Let’s not walk away from the Human Rights Act

William Powell reflects upon Conservative plans to abolish the Human Rights Act.

William Powell is Welsh Liberal Democrat Assembly Member for Mid & West Wales and Chair of the Cross Party Group on Europe at the National Assembly for Wales.

In Coalition between 2010 – 2015, the Conservatives consistently stated that they would abolish the Human Rights Act (HRA) as quickly as possible, if they had the votes to achieve it in the House of Commons.

They also threatened to abandon the European Convention on Human Rights, with no guarantee whatsoever about what would replace it, other than some form of British ‘Bill of Rights.’ The sole reason they could not deliver on their plans is because, time and again, they were thwarted by the Liberal Democrats.

Now David Cameron – commanding the smallest of parliamentary majorities and thus imprisoned by the real ‘red meat eaters’ on his backbenches – is once again on the offensive.

The Government’s first priority, oddly enough, was not to explain how it proposed to deliver its plans to strip £12bn out of the welfare budget but rather a blatant exercise in spin, vowing to put the HRA to the sword.

Only when the Realpolitik of such a slender majority dawned upon Conservative Party Managers – with Lib Dem voices in support of retaining the HRA being joined by Green, Labour, Plaid & SNP – did the penny drop. With his own backbenchers such as David Davis and Andrew Mitchell refusing to countenance the move, the attraction of retreating for now to a ‘consultation’ became compelling.

But it would be foolish and irresponsible to conclude that the Conservatives have given up on their intentions for good. With all the focus on the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta – and their legions of fans in the London media egging them on – they have every incentive to return to their cherished plan.

However, by the very act of developing plans to scrap the Human Rights Act and digging the foundations to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) – the Conservatives are laying bare their true colours. The message to the British people could not be clearer: the next five years will be less compassionate, less generous of spirit and less liberal than under any regime in living memory.

But we must resist the Conservatives every step of the way and join with people of good will – of all parties and none – to stop them snuffing out our hard won freedoms and rights.

The HRA and ECHR are not some tawdry pieces of legislation, conceived by remote bureaucrats in Brussels, Luxembourg or Strasbourg, to trammel us in restrictive regulations.

These are British rights, drafted by British lawyers. They were forged in the aftermath of the atrocities of the Second World War – only weeks after the liberation of Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Dachau. Sir Winston Churchill himself was instrumental in their development.

The HRA is designed to oblige public authorities to treat citizens with dignity and respect. Frequently it has been the only obstacle to injustice, usually inflicted on the individual by an over-powerful state.

Our HRA has already achieved so much. It’s held the state to account for snooping on us, safeguarded our soldiers and upheld the right to peaceful protest. It’s helped rape victims, defended domestic violence victims, backed the rights of the LGBT community and guarded against slavery. It’s also protected those in care, shielded press freedom and provided answers for families in their grief.

Among the cases brought as a direct result of the HRA is that of Pte Cheryl James of Llangollen, whose death at Deepcut Barracks left her father Des and mother Doreen fighting for nearly 20 years to gain the justice they believed their daughter deserves. It is difficult to believe that, without the protection afforded to them by the HRA, there would have been any prospect of justice in this or many other cases.

Our current human rights legislation has also blocked blanket interception of private messages by the state, protected our right to a fair trial and prevented indiscriminate police stop-and-search.

To walk away from the HRA and ECHR would remove at a stroke the moral authority we have when we engage with other countries.

What sort of message would the Conservatives send to brutal dictators across the world if we abandoned our human rights’ obligations?

If we pulled out of the ECHR we would join the pariah state of Belarus as the only other European country not to sign up to it.

For us in Wales, repeal of the Human Rights Act would have major consequences for the Government of Wales Act – let alone undermining the basis of the Good Friday Agreement.  This appears to be something that the Tories haven’t even considered.

Michael Gove’s suggestion of exempting Scotland from the repeal of the HRA leaves us saying, alongside Prof Richard Wynn Jones: ‘Beth am Gymru – What about Wales?’

It is also worth pointing out that while the Conservatives may scrap the Human Rights Act, the ECHR would still be incorporated into our domestic law, as we would still be bound to ensure Welsh legislation complies with Convention rights.

This would make the system more complex with one set of human rights laws applying to devolved issues and another to non-devolved issues. Have the Tories considered this? I think not.

These are fundamental rights we all have and they define how we treat our citizens and offer them protection from the state.

David Cameron has shown he cares less about the fundamental rights of the British people than he does about placating his anti-European Little Englander backbenchers.

Liberal Democrats fought in Government to stop the Conservatives undermining our human rights laws. We must all come together now – in an alliance of all people of goodwill, regardless of party affiliation, to stop them trying it again.

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