There was one particular idea which drew a lot of applause from the audience at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham this week. It featured in the speeches of both the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister, and is already pretty much assured to be a centre-piece of the Tory manifesto next year.
And, indeed, today their plans have been published pre-emptively by legal blogger Jack of Kent.
Yes, I am talking about the plans to repeal the Human Rights Act. But what the Conservative Party want to do goes far beyond repealing a single piece of legislation. What they want to do is tear down the British legal system, built up over centuries, and to hobble the rights of its citizens. What they want to do terrifies me to my core, something I don’t say lightly.
And it should terrify every single person living in the United Kingdom today.
I suspect that a large amount of the applause given to pledges to dismantle human rights law stems from ignorance. I don’t mean that as an insult — I am not a lawyer myself, but I have studied the law, something which necessarily everyone cannot do. Indeed, I believe that there is only a small hardcore of people who understand what these proposals would truly mean, and support them nonetheless.
It starts with a misunderstanding of what the Human Rights Act is, a misunderstanding wilfully propagated by those who wish it destroyed. See, the Human Rights Act 1998 contains no human rights law. Not a single right is contained within its clauses. Instead, what it does is give British courts the ability to apply human rights law which stems from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
The reason for doing this was less about bringing the rights within the ECHR into British Law (it was a part of British law long before that), but instead curbing the number of appeals to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), and reducing the cost to the taxpayer.
So, if any government were to repeal the HRA, that would not disapply human rights law in Britain. Because we are still signatories to the ECHR, and the case law which stems from it is still a part of our legal system. All that would happen is that more cases would go to the court in Strasbourg, and the Ministry of Justice would have to find a whole load more money.
And so, if the pledge was simply to repeal the act, then I would call the Tory Party idiots and move on. But that’s not the extent of it. What is being pursued by the present senior party of the government is much, much worse.
The draft proposals published by Jack of Kent includes a raft of measures to completely reshape human rights law in this country. To the point of legal vandalism. Firstly, they want to make judgements of the ECtHR merely “advisory” to British courts. As wiser folks than I have pointed out, this would be a complete contravention of the convention, and would likely result in us having to be expelled. For comparison, if Russia did something like this, every corner of the free world would condemn them, and economic sanctions would be quickly raised.
It goes on to talk about “limiting” rights. Limiting them in the “most serious” of cases. Firstly, who defines “most serious”? The Lord Chancellor? The Rt Hon Chris Grayling MP is the present Lord Chancellor, and the first non-lawyer in the role. He has also been one of the most disastrous, frequently acting beyond his legal authority, and in particular, trying to prevent citizens from challenging the government in court.
Secondly, that misunderstands (wilfully, I expect) the concept of human rights. They aren’t something which can be limited or taken away. They are “rights”. Some may be qualified in certain situations, but at a certain point they are all inalienable, vested in all human persons. They are each citizen’s protection from their government; which is why they occur so much in criminal cases. They are there to make sure a government behaves legally towards their citizens.
And that is chilling. You should never trust any government, of any colour or ideology, when it wants to remove the very barriers which protect you from it.
Another part of the proposals is to:
“Define much more clearly when and how Human Rights laws in the UK are to be applied. This will end the ability of the courts to decide unilaterally to apply Human Rights laws to whole new areas of public life.“
That last point is key. “End the ability of the courts…” The courts of this country are far from perfect, but the fact is that they have been the guardians of rights since long before the ECHR was even conceived of. They have repeatedly defended the people of the UK from unlawful behaviour by the government, which is presumably why Chris Grayling wants to get rid of judicial review. If the government gets rid of the ability of the courts to intervene when rights — the rights of anyone, not just “criminals” — are violated, then who exactly is going to?
Let us be clear: human rights are not a new thing. They are the bedrock of our legal system, stretching back into antiquity. Parliament was created to protect people against abuse of power by the monarch, and the courts are performing that same function against the government today. This is not something which can be neatly snipped out of the law — like the foundations of a building, if you pull them out, the whole thing will collapse.
The voices which warned against this, the likes of Dominic Grieve, have been removed from or marginalised within the government. And over the next weeks, months and years to come you will hear a lot of very loud voices shouting in favour of this, trying to drown out the reasoned analysis and criticisms in false stories of immigrants and cats. I hope, with all my soul, that they do not succeed in doing so.
These proposed changes are more authoritarian than anything New Labour ever dreamed of. They are more damaging than anything Thatcher dared attempt. The only thing which the Conservatives have done in office which even comes close to this is their treatment of the disabled. If you have no other reason not to vote Conservative next May, then this is it.