Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Repealing of the Human Rights Act? A Political Discussion

All three main political parties - the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, and Labour - have proposed changes to the Human Rights Act should they be (re-)elected. The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is legitimately concerned about these proposals and consequently sponsored a Human Rights Debate to examine the issues.

On Monday night, I, along with WRC Director Chris Green, attended the Human Rights Discussion at the King's Fund in Cavendish Square. Chaired by the BBC's Martha Kearney (left), the event was a Q&A type discussion between the audience and three MPs - Dominic Grieve, Shadow Secretary of State for Justice (Conservative); David Howarth MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Justice (Liberal Democrat); and Rt Hon Jack Straw MP, Secretary of State for Justice (and therefore Labour). 

Dominic Grieve MP (left), David Howarth MP (right), Rt Hon Jack Straw MP (bottom)

The event began with an opening statement by Trevor Phillips, Chair of the EHRC, who set out the EHRC perspective on the proposed changes to the Human Rights Act and the creation of a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities in its place. He said, "We can't...take for granted that our human rights architecture is here and is here permanently and that it will stand here forever." Phillips went on to explain the importance of human rights in the UK, stating that schools that teach the principles of human rights have seen their rates of bullying drop. In addition, the UK cannot legitimately speak to or condemn the practices of such countries as Iran and Zimbabwe "if we are lukewarm about human rights ourselves." This is why the EHRC's response to the Green Paper on constitutional reform is called "Human Rights Act PLUS" - the EHRC is concerned that proposals to repeal the Act could result in a watered-down version of the Act and so are advocating for changes that only seek to add to what is currently in the Act.

Each MP was allowed 5 minutes to outline his party's proposal regarding the Human Rights Act. Dominic Grieve said that the Conservatives "regard adherence to the ECHR (European Convention on Human Rights) as an absolute benchmark of our status as a civilised nation." His party wants to replace the Human Rights Act with a UK Bill of Rights, a document that will incorporate the principles of the ECHR. He said that polls have shown that the British public do not support the Human Rights Act, because they think it is meant to protect the rights of people who don't deserve them. This is why the Conservatives want to replace the Act, and hope to include some "new" rights such as trial by jury as well as clarification on any non-absolute rights. However, as the Q&A went on (with a clear audience leaning against the Conservative party), it became clear that Grieve's position was likely a bit more liberal than the Conservatives' official position regarding the repeal of the Human Rights Act.

David Howarth outlined the Liberal Democrats' position, beginning by stating that he "can't understand what he (Grieve) was taking about." Howarth explained that he can't see how we can fiddle around with UK statutes and that it is much better to accept that the Human Rights Act is here to stay. Howarth stated that it is an "inherently bad thing" to mess with it and that there is pressure to undermine the Human Rights Act, largely from politicians and the media (who have an incentive to undermine certain provisions regarding privacy rights). Howarth strongly asserted: "Human rights are basic; they are the rights that every state owes to every human, and we should leave that alone." He went on to say that extra rights can be written into the constitution (i.e. entrenched), but that this is separate from HUMAN rights. In the Q&A, Howarth stressed that David Cameron's statement that a burglar "leaves his human rights at the door" is particularly worrying because he said HUMAN rights. What does that mean?, he wondered. He went on to explain that there is a difference between balancing and conditionality and that the idea that bad people don't have them or have to earn them (the idea of "responsibility") is dangerous. HUMAN rights are universal and not contingent on our actions.

Jack Straw was last, outlining Labour's position. He began by saying that he was proud to be in attendance as a representative of the Labour Party, since this is the party that established the EHRC. He stressed that Labour is 100% committed to the Human Rights Act and that nothing they do will detract from the Act. He continued to praise the Human Rights Act, saying that after it came into force in 2000, there has been the longest sustained fall in crime since WWII. This is because of the higher standards of public officials, leading to fewer miscarriages of justice. Straw stated that it is "nonsense" that only those who are law abiding have rights; everyone has rights (here he agrees with Howarth; on other issues, he agreed more with Grieve). It was consequently a bit confusing when he went on to say that Labour wants a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities as an act of public education, to highlight the responsibilities we owe to each other. But I thought we weren't supposed to "earn" rights?

In the end, it remained unclear how much was empty rhetoric and how much was the true sentiments of any of the parties. Perhaps this was from a blurring of the line between HUMAN rights and other rights. Unfortunately, a question from Ceri Goddard, Chief Executive of the Fawcett Society, about the proposed changes' effects on women's human rights met with an insufficient response. Straw asserted that "we've done a lot," though not everything and Howarth said that there are various aspects where the UK has fallen short in the past. All of the answers regarding women's rights were vague and evasive, making it appear as though none of the MPs had a solid understanding of the issues facing women or other distinct groups; this was also evident from the answers to questions on child rights and minority rights.

If you're interested in hearing everything that was said during the debate, you can watch the video.

* All photos from the EHRC website.

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