Tories push to scrap Human Rights Act

Click to follow

The Tories provoked a barrage of criticism yesterday after they signalled that the Human Rights Act would be scrapped or overhauled by a government led by Michael Howard.

The Tories provoked a barrage of criticism yesterday after they signalled that the Human Rights Act would be scrapped or overhauled by a government led by Michael Howard.

David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, warned that the Act was "seriously malfunctioning" and had encouraged a "compensation culture" with soaring numbers of spurious claims costing the taxpayer billions of pounds. He announced the establishment of a commission to draw up plans for a Tory government to "reform, replace or repeal" the legislation as a matter of urgency.

The legal establishment accused him of fuelling "hysteria" by peddling urban myths about the impact of the Act, which came into force four years ago.

The Conservatives claim the legislation, part of Labour's 1997 manifesto, has led to a doubling of compensation claims against schools and hospitals.

Mr Davis said the Act had had a "serious effect on the operation of the law".

It had enabled the serial killer Dennis Nilsen to receive pornography in jail under his "right to information" and travellers who set up camp in Cottenham, Cambridgeshire, to overturn an eviction notice.

Mr Davis said the legislation had also led to a 40 per cent increase in the number of prisoners with life sentences being granted parole in Scotland.

Members of the Tory commission will be announced in October, with the instruction to report back before the general election expected next spring. They will be told that leaving the Act unchanged is not an option.

The issues that the commission will be asked to examine include the "escalating volume" of rights claims against public bodies and the effect on the immigration system, which Mr Davis said had been to hamper the removal of failed asylum-seekers.

Mr Davis told a London press conference: "We need to correct a seriously malfunctioning Act of Parliament. It will not be easy. There will be legal questions to be addressed and it is important we do not create a new set of unintended consequences."

He said: "I am not opposed to human rights. Real human rights are worth fighting for. But the Human Rights Act has spawned too many spurious rights. It has fuelled a compensation culture out of all proportion. And all too often, it seems to give criminals more rights than the victims of crime. This has to stop."

Edward Nally, president of the Law Society, countered: "There have been far fewer claims under the Act than most commentators expected when it was introduced. But there is greater awareness among public authorities of the need to respect basic principles of human rights."

He said it was only right that people whose lives had been ruined by the negligence of others should be compensated.

Lord Filkin, a Constitutional Affairs minister, said accident claims under the Act fell last year by 9.5 per cent. "The Human Rights Act was passed in 1998 and received the support of all major political parties," he said. "It was based entirely on the European Convention on Human Rights, which the UK ratified in 1951.

"It did not contain new human rights, but allowed people in the UK to have their cases heard in UK courts instead of in the European Court of Human Rights, a far longer and more expensive process. The Act has not produced a deluge of cases."

Geoffrey Bindman, a human rights lawyer, argued that only a small number of cases had been brought to court under the Act. He said: "In fact, because of the reduction in the availability of legal aid by the present Government, it is extremely difficult for anybody to mount a human rights claim."

Mark Harvey, the secretary of the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, accused Mr Davis of fuelling unfounded fears about the Act. "That is the problem with the hysteria that people like Mr Davis are exacerbating," he told BBC Radio 4.

Mark Oaten, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said: "The increase in spurious compensation claims is bad news, but the Human Rights Act is not the cause. The Act contains principles which most of us agree are a good thing, like the right to life, to a fair trial, and to freedom of speech.

"The Government does not always respect those rights, and the law gives us a way of holding them to account."

IMPROVING LIVES: THE ACT IN OPERATION

THE RIGHT TO LIFE: LESLIE BURKE

Leslie Burke suffers from a degenerative brain condition, cerebellar ataxia. He went to court to challenge professional guidelines on sustaining life by artificial feeding and hydration, fearing that his wish to go on living until he died naturally could be overridden. He had argued the guidance would breach his right to life under the Human Rights Act.

Last month, Mr Burke won his case when judges ruled that there was "unanswerable force" in his argument that the General Medical Council guidance on withholding and withdrawing life-prolonging treatments emphasised the right of a competent patient to refuse treatment rather than to require it.

Mr Burke, a former postman from Lancaster, argued that when his condition progressed to the point where he could no longer eat or drink for himself and had lost the mental capacity to take decisions, doctors might decide that his quality of life was so poor that he should not be kept alive.

On winning his case, Mr Burke said: "I'm just so pleased it's gone in my favour. It just seems like a great weight lifted off my shoulders."

GAY RIGHTS: BARONESS HALE

In June, a same-sex couple secured the right to be treated as husband and wife in a landmark ruling for gays under the Human Rights Act. The case settled a long legal battle in which a landlord claimed a gay man could not inherit the tenancy rights of his partner after he died. In their judgment, four out of five law lords said a gay couple had the same legal rights as a married couple. Baroness Hale, in the lead judgment, said: "Homosexual relationships can have exactly the same qualities of intimacy, stability and inter-dependence that heterosexual relationships do."

FREEDOM OF SPEECH: LOUIS FARRAKHAN

Louis Farrakhan, leader of the militant black group the Nation of Islam, was banned from the UK in 1986. Douglas Hurd, Home Secretary at the time, issued an exclusion order on him because he described Jews as "bloodsuckers" and whites as "devils" with whom he advocated "settling the score". The ban was enforced by successive home secretaries but was challenged in the High Court by Mr Farrakhan, 69, who said his freedom of expression had been infringed. Two years ago, the House of Lords upheld the ban. Afterwards, he won a court fight to prove his exclusion from Britain breached his human rights. But the ruling was overturned at the Court of Appeal.

THE RIGHT TO PRIVACY: NAOMI CAMPBELL

Naomi Campbell won a ruling this year when the House of Lords upheld her right to "invasion of privacy" damages against the Daily Mirror over a story about her fight against drug addiction. In a 3-2 majority judgment which set new curbs on media coverage, the highest court in the land granted the model's appeal against a Court of Appeal judgment that overturned an award of £3,500 she won from the Mirror in the High Court two years ago. Ms Campbell's appeal was upheld on the grounds that although she was a celebrity, she retained a right to privacy and the Mirror had gone too far in detailing her treatment.

EMPLOYMENT RIGHTS: SVEN GORAN ERIKSSON

The England football team manager escaped censure by the Football Association over the conduct of his affair with the secretary Faria Alam after his lawyers argued that his employers had no right to ask him about his private life. Under Article 8 of the Human Rights Act, Mr Eriksson should never have been asked about his private life in the first place. The details of what Mr Eriksson said on 19 July to David Davies, the FA's executive director, when questioned about the affair were therefore irrelevant and could not be used against him at a disciplinary hearing.

Comments