Ben Ward: This insidious assault on the Human Rights Act

Would we be better off with a British Bill of Rights? No and no again

Share
Related Topics

The Labour government has every reason to be proud of the Human Rights Act. In 1997, Jack Straw, then Home Secretary, described the Act's passage through Parliament as "an historic day" for rights in Britain. Yet, last December, Straw, now Justice Secretary, declared in an interview that he was "frustrated" by the way that the courts had interpreted the Human Rights Act, encouraging a perception that it is "a villain's charter".

Called on by the Parliamentary Human Rights Committee last month to explain his comments, the Justice Secretary claimed that his intention had been to defend the Act, and that he was simply reflecting on criticisms of it made by others.

Nonetheless, rather than engaging in a public campaign to defend the Human Rights Act against these criticisms, the government has responded by proposing a new "British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities." Straw told the Committee that a long-delayed paper setting out the government's ideas will be published by Easter. The Conservative Party has long been calling for the Human Rights Act to be scrapped and replaced with a "homegrown British Bill of Rights." The popular press, playing on public fears about terrorism and crime, has managed to turn the Human Rights Act into an object of scorn and derision.

Could this chorus of disapproval have a point? Wouldn't we be better off with a British Bill of Rights instead? No and No.

Much of the criticism of the Human Rights Act is muddle-headed. The protections it contains reflect long-standing traditions on law in this country – such as the presumption of innocence, the rights to liberty, the right to a fair hearing and, yes, the prohibition of torture.

Let's be clear: a British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities would not and could not allow foreign drug traffickers or terrorism suspects to be sent home if it meant they would be tortured.

Sending people to another country to face torture was against the rules before the Act, and would still be against the rules if the Act was abolished. Getting rid of the Human Rights Act wouldn't change the UK's obligation to respect the European Convention on Human Rights. And even if a future government took the unthinkable step of withdrawing from that treaty, which would mean leaving the Council of Europe and almost certainly the EU, Britain would be still be bound by a series of UN treaties that prohibit returns to torture.

There is a further problem. Scrapping the Human Rights Act would send a terrible signal around the world that rights can be set aside when they prove too inconvenient or unpopular. Countries in the Commonwealth and beyond look to Britain to do the right thing. And they seize on British abuses under the law to justify their own abusive practices. An announcement that the UK is rolling back rights protection would be grist to the mill for abusive governments everywhere.

But what would be wrong with a new Bill of Rights and Responsibilities which included all the rights contained in the Act, and added responsibilities?

First, we need to clarify what we are talking about. If the Tories have in mind something like the US Bill of Rights, they need to do their homework. In the US, there is a Supreme Court that can strike down legislation that violates rights. In the UK, however, only Parliament has that power.

Given the frequent criticism of "unelected judges," it is hard to imagine a British Government of any stripe doing the same.

As for responsibilities, people living in the UK already have them. They are set out in the criminal law and a plethora of laws creating civil obligations. And human rights law already allows the state to restrict rights in the public interest, including the liberty of those who commit crimes. What is pernicious is the notion the government can decide that those who don't live up to their responsibilities don't deserve rights.

Rather than wasting time seeking elusive agreement on what should be in a new Bill of Rights, how it would work, and whether it would require broader constitutional reform, the Government would be better off working to ensure that authorities understand how properly to apply the Act, that the public understand the practical benefits that it has delivered, and know how to use it against excessive state power. In short, the Government needs to deliver on its promise to bring rights home.

The writer is Associate Director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: SAGE Bookkeeper & PA to Directors

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Executive

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An On-line Sales & Customer Ser...

Recruitment Genius: Accounts Assistant - Fixed Term Contract - 6 Months

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the largest hospitality companies...

Recruitment Genius: Electricians - Fixed Wire Testing

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As a result of significant cont...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Neo-Nazis march in London  

I'm taking my Jewish kids to a vile neo-Nazi rally in London this weekend because I want them to learn about free speech

Richard Ferrer
A police officer carries a casualty to safety  

Tunisia attack proves that we cannot stop terrorists carrying out operations against Britons in Muslim countries

Robert Verkaik
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

Something wicked?

Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
10 best sun creams for body

10 best sun creams for body

Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map