Leading article: We need the Human Rights Act

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The case of the nine Afghans refugees who hijacked a passenger jet and forced it to fly to Britain has prompted a wave of attacks on the Human Rights Act. David Cameron, borne along by a wave of populist fury over the court decision to allow the men to stay in Britain, has pledged to reform or repeal the Act if he wins the next election. He may be beaten too it. Tony Blair this week called the Afghan decision an "abuse of common sense" and has instructed his new Home Secretary, John Reid, to appeal. There is ominous talk from Downing Street of "rebalancing" the system.

Yet the row over the Afghan hijackers is largely synthetic. The High Court decision this week was not about whether the men should be allowed to stay - that was taken three years ago - but to demand that the Government comply with the instruction to grant the men refugee status. A bigger test of the Human Rights Act will come when the Government's "torture memoranda" with foreign countries such as Algeria, Jordan and Lebanon come under scrutiny in the courts. Expect that row to be even more intense if the Government's plans are struck down.

In this hysterical climate, it is worth reminding ourselves why we need the Human Rights Act. It has been responsible for a range of rulings that have had a progressive effect on our society. It has given us "next of kin" status for gay partnerships and a public inquiry into the racist murder of Zahid Mubarek. It also stopped the state from holding foreigners in indefinite detention. These are victories for human rights that would not otherwise have been possible. Of course such cases generally go ignored by the right since they fail to fit the conspiracy theory that human rights are some sort of left-wing plot to subvert society.

It is especially disappointing to see Mr Cameron, who has been shifting away from such anachronistic company, criticising the Human Rights Act. His comments are a disturbing echo of the last Tory manifesto, an unloved document that he has rightly tried to disown since his election as leader.

Mr Cameron should beware. He may regard this latest criticism of the Human Rights Act as simply some red meat for the right wing of his party. But he should remember how badly crude populism served his party in the last election. Attacking human rights in this manner does not send the message that the Tory party has changed. Sadly, it does the very opposite.