There has been little public information about the working of the Human Rights Act and it suffers from myths, which the Government is now using to tell us what a good thing it is to scrap our rights.
But the public benefits hugely from this law.
This is so in Northumbria where, like everywhere else, ordinary people have used it to assert or protect their rights against bureaucracy or officialdom, against over-bearing, unfair or neglectful public authorities. That’s why the Labour Government introduced it in 1998.
It empowered our British courts to enforce the rights we signed up to in the European Convention on Human Rights in 1951, but which were hard to fight for while the only route was to go to the European Court in Strasbourg.
In June, the Supreme Court found that the Government owed a duty of care to properly equip and train soldiers sent to war. The case was brought using human rights laws by families of several soldiers who, like some north eastern lads, were killed in battle in Iraq or Afghanistan.
They argued to save other young men, the Ministry of Defence had a duty of care to provide troops with adequate protection and that this had been breached.
When one family was made homeless the council took action to find new places for the two children to live, but did not do the same for their mother. A law centre helped the family to take legal action, arguing that separating the children, one of whom is disabled, from their mother would breach their human right to private and family life.
An elderly couple was threatened with separation by their local social services department who wanted to move Mrs V to a care home that was too far away for Mr V and other members of the family to visit. Mr V successfully challenged this decision using the right to family life protected by the Act.
The Act puts a duty on the state to protect people against breaches of key rights by other people. This is especially helpful for victims of crime.
Police must protect people’s right not to suffer from inhuman or degrading treatment and serious crimes inflict just that. This rule will be there to help children in Rotherham to make the police investigate abuse and not neglect it as they did in the past.
Of course, the presence of these rights in national law has given thousands of people a tool to argue for better and fairer public services, without ever needing to go to court.
Some myths about it need busting. It was reported in 2006 that Police gave fried chicken to a suspected car thief fleeing police and besieged on a roof ‘because of his human rights’. There is no human right to a KFC. This was part of the negotiating tactics that encouraged him to come down.
Nor is there a bar to deporting someone because he has a British cat, as Theresa May once claimed.
Foreign criminals have tried to rely on right to a family life in the UK but the courts can interfere with that right in the public interest. Whether a foreign criminal stays or goes is a balancing act.
The controversial case was when an appeal to the Strasbourg Court blocked deportation of radical cleric Abu Qatada. That was not to protect his family life but through fears about torture in his home country.
What followed was sensible. The Home Secretary agreed a new treaty with Jordan, guaranteeing him a free trial and he was deported in July 2013.
The Courts of England and Wales must ‘have regard’ to the rulings of the Strasbourg Court not necessarily follow them, but controversy came when it declared that the UK is wrong in not allowing even short term prisoners to vote. MPs rejected a plan to let under four years prisoners vote and the judgment has never been implemented.
Chris Grayling has suggested that a ‘British Bill of Rights’ would better protect our home-grown values, but the current rights were mainly created by the British after World War 2 and already represent our values.
Grayling’s notion is, as the former Tory Attorney General Dominic Grieve has said, ‘legally illiterate’ because our current rights are the ones in the Convention and unless we leave the Council of Europe (which oversees the Convention) we still have those rights, even if there was a different British Bill.
Grayling has also raised the possibility of leaving the Council of Europe unless the other 46 members agree that, solely in the UK, the Strasbourg Court should be reduced to an advisory role. Here the issue becomes not only a legal mess but a moral one.
No other modern democracy has abandoned the principle of international human rights which are there to stop any national Government from violating its people rights, as the Nazi Government did with Jewish people.
Britain is a good democracy but it is not perfect. Rights for gay people to serve in the military; for male widowers to be entitled to a widow’s pension and for the abolition of the fixed retirement age at 65 were all brought about or influenced by proceedings at the Court, sometimes against the wishes of our Government, in favour of ordinary people.
This brings us back again to the point. Human rights do not favour the bad against the good. They help ordinary people. No wonder this elitist Tory Government wants rid of them.
- Vera Baird QC, is Police & Crime Commissioner for Northumbria.