Tim Farron MP writes…The Human Rights Act is vital and we must fight to keep it

The Tories have blinked on the Human Rights Act but the fight is not yet won. They are still going to make ‘proposals’ this year, with still the threat of a bill next year.

The Human Rights Act is a favourite target of the right wing press. They hate it because it is ‘European’ (even though the European Convention on Human Rights springs not from the EU but from the quite different Council of Europe – and anyway, what’s wrong with being European?). They hate it because it contains a right to private and family life and so it interferes with that part of the media’s business model. And they hate it, above all, because, although human rights law protects everyone, some of its beneficiaries will always be unpopular and isolated minorities, people it is popular to attack.

But the Human Rights Act is vital for a fair society. Last year, for example, a court declared incompatible with human rights an Act of Parliament that retrospectively cancelled the Department of Work and Pensions’ debts to thousands of jobseekers who had been illegally denied benefits. How else could this unfairness be rectified? Parliament had passed the law only the year before. Jobseekers are demonised and although we should never stop campaigning for people being bullied by the government, it was clear that no political campaign was going to help. Only the court could do the job.

Or what about the law that required a woman who was under threat of being detained because of serious mental health problems to be represented by her adoptive father, a man who had been abusing her? The court declared that law also to be incompatible with the woman’s human rights. The (Labour) government knew the situation was appalling but was refusing to give parliamentary time to changing it. There was nothing anyone else could do.

Or what about gay men in Northern Ireland under constant threat of arrest on the grounds that some of their sexual practices were illegal there. The court declared the relevant law to be incompatible with their human rights. Who could argue with that? But how were they ever to get the law changed by Stormont?

The Tories might claim that all they are really doing is allowing our courts and parliament the last word. But our courts already don’t have to follow Strasbourg decisions to the letter and the Human Rights Act already leaves the last word to parliament. What the Tories want, as Prof. Philippe Sands discovered when he served on the last government’s commission on the Human Rights Act, is to withdraw completely from the European Convention on Human Rights, or to get thrown out for failure to comply. That would be a disaster for our international reputation and a disaster not only for human rights in our own country but also for all those people all over the world who are struggling to establish that their governments have no right to kill them or to silence them or to lock them up on a whim.

Have we become so mean-spirited or frightened a country that we would let that happen? I say no we are not. We are better than that. I am determined to show that we are a liberal, generous people committed to fairness and the rule of law.  The fight continues

* Tim Farron is Liberal Democrat Spokesperson on Agriculture and MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale.

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41 Comments

  • “The Human Rights Act is a favourite target of the right wing press. They hate it because it is ‘European’ …”

    Tim Farron is right to underline the xenophobia of The Sun, Mail, Express etc.

    The media moguls who helped Cameron to a majority and elevated UKIP to respectability have tried to manipulate pubic opinion using the raw sewage of ignorance and hatred of foreigners.

    It is the job of Liberal Democrats to work with allies from all other parties (including some Tories) and none to win the argument for Human Rights.

  • There is something unpleasantly demagogic about the right-wing attacks on the Human Rights Act. The demagogue in chief is none other than Michael Gove. One of the unsung Lib Dem achievements in coalition was to sideline Gove’s far right views on matters concerning the Middle East and the so-called war on terror:

    https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/articles/europe/18828-do-we-have-a-demagogue-as-minister-of-justice

    Now we can expect Gove to be back in full cry!

    John McHugo
    Chair
    Lib Dem Friends of Palestine

  • jedibeeftrix 30th May ’15 – 10:50am
    “The Human Rights Act is vital and we must fight to keep it”

    “Don’t be absurd, Tim, insomuch as it will be replaced by a british bill of rights and subject to the supreme court; of course it is not vital.”

    I do think that it would be wise for the Party’s representatives to be very selective in what they comment on – making sure that their words do reverberate with the majority of voters. I have little doubt that the Party’s [or perhaps NC’s] absolute commitment to our membership of the EU – apparently under any circumstance – did not help it to retain its vote share in May. As we know there are often times when the majority of voters would like to leave.

    Naturally, individual members will side with either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ during the referendum – however, until then I would think it probably wise to mention the subject as little as possible.

    I don’t think there is any doubt that the result will be to stay in as the electorate will be terrified, probably on a daily basis – by large corporate employers – who will take it in turns to explain why they will close down their UK operations and site them elsewhere with in EU if the outcome is to leave. This was the likely cause of the significant increase in the ‘no’ vote during the last days of the Scottish referendum.

    I make these points because I am concerned that Party members are once again inclined to insulate themselves from reality by not taking account of how the Party is seen by the wider world and how precarious its position is at this time. A good example is the comments made in the Guardian to TF’s article. Generally how negative these are – but also how few!

    “Tim Farron promises to make sure Liberal Democrats survive then thrive”

    http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/may/29/tim-farron-liberal-democrats-survive-then-thrive-party-leadership-manifesto

  • David Howarth 30th May '15 - 12:19pm

    @jedi
    So because you disagree with the European Court of Human Rights on one issue (the only issue, by the way, about which the UK government has effectively refused to comply with an ECtHR judgment) you want to withdraw from the whole Convention, and so trash our country’s international reputation both on human rights specifically and on sticking to our international obligations more generally.
    Is this the way you treat all of the UK’s international obligations? If you disagreed with a judgment of the International Court of Justice or the Dispute Settlement Body of the WTO, would you call for quitting the UN or the GATT? If not, why not?

  • David Howarth – couldnt agree more.

  • A worthy debate but no mention of the Human Rights of Palestinians, denied them by Israel, or those of Bahrainis or Saudi Arabia, all three countries being our friends and close trading partners. Do we only care about ourselves?
    What say you Tim Farron? What say you Norman Lamb?

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 30th May '15 - 12:44pm

    Sara, I think you need to look at some of the cases decided under each article to show how important the HRA is. Until we had it, the elderly couple who were put in separate nursing homes would have had no recourse. Article 8, on right to family life, gave them the right to challenge and be reunited. There are many other such practical reasons why we need to retain the HRA.

  • @Jenny Tonge
    The country just elected a Tory majority – of course we only care about ourselves! I take your point though, these are at best ideals that we export worldwide. Other countries aren’t going to sign up for them if we’re not part of it, and that can only lead to a world that has less respect for human rights. If we think about that selfishly we should also realise it may have a knock-on effect on our rights in nations that we travel to or do business in.

    As usual David Howarth is spot on.

  • David Cooper 30th May '15 - 2:05pm

    @Tim Farron “Have we become so mean-spirited or frightened a country that we would let withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights happen? ”

    No. Something far worse has happened. We have become so small minded and tribal that we are more willing to trust an undemocratic treaty organization that gives equal voice to Russia and Turkey on human rights issues than we are to trust our Parliament, because it is run by the Tories. Where we would not trust true champions of liberty such as David Davies with our democracy, we are happy to trust Vladimir Putin and Recep Erdoğan. I despair of some in this party.

  • David Howarth 30th May '15 - 2:46pm

    @Jedi
    I did read what you said. It is you who have no sense of proportion. You are proposing unilaterally to pull out of a treaty obligation because you dislike one decision of an international tribunal set up under that treaty. Are you seriously arguing that such conduct would have no reputational effects? It is juvenile in the extreme.
    I repeat – would you call for pulling out of the UN and the GATT because you disagreed with a judgment of the ICJ or the DSB? If not, why not?
    BTW pulling out of the Convention would not even have the effect of releasing the UK from its obligations under the prisoner voting case, since art. 58 only allows denuniciation with regard to subsequent acts. Or are you proposing to withdraw from international law in its entirety?

  • I’m sorry, but this fearmongering about “Vladimir Putin gets to write your human rights laws” is pretty low. It doesn’t work that way.

  • David Cooper 30th May '15 - 3:30pm

    @David-1 “Vladimir Putin gets to write your human rights laws”

    Putin, or any member of the Council of Europe, gets to block changes to the ECHR. So yes, he has as much power to veto changes to our human rights laws as Parliament. Once the UK signs up to any part of the ECHR, the only way the law subsequently develops is via case law created by the unelected, unaccountable and tax exempt judges who staff the European Court of Human Rights. So a Russian judge can come fresh from imprisoning protesters in Moscow to making human rights law for the UK.

  • David Howarth 30th May '15 - 3:47pm

    @David Cooper
    So this Russian judge will be too restrictive or too lax? On your thesis, it seems unlikely that the Russian judge would be too restrictive, since that would rebound on Russia. So you must be complaining that the Russian judge would be too lax. But how precisely is that a problem for UK parliamentary sovereignty? If the court as a whole is too lax, parliament gets to decide untrammelled by the Convention. I thought that was what you wanted.

  • The actual reason that the ECHR doesn’t seem to give us that many new rights is because we wrote it. Despite the name, the Convention is as British as Bulldogs and Yorkshire pudding.

    I’m of the opinion that we don’t go far enough when it comes to the Convention. We should be leading the way for the rule of law. There are some protocols to the Convention we have opted out of; I believe it is high time we opt in. At the same time, I see no reason why we can’t opt into the Charter of Fundamental Freedoms.

    Imagine the message repealing the HRA with no replacement would cause. We would become a pariah state overnight, the only European country other than the dictatorship of Belarus to not be subject to the Convention. It would be a victory for demagoguery, showing that we don’t care about our fellow man.

    And if the HRA is replaced by the British Bill of Rights, we’d be better off using the Parliamentary time to play tiddly-winks. The actual change the Tories can make is low, because their entire reasoning for repealing the act is completely untrue: the courts can’t do anything to force Parliament to act a different way. Instead of “bringing rights home”, the only recourse for Convention violations would be to go straight to Strasbourg. Courts can also already reject frivolous cases. And they’d be able to interpret statutes to be compliant with the Convention with or without the HRA because that’s what the rule of law is about.

    We can do more than wasting our time on such an illiberal Tory vanity project.

  • It may have escaped David Cooper’s notice that the Russian delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which oversees the ECHR, has had its membership suspended since 2014 and no longer has voting rights.

    There is nothing in the ECHR which prevents member states from creating and enforcing additional rights on their own territories.

  • David Cooper 30th May '15 - 4:59pm

    @David Howarth “So this Russian judge will be too restrictive or too lax”

    On any issue which matters, a Russian judge will do whatever the Kremlin tells him to do, as is customary. Since I don’t often talk to Vlad P about matters of state I’m afraid I can’t help you further. I find your blasé attitude towards Russian state functionaries making British law quite extraordinary.

  • David Howarth 30th May '15 - 5:12pm

    That isn’t an argument, It’s just emotive nonsense. Functionaries of many states constantly contribute to making decisions with effects in international law. Are you suggesting that the UK should leave the UN and the WTO because Russia is a member of those organisations too?

  • There is one Russian judge on the European Court of Human Rights — his name is Dmitry Dedov — and he is not supposed to be answerable to Vladimir Putin or to act as an agent for the Russian state, any more than Paul Mahoney acts as an agent for the UK — but to be an independent judicial expert. If he were found to be acting at the behest of the Kremlin he could be removed from the bench per the Rules of the Court, Title I, Chapter I, Rules 4 and 7.

  • David Cooper 30th May '15 - 6:20pm

    @David Howarth “Are you suggesting that the UK should leave the UN and the WTO”
    Trade is necessarily governed by international law. Human rights is not.

    @David-1 “Dmitry Dedov is not supposed to be answerable to Vladimir Putin ”
    The constitution of the Soviet Union also guaranteed human rights and judicial independence, with about the same degree of truth as your claim. Judge Dedov has spent his professional life working for judiciary which is subservient to the state which will pay his pension and there is no reason to suppose he has changed his spots.

  • David Howarth 30th May '15 - 7:39pm

    @ David Cooper
    So I take it that since the UN doesn’t deal with trade, you want to pull out of that too (although the UN’s International Convention on Civil and Political RIghts has no provision for withdrawal, so you would have to leave the whole system of international law to escape the full range of UN treaties).
    In any case, contrary to what you say, there isn’t any necessity for trade law to be international. Cross boundary trade cases could all be dealt with by domestic courts applying their own law, as they mostly were before 1947. As for the international nature of human rights, the whole point of the Convention was to internationalise the protection of human rights since what had happened previously was not exactly a success. If every country took your view, that whole structure would collapse. Is that really what you want?

  • David Cooper 30th May '15 - 7:57pm

    @David Howarth
    Yes, I believe human rights should be the sole responsibility of the nation state, subject to national laws, enforced by that nations judiciary and paid for out of that nation’s taxes.

    The one human right that the present shower of international human rights lawyers have consistently and very successfully enforced is the right for judges sitting on international courts to avoid being taxed on their income.

  • David Howarth 30th May '15 - 8:09pm

    So if a country were, for example, to begin to persecute a religious or ethnic minority – removing political liberties and ultimately starts to kill people by the million – you think that is entirely a matter for that country and that there should be no international obligations on it not to do that sort of thing?

  • David Cooper 30th May '15 - 8:32pm

    @David Howarth “you think that is entirely a matter for that country”
    When a country persecutes or murders its citizens by the million it may be possible and expedient for external states to act (e.g. Nazi Germany) or not (e.g. communist Russia). I see no value in having an international court of law to which the government of that country would be answerable for human rights violations, since any such court would be a political football. Show trials involving international judges, such as Nuremburg, make a great media circus, but are invariably victor’s justice and the result of happen-chance and political expedience.
    International trade law is of course different – for example it is important to know which on side two ships must pass, and who is in the wrong in case of collision.

  • David Howarth 30th May '15 - 8:45pm

    So you think that states should just be able to decide for themselves whether to intervene to prevent human rights abuses in other states without there being any agreed standards to refer to and without any decisionmaking mechanisms other than their own internal processes?
    And so if Putin decided that there were human rights violations going on in, say, the Baltic States, it would be perfectly OK for him to order an invasion?

  • David Cooper 30th May '15 - 9:09pm

    @David Howarth “states should just be able to decide for themselves whether to intervene”
    Isn’t that what happens anyway? Its a wicked world.
    In the case of Putin invading the Baltic states it would not be OK, for the simple reason that the Baltic States can and would shoot back. In the case of China invading Tibet, nobody minded very much. In the case of Crimea it clearly was OK, give or take a little handwringing. Just how would your overpaid under-taxed judges help?

  • David Howarth 30th May '15 - 9:20pm

    So there we have it. You believe that might makes right. I thought that was where you were coming from, but it took a while to get there.

  • David Cooper, if you have evidence that Dedov’s judgement has been compromised by political ties, then I strongly urge you to present that evidence to the relevant authorities.
    If you are simply speculating that you think he would or might be compromised simply by virtue of being Russian, then you obviously would not make a very good judge yourself.

  • David Cooper 30th May '15 - 10:03pm

    @David Cooper “You believe that might makes right”
    No. But I believe might, whether right or wrong, so comprehensively trumps international human rights law that it renders it a useless waste of resources.
    @David-1
    Spoken like a true fellow traveller.

  • David Howarth 30th May '15 - 10:14pm

    So you are just a power worshipper then.
    You don’t seem to realise that you are rejecting not just international human rights law but the whole of international law – and indeed the whole of law, since the same arguments would dissolve the authority of domestic law too into the rule of the strongest.

  • @ Sarah Scarlett

    R. v Brown (which held, broadly, that consent cannot be a defence to the causing of serious bodily harm) is hardly an example of the HRA producing illiberal outcomes. It was decided under the Offences against the Person Act 1861 before the HRA 1998 came into force. There was a subsequent appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, which failed because the court judged the case to have fallen within the sovereign scope of the UK Government’s right to determine its legality; in other words the court didn’t get as far as to assess whether the conviction was a breach of the ECHR. In fact had the HRA been in force, the result of the original trial might have been different, as suggested by subsequent cases that recognised the rights of individuals to participate in consensual sado-masochistic activities.

  • Predictions about the future can often blow up in your face. Ask any opinion poll buff (with the exception of John Curtice whose exit poll was depressingly accurate).

    Those opponents of the HRA who post comments in LDV might like to ponder on a very confident prediction about the future from six months ago on another issue of our time.

    Back in November 2014, LDV carried an entertaining piece about how out of town mega- supermarkets were the future of shopping.
    The author said that this was an “undeniable fact”.
    https://www.libdemvoice.org/opinion-64-43302.html

    Within weeks Tesco announced that it was closing dozens of its out of town outlets and would not be opening some that had been built and are now sitting there empty. It is now trying to get planning permission for ousting for the extensive land holdings in such areas.
    B+Q and other retailers who have operated out of out of town retail sheds have since announced that they are doing the same as Tesco.

    The future of the HRA needs to be fought for. We should take nothing for granted. Tim Farron is correct to highlight this as an essentially Liberal Deocrat cause which will untie the party.

  • In my last sentence the word “unite” seems to have been changed to “untie”.

    Just for clarity — what I wrote was “unite the party”. 🙂

  • I disagree completely with David zCooper about Nuremberg being a show trial. He shows a complete lack of understanding about history. I fail to understand where he is coming from on most of his comments but it seems to me that he just likes to argue.

  • David Cooper 1st Jun '15 - 11:05am

    @Sue S
    I suggest you study some history yourself. As well as disagreeing with myself, you disagree with Winston Churchill, who realized that Nuremberg would be no more than a series of show trial. See the Guardian (www.theguardian.com/world/2012/oct/26/britain-execution-nuremberg-nazi-leaders):
    “Winston had put this forward at Yalta [summary execution of top Nazis] but Roosevelt felt that the Americans would want a trial. Joe supported Roosevelt on the perfectly frank grounds that Russians liked public trials for propaganda purposes. It seems to me that we are just being dragged down to the level of the travesties of justice that have been taking place in the USSR for the past 20 yrs.”
    Churchill was quite right about this, and the International Human Rights circus has gone from bad to worse.

  • Richard Underhill 18th Jul '18 - 11:54am

    The BBC is considering appealing against the judgement in the case of Sir Cliff Richard. He has not commented, but his lawyer has said that Sir Cliff knew that “He would be substantially out of pocket” whatever the outcome.
    The judge awarded damages of £210,000.
    Articles 8 and 10 ECHR are hugely important, but what about the ordinary person who does not have the financial resources available to a popular singer? Are there skilled, qualified and specialist lawyers who are willing to work ‘pro bono’, for free?

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