Liberty, equality, and even dignity

Labour is beginning to redefine the relationship of the state to the individual, says Andrew Puddephatt
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The Independent Online
Last week in the Locarno Room at the Foreign Office Robin Cook announced that "spreading the values of human rights" will form the cornerstone of Britain's foreign policy. Three days later the Government acknowledged that we couldn't lecture other countries about standards of behaviour we were not prepared to comply with ourselves. The Queen's Speech promised a Bill to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into British law.

For the first time, our rights will be protected in British law. Something of fundamental importance has happened: the outline of a new public morality is starting to take shape, a domestic ethic that expects certain values of human dignity to be respected. What is good for others is, in future, to be good for us.

Not that the European Convention is a radical document. One of several human rights treaties that Britain has signed up to, it was written by British civil servants at the end of the Second World War to distil the common-law freedoms we thought it necessary to "bestow" upon war-ravaged Europe. It is full of exemptions. Those rights that are protected do not deal fully with such issues as race, gender, sexuality, disability and child protection - now at the heart of modern human rights concerns.

But it has affected our lives. Many cases, which till now have had to be taken to the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg, an expensive and time-consuming process, have led to changes in the law.

They include the laws that legalised homosexuality in Northern Ireland and stopped corporal punishment in state-funded schools. Restrictions on publishing were overturned in both the Spycatcher case and the Sunday Times's thalidomide investigation. Parents have been given access to files on their families, and to court reviews of decisions on care orders, changing child-care law. Scottish prison procedure has been amended to give prisoners proper access to legal advice. Workers who don't want to join a union have been given protection from dismissal. We can expect many more such changes when cases can be taken relatively cheaply and easily through British courts.

At a fringe meeting at last year's Labour Party conference, Jack Straw, then shadow Home Secretary, joked that even his cufflinks provided balance - the one on the right was marked "law and order" and the one on the left was marked "Bill of Rights". This is not just a rhetorical flourish: both are important to New Labour. Straw's approach to crime has outraged civil libertarians, but he does accurately reflect his party's belief that a debate about responsibilities must include a discussion of rights. This is an important step for British democracy - and for us all.

Historically, the Labour movement opposed legally protected rights. Last time Labour was in government, calls for incorporation of the convention came from leading Tories, with opposition from Labour ministers and peers. Distrust of the judiciary and a fear that an individualist rights culture would undermine "collective" rights lay behind that opposition.

Ask people to name a rights culture, and their reply is likely to be the United States, with 10 per cent of the world's population and 70 per cent of the world's lawyers, litigation crazy and in thrall to a Supreme Court for decisions that Europeans would regard as highly political.

This Labour government has chosen a different path. A joint select committee drawn from both Houses of Parliament will scrutinise new legislation to see if it complies with the convention. If it doesn't, the committee will be able to seek amendments that reflect its concerns. The Asylum and Immigration Bill, for example, which gave such sweeping powers to the then Home Secretary, Michael Howard, would have fallen foul of this committee. So would the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act (1994), which removed the right to silence in criminal trials, as well as eroding the right to public protest.

The existence of such a committee does remove one traditional objection to a Bill of Rights: that such a Bill usurps the powers of parliament. By giving MPs - not judges - the first responsibility for monitoring legislation to check that it complies with the convention, human rights values are placed at the heart of our democracy. The proposal also creates a new role for backbench MPs, giving them a say in how legislation is framed. There are certainly enough new MPs with experience in various aspects of human rights to give the Government a testing time.

Another radical suggestion is the creation of a Human Rights Commission with an important educational role in promoting human rights. Vital to its work will be advising people how to pursue their rights, educating the public and providing specialist training to public servants - such as police officers. As a centre of expertise, it will be able to advise the parliamentary committee, doing so in public to promote a rights debate and ensuring that the committee isn't nobbled by the government machine. And it could start work on a British Bill of Rights, to fill in the holes left by the European Convention, consulting widely the public and interest groups.

The existence of such a commission could have a profound impact on the way we deal with questions of race and gender. These, over the past 30 years, have been placed in discrete boxes marked "racial equality" and "equal opportunities". Racism has been seen as a "black" issue rather than a "white" problem; sex discrimination as something for women to fight, not something demanding change from men. If issues of race and gender (as well as sexuality, disability and other forms of discrimination) are seen as human rights problems they become the concern of us all. Recognition of our own rights must involve recognition of the rights of others. This is the source of our responsibilities to each other. Equality is no longer a minority concern but central to an ethical debate about the values that guide society.

The most significant aspect of this proposal - the "Blair element" - is the dispersal of sovereignty implied by incorporating the convention into British law. In week two Labour has recognised that the courts have an enhanced role in protecting individual rights, just as Parliament has an enhanced role in monitoring government. This sense of shared sovereignty is genuinely new in Britain and sets a standard for future, more difficult debates on issues such as Europe. Tony Blair has said that he intends to redefine the role of the state and its relation to the individual. Incorporation of the European Convention begins that redefinition.

The writer is director of Charter 88.