9th May 2016
My Rights Are Okay It’s Yours I Cannot Abide
–By Keith Nieland-
There is a lot going on in the world of politics at the moment. We have just had the gripping excitement of the Police and Crime Commissioner elections plus Assembly and local elections and, of course, the big EU referendum coming up in June. In addition the Government is mired in a dispute with the BMA over junior doctors’ contracts and we have the continuing saga over the future of the steel industry. To cap the Government’s travails it looks like Cabinet members will no longer be able to buy their lighting and towels in BHS or clothes in Austin Reed, come to that.
With plenty to distract us it is easy to forget some of the actions Team Cameron believe they have a mandate for following their general election victory nearly a year ago.
While the Government has plenty of opportunity to point the other way we should not forget it still has a determination to repeal the Human Rights Act. Like the 7 day a week NHS the Government will bulldoze their way forward using the election mandate as justification. Now, I doubt few people voted Tory last May because their top priority was repealing the Act, but that will not stop ministers.
Recently the Home Secretary gave a speech which was supposed to demonstrate her loyalty to the Remain campaign but cynically conflated EU membership with the European Convention on Human Rights and our Human Rights Act. It was her bid to succeed Cameron and was a political ploy to appeal to Remainers and even Leavers, post the referendum.
Team Corbyn is keen to talk about taking to the streets and standing shoulder to shoulder on the picket line. But if there is one piece of legislation that is worth parading down Whitehall to defend it is the Human Rights Act. This Act was possibly the most important and far reaching legislation of the Blair governments. It put in statute a set of rights for all citizens to enjoy which the Government could not remove.
Tragically the Act is only talked about by Ministers in the context of court cases involving a handful of dodgy Middle East characters who may or may not have been involved in terrorist activities. Linking our rights to alleged terrorists is something which should really make Cameron feel physically sick. If anybody out there is of the view we should get rid of the Act because it might give rights to those in prison then I invite you to read on.
John Major was proud of going back to basics and that is what we should do with the Human Rights Act by reminding ourselves why we have an International and European Declaration and a domestic Act of Parliament.
Talking human rights heads sometimes like to link the development of human rights back to the Magna Carta conveniently forgetting King John signed the document and then wilfully ignored it! The reality is we have to look back to the end of the Second World War for the true roots of today’s legislation. The human rights movement was being championed by countries and individuals who were determined we should never again see the mass imprisonment, torture and murder of innocent citizens simply because of their religion, ethnic group and the colour of their skin – actions which had dominated the first part of the last century. We should be reminded that if you were an intellectual, socialist, communist, trade union leader, mentally disabled, Jewish, gypsy etc you had no place in Hitler’s Germany. You often found your way to a concentration camp where millions were quite simply murdered.
Hitler was not alone. Stalin and other leaders were quick to make disappear citizens they thought an impediment to their plans.
Countries and individuals of good will had a plan and the UK was a leading player. The plan was to give all citizens a set of rights, protected in law, which no Government could remove from its people. Now, sometimes these rights are an irritant to governments – so should they be!
So what are these rights which Cameron thinks are so dangerous that they should be removed from us? Well here goes: a right to life; right not to be tortured; right not to be enslaved or entered into forced labour; right to liberty and security; right to a fair trial; right not to be punished outside the law; right for respect for private and family life; right of freedom of thought, conscience and religion, right of freedom of expression; right of freedom of assembly and association; right to marry and finally a right not to be discriminated against.
Which of those rights would you like to remove from your nearest and dearest, your next door neighbour, friends and of course yourself? When I put that to naysayers they usually respond they want to keep all those rights but wish to withdraw them from certain individuals.
That is the nub. We are all happy with the rights but we just do not like some of the people to which they apply. This was echoed by a Minister in the House of Commons a few weeks ago when he suggested the problem was the way the rights were interpreted. What politicians want to do is to redraft the rights in their interests and give themselves the power of interpretation. Now, I do not know about you but when it comes to deciding whether my human rights had been abused or not I would rather a judge in a court of law did that and not Teresa May.
Dismantling the Human Rights Act on the grounds that judges have made decisions in a handful of cases about alleged terrorists is in reality a Trojan horse for removing the rights of all citizens. I doubt Team Cameron like their decisions being challenged in the Courts on human rights grounds. It has happened several times and the Government is far from assured of winning on every occasion.
There would have been no Hillsborough Inquest without the Human Rights Act and thousands of mentally disabled people would be held in hospitals and homes without right of appeal if it had not been for the Act. It was the Act that gave the right to married couples to share the same room in a care home. There are many, many examples of the Act improving the rights of ordinary people and disadvantaged groups. Getting rid of the Act removes their rights and potentially the rights of us all.
Do we want to live in a society where police officers can stop anyone in the street on a whim and ask them where they are going and why? Where you have no automatic right to demonstrate against government decisions you dislike? Where the government could read your mail; a local authority can decide whether you can live in your own home or not; where you are not allowed to use local recreational facilities on the grounds you are disabled? And where doctors do not have a legal duty to act in your best interests if you are in hospital and unable speak up for yourself?
These and other rights we take for granted are at risk if the Human Rights Act is abolished.
If the intention is to give back the rights in a new Bill of Rights, what is the purpose of abolishing the Act in the first place other than to take away from judges the duty to say whether our rights have been breached or not? I would rather keep all the rights the Act recognises and maintain the interpretation role of judges if the alternative is politicians doing the interpreting.
The rights of all of us should not be undermined simple because a small minority of people we choose not to like use the Act. Sixty million people should not have their rights diminished in exchange for withdrawing rights from prisoners who lose many of their rights anyway once they are locked up.
Our focus should be on protecting and enhancing the rights of all our citizens. Their rights were hard fought for and once lost will not return in a hurry. Without a Human Rights Act we would join a small group of countries headed up by North Korea and Iran.
The UK has a long-standing international reputation on protecting human rights. Getting rid of our Act could act as a green light for some less desirable regimes to do likewise.
There is no convincing case for abolishing the Human Rights Act. We should strongly resist the Government’s plans to dismantle those rights and reassemble them in its interests rather than in the interests of our citizens.
This should be the major political battleground for this Parliament.
Twitter – KeithNieland