The Human Rights Act has unleashed a culture of grievance

Article for the Sunday Telegraph

Today marks the 10th anniversary of the Human Rights Act - legislation that was meant to embody the values that our servicemen, who we honour today, have fought and died to defend.  Yet Labour's flagship law has been a poor advertisement for rights.

In 1997, one of the Act's architects, Lord Irvine, promised that "a culture of awareness of rights will develop."  What has actually been unleashed is a culture of grievance.  The legislation has been a gift to lawyers, an encouragement to undeserving litigants and a burden on frontline public servants who struggle to decide what the law is in practice.  There are now over a thousand human rights lawyers practising in the UK, many funded by taxpayers through legal aid.  A new textbook on human rights is published in Britain every week.  The new Commission for Equality and Human Rights has said that it will opine on every law which it may not like.

Even the Government has admitted that the Act has created problems; in the words of former Home Secretary John Reid, "we are fighting with one arm tied behind our backs."  For example, the Royal Navy has been warned that Somalian pirates intercepted on the high seas must not be detained because they could deploy the Act to claim asylum in the UK rather than being returned to their country.  Failing to tackle piracy does not promote human rights - it permits the most serious abuses.  Only last week, a migrant whose dangerous driving killed an Oxford University student escaped deportation to Pakistan on the grounds that this would infringe the right to family life, even though he was resident in Britain illegally.

It is claimed that the Act has helped to challenge unjust decisions by public bodies, such as the case of the elderly siblings who successfully overturned a council decision to house them apart in separate care homes.  Yet it would surely be better to rely on democracy, rather than the courts, to make elected authorities behave properly.  Leaving such decisions to judges places them in the political arena and so undermines their independence.  When the courts insist that the Ministry of Defence equips our soldiers properly, the temptation is to cheer.  But governments are elected to shoulder such responsibility.  Extending the ambit of human rights law to the theatre of military conflict is deeply problematic.  The next decision of the courts might not be so palatable.

Real human rights are precious, and breaching them should be a serious violation not a trivial complaint.  After the War, when Holocaust survivors were staggering out of Belsen, human rights meant something different to the architects of the European Convention from which the Human Rights Act derives.  The language describing serious rights abuses in the world today - in China, Georgia or Zimbabwe - is devalued when a British prisoner claims infringement because of a blocked lavatory in his cell.

The Government's response reveals them to be trapped by their own ideology and out of touch with public concern.  Far from arresting this rights contagion, the Government's proposals look set to make it worse.  Jack Straw now plans a new Bill of Rights as an additional tier of rights on top of the Human Rights Act, not to mention the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights - piling rights upon rights.  New "socio-economic" rights - such as an entitlement to healthcare - would either be meaningless because they could not be justiciable, or they would trigger a new tidal wave of litigation.

The preamble to this legal dog's breakfast is to be a ‘Statement of Values', dreamt up by a contrived public engagement exercise involving, so far at least, a series of poorly-attended focus groups and a film competition.  Labour's latest paradise for lawyers might almost be calculated to alienate the public still further from the concept of human rights.  It is hardly surprising that this ill-attuned proposal is under heavy fire from within the Cabinet - indeed, in spite of being promised by Gordon Brown in his first statement to Parliament as Prime Minister, the idea may never see the light of day.

We need a new approach which balances rights with responsibilities in a framework which will command public support.  So instead of adding to the Human Rights Act, we will replace it with a new British Bill of Rights which puts rights in context, makes clear Parliament's intention, and constrains the influence of Strasbourg case law.  This home-grown solution must protect liberties in this country, respect Britain's legal inheritance, and help restore the place of Parliament.

Conservatives should have no fear of Labour's absurd claim that to oppose their human rights laws is to oppose the very notion of human rights.  This logical non-sequitur comes from the Government which has eroded jury trial and attempted to extend the period of detention without charge to 90 days.  Their Human Rights Act has not succeeded in defending our centuries-old liberties.  It was Parliament that halted the further extension of pre-charge detention, not the Act.

The difference between Labour and the Conservatives is clear.  They talk about rights.  We talk about responsibility.  There's not much doubt where the sympathies of the British people will lie.


Document type

Articles

Published

9 November 2008

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