Friday, 22 May 2015

Our fundamental human rights are under attack

“The watchdog that would have scrutinised the end of the human rights act just got quietly scrapped” reads the article in the independent. Following a meeting of the wholly undemocratic system of party whips, it has been announced that the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee which, was originally set up in 2010 and chaired by George Allan MP has been scrapped. The committee is a key area of democratic reform and in the period of the last parliament, played an important role in holding the government to account. It’s formation marked an important milestone in David Cameron’s commitment to reforming democracy in Britain.

With just a small majority in the House of Commons the tory government are facing some challenging times ahead over the period of the next parliament. Firstly there will be discussions and negotiations on the constitution, including devolution of powers to Scotland and Manchester. Surely that will lead to discussions on Wales and Northern Ireland. Secondly, following negotiations on Britain’s role in the European Union, we will have an in/out referendum on membership of the EU by the end of 2017. 

The government also have plans to redraw constituency boundaries in a way it has been suggested that would benefit the conservative party. It is also committed to a form of English votes for English laws. But most importantly, we have the commitment of the conservative party in their election manifesto to scrap the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights. Given these fundamental changes, it is telling of the real commitment to democratic reform that the committee who would hold government to account and represent the will of the British people has been abolished.

In the period of the last parliament the committee was widely recognised has having carries out some excellent work and enjoyed unanimous support from conservative, labour, liberal democract & SDLP colleagues. It produced all party reports on English devolution, the need for a constitutional convention, parliamentary boundaries, the future for Scotland, improving the legislative process in parliament, a written constitution, voter disengagement, the gagging bill, electoral registration and many others.

Those responsibilities previously held by the committee will be divided up among other select committees with already full agendas. The cynic in me suggests our government does not want to be held to account and wonders what nasty surprises they are already planning for us over the period of this parliament. Disenchantment with politics and democracy, as well as the publics questioning of the legitimacy of government is at an all time high. 

Surely we need a select committee who will hold government to account and represent the views of the people they serve now more than ever. I will confess to not having much faith in the ability or willingness of MP’s to enabling real democratic change to our political system, as many have much to lose from meaningful democratic change. However I will concede that on the face of things, the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee appear to have made some inroad in what will in all likelihood be a long struggle for real democracy.

The Human Rights Act is in effect the British domestication of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), allowing British courts to make rulings based on the original Convention. The ECHR is an agreement that all countries in Europe will respect human rights and was drawn up in 1950 in the aftermath of the Second World War. It was spearheaded by Britain who was a founding signatory and ratified the convention in 1951.

The fundamental human rights that are protected by the act are:

✔ The right to life – protects your life by law. The state is required to investigate suspicious deaths and deaths in custody

✔ The prohibition of torture and inhumane treatment – you should never be tortured or treated in an inhumane way or degrading way, no matter what the situation

✔ Protection against slavery and forced labour – you should never be treated like a slave or subjected to forced labour

✔ The right to liberty and freedom – you have the right to be free and the state can only imprison you with very good reason e.g. if you are convicted of a crime

✔ The right to a fair trial and no punishment without law – you are innocent until proven guilty. If accused of a crime, you have the right to hear the evidence against you in a court of law

✔ Respect for privacy and family life and to marry – protects against any unnecessary surveillance or intrusion into your life. You also have the right to marry and raise a family

 ✔ Freedom of thought, religion and belief – you can believe what you like and practice your beliefs

 ✔ Free speech and peaceful protest – you have the right to speak freely and join with others to express your views

✔ No discrimination – everyone’s rights are equal. You should not be treated unfairly because of your gender, race, sexuality, religion, age or disability

✔ Protection of property – protects against state interference against your property

✔ Right to an education – means that no child can be denied an education

✔ Right to free elections – elections must be free and fair

Very little is known about the conservative parties British Bill of Rights that would replace the Human Rights Act. In a document it published on the matter they outline that protecting fundamental human rights is the hallmark of a democratic society and is central to the values of the conservative party. They then go on to say that the present position under the ECHR and the HRA is not acceptable.

However Martin Howe QC produced a draft of the British bill and in it he proposes that the rights of any individual would depend on whether they were a British citizen (full fundamental rights), an EU national (fewer rights) or a foreigner (even fewer rights). Such an approach would be inconsistent with the fundamental principles of human rights, being that every human being has the same basic rights.

There is also mounting opposition to the repeal of the Act among tory backbenchers. Former tory justice minister Ken Clarke and former attorney general Dominic Grieve have also publicly opposed the move, warning that it could undermine the rule of law and risks setting a dangerous precedent.

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