Can we rely on the Lib Dems to defend the role of human rights in Britain?

David Cameron pledged in the wake of England's riots to address the country's 'rights not responsibilities' culture. Will the Liberal Democrats stand firm against the Prime Minister's hostility to human rights legislation?

Half of a duo on Rights and Riots: see Irene Khan's piece.

Nick Clegg has delivered a strong defence of the Human Rights Act. The piece, published in the Guardian on 25th August, was an effective rebuttal of a series of intemperate attacks made by his coalition partner David Cameron that should not have been made. But can we rely on the Deputy Prime Minister to defend the role that human rights have to play in Britain? 

Mr Cameron had said on 15th August, five days after England’s riots ended, that he wanted “a fightback against the wrongheaded ideas, bureaucratic nonsense, and destructive culture” that led to the disturbances in various parts of the country, including “twisting and misrepresenting of human rights in a way that has undermined personal responsibility”.  Unfortunately the misrepresentation has often been his.

On two recent occasions he has wrongly blamed the Act for judicial decisions of which he disapproved. In both cases deportation of criminally convicted foreign nationals was refused by the court. Also Mohammed Ibrahim was allowed to remain in the UK with his English wife and young children because the Home Office had waited some 6 years after his sentence before seeking to deport him. The other case was that of Learco Chindamo, the notorious killer of the headmaster Philip Lawrence. Many would have welcomed his deportation but, as the judge made clear, it was an EU Directive that prevented it, not the Human Rights Act.

Those who brief Mr.Cameron are far too ready to take their cue from tabloid newspapers. The Daily Mirror headed its comment on Chindamo “Human Rights are All Wrong”. A number of ludicrous fictions have been peddled by other papers. Nick Clegg mentions the Sun’s claim that police were forced by the Act to offer Kentucky Fried Chicken to coax a burglar to come down from a roof. Another myth was that the Act gave Denis Nilsen the right to have pornography in Broadmoor. More seriously it was falsely claimed that the Act prohibits the police from displaying “wanted” posters for dangerous criminals, and that it required the premature release of a violent rapist.  

What underlies the hostility of the tabloids is the perception that the Human Rights Act is a symbol of European domination, because it infiltrates the European Human Rights Convention into our domestic law. This ignores – as Nick Clegg points out  –  the British origin of the Convention. It was a Tory Lord Chancellor, Kilmuir, who played the key role in drafting it. Sir Winston Churchill was its strong supporter. He knew it embodied traditional British values. 

It is therefore puzzling that the Human Rights Act does not appeal to progressive Conservatives like Mr. Cameron. Human rights are no more than the minimum safeguards of personal freedom and dignity, which the individual rightly expects against arbitrary interference. They have been our gift to Europe and not the other way round. The opposition to human rights has come from the collectivist left as well as from the authoritarian right. Support for them has been strong among the moderate elements in all political camps, especially Mr. Clegg’s party. 

While Clegg’s defence of the Human Rights Act seems firm his dissent from Cameron’s position on human rights in general is less than whole hearted. He is right to accept that improvements can be made in the processes of the European Court of Human Rights, whose resources have long been stretched almost to breaking point. The forthcoming UK chairmanship of the Council of Europe may provide the opportunity to introduce reforms. But Clegg’s apparent agreement with Cameron’s call to “get a grip on the misrepresentation of human rights” is disingenuous. Cameron’s focus is on limiting reliance on human rights standards while Clegg rightly points out that it is the vulnerable and the powerless who mainly need human rights laws to challenge the decisions of the authorities.

When Cameron refers to “wrong headed ideas and bureaucratic nonsense” he is suggesting that officialdom is too ready to apply human rights standards. Clegg must know that more often the opposite is the case.  Look for example at the constant struggle by government – at huge public expense – to resist challenges to indefinite detention of non-citizens and to the exclusion of evidence obtained by torture.    

The implacable support for the Human Rights Act of his coalition partners presented Mr. Cameron with a dilemma. That is why in the time-honoured manner he tried to kick the issue into the long grass by appointing a commission to examine the creation of  a British Bill of Rights. Yet we must remain vigilant. Without the political influence of the Lib Dems, there remains a danger that Cameron’s hostility to human rights legislation, however irrational and belied by the evidence, would prevail. 

The commission is due to report by the end of 2012. Doubtless as a result of hard bargaining by Mr. Clegg and his colleagues, it is committed by its terms of reference to accept that the United Kingdom will continue to be bound by the Convention, which will remain part of British domestic law. Its membership also includes some of the most expert human rights defenders. 

The Human Rights Act is itself already a bill of rights for all practical purposes. Of course it could be improved and, as Nick Clegg says, could be added to by protecting other rights such as jury trial.The commission could do useful work in promoting public appreciation of its values and dispelling misunderstandings, including those proclaimed by David Cameron. 

The Act must stay. As Nick Clegg says, it sends a powerful message to the rest of the world about the value we place on human rights. We have a proud record.

A shortened version of this piece has appeared in the Guardian's Comment is Free.

About the author

Geoffrey Bindman is a former chair and vice-president of the Society of Labour Lawyers.