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Who Needs A Human Rights Act, Anyway?

Conservative Justice Minister, Chris Grayling (centre in picture), is quoted in the Sunday Telegraph newspaper today (March 3rd, 2013) as saying that a future Conservative government will scrap the Human Rights Act. This is intended to cheer up the Tory right after a series of “set-backs” that included the party being pushed into third place in the Eastleigh by-election by Nigel Farage’s rightwing, anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party. I decline to comment on the under-reported fact that Mr Grayling is the first Lord Chancellor since 1558 to have no legal training.

Abolishing the Human Rights Act has been a constant theme from the Conservative Right since legislation was proposed by the Labour government in 1998. At the centre of the opposition is the assertion that the Act is the implementation in UK law of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Right’s opposition to the legislation seems to stem from the way the act gives rights to people it does not approve of  – including gypsies, terrorists, criminals and the poor – and asserts that they are actually human beings with families and needs. As a result the gutter press – most particularly the Daily Mail and The Sun – have been bombarding its readers with examples of “political correctness gone mad”. Usually the examples they cite are spurious or, at best, tell only half the story.

During the 2005 General Election the then Conservative leader, Michael Howard, got in on the act (ahem), citing his own examples. Wikipedia quotes him (taken from the Daily Telegraph of August 10, 2005) as showcasing these examples:

“The schoolboy arsonist allowed back into the classroom because enforcing discipline apparently denied his right to education; the convicted rapist given £4,000 compensation because his second appeal was delayed; the burglar given taxpayers’ money to sue the man whose house he broke into; travellers who thumb their nose at the law allowed to stay on green belt sites they have occupied in defiance of planning laws…”

In the cases he quoted, the schoolboy was suing not to be allowed back into the classroom (he was already a university student by the time case came to court) but for compensation. In fact he lost his case in court. Similarly, the “convicted rapist” was not “given” £4,000 but this was the amount of his recovered legal fees; and the burglar was in fact ruled to be entitled to Legal Aid.

The Act came into force in the year 2000 and greatly changed the balance of power from “Big Brother” to the individual via the Courts. It is now possible for the UK legal system to challenge unjust laws passed by Parliament – and it has. Establishing a new act in Common Law always involves a series of messy legal cases (in this case, many of them involving terrorist suspects) and the last thirteen years have helped build a workable definition of an individual’s Human Rights.

Thanks to the Act, it became harder to evict or sack someone without showing good cause, and the freedom of the media to report on matters of public interest has its basis in human rights law. The Editor in Chief of the Daily Mail, Paul Dacre does not share this view. In a 2008 speech to the Society of Editors (reproduced in full here), he lambasts what he calls the “wretched Human Rights Act”. This is perhaps the most telling paragraph:

“…if mass-circulation newspapers, which also devote considerable space to reporting and analysis of public affairs, don’t have the freedom to write about scandal, I doubt whether they will retain their mass circulations with the obvious worrying implications for the democratic process.”

That’s a great argument. We have to get rid of an Act of Parliament that protects the human rights of a nation’s citizens because, if we do not, newspapers will not be able to delve into scandal and so their circulations might fall! No doubt Rupert Murdoch shares similar sentiments.

So why do the Tory Right want to scrap the Act? Hard to say. Maybe it’s because it comes from Europe and places the European Court of Human Rights above our piss-poor selection of rulers? Maybe they do not like being reigned back from infringing the Human Rights of the electors? Perhaps the law is preventing them from tabling draconian but vote-winning legislation against immigrants or gypsies? Who knows?

I don’t want to lose the Act and I am sure that if people were told the absolute truth, they would want to keep it too.