and overly intrusive Government. There are hundreds of examples that can be used to show how precious this legislation is for every citizen in our country.

Human Rights have been used as a way to end the holding of DNA and fingerprint details of innocent children and adults by the police force; they have been used to inform massive changes to the way social services’ procedures are used to protect children at risk of abuse; they have been used to protect the freedom of the press, particularly in terms of keeping sources anonymous; and they have also been used to stop the illegal and unjust detention of people against their will by our security services.

As a resident of the great city of Liverpool, I know too well how badly the state can let its people down, – the people it is supposed to protect and care for. The evidence that has come to light, and is still being disclosed, surrounding the events of the Hillsborough tragedy in 1989, shows us that people need protection from those in power and those who may not use our police and security services as honourably as they are intended to.  The victims of that awful tragedy, and their families, were badly let down, and it goes without saying, their Human Rights were ignored completely in the aftermath.

We cannot allow Britain and its people to be in a position where their rights and freedoms can be ripped apart by their Government. But if we continue on this current path, that is what may happen.

Quite rightly, after a terrible election defeat, there are calls to look internally and debate the future of the Liberal Democrats. We face a leadership election and possibly a large inquiry on the future of our messaging, policies and direction. The Labour Party, another organisation that values the Human Rights Act, is going through a similar internal debate.

My concern is that while these two groups in Parliament rebuild and rebrand, the Conservatives are mobilising. Already, Michael Gove, Archbishop of the Cameronite Right, has been installed as Secretary of State for Justice with orders to scrap the Human Rights Act in favour of a ´British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities´. We need to make sure that our elected champion, whoever that may be, is ready to walk into battle against him. Our activists need to be armed and ready with petitions, leaflets and scripts ready to take this fight to the streets and communities they represent.

All this cannot be achieved unless we look forward and avoid getting swamped into a navel-gazing exercise on why we failed in May 2015. Yes, I agree we must have that discussion, there are answers needed as to why we fared so badly in the General Election, but we need to debate with the enemy also: that is ultimately the most important aspect of what we, as a party, do.

I want to end by saying that I believe Human Rights to be the very foundation of any Government. People should be allowed to protest, allowed to challenge and allowed to speak their mind. They should be allowed to live, allowed to have a private life and allowed to think and believe what they want. All of this, all that makes us human, needs to be protected.

That is why we, as a party, must do everything we can to defend our Human Rights Act. For all those that it has helped, for all those that it will help in the future, they need us to stand up and be counted.

* Tom Morrison is the PPC for Cheadle Constituency Liberal Democrats and can be found on twitter @thomasmorrison or at www.tommorrison.org.uk

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16 Comments

  • jedibeeftrix 11th May '15 - 7:34pm

    There is no such thing as fundamental rights, there is no tablet of stone with the writ of humanity inscribed, there are only things that Society deems important and that are best enacted and protected in parliament. If Society cares to live by rights that they demand their gov’t adhere to, then they should demand that that gov’t adheres to them. Anything else is meaningless waffle.

    Ditching the HRA as it currently exists will be a good thing. We shall be free of the judicial activism of the echr, with its disregard for subsidiarity and disregard for the margin for appreciation. I shall sleep easier when the link between the ECHR and the british legal system is advisory, with the British Supreme Court the ultimate arbiter over whether parliament is adhering to the laws it makes on behalf of the people that elected it.

    If we choose that prisoners should not have the vote, then they’ll damned well not get it! Popular sovereignty, as enacted through acts of parliament.

  • @jedibeeftrix – You say that “There is no such thing as fundamental rights, there is no tablet of stone with the writ of humanity inscribed, there are only things that Society deems important and that are best enacted and protected in parliament.” But when it comes to human rights this simply isn’t true – there is plenty of international human rights theory, practice and jurisprudence which has developed in both the last 70 years but also going way back to the time of Christ. To say there is no such thing as fundamental rights, while it might be technically accurate, is to ignore the centuries upon centuries of human rights development and thought – from Babylon through Greece, Rome, the Islamic world, Enlightenment, French Revolution etc… I think history demonstrates that humanity has consistently coalesced around certain basic rights of freedom, fair treatment and equal justice (just restricted who is entitled to access these rights).

    @Tom – I agree with every single word except to say we must remember we are not alone in this campaign: https://www.liberty-human-rights.org.uk/campaigning/save-our-human-rights-act

  • @jedibeeftrix: you’re completely wrong in those last two paragraphs. Repealing the HRA would not take us out of the European Court of Human Rights; all it would do is stop domestic judges from applying the Convention, which is the complete opposite.

    Besides, what’s wrong with the European Convention of Rights? What rights guaranteed in the Convention do you oppose? I like a society where the government can’t torture me, put me in a mock trial, all for the crime of speaking out against a discriminatory government.

  • jedibeeftrix 11th May '15 - 8:08pm

    “I think history demonstrates that humanity has consistently coalesced around certain basic rights of freedom, fair treatment and equal justice (just restricted who is entitled to access these rights).”

    I don’t disagree with a word.
    However, they remain a construct of the society that demands them, and the responsibility of society to demand that [their] government enforces them.
    If society recognises no link between its rights and them then they become worth less, cared about less, and effectively unenforceable in the mire of government law and regulation.

    Prisoner voting being a prime example.

  • As Sarah says – to remove the UK from the obligations of the European Court, we’d have to pull out of the European Convention on Human Rights which would mean leaving the Council of Europe – a bit of an overreaction to a UK law passed by the UK Parliament and enforced by UK judges.

  • Thanks Alex, completely agree, we are not alone and we should be working with others to create an even louder voice.

  • Alexander Hegenbarth 11th May '15 - 8:32pm

    The only country in Europe not part of the European Convention of Human Rights is Belarus – Europe’s last dictatorship. Human Rights are a corner stone of liberalism and democracy.

  • What’s wrong with prisoner voting rights anyway? If prisoners are disenfranchised, it encourages the State to imprison people as a way of disenfranchising them.

  • Seyed Razavi 11th May '15 - 9:57pm

    The question is: How do we make a convincing case to the public (rather than to each other) that doesn’t get drowned out by the Tory press?

  • jedibeeftrix 11th May '15 - 9:58pm

    “As Sarah says – to remove the UK from the obligations of the European Court, we’d have to pull out of the European Convention on Human Rights which would mean leaving the Council of Europe – a bit of an overreaction to a UK law passed by the UK Parliament and enforced by UK judges.”

    Clarke did his best to introduce reform to the ECHR, if it is not enough to halt the judicial activism then yes, we leave. I am confident it would not come to that however.

    “What’s wrong with prisoner voting rights anyway? If prisoners are disenfranchised, it encourages the State to imprison people as a way of disenfranchising them.”

    Absolutely nothing. If that is what [we] want. And Sarah, i answered your question already; subsidiarity and the margin for appreciation, much abused concepts.

  • It also removes from prisoners one possible avenue of redress they might have if they are, or believe they are, imprisoned unjustly.

  • The ECHR has proved to be a very useful tool in the war against evil. In the UK, it has led to the abolition of flogging in schools and the right of gay people to serve in the military, both issues where successive governments had failed to act for decades.

    The Human Rights Act enables UK citizens to sue government in domestics courts rather than have to go to Strasbourg and wait five years. It also requires the courts to interpret legislation as being consistent with the ECHR, which is a series of limitations on the power of the state that was drawn up by British lawyers and few critics could dispute if they took the trouble to read them.

    Hurrah for the Human Rights Act!

    The only reason that a government could have for wanting to repeal the Human Rights Act is that it wishes to reduce the right of the citizen to challenge government through the courts, that it is intent on accelerating the control agenda, and is in the business of cutting back on procedural rights and natural justice across the board.

    The intentions of the majority Tory government could not have been made more plain in the appointment of Mr Michael Gove as Justice Secretary. Mr Gove is a passionate neo-conservative, he is an enthusiastic champion of US foreign policy, he is in favour of forcing people to join the Army, and he only recently called for educational conscription to be extended to 50 hours a week and 48 weeks of the year (the Platonic vision of children being taken from their parents and brought up by the state). He is an authoritarian, neo-Hegelian conservative who regards people as the property of the state.

    Numbskull “Daily Mail” aficionados seem to think the the HRA is a device for the undeserving to get what they do not deserve at the expense of the deserving, a lefty troublemaker’s charter, if you like. It may surprise these folk that the Countryside Alliance and the Duke of Westminster have both brought actions under the HRA, though without success, it has to be said. In terms of left and right, the HRA is actually neutral.

    The USA, which Tories worship and seek to emulate in every possible way, has a Constitution, which goes even further than the HRA and entrenches fundamental rights. If fundamental rights are good enough for America, why can we not have them here?

  • Peter Andrews 11th May '15 - 10:49pm

    Totally agree that we must not allow this to pass unfought because we are Leaderless. Our Parliamentarians in both houses must publicly fight this and we must run a national campaign against dropping the HRA which is in fact a way of ensuring the British Judges judge human rights cases on British Law rather than European judges having to judge them on against the European Convention on Human Rights (which pre-dates the EU)

  • I think it would be wiser to see what is proposed in the British Bill of Rights before getting to het up about losing the HRA itself. Speaking as a lawyer, I suspect that the two will in all practical senses be the same and that this is simply a PR exercise to appeal to the Daily Mail vote. The HRA has its flaws, so a well drafted Bill of Rights could be the better option. Given that there is to be an EU referendum, it is probably prudent to start weakening the anti-EU case and in some quarters there is a perception that the HRA is another piece of European meddling so it’s an easy target for UKIP types. Recast it as British-derived legislation (and lets not forget that Britan was instrumental in developing the ECHR) and you take away one of the sticks that is used to beat the EU. Our energy is probably better spent arguing around the content of the proposed Bill of Rights to make sure that nothing of value is lost.

  • You keep saying ‘our’ Human Rights Act, who are the ‘our’ because it certainly isn’t the average British citizen.

    The reason why there is a demand for it to go is because it has been ruthlessly exploited and abused by foreign terrrorists, criminals and illegal economic migrants to ensure they can’t be deported, often with the full support of the LibDems. Whilst at the same time the LibDems obsession and support on all matters EU ensured the Liberal Democrats support unquiovocably the European Arrest Warrant, with little more that token protest.

    Dumping the legal right of British citizens under Common Law to be considered innocent until proven guilty, in order to be a compliant partner with your EU friends, would seem to be a price worth paying . in your concept of human rights where EU integration dominates your every waking thought. Perhaps somebody can inform us whose human rights are protected by agreeing to the extradition of our citizens, whose alleged crimes may not even be a crime in this country, to countries in the EU that use Napoleanic Code, where de facto guilty until proven innocent ensures they may nbe incarcerated for months before trial.

    This is a classic example of Lib Dem double standards. When it suits one element of your agenda, namely to open our borders to the population of the world than human rights are to be slavisly protected, when it is against your agenda, namely that everything in the EU may not be wonderful, then it can be conveniently ignored or excused.

    https://www.libdemvoice.org/european-arrest-warrant-im-a-sceptic-but-not-a-eurosceptic-43277.html

  • David Cooper 12th May '15 - 11:22am

    @jedibeeftrix

    Totally agree. The human rights act commits the UK to embody the text of a treaty, the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), into our national law. As a treaty document the ECHR is immune from political review; there is no democratic process by which it can be changed, since not all states that apply respect democracy and the rule of law (Russia, for example). The deliberations of a random bunch of lawyers and diplomats in the 1950s are being adopted as infallible dogma that is less subject to correction even than papal edicts. I consider this to be an affront to our democracy, akin to adopting a religious text as our national law. The sooner we take back control of our our human rights law the better.

    It does not matter whether the ECHR is good or bad; it is not infallible. To regard so is offensive to democracy.

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