Tag: British Bill of Rights

The Tory British Bill of Rights: ‘be the short change you want to see’

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The politics of regression

The UK has passed a lot of posts over the last five years. We are now a post-European, post-welfare, post-consensus, post-progressive, post-rational, post-democratic, post-first world, post-liberal, post-inclusive, post-diverse, post-equality, post-freedom, post-rights, post-protest, post-truth society. We managed all of this by travelling backwards as a society, not forwards.

The clocks stopped when the Conservatives took office in 2010. Now we are losing a decade a day.

This week, the government have confirmed they still plan to repeal the Human Rights Act and replace it with a so-called British Bill of Rights. This will break the formal link between the European Court of Human Rights and British law. Any judgement from Europe would be treated as “advisory” only, rather than legally binding, and would need to be “approved” by parliament. Such a Bill would definitely short change UK citizens in terms of balancing responsibilities, obligations and rights. It would profoundly disempower citizens because it will shift the balance of democracy, placing power almost entirely in the hands of the state.

The citizen rights protected by Labour’s flagship Human Rights Act are quite basic. They include the right to life, liberty and the right to a fair trial; protection from torture and ill-treatment; freedom of speech, thought, religion, conscience and assembly; the right to free elections; the right to fair access to the country’s education system; the right NOT to be given the death penalty; the right to marry and an overarching right not to be discriminated against.

Over their time in office, the Tories have systematically contravened the Human Rights of disabled people, women and children. It’s clear that we have a government that regards the rights of most of the population as a mere bureaucratic inconvenience, to be simply brushed aside. In October 2014, I was one of the very first independent writers to report the United Nations’ inquiry into the government’s gross breaches of the rights of disabled people. Writers and researchers like me and organised groups such as Disabled People Against the Cuts (DPAC) have been submitting evidence regarding the dehumanising impacts of the Conservative welfare “reforms” to the UN since 2012.

Theresa May has previously expressed strong support for controversial constitutional change. She stated in 2014, that she would like to see the UK withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, echoing David Cameron.

In a speech earlier this year, she said: “This is Great Britain, the country of Magna Carta, parliamentary democracy and the fairest courts in the world.

And we can protect human rights ourselves in a way that doesn’t jeopardise national security or bind the hands of parliament.

A true British bill of rights, decided by parliament and amended by parliament, would protect not only the rights set out in the convention, but could include traditional British rights not protected by the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) such as the right to trial by jury.”

However, May’s comment about the need for a Bill of rights that doesn’t “bind the hands of parliament” is worrying, since human rights were designed originally to protect citizens from despotic states and authoritarian governments like this one.

Her comment that the ECHR does not provide for the right to trial by jury is also misleading. Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights is a provision  which protects the right to a fair trial and access to justice. In criminal law cases and cases to determine civil rights, it protects the right to a public hearing before an independent and impartial tribunal within reasonable time, the presumption of innocence, and other basic rights for those charged in a criminal case (such as adequate time and facilities to prepare their defence, access to legal representation, the right to examine witnesses against them or have them examined, the right to the free assistance of an interpreter).

The Effective Criminal Defence in Europe report identified that the UK already needs to address issues regarding inadequate disclosure to suspects during investigation stage and that a more effective judicial oversight of bail and arrest are needed. Cuts to legal aid are also problematic in terms of ensuring the right of equal access to justice. Chris Grayling has already tried to take legal aid from the poorest citizens, in a move that is so clearly contrary to the very principle of equality under the law. He turned legal aid into an instrument of discrimination. He has also tried to dismantle another vital legal protection  – judicial review – which has been used to stop him abusing political power on several occasions. I don’t think this is a government that has indicated so far that it has the needs and wellbeing of citizens as a main priority.

Liz Truss, the justice secretary, dismissed reports that that the Government was abandoning the policy, which was included in the Conservative manifesto in 2015, to avoid a conflict with the Scottish Government 

She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday morning: “We are committed to that. That is a manifesto commitment. 

I’m looking very closely at the details but we have a manifesto commitment to deliver that.”

However, last year, Amnesty UK commissioned a poll that indicated the British public are not particularly willing to see any change to existing Human Rights legislation, with only one in 10 people in the UK (11%) believing that scrapping the Human Rights Act should be a government priority.

Kate Allen, Amnesty International (UK) director, said:

“The British people clearly want the Government to get on with their proper business of the day-to-day running of the country, and abandon these destructive plans.

“It’s quite right that it shouldn’t be up to governments to pick and choose which rights we are entitled to and select who they deem worthy of them. It took ordinary people a very long time to claim these rights and we mustn’t let politicians take them away with the stroke of a pen.

“It’s great to have it confirmed that British people think that rights and protections must apply to everyone equally in order to work at all.”

David Cameron pledged to explore ways to leave the ECHR in the wake of the departure of his most senior legal advisor, Dominic Grieve. 

Ken Clarke said: “It is unthinkable for Britain to leave the European Convention on Human Rights,” he was also a departing cabinet minister. Cameron is believed to have wanted rid of the Attorney General Grieve because he was supportive of Britain’s continued ECHR membership.

Labour dubbed the cabinet reshuffle “the massacre of the moderates”, pointing to the departure of pro-Europe and “one nation” Tories such as David Willetts, Nick Hurd and Oliver Heald.

It’s long been the case that the Tories and the right wing press have deliberately blurred the boundaries between the European Union and the European Council of Human Rights, which are of course completely different organisations. This was a misdirection ploy.

However it is the case that the member states of the EU agreed that no state would be admitted to membership of the EU unless it accepted the fundamental principles of the European Convention on Human Rights and agreed to declare itself bound by it. I also think that conservatives, who regard both institutions as “interfering”, do see the Union and the Council as the same in terms of both being international frameworks requiring the British government to have a degree of democratic accountability at an international level.

In his parting interview, Clarke, who has held office in every Conservative government since 1972 and is also the party’s most prominent Europhile, said the debate was “absurd”.

“I personally think it’s unthinkable we should leave the European Convention on Human Rights; it was drafted by British lawyers after the Second World War in order to protect the values for which we fought the War for.” He’s right, of course.

The years immediately after the second world war marked a turning point in the history of human rights, as the world reeled in horror at the rise of fascism and the Nazi concentration camps, there came an important realisation that although fundamental rights should be respected as a matter of course, without formal protection, human rights concepts are of little use and consolation to those facing persecution.

So in response to the atrocities committed during the war, the international community sought to define the rights and freedoms necessary to secure the dignity and worth of each individual. In 1948 the newly formed United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), one of the most important agreements in world history.

Shortly afterwards another newly formed international body, the Council of Europe, set about giving effect to the UDHR in a European context. The resulting European Convention on Human Rights was signed in 1950 and ratified by the United Kingdom, one of the first countries to do so, in 1951. At the time there were only ten members of the Council of Europe. Now 47 member countries subscribe to the European Convention, and in 1998 the Human Rights Act was passed by the Labour Party in order to “give further effect” to the European Convention in British law.

Previously, along with the Liberal Democrats, Grieve was able to thwart attempts to reform the ECHR, and opposed pulling out altogether. The plan to reform it is being led by the Justice Secretary Chris Grayling but Grieve has pledged to continue to fight for Britain’s membership from the backbenchers. Though Clegg had agreed to a British Bill of Rights, he was strongly opposed to withdrawing from the ECHR.

Grieve understood that ECHR is about the fundamental rights of the citizen and ought to be cherished in the same way as the Magna Carta and Habeas Corpus are. But as we know, this is not a typical view amongst Conservatives, who frequently cite the same examples of “foreign criminals” being allowed to stay in the country as evidence it is “not working”.

The prime minister’s spokesman said that the sacking of Grieve had not led to a change in government’s policy. However he pledged action if the Conservatives are elected next year without the Liberal Democrats: “If you are asking me about party manifestos, the prime minister has previously said that he wants to look at all the ways that we can ensure we are able to deport those who have committed criminal offences.”

Grieve said he would defend human rights legislation from the back benches to “contribute to rationality and discourse”.

“If we send out a sign that human rights don’t matter, that is likely to be picked up in other countries which are also signatory states such as Russia.”

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The marked loss of transparency and democratic accountability

In the original Conservative proposals to scrap our existing human rights framework, and replace it with their own, one sentence from the misleadingly titled document  –Protecting Human Rights in the UK, (found on page 6 ) – is particularly chilling: “There will be a threshold below which Convention rights will not be engaged.”

Basically this means that human rights will no longer be absolute or universally applied – they will be subject to stipulations and caveats. And discrimination. The government will establish a threshold below which Convention rights will not be engaged, allowing UK courts to strike out what are deemed trivial cases.

The Tories’ motivation for changing our human rights is to allow reinterpretations to work around the new legislation when they deem it necessary. The internationally agreed rights that the Tories have always seen as being open to interpretation will become much more parochial and open to subjective challenge.

Many people have said that the Conservatives won’t escape accountability if they repeal the Human Rights Act and replace it with something less comprehensive, because we are still signatories to a number of broader international treaties on human rights. 

However, last year I wrote about how the government has quietly edited the ministerial code, which was updated on October 15  without any announcement at all. The code sets out the standard of conduct expected of ministers. The latest version of the code is missing a key element regarding complicity with international law. 

The previous code, issued in 2010, said there was an “overarching duty on ministers to comply with the law including international law and treaty obligations and to uphold the administration of justice and to protect the integrity of public life”.

The new version of the code has been edited to say only that there is an“overarching duty on ministers to comply with the law and to protect the integrity of public life”.

Conservative party policy document had revealed that the ministerial code will be rewritten in the context of the UK withdrawing from the European convention on human rights. In order to help achieve these aims the document says:

“We will amend the ministerial code to remove any ambiguity in the current rules about the duty of ministers to follow the will of Parliament in the UK.”

Yasmine Ahmed, director of Rights Watch, an organisation which works to hold the government to account, said:

“This amendment to the ministerial code is deeply concerning. It shows a marked shift in the attitude and commitment of the UK government towards its international legal obligations.”

Any precedent that allows a government room for manoeuvre around basic and fundamental human rights is incredibly dangerous. Especially such an authoritarian government.

Implications for democracy

Democracy is one of the universal core values and principles of the United Nations. Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and the principle of holding periodic and genuine elections by universal suffrage are essential elements of democracy. These values are embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and further developed in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which enshrines a host of political rights and civil liberties underpinning meaningful democracies.

The Rule of Law and Democracy Unit stands as the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) focal point for democracy activities. The Unit works to develop concepts and operational strategies to enhance democracy and provide guidance and support to democratic institutions through technical cooperation activities and partnership with the relevant parts of the UN, notably the UN Democracy Fund, the Department of Political Affairs and the newly established UN Working Group on Democracy. Legal and expert advice are provided as required to OHCHR field operations on relevant issues such as respect for participatory rights in the context of free and fair elections, draft legislation on national referenda and training activities.

The strong link between democracy and human rights is captured in article 21(3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states:

“The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.” 

The link is further developed in the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which enshrines a host of political rights and civil liberties underpinning meaningful democracies. The rights enshrined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and subsequent human rights instruments covering group rights (e.g. indigenous peoples, minorities, people with disabilities) are equally essential for democracy as they ensure inclusivity for all groups, including equality and equity in respect of access to civil and political rights.

More recently, in March 2012, the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution titled “Human rights, democracy and the rule of law,” which reaffirmed that democracy, development and respect for all human rights and fundamental freedoms were interdependent and mutually reinforcing.

The Council called upon States to make continuous efforts to strengthen the rule of law and promote democracy through a wide range of measures. It also requested the OHCHR, in consultation with states, national human rights institutions, civil society, relevant inter-governmental bodies and international organizations, to draft a study on challenges, lessons learned and best practices in securing democracy and the rule of law from a human rights perspective.

Human rights, democracy and the rule of law are core values of the European Union, too. Embedded in its founding treaty, they were reinforced when the EU adopted the Charter of Fundamental Rights in 2000, and strengthened still further when the Charter became legally binding with the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009.

A legally binding human rights framework must be applied universally, and implemented without the “interpretation” and interference from individual governments. Furthermore, the State must fund the means of contract enforcement and free and fair trial legal costs, for those who cannot afford it. If the State fails to fulfil this contingent function, then citizens simply cease to be free.

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I wrote another in-depth analysis of the implications of a British Bill of Rights earlier this year, which includes some of the constitutional implications – The British Bill Of Frights: We Need To Ask What Could Possibly Go Right?

 

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Tories to scrap Human Rights Act by next summer

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The Government are planning to fast-track a British Bill of Rights, aiming to get the extremely controversial legislation made law by next summer. 

A Bill of Rights was a Conservative manifesto pledge, but is strongly opposed by civil liberties groups that say it will restrict freedoms that are guaranteed under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). 

The Independent reports that a 12-week public consultation on the Conservative Bill of Rights will start in November or December this year. It will be worded to clarify that the UK will not pull out of the European Convention of Human Rights, as some critics have feared, (and actually, as David Cameron has pledged previously). It will even mirror much of the ECHR language in an effort to “calm opposition.”

The Conservative Bill of Rights will go straight to the House of Commons without a Green or White Paper, which are usually introduced before legislative scrutiny.

It is understood that Michael Gove will visit Scotland before the consultation is published, when he will try to convince the Scottish government to back the Bill of Rights. He will also need the support of Wales and Northern Ireland. The Bill will need to be carried over to the next Queen’s Speech, expected in May, if it is to become law before MPs leave for summer recess in July.

A cabinet minister told The Independent on Sunday that the summer timescale was “aspirational”, because the Bill could be “really clogged up in the House of Lords” and predicted it was more likely to be law by the end of next year. The upper chamber has some seasoned lawyers, many of whom fear the consequences of scrapping the HRA, and the Tories do not command a majority in the Lords. 

The rights protected by the Human Rights Act are quite simple. They include the right to life, liberty and the right to a fair trial; protection from torture and ill-treatment; freedom of speech, thought, religion, conscience and assembly; the right to free elections; the right to fair access to the country’s education system; the right to marry and an overarching right not to be discriminated against. Cameron has argued that it should be repealed just 10 years after its implementation (the Human Rights Act (HRA) came into force in October 2000) … so that he can pass another Act.

No other country has proposed de-incorporating a human rights treaty from its law so that it can introduce a Bill of Rights. The truly disturbing aspect of Cameron’s Bill of Rights pledge is that rather than manifestly building on the HRA, it’s predicated on its denigration and repeal. One has to wonder what his discomfort with the Human Rights Act is. The Act, after all, goes towards protecting the vulnerable from neglect of duty and abuse of power.

The HRA incorporated the ECHR in British law, it is a straightforward statute, that works by allowing individuals in the UK to enforce their rights in their local courts.  The Act makes available a remedy for breach of a Convention right without the need to go to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

It was designed to supplement the ECHR. It also requires public authorities to respect the rights of those they serve. As a part of Labour’s 1997 commitment to a new constitutional settlement, it represented a new way of thinking about law, politics and the relationship between public authorities and individuals.

The rights protected by the HRA are drawn from the 1950 European convention on human rights, which was a way of ensuring that we never again witness the full horrors of the second world war, and overwhelmingly, one of the greatest stains on the conscience of humanity – the Holocaust. Winston Churchill was one of the main drivers of the Convention, it was largely drafted by UK lawyers and the UK was one of the first countries to ratify it in 1951.

This was the establishing of a simple set of minimum standards of decency for humankind to hold onto for the future. The European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR) was drafted as a lasting legacy of the struggle against fascism and totalitarianism.

Yet the HRA is quite often portrayed by the Right as a party political measure. However, whilst the Human Rights Act is ultimately recognised as one of the greatest legacies of Labour in government, Cameron seems oblivious to the fact that Human Rights are not objects to be bartered away. They arose from struggles that were begun long ago by past generations who gave their lives for these rights to be enshrined in our laws.

The case for the HRA is a strong one. It is a moral case based not only on learning from the history of some of the worst violations of human rights before and during the second world war, but also from recent history – the here and now. If a new settlement based on social inclusion and greater equality is to be reached, the HRA should not be viewed suspiciously, as a burden, but promoted as an instrument of equality, social cohesion and public purpose. It is expected of a democratic government to improve the understanding and application of the Act. That is an international expectation, also.

There is no justification for editing or repealing the Act itself, that would make Britain the first European country to regress in the level and degree of our human rights protection. It is through times of recession and times of affluence alike that our rights ought to be the foundation of our society, upon which the Magna Carta, the Equality Act and the Human Rights Act were built – protecting the vulnerable from the powerful and ensuring those who govern are accountable to the rule of law.

Observation of human rights distinguishes democratic leaders from dictators and despots. Human Rights are the bedrock of our democracy, they are universal, and are a reflection of a society’s and a governments’ recognition of the equal worth of every citizens’ life.

One sentence from the misleadingly titled document that outlines how the Tories plan to scrap the Human Rights Act – Protecting Human Rights in the UK, (found on page 6 ) – is particularly chilling: “There will be a threshold below which Convention rights will not be engaged.”

Basically this means that human rights will no longer be absolute – they will be subject to stipulations and caveats. The government will establish a threshold below which Convention rights will not be engaged, allowing UK courts to strike out what are deemed trivial cases.

The Tories’ motivation for changing our human rights is to allow reinterpretations to work around the new legislation when they deem it necessary. The internationally agreed rights that the Tories have always seen as being open to interpretation will become much more parochial and open to subjective challenge.

Any precedent that allows a government room for manoeuvre around  basic and fundamental human rights is incredibly dangerous.

During their last term, the Conservatives contravened the Human Rights of disabled people, women and children. It’s clear that we have a government that regards the rights of most of the population as an inconvenience to be brushed aside.

 

 

Watchdog that scrutinises constitutional reform is quietly abolished and Tory proposals are likely to lead to constitutional crisis.

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The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, which was originally established for the duration of the 2010 parliament, has been very quietly scrapped following a meeting of party whips.

Originally, the cross-party committee was established to scrutinise the plans of the Coalition government, such as the House of Lords Reform and the Alternative Vote – many of which never made it onto the statute books.

The parliamentary committee’s main role was to scrutinise proposed major constitutional changes. This undemocratic development is especially worrying given the likelihood of significant constitutional changes in the forthcoming parliament, with the referendum on  membership of the European Union set to be held within the next two years.

There are further plans for devolution of powers to Scotland and Wales, as well as to cities, and it is expected that these will be delivered at the same time as the government repeals the Human  Rights Act, and draws up a bill of rights to replace it.

Considerable doubt exists among experts that the Council of Europe, a human rights watchdog responsible for ensuring the Convention is upheld, will accept the Tories’ proposals. In fact the plans are highly unlikely to be accepted. As a result, it is quite widely believed Britain will disengage from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and undermine Europe’s’ civil liberties framework in the process.

Cameron has previously pledged to withdraw from the ECHR, indicating plainly that he is indifferent to the fact that such a withdrawal would very likely spark a complex constitutional crisis in the UK.

If the Human Rights Act is repealed in its entirety, the repeal will apply to the whole of the UK. The Scotland Act gives powers to the Scottish Parliament, provided that they comply with the ECHR (among other things). This would not change with repeal of the Human Rights Act alone.

However, human rights are also partially devolved (the Scottish Parliament, for example, has set up a Scottish Human Rights Commission), and so any unilateral repeal of the Human Rights Act by Westminster would violate the Sewell Convention, which outlines that the Westminster government will: “not normally legislate with regard to devolved matters in Scotland without the consent of the Scottish Parliament.” Nicola Sturgeon has stated clearly that the Scottish National Party oppose the repeal of the Human Rights Act.

And similar principles apply through the memoranda of understandings with each of the devolved legislatures in the UK.

In Northern Ireland, human rights are even further devolved than in Scotland, and the Human Rights Act (HRA) is explicitly mentioned in the Good Friday Act in 1998. To repeal the HRA would violate an international treaty as the Agreement was also an accord between two sovereign states – the UK and the Irish Republic.

Repealing the HRA unilaterally would put the UK in violation of the Good Friday Agreement, and its international treaty obligations to Ireland.  This would certainly damage our international reputation, as well as having consequences for the reciprocity on which the Treaty depends.

It’s quite possible that it would also be understood within Northern Ireland as a violation of both letter and the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement,  signalling that the UK government were no longer committed to the Agreement.

The Good Friday Agreement was also subject to a referendum in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, both having to consent for the Agreement to be implemented.  The referendum enabled the Agreement to have widespread legitimacy, but importantly, because it took place in both parts of Ireland, it answered historic Republican claims to be using violence to secure the “right to self-determination” of the Irish people.

It was also necessary to changing the Irish Constitution. So a unilateral move away from UK commitments carries serious bad faith and democratic legitimacy implications, potentially with deeply problematic historical consequences.

The Conservatives also have plans to reintroduce the redefining of parliamentary constituency boundaries in a way that will be advantageous to the Conservative party. It is estimated that the planned changes will help the Tories to win up to 20 extra seats at a future election.

It was during the last term that the proposals were originally put forward. Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs were joined by those of smaller parties – including the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the DUP,  the Greens and Respect – to defeat the proposals, giving them majority in voting down the Tory plans for boundary changes.

The Tories are also committed to implementing a form of “English vote for English” laws – a move which will further undermine ties within the UK. But this pre-election pledge placed an emphasis upon English voting rights to undermine the nationalist appeal of UKIP south of the Border, whilst spotlighting the constitution to bolster the Scottish National Party in Scotland, again using nationalism tactically  to disadvantage the Labour Party.

At a time when the government is planning potentially turbulent constitutional changes in the forthcoming parliament, the move to abolish the watchdog – The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee – will serve to insulate the Tories from democratic accountability and scrutiny.

The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee had instigated an inquiry in 2013 regarding increasingly inconsistent standards in the quality of legislation, which resulted in several key recommedations, one of which was the development of a Code of Legislative Standards, and another was the creation of a Legislative Standards Committee.

The government response was little more than an extravagant linguistic exercise in avoiding accountability, transparency and scrutiny. Having waded through the wordy Etonian etiquette of paragraph after paragraph in the formal responses to each recommendation, the meaning of each may be translated easily enough into just one word: no.

For example: “A bill when it is published is the collectively agreed view of the whole Government on how it wishes to proceed. The process by which it has arrived at that view is a matter for the Government, not for Parliament.”

“The Government does not believe that a Code of Legislative Standards is necessary or would be effective in ensuring quality legislation. It is the responsibility of government to bring forward legislation of a high standard and it has comprehensive and regularly updated guidance to meet this objective. … Ultimately, it is for Ministers to defend both the quality of the legislation they introduce and the supporting material provided to Parliament to aid scrutiny.”

It’s troubling that the House of Lords Constitution Committee raised concerns during the inquiry that there is currently no acceptable watertight definition of what constitutional legislation actually is. The current ad hoc process of identifying which bills to take on the Floor of the House of Commons in a Committee of the whole House lacks transparency: it is clear that differentiation is taking place in order to decide which bills are to be considered by a Committee of the whole House, but the decision-making process is “unclear.” The very worrying response:

“The Government does not accept that it would be helpful to seek to define “constitutional” legislation, nor that it should automatically be subject to a different standard of scrutiny. The tests suggested by Lord Norton and the list of characteristics suggested by Professor Sir John Baker are themselves subjective: whether something raises an important issue of principle, or represents a “substantial” alteration to the liberties of the subject [citizen], for example, are matters more for political rather than technical judgement.

Well no, such matters may be more for legal judgement, given the current framework of Human Rights and Equality legislation. The idea that the law is superior to the megrims of rulers is the cornerstone of English constitutional thought as it developed over the centuries. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights both refer to the Rule of Law.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, is the historic international recognition that all human beings have fundamental rights and freedoms, and it recognises that “… it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law…”

And of course there are implications for our current understanding of the word “democracy.”

Oh. There you have it: the government does seem to regard the liberty of citizens to be enclosed within their own doctrinal boundaries. Those Tory boundaries are entirely defined by partisan dogma and value-judgements, ad hoc justifications, all of which distinctly lack any coherence and rational expertise. Or independence and protection from state intrusion and abuse.

This is a government that has taken legal aid from the poorest and most vulnerable, in a move that is contrary to the very principle of equality under the law.

The Tories have turned legal aid into an instrument of discrimination. They have tried to dismantle a vital legal protection available to the citizen – judicial review – which has been used to stop the Conservatives abusing their powers again more than once. The Tories have restricted legal aid for domestic abuse victims, welfare claimants seeking redress for wrongful state decisions, victims of medical negligence, for example.

Reflected in many Conservative proposals and actions is the clear intent on continuing to tear up British legal protections for citizens and massively bolstering the powers of the state.

The hypocrisy is evident in that this is a government which claims to pride itself on its dislike for the state. But in every meaningful way, the Tories are vastly increasing state powers and intrusive authoritarian reach.

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Cameron pledges to leave the European Convention on Human Rights.

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BBC (Conservative) political editor Nick Robinson said a report written by a working group of Conservative lawyers has predicted that the so-called British Bill of Rights would force changes in the way the Strasbourg court operates. Robinson unbelievably quoted Theresa May on the radio earlier today, from this:

“We all know the stories about the Human Rights Act. The violent drug dealer who cannot be sent home because his daughter – for whom he pays no maintenance – lives here. The robber who cannot be removed because he has a girlfriend. The illegal immigrant who cannot be deported because – and I am not making this up – he had pet a cat.”

Of course this was a lie. At the time May made the bizarre claim, the Judicial Office intervened and stated “This was a case in which the Home Office conceded that they had mistakenly failed to apply their own policy – applying at that time to that appellant – for dealing with unmarried partners of people settled in the UK. That was the basis for the decision to uphold the original tribunal decision – the cat had nothing to do with the decision.” The recently “retired” Ken Clarke also clarified at a Telegraph fringe event that no-one had ever avoided being deported for owning a cat.

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Theresa May is far from alone amongst the Conservatives with a deep disdain for our obligations to uphold international human rights laws. It’s no surprise that David Cameron has also pledged to explore ways to leave the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) again, in the wake of the departure of his most senior legal advisor, according to the Daily Telegraph.

Ken Clarke said: “It is unthinkable for Britain to leave the European Convention on Human Rights,” as he also became a departing Cabinet minister. The Prime Minister is believed to have wanted rid of the Attorney General Dominic Grieve because he was supportive of Britain’s continued ECHR membership.

Labour has dubbed the Cabinet reshuffle “the massacre of the moderates”, pointing to the departure of pro-Europe and “One Nation” Tories such as David Willetts, Nick Hurd and Oliver Heald.

It’s long been the case that the Tories and the right-wing press have deliberately blurred the boundaries between the European Union and the European Council of Human Rights, which are of course completely different organisations. I assumed that this was a misdirection ploy.

However it is the case that the member states of the EU agreed that no state would be admitted to membership of the EU unless it accepted the fundamental principles of the European Convention on Human Rights and agreed to declare itself bound by it. I also think that Conservatives, who regard both institutions as “interfering”, do see the Union and the Council as the same in terms of both being international frameworks requiring the British government to have a degree of democratic accountability at an international level.

In his parting interview, Mr Clarke, who has held office in every Conservative government since 1972 and is also the party’s most prominent Europhile, said the debate was “absurd”.

“I personally think it’s unthinkable we should leave the European Convention on Human Rights; it was drafted by British lawyers after the Second World War in order to protect the values for which we fought the War for.” He’s right, of course.

The years immediately after the Second World War marked a turning point in the history of human rights, as the world reeled in horror of the Nazi concentration camps, there came an important realisation that although fundamental rights should be respected as a matter of course, without formal protection, human rights concepts are of little use to those facing persecution.

So in response to the atrocities committed during the War, the International Community sought to define the rights and freedoms necessary to secure the dignity and worth of each individual. In 1948 the newly formed United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), one of the most important agreements in world history.

Shortly afterwards another newly formed international body, the Council of Europe, set about giving effect to the UDHR in a European context. The resulting European Convention on Human Rights was signed in 1950 and ratified by the United Kingdom, one of the first countries to do so, in 1951. At the time there were only ten members of the Council of Europe. Now 47 member countries subscribe to the European Convention, and in 1998 the Human Rights Act was passed by the Labour Party in order to “give further effect” to the European Convention in British law.

Previously, along with the Liberal Democrats, Grieve was able to thwart attempts to reform the ECHR, and opposed pulling out altogether. The plan to reform it is being led by the Justice Secretary Chris Grayling but Grieve has pledged to continue to fight for Britain’s membership from the backbenchers. Though Clegg had agreed to a British Bill of Rights, he was strongly opposed to withdrawing from the ECHR.

Grieve understood that ECHR is about the fundamental rights of the citizen and ought to be cherished in the same way as the Magna Carta and Habeas Corpus are. But as we know, this is not a typical view amongst Conservatives, who frequently cite the same examples of “foreign criminals” being allowed to stay in the country as evidence it is “not working”.

The Prime Minister’s spokesman said that the sacking of Grieve had not led to a change in Government’s policy. However he pledged action if the Conservatives are elected next year without the Liberal Democrats: “If you are asking me about party manifestos, the Prime Minister has previously said that he wants to look at all the ways that we can ensure we are able to deport those who have committed criminal offences.”

Mr Grieve said he would defend human rights legislation from the back benches to “contribute to rationality and discourse”.

“If we send out a sign that human rights don’t matter, that is likely to be picked up in other countries which are also signatory states such as Russia.”

The Conservatives are very likely to go into the next election with a proposal to repeal Labour’s Human Rights Act, which enshrines the European Convention in British law, and replace it a British Bill of Rights. We have witnessed this Conservative-led government blatantly contravene human rights with policies such as the Bedroom Tax, the Legal Aid Bill, and there is a backlog of cases awaiting Hearing.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (established under Labour’s Human Rights  Act) have suffered significant cuts to funding, from 70 million when Labour were in Government to just 25 million since the Coalition took Office, up until 2012, with fears that this will be further reduced to just 18 million. This has meant severe staffing reductions, and a massive backlog of work, and at a time when many are seeking to bring forward cases regarding the impact of Government legislation.

Human rights were formulated to protect us from governments such as this one. This is a government that chooses to treat our most vulnerable citizens despicably brutally, with absolutely no regard for their legal and moral obligation to meet our most basic needs.

Such a disregard of fundamental rights is historically associated with despots and tyrants

It’s clear that this government see human rights as an inconvenience and an obstacle to their future policy plans.

A central tenet of human rights law is that all humans have equal worth. We know that Conservatives such as Cameron don’t hold that view, there is an inherent, persistent strand of Social Darwinism that is clearly evident in Tory ideology, manifested in their policies, and they prefer and shape a hierarchical society founded on inequalities.

Disregard and contempt for human rights has led to atrocities. Human rights are safeguards, they establish moral principles that set out certain standards of human behaviour, and they are universal, providing in principle social and legal protections for all.

We need to ask why would any government want to opt out of such protections for its citizens?

We know from history that a society which isn’t founded on the basic principles of equality, decency, dignity and mutual respect is untenable and unthinkable.

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Pictures courtesy of Robert Livingstone