Whilst Nick Clegg has now made it clear that the Human Rights Act “is here to stay”, at least as far as he is concerned, his Tory boss seems to be singing from a different song sheet, refusing to say what he really thinks for fear of being criticised by either his own MPs or the Daily Mail.
The Prime Minister, David Cameron has recently been under significant pressure from backbench Tory MPs with regard to the Human Rights Act. The the Act has become a scapegoat for Conservatives who see the Act as a charter for criminals and a representation of all that is wrong with Britain’s relationship with the rest of Europe.
These rather unintelligent and naive members of Parliament are hopelessly ill informed and despite the fact that they have been told many times in the House of Commons, they seem unable to get it into their thick heads that the Human Rights Act is a product of the European Council and has nothing whatsoever to do with the EU.
Britain has, since 1953 or thereabouts, been subject to rulings from the European Court of Human Rights, as indeed has every other country that now forms part of the European Union; some other non-EU countries are also included. All that the Human Rights Act does is to enable British courts to rule in cases of individuals who are taking action against the State and to do so in such a way that it is often unnecessary for the matter to proceed to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
For most citizens this is a huge advantage as instead of taking up to 6 or seven years to finally resolve the issue in question, it can often take only a third of that period by using the British courts. For any British government however, the Act is something that they would rather live without as it is the single piece of legislation on the British statute book that is capable of holding governments to account when they seek to break the law.
After the general election 2010, suggestions began to be made regarding the creation of the new British Bill of Rights. The last one was written in 1689 and it is hoped that the new model may be something of an improvement on its predecessor which was largely ineffective as far as ordinary people were concerned.
The new Bill of Rights is not intended to replace the Human Rights Act, although many Conservative MPs would like it to do so. Cameron has portrayed this new political instrument as a means of defining both rights and responsibilities, the witches which is open to question depending upon your point of view.
In reality however, Cameron is really only interested in appeasing his backbenchers who are beginning to make life extremely difficult for him. With a succession of contentious rulings from both the European courts and the British Supreme Court regarding the voting rights of prisoners and the right of sex offenders to appeal against their registration, pushed on by the tabloid press, MPs from all sides of the house had been keen to jump onto the anti-prisoner bandwagon.
Cameron, in a fairly ill judged comment made in the House of Commons, claimed that the idea of prisoners having the vote made him “physically sick”. In truth, it was not the thought of prisoners having the vote that made him feel this way, if indeed he was telling the truth; it was more the more the thought of the criticism he was likely to receive from his own party were he to go along with the ruling.
When the controversial ruling regarding the Sex Offender Register was made public, once again many MPs started to deride the European courts for their judgement, once again illustrating the ignorance in not knowing and not understanding that the ruling came not from Europe but from the British Supreme Court just across the road from the Houses of Parliament.
It is indeed very difficult to have any faith in our elected representatives when they show just how thick they are by making such a fundamental error in the glare of publicity. With Conservative MPs anxious to annihilate their Liberal Democrat colleagues and new, ambitious members on the Labour benches trying to make a name for themselves by spouting an endless tabloid message, one could be forgiven for thinking that when ever difficult questions arise democracy goes flying out the window.
When the rioting took place and Cameron decided that this was an opportunity to show how “tough” he was going to be crime, we saw courts up and down the land respond by handing down exaggerated and in many cases excessive sentences, many of which have either been appealed or are likely to work their way towards the Court of Appeal over the next few months.
Some of these appeals at least will succeed and as a result there will no doubt be howls of anguish from right wingers and the tabloid press claiming that the Human Rights Act has once again raised its ugly head with the result that these terrible criminals, some of whom are still at school, have been let off with a slap on the wrist.
TheOpinionSite.org and many of its visitors and subscribers have expressed their view that Britain is now a police state in all but name. Imagine then just how bad it would be if the protection offered by the Human Rights Act was not available to you and me. Imagine if you will how it would be if an ordinary citizen could not hold the police to account; what would happen to prison staff who perhaps have systematically abused a prisoner safe in the knowledge that the prisoner could not bring the case to court? And so on.
British courts have Actually been rather good at interpreting the Act, frequently refusing to uphold the claim against the public authority on the basis that although there was a case to answer it was not necessarily in the public interest to allow the claim to succeed. As a result spurious claims and weak cases have never reached the High Court and those cases that have made it all the way have usually been justified.
Of course politicians do not like any law that forces them to abide by the same Rule of Law to which we are all subject. It is understandable that ministers, often anxious to make a good impression with the public by appearing to be even nastier to criminals than were their predecessors, come unstuck in the courts because a succession of judges decide that the government has itself broken the law.
Cameron is not only guilty of trying to deceive the British people by spreading misinformation about the Human Rights Act but, whether through ignorance or design, is also guilty of lying about its effects on British society.
He has misrepresented the intentions and the influence of the Act in the most dramatic way, claiming that the rights given to individuals under the Act are responsible for both moral decline and the resulting unacceptable behaviour that follows. In reality, neither is true and he should be ashamed of himself for trying to convince the public otherwise for the sake of political expediency.
Moral decline is caused not by giving people rights but by taking them away. From Thatcher, through Blair and now Cameron, successive governments have gradually eroded not only civil liberties but also fundamental rights that have taken hundreds of years to establish.
The Human Rights Act is not a charter for criminals, nor is it a licence to print money supposedly given to those who have a vindictive gripe against local councils or public authorities. The judges have made sure of that and always exercise due diligence when deciding whether or not a claim can be upheld.
The fact that governments have been put in their place over the treatment of soldiers, the behaviour of those in authority in our prisons, the failure to allow citizens behind bars to take an active part in their rehabilitation, the horrendous control orders based upon secret evidence that could not be challenged in court and yes, the refusal to allow those convicted of sexual offences to even try to prove that they are no longer a risk to the public all illustrate a weakness not in the Human Rights Act but in ministers and prime ministers themselves who find it so difficult to obey the law that they themselves prescribed.
Without the Human Rights Act Britain would be even more uncivilised than it is at the present time. Cameron should stop trying to take cheap shots at a law that does nothing more than guarantee the fair treatment of individuals when they go up against the state and should instead ask himself why he finds it necessary to lie to the British people about an Act of Parliament based on a charter that Britain signed in 1953 and which was drawn up not by foreigners but by our own British lawyers.
If it was good enough for Britain to impose the European Convention on Human Rights upon every other country in the EU, there is no reason whatsoever as to why Britain itself should not also be subject to the law which it created. That is all that the Human Rights Act seeks to achieve, nothing else.
In this particular case therefore, David Cameron should refrain from trying to fight the law and instead, start to obey it.
(This article was originally published in TheOpinionSite.org free Subscribers Magazine, available HERE)