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

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

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Yvette Cooper campaigning in London at the launch of Labour’s women’s manifesto  

I want the Labour Party to lead a revolution in family support

Yvette Cooper
Liz Kendall  

Labour leadership contest: 'Moderniser' is just a vague and overused label

Steve Richards
Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine