Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

How to save the Human Rights Act

In 1215 King John met a group of his barons by an ancient yew tree, a meeting place since Anglo-Saxon times. There he signed a document that outlawed absolute monarchy. Ancient freedoms that dated back to the fall of the Roman Empire had been violated by the king and so the barons demanded these rights were now preserved in writing. The Magna Carter, signed at Runnymede, was the first human rights act.

 Eight hundred years later I am in London for the 70th Anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe, watching some very old soldiers parading proudly in the sunshine. These men, and women, had grown up in the aftermath of the Great Depression in a country where no job meant no home and no healthcare. They then fought Nazi tyranny and celebrated victory by creating the Welfare State and giving liberty to the people of the greatest empire the world has ever seen.

Meanwhile Britain's new government is to celebrate these historical events by abolishing the 1998 Human Rights Act. This is seen as quick and popular move by the Prime Minister, a sop to our billionaire owned right-wing press that is already celebrating that "Human Rights Madness" is over.

The Act requires British courts to "take into account" judgements of the Human Court of Human Rights. It does not bind us to the court's decisions, but nor does abolishing it completely free us; the only way we could do that would be to leave the Council of Europe.

The Act is to be replaced with a 'British bill of rights'. These have not been published, mainly because they don't exist. The committee that was to draw them up broke up three years ago when it couldn't agree. Anyone who believes this as yet unfinished bill will give us the same rights has more faith than I have in a Prime Minister who is willing to say without irony:
"For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone."
The European Convention on Human Rights, which underpins the Human Rights Act, was draw up in 1950 by a continent recovering from the ravages of total war and the brutality of the Nazi regime. Deriving from the UN Declaration of Human Rights passed two years early it aimed to make 'never again' really mean never again.

However whilst the Act remains a backstop against totalitarianism, it's main beneficiaries have been people in society who are usually forgotten, even by Human Rights champions.

Thanks to the Act council's can no longer require women fleeing domestic violence be separated from their families, the army can't sack you for being gay and victims of human trafficking are treated as people and not just contraband cargo.

Personally I have been affected in two ways. After I was found not guilty of Criminal Damage to six acres of Genetically Modified maize the Human Rights Act meant the police had to destroy the DNA sample they'd taken off me. Meanwhile at work, if I decide a person with dementia isn't safe to live in the community an independent person checks my decision.

If we do not take act these rights will go. Now is the time to fight.

Governments can make very bad decisions when trying to please the tabloid pack, witness the Dangerous Dogs Act. Once they get going they can also stick with even worse decisions rather than look weak, such as the Poll Tax.

The best way to save the Human Rights Act is to convince the government as quickly as possible that this will not be the quick victory they hope, but a long and difficult campaign. We have four lines of defence; the Scots, the Irish, the Lords and the backbenches.

1. Scotland

The Human Rights Act was incorporated into Scottish law when the devolved parliament was set up in Edinburgh. It is far from clear if Westminster has the authority to change this without the consent of the Scots, which is most definitely not going to be given.

In the complicated language of devolution this covered by the Sewel Convention, and legal experts are divided on the issue. Scotland has just returned a record number of Nationalist MPs to Westminster, where they have no power whatsoever. Furthermore instead of the second vote on independence they want, they are about to get a referendum on leaving the European Union, which they don't want. 

Abolishing the HRA north of the border could cause a massive legal battle and political revolt, neither of which a government elected primarily by the south of England will really want.

2. Northern Ireland

Across the Irish Sea are similar problems. The HRA is part of the Good Friday Agreement which brought to an end nearly 30 years of The Troubles. Replacing it would require cross party agreement from Nationalists and Unionists in a parliament where arguments about innocuous things such as flags can quickly escalate into international incidents.

Furthermore The Province has good reason to be grateful to the European Commission on Human Rights. In 1976 the court ruled that the use by the British Army of hooding, wall-standing, sleep deprivation, starvation and subjection to noise, known as the 'Five techniques', amounted to torture. Greece under the Colonels was the only other EU country to have been found to have tortured it's own citizens.

The Irish, of whatever colour, are unlikely to want to rewrite the agreement that brought them peace or to lose rights that within my lifetime have stopped torture.

3.The Lords

The Conservatives now have a majority in the House of Commons, but as they are no longer in
coalition with the Liberal Democrats no longer have one in the House of Lords.

Principles dating back over a hundred years mean that the Lords can't oppose manifesto commitments, but they can delay them for up to two years. What's more the Lords take their responsibilities as guardians our mostly unwritten constitution seriously.

The Lords can prevent this being a quick win for the government, will expose the proposals to expert scrutiny and demand the Prime Minister expend valuable Commons time if he wishes to get them through.

4. The Backbenchers

The government majority in the Commons is only twelve. The non-appearance of Sein Fein at Westminster and Ulster Unionist support makes this a little more in practise, but it's still not much.

The Conservative Party seems to care more for the rights of corporations than individuals, but there are backbenchers who still value individual liberty, and even some who like European institutions like the Commission on Human Rights. One such in Kenneth Clarke who has said:
"I personally think it is unthinkable to leave the European convention on human rights. It was drafted by British lawyers after the second world war to protect the values we fought the war for."
Ex-Chancellor and Home Secretary Clarke, the model for the smoking Minister of Health in Yes Prime Minister, has no future in this Eurosceptic Cabinet so can basically say what he wants.

That it has come to relying on a man whose day job is selling cigarettes to Vietnamese kids to defend our human rights says a lot about the parlous state of UK politics, but unless we plan on giving up on being human, now is the time to fight with whatever weapons we have.

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