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.
Geoffrey Robertson asks whether new Home Secretary Theresa May (and indeed new Deputy PM Clegg) will see reason on Gary McKinnon’s behalf, following her party’s and the Lib Dems’ long opposition to his extradition:
The first acid test for Britain’s new government is not the economy, but whether it is capable of an act of simple humanity. Can Theresa May deliver on the repeated promise of Tory and Lib Dem leaders to end the torment inflicted by the state on Gary McKinnon, the hacker with Asperger’s syndrome, whom the Home Office wants to send to lengthy imprisonment and likely suicide in a US jail? His courtroom cruelty is scheduled to begin again on 24 May: the time has come to end it, once and for all.
So, over to May, then. Her main difficulty will be to override her Home Office advisers, who have for years fought an unremitting, expensive and merciless battle against this poor man and his indomitable mother. They will, perhaps, tell their minister that if she reverses the Smith-Johnson decision, the Americans might take her to court for judicial review. But this is unrealistic: the Obama administration is unlikely to challenge a decision of the new British government. And even if it does, it is unlikely to be successful. And even if that happens, parliament is sovereign and can sweep away any adverse court decision simply by passing the Gary McKinnon (Freedom from Extradition) Act (2010).
Of course the truth is even simpler than that. Alan Johnson admitted that he did have the power to stop McKinnon’s extradition – he was just loath to use it for fear of setting an unwelcome precedent. Theresa May has an enormous task on her hands, not just to prove to a sceptical public about her suitability to be Equalities Minister, but to prove that she’s less of a hostage to the (as Robertson puts it) ‘uncivil servants’ in her department than her immediate two (if not four) predecessors. If this coalition is to mean anything, if its civil liberties agenda is going to have any believability whatsoever then at the very least Gary McKinnon’s extradition should be halted. Given that what evidence there is wouldn’t stand up in court (and none is needed to extradite him to the US) no further action should probably be taken against him.