Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has asked us to tell him what laws need repealing:
He’s a brave man, I’ll give him that. But the answers are there in front of his face. Let’s start with the case of Jules Mattson:
On Saturday 26 June, photojournalist Jules Mattsson, who is a minor and was documenting the Armed Forces Day parade in Romford, was questioned and detained by a police officer after taking a photo of young cadets.
According to Mattsson, who spoke to BJP this morning, after taking the photo he was told by a police officer that he would need parental permission for his image. The photographer answered that, legally, he didn’t. While he tried to leave the scene to continue shooting, a second officer allegedly grabbed his arm to question him further.
According an audio recording of the incident, the police officer argued, at first, that it was illegal to take photographs of children, before adding that it was illegal to take images of army members, and, finally, of police officers. When asked under what legislation powers he was being stopped, the police officer said that Mattsson presented a threat under anti-terrorism laws. The photographer was pushed down on stairs and detained until the end of the parade and after the intervention of three other photographers.
Now I know Jules. He’s a good kid and a superb, passionate photographer, and this is is just appalling. Want proof? He recorded it:
The debate about the Metropolitan (and City) Police’s abuse of Section 44 has been waged many times and the arguments have been made more times than I can be bothered to think. But it’s now, once and for all, conclusively been ruled in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights:
In January 2010 the European Court held that section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 (the broad police power to stop and search without suspicion) violates the right to respect for private life guaranteed by Article 8 of the Convention on Human Rights (Gillan and Quinton v. UK4158/05  ECHR 28 (12 January 2010)). The claimants received £500 each by way of compensation.
The European Court has now rejected the UK’s application to appeal to the court’s Grand Chamber, meaning that the decision is final. This leaves stop and search powers in further disarray. The Home Secretary has already announced an “urgent review” of the powers after the recent admission by the Home Office that thousands of individual searches had been conducted illegally.
It’s clear that Section 44 has to go, but the risk remains that Clegg uses this scheme either to get the country to vent about laws they don’t like, or simply to delete specific laws without confronting the trends and behaviours which led to them in the first place. The cops who attacked Jules Mattson didn’t just cite Section 44 to try to stop him taking perfectly lawful photos – they made all sorts of garbage up in order to intimidate him into not taking photos. There is an institutional prejudice within the ranks against photographers, which was channelled by Section 44, and which would be much harder to root out and stop. New Labour made it abundantly clear they didn’t care one iota about the Met’s excesses. Time will tell if Theresa May cares any more, and this is what I want Nick Clegg to understand and tackle, more than anything.
There’s a fight under way behind the scenes between the ConDemNation coalition partners over the Human Rights Act. The Tories have long wanted to supplant the Human Rights Act (HRA) with a British Bill of Rights, on the one hand not trying to extract the country from the European Convention on Human Rights, but also trying to, as Helena Kennedy puts it:
“protect our freedoms from state encroachment” on the one hand and “encourage greater social responsibility” on the other.
She then goes on to add:
No explanation is given as to how to achieve these triangulated aims without weakening the protections we now have in the HRA.
It’s also not quite clear what those aims actually mean in practice. The language is quite reminiscent of New Labour’s similar idea of a British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, although when discussed at the Convention on Modern Liberty early last year the idea was kicked thoroughly into touch for failing to identify what additional responsibilities should be codified other than to obey existing criminal law. Both parties have in recent years tried very hard to conflate civil rights with human rights, and have notably attacked the latter when rulings under the HRA haven’t been to their political benefit. But that’s not a sufficient reason to replace the Act, quite the opposite in fact, particularly, as Richard Norton-Taylor acknowledges:
All the Human Rights Act, brought in by the Blair government, really did was incorporate the convention into UK domestic law, avoiding long and expensive delays in disputed European court cases.
And as of an interview in the Times yesterday morning the Deputy Prime Minister wasn’t having any watering down of the HRA or any suggestion of its repeal. Clegg said:
“Any government would tamper with it at its peril.”
In response, Theresa May, the new and already illiberal Home Secretary has seemed to back down:
May was asked about the manifesto promise in an interview on BBC Radio 4′s Today programme, she downplayed the significance of this pledge. “We did say that we thought the Human Rights Act was not working in certain areas,” she said.
She went on: “We are currently in discussions with our coalition partners about what we will be doing in this area.”
‘Discussions with our coalition partners’? We can only hope they went along the lines of ’you tamper with it at your peril’, but there are pressures for both sides to do just that. The HateMail has unsurprisingly gone on the offensive:
A flagship Tory pledge to tear up the Human Rights Act has been watered down in the coalition pact with the Liberal Democrats.
In opposition, the Conservatives repeatedly promised to replace Labour’s controversial legislation with a Bill of Rights.
But Government sources said last night that an independent commission would now be established to examine the ‘feasibility’ of the move.
‘Are we going to replace the Human Rights Act with a Bill of Rights? Very possibly,’ said one. ‘But the commission is going to look into all that.’
A commission? Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty, has said:
“A coalition that has attempted to tie itself together with the language of civil liberties cannot now renege on fundamental human rights.
Given the way in which Liberal Democrats all the way up to the Deputy Prime Minister vowed to defend our Human Rights Act, any attempt to dilute it would spell the end of this Coalition – and rightly so.
Governments like people are bound together with common values not vested interests. There is nothing more British than the free speech, fair trials, personal privacy and rule against torture protected by the HRA.”
Yet the final coalition agreement accepts this commission. We have to hope that its findings aren’t against retaining the HRA – both for our sakes, and for the Deputy Prime Minister’s political future. Helena Kennedy concludes:
it may be very tempting for the Liberal Democrats to carve out victories on some areas of reform by making concessions elsewhere. This is why we have to make it clear that the terrain of human rights must not be the ground on which any further deals are done. Human rights have to be non-negotiables in this new political landscape.
And Clive Baldwin warns:
Experience shows that a taste for human rights acquired in opposition can soon wear off in government. Once comfortable behind their desks, new ministers tend soon to find the very repressive and authoritarian measures they decried in opposition rather congenial and useful once they sit in government. Let’s hope that the novelty of coalition government can buck that trend.
I couldn’t agree more. It would be alarming if the new Prime Minister actually negotiated effective repeal of the HRA and achieved his ambition of curbing the power of the judiciary:
And it’s why we will abolish the Human Rights Act and introduce a new Bill of Rights, so that Britain’s laws can no longer be decided by unaccountable judges.
It’s a second gripe about the HRA, it isn’t related to the first, and is a common refrain from the Right – ‘unaccountable’ or ‘activist’ judges must be stopped from interpreting codified, semi- or actual constitutional laws, because it interferes with the legislators’ political agendas. But to suggest the Act is at fault because judges have been free to interpret the European Convention on Human Rights from a British perspective makes no sense other than a political one – the judges and the Act get in the way, and the Tories would prefer they themselves had control over human rights law in the UK. Except the UK would still be covered by the convention.
The immediate effect would be to effectively deny access to the European Court for those who really need it because they simply wouldn’t be able to afford it – it’s dog whistle politics, Tories agreeing amongst themselves that some people deserve access to human rights, and not others. But Helena Kennedy is right – human rights are human rights – they are (and must be kept) universal. A replacement, which the final Coalition Agreement hints at, would water down the principle of universality and endanger those most in need of human rights protection. Clegg surely understands that, and given the rumours that all other disagreements in the coalition are being referred to similar ‘commissions’, it does look as though this battle will remain at stalemate. Any other outcome would surely smash the coalition into smithereens.
It sure looks so. Clarke has never been supportive of repeal, and now the Tories have the Lib Dems as coalition partners it appears the new government is unlikely to make moves against the HRA any time soon:
The Tories had promised to replace the act, which many believe protects criminals more than innocent people, with a UK Bill of Rights.
But Mr Clarke, who was appointed to head the Ministry of Justice on Wednesday, suggested it was not high on the list of actions while the pledge was notable by its absence in the coalition agreement published this week.
In 2006, Mr Clarke attacked David Cameron over his “anti-foreigner” proposals to tear up the Human Rights Act, which was introduced by Labour, and said a Bill of Rights was “xenophobic and legal nonsense”.
And shortly after taking up his new Cabinet post, Mr Clarke said: “We are not committed to leaving the European Convention on Human Rights, we have committed ourselves to a British Human Rights Act.
“We are still signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights.
“I have also got to see when the coalition agreement is completed how high a priority this is going to be given.”
It looks like a signal that the Tories’ intent to repeal the Act has been kicked into the long grass. If so it would represent an enormous success of the ConDemNation coalition. The main benefit of the Human Rights Act has been to make the European Convention on Human Rights more accessible to those who need it the most, and whilst I’ve always understood the Tories have never intended to leave the Convention, I believe the British Act to be indispensable. Explicitly proscribing the universality of human rights, not limiting them on nationalistic or any other grounds, and making access to the provisions of the Convention easier by incorporating them into British law was one of the greatest achievements of the New Labour government. If the Tories think they can’t get a repeal past the Liberal Democrats (or indeed the Justice Secretary), that’s something we should all be grateful for.
Ken Clarke is now the Justice Secretary, a role which had been expected to steer the repeal of the Human Rights Act if David Cameron became PM. But take a look at Clarke’s views on that idea, as recently as 2006:
Mr Clarke, a former home secretary and failed Tory leadership contender, has become the latest critic of the proposal.
He said he was not saying Mr Cameron hated foreigners.
Mr Clarke told BBC 2′s Daily Politics programme the European convention had itself been drawn up by a British lawyer.
The Tory leader is appointing a group of lawyers and experts to work out what should be in the new British Bill of Rights.
But Mr Clarke said: “He’s gone out there to try and find some lawyers who agree with him, which I think will be a struggle myself.”
The Human Rights Act has come under fire in some newspapers, who believe it has put the rights of criminals above those of victims of crime.
But Mr Clarke said: “In these home affairs things I think occasionally it’s the duty of politicians on both sides to turn round to the tabloids and right-wing newspapers and say ‘you have your facts wrong and you’re whipping up facts which are inaccurate’.”
Is Clarke going to completely undermine himself or does his appointment signal Cameron accepts he won’t be able to repeal the Human Rights Act with the Liberal Democrats as coalition partners?
Some people say there’s no reason to worry about the Tories and their threat to repeal the Human Rights Act. After all they aren’t considering pulling out of the European Convention on Human Rights (which would be a grave development indeed), so surely it’s just a reformulation of rights and responsibilities, the likes of which Jack Straw is already considering? It seems their threat is downright dangerous:
Here’s what he told the Politics Show:
The moment a burglar steps over your threshold, and invades your property, with all the threat that gives to you, your family and your livelihood, I think they leave their human rights outside.
Shadow home secretary Chris Grayling has previously denied that a Tory government would provide householders with a “licence to kill” but Cameron’s words appear to promise just that.
The principled case against this position is that it would, in theory, allow householders to murder and torture burglars and thus endorse mob rule. The pragmatic case against it is that it could actually increase the danger to the public. As Jenni Russell recently argued in the Sunday Times, burglars who are aware that any break-in could result in their death are far more likely to come armed with guns or knives and be prepared to use them first.
It is simply dishonest for large sections of the right to continue to claim that the existing law does not provide individuals with a decent right to self-defence. It recognises that householders may, in extremis, use what appears to be excessive force. More sensible application of the current law (Munir Hussain should have received a suspended sentence), rather than a dangerous new law is needed.
In declaring that burglars “leave their human rights outside” Cameron, a supposedly “liberal conservative”, has adopted the language of the demagogue and the populist. He should retract his comments immediately.
He should indeed. The whole point about human rights is that they are universally applicable to all people at all times, under all circumstances. It’s an ominous sign that the likely next PM doesn’t just not believe in the rule of law, but doesn’t even comprehend human rights. Articles 1-3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reinforce their universal applicability, and it makes you wonder what Cameron wants to replace the Human Rights Act with. A Prime Minister who wilfully conflates rights under domestic criminal law with universal human rights would be a dangerous man indeed.
The European Court of Human Rights may have ruled it illegal to hold DNA profiles of innocent people on the national database, but that hasn’t stopped the Home Office:
More than 90,000 innocent people have been added to the national DNA database since a landmark human rights ruling that keeping indefinitely the profiles of unconvicted suspects was illegal, according to new figures.
The disclosure comes as the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is pressing the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) to withdraw guidance to chief constables to carry on collecting DNA profiles of innocent people. It says it will take enforcement action if the chief constables fail to act.
Liberal Democrat research, based on parliamentary answers, shows that 433, 752 profiles have been added to the DNA database since the ruling by the European court of human rights in Strasbourg on 5 December last year – the equivalent of 1,480 a day.
It’s unthinkable that ACPO – a for-profit advisory body should have the power to be able to instruct chief constables to defy the court’s ruling, and heartening that the EHRC has decided to do something about it:
The EHRC has given ACPO 28 days to confirm that the advice to chief constables will be withdrawn and replaced by advice that complies with the law. If ACPO fails to do this, the commission will consider taking formal enforcement action.
The Home Office repeatedly insists on the importance of the database, yet over the last year the number of detections as a result of matches to it fell, whilst its cost doubled to £4.2 million. It pointedly doesn’t comment on why, under those circumstances, there is a need to breach human rights law by continuing to store profiles of innocent people.
Peter Oborne argues Cameron’s Tories, instead of repealing New Labour’s signature piece of legislation, should embrace it because it fits in with their traditions and ethos:
The rights set out in the act are taken directly from the European convention on human rights, which was signed by the UK in 1951. They were inspired by a Conservative politician, Sir Winston Churchill, and drafted under the guidance of another one, David Maxwell-Fyfe (later Lord Chancellor Kilmuir) in the face of considerable opposition from the Attlee government. The act should thus be regarded as the creation not of New Labour, but of the Conservative party.
Moreover, Conservative critics are wrong to say that the rights of the act are in general socioeconomic entitlements. In fact, they are absolutely fundamental to the British common law tradition. They include the right to life; the prohibition of torture, first enacted by the Long Parliament in 1640; rights to liberty and security of person; the right to a fair trial, which dates back to Magna Carta; the right to respect for private and family life; rights to freedom of expression and religion; and the right to freedom of association. These rights are not radical: they are deeply Conservative.
And finally, the act itself operates in a peculiarly Conservative way. It confers no new right that has not already been long recognised in common law, or to which parliament has not already long committed the UK. Its rights are not inviolable, but can be set aside at will. Where there is an inconsistency of law, it leaves it to parliament to decide how to resolve that inconsistency, and only if it chooses. A more Conservative approach could hardly be conceived.
Jack Straw may have tacked rightwards since the 1998 Act, but the fact remains that the European Convention on Human Rights is enshrined in British law. Repealing it wouldn’t end the ECHR, nor would it end Britain’s human rights obligations under the Convention, but it would mean countless people once again being unable to afford to access their rights. There is no need to repeal the act; the only point of creating a British-only document to replace it would be to restrict human rights on nationalistic grounds. We should all be terrified of the prospect.
Deputy Judge David Elvin QC has quashed Justice Secretary Jack Straw’s ruling that pre-op male-to-female transsexual prisoner ‘A’ should be kept in a male prison. Straw’s ruling had come despite ‘A”s having been recognised as a woman ‘for all purposes’ three years ago under the Gender Recognition Act 2004. In disagreeing with Straw, the judge said:
“It follows that, so long as the claimant remains within the male prison estate, she is unable to progress towards the surgery which is her objective.”
This “interferes with her personal autonomy in a manner which goes beyond that which imprisonment is intended to do”, he said.
“I declare her continued detention in a male prison is in breach of her rights under Article 8 (right to private and family life) under the European Convention on Human Rights.”
Disgracefully the Prison Service said it was ‘disappointed’ at the ruling. Clearly a disregard for human rights has now crept from the Home Office and its agencies to the Ministry of Justice. But it’s an impressive demonstration that human rights must apply to (and be accessible by) all.