Human rights and wrongs split UK Government

A row has erupted between the two parties in the Coalition over whether to keep the Human Rights Act. Do laws designed to protect human rights hamper justice or create a more civilised country?

To David Cameron, the Conservative prime minister, the effect of the Human Rights Act on British legal culture has been 'chilling' and it should be scrapped.

To his Liberal Democrat coalition partner and deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, the 1998 incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into British law was a historic step forward. Clegg has vowed to block any attempts to scrap, replace or water it down.

Now the two have come to blows because attacks on the law as it now stands, and its interpretation by the courts, have been making the headlines during the week of the Conservative Party's annual conference. Mr Cameron's troops are mostly suspicious of any rules imported from the European Union, and the issues around the HRA have become fatally muddled up with a general hostility to the EU. There is also a feeling in Tory circles, expressed after the August riots by the premier himself, that an over-emphasis on prisoners' rights has tipped the balance against victims of crime and the ordinary, law-abiding members of society. A poll earlier this year showed 75% of Brits think the Act is 'used too widely'.

Theresa May, the Conservative home secretary, says her department can't deal firmly with foreign criminals or suspected terrorists because the Act is used to prevent their deportation.

But campaigning groups point to cases where the Act has protected families or the vulnerable: for example, ensuring that elderly married couples in care homes are kept together, or preventing rapists from cross-examining their victims in court.

Some of the worst abuses of the Act seem to spring from officials using it as an excuse – for example, when police claimed they delivered a KFC meal to a fugitive on a roof because of human rights concerns.

Who's the boss?

Ken Clarke, the justice secretary, a Conservative who is sometimes jokingly referred to as 'the sixth Lib Dem in the cabinet' because of his liberal views, has in the past called proposals to axe the HRA 'xenophobic and legal nonsense.' The Lib Dems, having co-operated with Labour in the run-up to the 1997 general election on an agreement to incorporate the ECHR, are committed to preserving it. But the prime minister is determined to make his hostility known, promising to tackle it if he wins the next election outright.

It's not enough for his supporters in the tabloid press: The Sun's editorial on Monday accused Mr Cameron of being 'in office but not in power' because he can't afford to risk the Coalition that keeps him in Number 10 over this issue.

You Decide

  1. Along with the HRA, David Cameron blames a 'health and safety culture' for robbing people of a sense of personal responsibility. Do you agree that there are too many rules? Or are they needed to protect people?
  2. Many controversial decisions refer to article 8, the right to a family life, particularly in cases where a Home Office deportation is prevented. Do you think every individual, including illegal immigrants and those accused or convicted of criminal activity should have this right?

Activities

  1. Here's a very interesting YouGov opinion poll on the issue. Do your own survey of fellow students, staff and parents. Be careful to formulate questions so that they are neutral and don't invite a particular answer.
  2. Research the background of the European Convention, drafted after WWII. Write an account of whether you think it has lived up to these ideals.

Some People Say...

“Anything that creates work for lawyers has to be bad.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Is it really the law that causes these rows?
Sometimes, as the Home Secretary explains. But it's often the interpretation. For example, last week a prison van drove nearly 100 miles to take a suspect 60 yards from a police station to the court. The company was worried about 'straying into the area of human rights' but the man himself said he would have been happy to walk.
And will the Act be scrapped?
Not likely for now. A Government commission is looking at an alternative: a British Bill of Rights. But the voices of Lib Dem ministers and pro-rights lawyers are as strong on this panel as those of Tories wanting to make changes.

Word Watch

Coalition
The Conservatives failed to win the 2010 General Election, but secured more Commons seats and a larger voteshare than the other parties. They managed to form a Government by clubbing together with the Lib Dems, but although there is an agreed policy programme, many issues still divide the two parties.
Xenophobic
Fearful of and hostile to strangers or foreigners, from the Greek xenos meaning 'stranger' and phobos meaning 'fear'.

Subjects

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