Tag: Human Rights Act

Theresa May considering scrapping Human Rights Act following Brexit

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The prime minister is to consider repealing the Human Rights Act after Brexit, despite promising she is “committed” to its protections, a minister has revealed. This is, after all, a government that has always tended to regard the human rights of some social groups as nothing more than a bureaucratic inconvenience. Many of us have been very concerned about the implications of Brexit for human rights in the UK.

The House of Lords EU Justice Sub-Committee has exchanged correspondence with the Government about clarifying the wording of the Political Declaration regarding the European Convention on Human Rights. 

There is no justification for editing or repealing the Human Rights 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 most vulnerable citizens 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.

Nonetheless, the government will decide on the future of the landmark legislation once “the process of leaving the EU concludes”, according to a letter submitted to a parliamentary inquiry.

This disclosure comes despite the Brexit white paper stating last year that the UK would remain in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), after  following a warning from the European Union (EU) that pulling out would jeopardise a future security deal. However, the prime minister has previously pledged to leave the ECHR, expressing frustration because there was no Commons majority for doing so. 

It is in this context of previous statements of intent that the wording of the letter was described as “troubling” by the Lords EU Justice Sub-Committee, which has warned that the letter casts doubt on more recent, repeated pledges from the government to protect the ECHR.

“Is the government sincere in its commitment to the ECHR?”, Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws, the committee’s chair, asked.

“If so, why has it failed to give assurances that it will not repeal or reform the Human Rights Act, which in essence incorporates the rights set out in the ECHR into domestic British law?”

The committee wrote to the Ministry of Justice after the alarm was raised by the wording of the political declaration, which was agreed with the EU in December alongside the legally binding divorce deal.

The declaration said the UK would merely agree “to respect the framework of the European Convention on Human Rights” – dropping the previous pledge of being “committed” to it. Previous plans to replace the Human Rights Act with a ‘British Bill of Rights’ appeared in the 2010 Programme for Government, and in the Conservative manifesto in 2015. included an emphasis on interpreting rights more subjectively, rather than regarding them as ‘absolute’. 

In response, Edward Argar, a junior justice minister, wrote: “The difference in wording does not represent a change in the UK’s position on the ECHR

A central tenet of our future relationship with the EU is our mutual belief in the importance of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

But he went on to suggest that the Human Rights Act may be scrapped when Brexit is concluded.

He wrote: “Our manifesto committed to not repealing or replacing the Human Rights Act while the process of EU exit is underway.” 

“It is right that we wait until the process of leaving the EU concludes before considering the matter further in the full knowledge of the new constitutional landscape.

Many Conservatives are critical of Labour’s Human Rights Act, claiming it gives “too many rights to criminals” and some have even claimed it undermines “personal responsibility.”

However, in 2015 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 aim.

It’s extremely worrying that a government thinks it should pick and choose which rights we are entitled to and select who they deem worthy of them. The whole point of rights and protections is that they are universal: they must apply to everyone equally in order to work at all.

It took people in the UK a very long time to claim the rights we have and we mustn’t let the Conservatives take them away with the stroke of a pen.

The peers said it would imperil human rights if the government “intend to break the formal link” between the UK courts and the EHCR.

Baroness Kennedy said: “Again and again we are told that the government is committed to the European Convention on Human Rights, but without a concrete commitment, and with messaging that is changing and becoming diluted.”

The government have played a long game, however, and have almost certainly always intended to repeal the Human Rights Act. One issue that prevented that happening over the last few years is the Good Friday Agreement, as the Labour government also committed to incorporate the European Convention of Human ECHR into the law of Northern Ireland and to the establishment of a Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. 

The politics of regression

In 2015, 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.”

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 state 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 Conservatives’ motivation for changing our human rights legislation is to allow reinterpretations to work around the new legislation when they deem it necessary. The internationally agreed rights that the Conservatives have always seen as being open to interpretation will become considerably prone to ideological bias, prejudice and open to subjective challenge.

Breaking the formal link between the European Court of Human Rights and British law would mean 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 profoundly disempower citizens because it will shift the balance of democracy completely, placing power almost entirely in the hands of the state.

Whatever constitutional or political configurations emerge following Brexit, the present threat to rights and equality is a major threat to citizens’ liberties and freedoms. It demands coherent and collective action in the public interest.  

 

Related

Concerns about the impact of Brexit on the human rights of disabled people in update report to UNCRPD

A strong case for the Human Rights Act

 


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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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A Tory Bill of Rights? We should be asking what could possibly go right

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Ministerial code amendment indicates a government that doesn’t like international transparency, accountability and scrutiny

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.”

The Conservatives have planned since 2010 to scrap the Human Rights Act (HRA), which was the previous Labour governments’ legislation, designed to supplement the European Convention on Human Rights. It came into effect in 2000. The Act makes available a remedy for breach of Convention right without the need to go to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

The citizen rights protected by the 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.

Cameron has argued that it should be repealed just 15 years after its implementation … so that he can pass another unspecified Act – a British Bill of Rights. Why would any government object to citizens being afforded such established, basic protections, which are, after all, very simple internationally shared expectations of any first world liberal democracy?

In the 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.

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

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 HRA is. The Act, after all, goes towards protecting the vulnerable from neglect of duty and abuse of power of the State. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was an International response to the atrocities of World War Two and the rise of fascism and totalitarianism.

During their last term, the Tories 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. 

The abolition of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee: some implications

Last year I also wrote about the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, which was originally established for the duration of the 2010 parliament and was very quietly scrapped following a meeting of party whips.

The cross-party Committee was primarily 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 this parliament, with the referendum on membership of the European Union set to be held.

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 finalises drawing 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 European Convention on Human Rights, 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 had 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  at the time 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.”

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. Without access to justice, we simply cease to be free.

The Tories have turned legal aid into an instrument of discriminationThey 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 a dislike for “big state” interventions. But in every meaningful way, the Tories are vastly increasing state powers and an all pervasive, intrusive authoritarian reach.

 

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Amnesty International UK poll shows little support for abolition of Human Rights Act

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In response to the atrocities committed during World War two, 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. It consolidates international laws and includes provision for the British public have their cases heard British courts instead of having to travel to Strasbourg.

We reported that the Government intend to controversially scrap the Human Rights Act by next summer, and replace it with a British “Bill of Rights.”

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 (ECHR), as some critics have feared, it will even mirror much of the ECHR language in an effort to “calm opposition.”

However, Amnesty International (UK) have commissioned a poll, and it seems that 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.

The poll results were released over the weekend, and also showed that almost half (46%) of people in the UK would not want to remove any of the rights currently included in the Human Rights Act from a new bill of rights. This said, a minority (16%) also felt that the death penalty should not be outlawed in a new bill.

The new ComRes survey found that more than three-quarters (78%) of people in the UK think that rights, laws and protections must apply to everyone equally in order to be effective, while 67% agree that governments should not be able to choose which rights they enforce.

Kate Allen, the Director of Amnesty UK, said the survey indicates that the Government should abandon its “ill-advised” plans to repeal the Human Rights Act because there is “simply no appetite” for it.

She 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.

“That includes people whose beliefs and actions we might profoundly disagree with, and it’s all the more important we stick to our enduring principles in challenging times.

“This is no time for the British government to set about dismantling and undermining human rights protections.”

We reported have that the government is currently facing investigations regarding serious allegations of contraventions of the human rights of disabled people and other protected social groups. The UK is also in breach of the rights of women and children.

A leak has revealed that Michael Gove will unveil British bill of rights to replace the Human Rights Act before Christmas. The justice minister is reportedly also seeking a “crackdown” on the so-called “human rights industry,” introducing measures intended to reduce the compensation individuals can win from public bodies following human rights claims.

Human rights groups have called the Government’s desire to scrap the  Human Rights Act “destructive”. The Ministry of Justice has of course claimed the details leaked over the weekend, were “speculation”.

The leaked draft proposals, which will be put out for a three-month consultation within weeks, indicate that the UK will remain a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights. However, domestic courts would not be “automatically bound” to follow European Court rulings and ministers are also considering ways of guaranteeing the UK parliament’s sovereignty explicitly in law.

Harriet Harman, who is now the chair of parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights, has written to Michael Gove, asking whether he could confirm that the government had officially ruled out withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights and if it would “abide by the final judgment of the ECHR in any case to which they are parties”.

I can quite understand her need for some clarity on this issue, as Cameron has previously pledged to leave the ECHR. The Sunday Times have released details of a leak revealing plans to scrap the Human Rights Act. Again.

Harman said: “In the first six months, government proposals have gone from a bill in the Queen’s speech to ‘proposals’ to ‘a consultation’. The timescale has moved from the first 100 days to this autumn and thenin a few months’ time‘.

“There is no more clarity about the government’s plans than there was back in May: we have no indication as to whether the government intends to publish a white paper, draft clauses or indeed a draft bill for pre-legislative scrutiny. It’s essential that such a vital issue is widely scrutinised and debated – and not just by politicians and lawyers. Twelve weeks is not enough.”

Lord Falconer, Labour’s Shadow Justice Secretary, responding to the reports in the Sunday Times of the Tories’ plans, said:

“These are ill-thought out, illiterate and dangerous plans. The Human Rights Act has helped some of the most vulnerable people in our society. To talk about a “victims’ culture” is shocking and clear evidence that the Tories are intent on reducing people’s fundamental rights.

“They say they don’t want to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights but their plans clearly show that they have misunderstood the relationship between our courts and the European Court and their approach could result in such tensions that we would have to withdraw. 

“For the Government to dither over this issue and send a message that it’s ok to pick and choose the human rights you like does incredible damage both at home and to the UK’s standing in the world.

“Labour will stand firm in support of the Human Rights Act and oppose any watering down of people’s fundamental rights.”

Equal access to justice and protection of universal Human Rights is the bedrock of democracy, the alternative to this is that some people simply cease to be free.

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.

Labour’s Human Rights Act ought to be a source of national pride. It is a civilised and a civilising law. It ensures that Britain remains a nation where key universal benchmarks of human decency and protections against state abuse are upheld by the courts. 

There is already a modern British bill of rights already. It is called the Human Rights Act.

Government turns its back on international laws, scrutiny and standards: it’s time to be very worried

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Concerns have been raised by lawyers and legal experts that Conservative ministers have quietly abandoned the longstanding principle that members of the government should be bound by international law.

The rewritten ministerial code, which was updated on October 15  without any announcement, sets out the standard of conduct expected of ministers, has been quietly edited. 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”.

Legal experts say key issues affected by the change could include decisions about “whether to go to war or use military force, such as the use of drones in Syria, any decision made by an international court about the UK and any laws not incorporated into English law, such as human rights legislation and the Geneva conventions.

Ministerial code changes between 2010 and 2015.
Photograph: Government handout – courtesy of the Guardian

This comes as the UK government is facing another United Nations inquiry regarding widespread allegations that the Conservative welfare reforms breach the Human Rights of disabled people. It also comes following the government announcement this week that there are plans to scrap the Human Rights Act by next summer, to replace it with a controversial “British Bill of Rights.”

Raquel Rolnik, the UN’s special rapporteur for housing, found the bedroom tax to contravene human rights and in 2013, she called for the Tory “spare room subsidy” to be suspended immediately. In a wide-ranging report she also calls for the extension of grants to provide more social housing, the release of public land, build-or-lose measures to target landbanks and increased private rented sector regulation. None of these are recommendations which the Conservatives have been remotely willing to entertain, instead they have directed hostility towards the United Nations.

The Conservatives have already taken away access to legal aid from the poorest and most vulnerable citizens, in a move branded contrary to the very principle of equality under the law. Last year, Grayling, then the Justice Secretary, was accused of turning legal aid into an instrument of discrimination by a court, because of his attempt to introduce a residency test to legal aid access, a move which exceeded his statutory powers when he devised it.

He has also tried to dismantle a vital legal protection available to the citizen – judicial review – which has been used to stop him abusing his powers again and again. Judicial review is the mechanism by which citizens can hold the government to its own laws. With the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill, the justice secretary tried to put it out of reach.

Grayling, suffered a defeat in the House of Lords vote on his plans to curtail access to judicial review, which would have made it much harder to challenge government decisions in court.

Peers voted by 247 to 181, a majority of 66, to ensure that the judges keep their discretion over whether they can hear judicial review applications after a warning from a former lord chief justice, Lord Woolf, that the alternative amounted to an “elective dictatorship”.

He has tried to restrict legal aid for domestic abuse victims, welfare claimants seeking redress for wrongful state decisions, victims of medical negligence, for example.

It’s very worrying that this is a government that wants to leave Europe behind and sever the connection with the European Convention on Human Rights.  It’s a government that wants to do as it pleases, free from international scrutiny and what it clearly sees as the constraints of international law and the judgments of international courts.

The Conservatives have demonstrated an eagerness to take away citizens’ rights to take their case to the European court, with many of their actions clearly based on an intent on tearing up British legal protections for citizens and massively bolstering the powers of the state.

The Guardian reports that a legal challenge against the change will be lodged on Friday by Rights Watch, an organisation which works to hold the government to account. Yasmine Ahmed, its director, 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.”

In his preamble to the new ministerial code, David Cameron says: “People want their politicians to uphold the highest standards of propriety. That means being transparent in all we do.”

However, I reported last year that in terms of international standards of conduct, the Conservatives are not doing well. Transparency International flagged up many areas of concern in their report: A mid-term assessment of the UK Coalition Government’s record on tackling corruption

The Cabinet Office has of course denied there was any intention to weaken international law and the administration of justice by omitting the phrases from the new code.

A spokesman said:

“The code is very clear on the duty that it places on ministers to comply with the law. ‘Comply with the law’ includes international law.

The wording was amended to bring the code more in line with the civil service code. The obligations remain unchanged by the simplified wording. The ministerial code is the prime minister’s guidance to his ministers on how they should conduct themselves in public office.”

However, a Conservative party policy document promises 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.”

Lord Falconer, Labour’s shadow lord chancellor, said:

“If this is what ministers are planning to do it is shocking. We are a country that prides itself on operating in accordance with the rule of law. That has always meant both domestic and international law.

This is a message we have sent out both internally and externally. If we are now regarding compliance with international law for ministers as optional that is staggering. If ministers breach international law it will no longer be misconduct.”

The Guardian cites Ken Macdonald QC, the former director of public prosecutions, who said:

“It is difficult to believe that this change is inadvertent. If it’s deliberate, it appears to advocate a conscious loosening of ministerial respect for the rule of law and the UK’s international treaty obligations, including weakening responsibility for the quality of justice here at home.

In a dangerous world, the government should be strengthening its support for the rule of law, not airbrushing it out of the ministerial code. On every level, this sends out a terrible signal.”

Ironically, on the same day that the new code was quietly released, the attorney general, Jeremy Wright, gave a keynote address about the importance of international law to an audience of government lawyers at the Government Legal Service International Law Conference.

Wright said:

“The constitutional principle to respect the rule of law and comply with our international obligations is reflected in the ministerial code – which applies to me as much as to any other minister. The code states that there is 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.”

It is not clear whether or not the attorney general was informed about the changes to the ministerial code at the time of his speech. Both the Cabinet Office and the attorney general’s office have declined to answer this question.

Tory ministers are a major source of national embarrassment when they denounce the European Court of Human Rights whilst instructing the rest of the world, including other European states, to respect our collective international human rights obligations and “the rule of law.” Human Rights legislation exists throughout the free world. Free speech, the right to a fair trial, respect for private life and the prohibition on torture are values which distinguish democratic societies from despotic states.

There is no justification for editing obligations to upholding international laws, human rights or for repealing the Human Rights Act: 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.

Update: Former head of government’s legal service says obligation that ministers must comply with international law – dropped from revised ministerial code – had irritated PM: No 10 ‘showing contempt for international law’


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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.

 

 

UN report: Britains ‘boy’s club culture’ – women in the UK are left vulnerable to violence, poverty & hardship


I wrote last year that Conservative small-state ideology has led to “depopulated” social policies, resuting in the dehumanisation of people in some social groups, and it indicates that Tory policy-makers see the public as objects of their policies, and not as human subjects. Policies are inceasingly being detached from public needs. We therefore need to ask whose needs Conservative policies are fulfilling.

In 2010 the Equality and Human Rights Commission warned the government about its potential failure to meet its legal duties. This followed concerns raised by the Fawcett Society amongst others, regarding the estimated grossly disproportionate impact of the austerity cuts on women.

The Commission recognised the serious concerns about the impact of the deficit reduction measures on vulnerable groups and, in particular, following the House of Commons library report, the impact of the budget on women. The Commission stated:

We have written to the Treasury to ask for reassurance that they will comply with their equality duties when making decisions about the overall deficit reduction, and in particular in relation to any changes to tax and benefits for which they are directly responsible.”

A more inclusive understanding of the range of impacts on both men and women is essential in the formulation of gender-aware, as opposed to gender-blind, policy responses to recession and recovery. It’s clear that the UK government is not interested in collating information regarding impacts and subsequent implications regarding inequality, yet they do have a legal duty to do so.

A previous United Nations Committee report on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women highlights areas where women’s rights in the UK had come to a standstill and appallingly, shamefully, some rights have been reversed.

On August 13, 2013, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women released its concluding observations on the UK’s seventh periodic report on 26 July 2013.

Concerns raised by the Committee include protection from discrimination under the Public Sector Equality Duty, the impact of austerity measures on women and women’s services, and restrictions on women’s access to legal aid.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) published its submission to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women on 1 July 2013. In its submission the Commission, as a national human rights institution, identifies key issues it believes should be highlighted as actions following the examination and sets out a number of questions the Committee may wish to put to the Government. You can see a full list here – UK Government still in breach of the human rights convention on gender discrimination.

Despite Labour’s protective Human Rights Act and Equality Act, Britain has become increasingly sexist, has an all-pervasive, patriarchal “boy’s club culture” and Conservative austerity measures are leaving women increasingly vulnerable to violence, poverty and hardship, the UN special rapporteur for women, Rashida Manjoo, has recently said.

The special rapporteur said there was “a more visible presence of sexist portrayals of women and girls” and a “marketisation of women’s and girls’ bodies” in the UK, which was “more pervasive than elsewhere.”

She warned that sexual bullying and harassment were now “routine” in UK schools, according to NGOs she had interviewed, and recommended that schools have mandatory education modules on sexism. “The state has a responsibility to protect, to prevent, to punish, to provide effective remedies,” she said. “These are part of the state’s responsibility.”

Rashida added: “Have I seen this level of sexist cultures in other countries? It hasn’t been so in-your-face.”

Amongst the figures quoted in her report are: 30% of women in England and Wales have reported experience of domestic abuse since the age of 16; 77 women were killed by partners or former partners in 2012-13; 18,915 sexual crimes against children were recorded in England and Wales in 2012-13; and almost one in three 16- to 18-year-old girls have experienced “groping” or other unwanted sexual touching at school.

The special rapporteur also drew attention to the disproportionate impact of funding cuts on the provision of services to women and girls at risk of violence, and the adverse consequenes of the Tory welfare “reforms.”

Access to trauma services, financial support and housing are crucial, yet current reforms to the funding and benefits system continue to adversely impact women’s ability to address safety and other relevant issues,” Rashida said.

She added that the austerity cuts “not only [affected] the specific provision of ‘violence against women’ services’, but also had a more general impact as poverty and unemployment were known contributory factors.”

“Service providers argue that they are being forced to make cuts to their frontline services as a result of reduced funding, whether by closing refuges, reducing support hours, or increasing waiting lists … current reforms to the funding and benefits system continue to adversely impact women’s ability to address safety and other relevant issues.”

Manjoo also heavily criticised the bedroom tax, she recognised that it makes it very difficult for women to escape domestic violence. She also attacked the Conservative government’s austerity programme.

She said: “Austerity measures are having an effect on the provision of services to address violence against women, as well as other cross-cutting issues affecting women such as poverty and unemployment.” 

Rashida Manjoo quite properly condemned the lack of human rights-driven government measures to combat violence against women and girls.

The special rapporteur, who travelled across the UK during a 16-day fact-finding mission into violence against women, said she was barred at the gates of Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre on Monday, on instructions “from the highest levels of the Home Office”.

Manjoo received reports of violations at the privately run Yarl’s Wood centre, near Bedford, before her visit to the UK, and said she wanted to verify the allegations of abuse. Last month a Jamaican woman, Christine Case, 40, died at the centre, which holds about 400 women.

After repeated unsuccessful requests to the Home Office, the investigator attempted an independent visit to Yarl’s Wood. Under the terms of her mandate, Manjoo should have been offered unrestricted access.  A Home Office spokesperson said a tour of Yarl’s Wood “was never agreed as part of this fact-finding mission.” 

So much for democratic, open, transparent and accountable government.

In her preliminary report, (and unsurprisingly,) Manjoo said the number of women detained in prisons and immigration centres in the UK was rising, with a significant over-representation of black and minority ethnic women.

“A large number of women in detention have a history of being subjected to violence prior to being imprisoned … the strong link between violence against women and women’s incarceration, whether prior to, during or after incarceration, needs to be fully acknowledged,” she said.

Manjoo also said the UK court system is “widely perceived to be biased in favor of men.

Rashida Manjoo’s full 24 page report is expected to be published later this year and will be presented at a meeting of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on Tuesday.

The report’s findings echo the views of  many campaigners, including hundreds of psychotherapists, counsellors and mental health practitioners, who in April used a rallying, open letter to the Guardian to warn against “malign” welfare reforms and severe austerity measures.

The group of signatories, made up of therapists, psychotherapists and mental health experts, said Britain has seen a “radical shift” in the mental state of ordinary people since the coalition came to power.

British society has been “thrown completely off balance by the emotional toxicity of neoliberal thinking” and the distress this is causing and the wide adverse effects of this ideology are particularly visible in therapists’ consulting rooms.

This letter sounds the starting-bell for a broadly based campaign of organisations and professionals against the damage that neoliberalism is doing to the nation’s mental health,” they added.

A democratic government, especially in a very wealthy, so-called liberal first-world country, is expected to reflect and accommodate the needs of a population in its policy-making, and to formulate policies within a human rights framework.

That clearly is not happening in the UK.

 

Related

Welfare reforms and the language of flowers: the Tory gender agenda

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Pictures courtesy of Robert Livingstone


I don’t make any money from my work. But you can support Politics and Insights and contribute by making a donation which will help me continue to research and write informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others. The smallest amount is much appreciated, and helps to keep my articles free and accessible to all – thank you. 

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The Labour Party tells David Cameron to abandon plans to dismantle the Human Rights Act

936319_485819054820961_1954794757_nA group of senior Labour Party figures have said that David Cameron should drop his plans to dismantle the Human Rights Act.

In a joint letter, headed by acting leader Harriet Harman and Lord Falconer, the Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, the Prime Minister is asked to abandon his plans to scrap the Act entirely.

Harriet Harman said: “What an irony that yesterday the Prime Minister was presiding over the celebration of Magna Carta at the same time he’s planning to undermine the Human Rights Act.

“No wonder that though he mentioned human rights in South Africa – and preyed in aid Nelson Mandela – and mentioned human rights in India – and preyed in aid Ghandi – he could not bring himself to mention Europe and our Convention.”

The Human Rights Act is a UK law passed by the Labour government in 1998. It means that you can defend your rights in the UK courts, instead of having to travel to Strasbourg – and that public organisations, including the Government, the Police and local councils, must treat everyone equally, with fairness, dignity and respect.

The Human Rights Act protects all of us – young, old, rich and poor. It originates from an international response to the atrocities of World War Two, including the Holocaust and fascist regimes. The Human Rights Act consolidates much of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, 1948.

The whole point of Human Rights is that they are universal. Yet despite this, the Government wants to replace our Human Rights Act with their “British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities”. This would weaken everyone’s rights, they would become open to subjective interpretation – leaving politicians to decide when our fundamental freedoms should and should not apply.

This is the same Conservative Party who despise open justice, who have destroyed legal aid and tried to destroy Judicial Review. This is the same Party that thinks they are above the Rule of Law. It is the same Party that has systematically dismissed the Human Rights of disabled people, women and children.

The letter to David Cameron says:

Dear Prime Minister

As you are aware, this year is the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta, a year to celebrate Britain’s role as a guarantor of individual rights. Yet, as we celebrate this great landmark, the commitment to individual human rights now appears to be under threat.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights – adopted in 1948 – which Conservative politicians contributed to – enshrines:

  • The right to life, liberty and security
  • The right to a fair trial
  • Protection from torture
  • Freedom of thought, conscience, religion, speech and assembly
  • The right to free elections
  • The right not to be discriminated against

Which of these rights do you not agree with?

Defending the Human Rights Act and our membership of the European Convention on Human Rights is not straightforward because it often involves defending the rights of an unworthy individual from a legitimate authority, or the rights of an unpopular minority from a popular majority.

The Human Rights Act is always going to be a nuisance to those in power because it stops them getting on and doing things unconstrained. But there is an inherent susceptibility for those who have power to extend it, to over-reach and ultimately abuse it. And that is irrespective of how legitimate that power is, how they acquired that power and whether or not they think they are doing the right thing.

So it is right that government ministers should have to look over their shoulder and that their power is tempered by other people’s rights. And we do need to have our executive and our legislature set within a framework of human rights.

This is important to people’s human rights here in Britain and for the human rights of those in other countries. If we were to walk away from our international human rights treaty obligations, we would not be able to press other countries to respect human rights. We cannot say to others in Europe – particularly Eastern Europe – that they should stay within a European framework but that we have somehow outgrown it, or don’t need it anymore.

Human rights are part of, not at variance with, our British values and they matter for our place in the world.

We understand you have put your plans on hold for a year, while you work out exactly how you will go about the dismantling of our human rights laws.

We ask you today to abandon your plans entirely, and as a result of the public interest in this issue, will be releasing this letter to the media.”

It is signed by the Rt Hon Harriet Harman MP, Interim Leader of the Labour Party, and the Rt Hon Lord Charles Falconer QC, Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice.

The letter is also signed by Andy Slaughter, shadow minister for justice, Lord Bach, shadow attorney general, Karl Turner, shadow solicitor general, Keir Starmer MP, Baroness Corston, former chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Baroness Kennedy QC and Kate O’Rourke, chairman of the Society of Labour Lawyers.

Related:

A strong case for the Human Rights Act

Human rights are the bedrock of democracy, which the Tories have imperiled.

15553155399_94869b2dcd_oMany thanks to Rob Livingstone for his excellent memes

 

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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Human rights, the reintroduction of hanging and what we have lost

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Michael Gove, former Education Secretary, has been appointed Justice Secretary: he is now in charge of the Department for Justice. With this appointment, it is clear that Cameron has plans for potentially radical reform, and regards justice as an area that needs a hardened, radical and senior Tory politician to drive through changes that are likely to be controversial. Gove does have form.

Gove’s first task is to scrap the Human Rights Act, (HRA) which was the previous Labour government’s legislation designed to supplement the European Convention on Human Rights, it came into effect in 2000. The Act makes available a remedy for breach of Convention right without the need to go to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

As I have previously reported, the rights protected by the 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.

Cameron has argued that it should be repealed just 15 years after its implementation … so that he can pass another unspecified Act – a British Bill of Rights. Why would any government object to citizens being afforded such established, basic protections, which are, after all, very simple internationally shared expectations of any first world liberal democracy?

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.

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 HRA is. The Act, after all, goes towards protecting the vulnerable from neglect of duty and abuse of power of the State. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was an International response to the atrocities of World War Two and the rise of fascism and totalitarianism.

During their last term, the Tories 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.

I also previously reported that Cameron has pledged to leave the European Convention on Human Rights. Cameron has expressed a wish to break the formal link between British courts and the European Court of Human Rights. In future Britain’s courts will no longer be required to take into account rulings from the Court in Strasbourg.

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. But the government have an ideology that is founded on distinctly social Darwinist principles.

These principles support economic neoliberalism and political conservatism. Class/social division is justified on the basis of “natural” inequalities among individuals, for the control of property is ludicrously claimed to be a correlate of superior and inherent moral attributes such as industriousness, temperance, and frugality. Attempts to reform society through state intervention, therefore, interfere with natural processes; unrestricted competition and defense of the status quo are in accord with biological selection, from this perspective. The poor are “unfit” and should not be supported and aided; in the struggle for existence, wealth is a sign of success. The Tories believe that some lives, therefore, “naturally” have much more value than others.

Gove, now the Justice Secretary, has previously called for hanging to be reintroduced. Writing in 1998 as a Times columnist, he said Britain was “wrong to abolish hanging” in the 1960s, when the death penalty was outlawed. Gove made the irrational claims that banning hanging  had “led to a corruption of our criminal justice system and the erosion of all our freedoms rather than “a great liberal victory,” as it was seen at the time.

Gove made the incoherent claim that banning hanging has made punishing innocent people “more likely,” he went on to conclude that public opinion had moved in favour of reintroducing hanging and that doing so could repair the broken trust between voters and politicians. Gove said he supported the “return of the noose out of respect for democracy”, and because it would force the courts to act with “scrupulous fairness.”

This deranged, barbaric relic actually said: “Hanging may seem barbarous, but the greater barbarity lies in the slow abandonment of our common law traditions. Were I ever alone in the dock I would not want to be arraigned before our flawed tribunals, knowing my freedom could be forfeit as a result of political pressures. I would prefer a fair trial, under the shadow of the noose.”

At the beginning of the 19th century, children in Britain were punished in the same way as adults. They were even sentenced to death for petty theft. It has historically been the case that the poorest tend to be executed, and it remains true: there are no millionaires on death row (See also: Amnesty International UK – Death penalty.)

In 1965, in the UK, Parliament passed Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act, temporarily abolishing capital punishment for murder for 5 years. The Act was then renewed in 1969, by the Labour government under Harold Wilson, making the abolition permanent.

And with the passage of Labour’s Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and their Human Rights Act 1998, the death penalty was finally officially abolished for all crimes in both civilian and military cases, also.

The Human Rights Act is to be abolished, and Cameron has pledged to withdraw from the European Convention. In case you missed the connection, repealing the Human Rights Act will make the reintroduction of capital punishment much easier. The full range of potential consequences of losing our human rights laws are truly terrifying to consider.

For those of you that have campaigned against the Labour Party, claiming that they aren’t quite “left” enough, despite the fact that Miliband was actually offering the most progressive, redistributive policies of ALL the parties, and smaller cuts and for less time. (I guess some of you never bothered reading the Institute of Fiscal Studies Report, or Labour’s manifesto).

Under a Labour government, our Human Rights, NHS and welfare would now be safe. The bedroom tax would now be repealed. We would be rebuilding and making progress as a society instead of regressing and fearfully discussing the threats of tyranny and the possibility of the reintroduction of capital punishment.

We are about to lose everything that made us a civilised first-world country, from our human rights to our post-war settlement: welfare, our National Health Service and what remains of our access to legal aid.

Until the people of this country take some responsibility and demand that politics is based on truth and the needs of the majority, we will continue to have a corrupt authoritarian elite serving only the wants of the 1%.

Love and solidarity to all my comrades, who are mutually grieving a future we have lost, and who acknowledge and face the losses yet to come.

It’s never been more important to help each other through, and we really are going to need to.

Many thanks to Robert Livingstone for his excellent memes.