Britain gets new human rights bill
What difference will it make?
by Nick De Marco
Jack Straw's announcement to finally incorporate the European
Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into British law and bring in a
Human Rights Bill was cleverly timed. A week after the stunning
attack on fundamental rights and access to the courts contained in
the proposals to 'reform' (abolish) legal aid, and days before the
home secretary declared a new clampdown on asylum seekers, reducing
the period they are deported if some official thinks they are
('bogus' !) to 5 days, the human rights proposals was a huge sop to
civil liberties campaigners. Most of them duly lapped it up. The head
of Liberty, John Wadham was "absolutely delighted". Andrew Puddephatt
of Charter 88 said, "For the first time in our history, ordinary
people will be able to challenge abuses of their rights through the
British courts. This bill tips the balance of power from politicians
to people". What's the reality behind the spin and the hype?
There is no doubt that the proposals represent one of the most
radical reforms to the constitution for hundreds of years. Britain
has never had a written bill of rights, unlike nearly every other
country in the world. It is far too early to predict exactly how
judges and politicians will use the bill and what real effect it will
have. But we are able to look at how powerful the rights will be in
the light of numerous decisions made by the European Court of Human
Rights over the past decades.
What rights are included?
The fundamental rights included are:
The rights are very vague with little indication of what they
mean. None of them are absolute. All have clauses allowing
governments to break them in the interests of 'national security',
'public order', combating crime etc. For instance, the right to
respect for private life is supplemented with the clause:
"There shall be no interference by a public authority with the
exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law
and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national
security, public safety or the economic well being of the country,
for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health
or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of
Such clauses are so broad they could include virtually any
infringement of human rights.
In the past Britain has been taken to the ECHR many times and
there has been some important decisions to go against the government,
like the recent decision that an unequal age of consent for gay men
was discrimination. But a glance at some of the other decisions shows
how toothless the rights can be, In 1985 the British government were
taken to court for banning unions in GCHQ. The ban had never even
been passed through Parliament, it was announced by Thatcher's
cabinet. Despite seemingly contradicting the right to freedom of
association the ECHR supported the UK government. On the other hand,
in 1984, Mr Malone took the government to court for illegally tapping
his phone. The court declared the government had breached his right
to respect fro private correspondence, so Britain introduced a law
allowing them to legally tap phones, and everything was OK. The
government has also gained an exemption from rulings against it in
relation to clear infringements of rights in Ireland. The Prevention
of Terrorism Act, which allows the state to hold a suspect for 4 days
without charge or access to lawyers is allowed by the ECHR.
Telephone tapping, union banning, arresting without charge or
legal rights, all these flagrant infringements of human rights are
allowed by the legislation Britain is bringing in. And even if judges
decide a law is in breach of the convention on rights, it will still
be allowed, there will just be political pressure on the government
to amend it so as not to offend the courts.
Many leading British judges have said there is nothing in the
convention on rights which doesn't already exist in UK common law.
Top judge, Sir Stephen Sedley, has gone even further. He said the
"is a full generation out of date. The Convention, devised in
1950, took a limited view of human rights, based on the nineteenth
century paradigm of the individual whose enemy is the state."
We would be amongst the first to try and find ways to use the new
rights to advance the cause of the oppressed and fight injustice. Its
use to prevent police using certain evidence in criminal trials maybe
very important. But Straw's human rights will make little real change
to most of us. They will be no substitute for organising a political
movement to fight for justice. And any idea that "ordinary people
will be able to challenge abuses of their rights through the British
courts" will be quickly dashed if the same Jack Straw takes away the
legal aid you need to get into court in the first place!