Human Rights in the UK: does the General Election matter?

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Speech by Rt Hon Simon Hughes MP, Minister for Justice and Civil Liberties
Monday 23rd March 2015, King’s College London

Like all of you, I studied law. I am a human rights lawyer by training, including working for a time at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg dealing with human rights applications from this country. 

Human rights has been an issue that I have cared passionately about all my life. I have always sought to protect and defend human rights during the 32 years I have been a Liberal Democrat MP – the rights of my constituents just over the river from here in Bermondsey and Old Southwark, and more widely as legislation is taken through the House of Commons.

That passion is why I agreed to become a Justice Minister in the Coalition just over a year ago - because I believed so strongly that defending human rights at home and abroad was absolutely vital.

Not least when they are under political attack - as I believe they are – and I am going to say a little about why that is this morning.

In exactly six weeks we will be entering the final week of the 2015 General Election campaign.

With the two largest parties neck and neck in the polls - and consistently so - I predict it will be one of the closest elections ever fought.

And I think it is highly likely, certainly on the basis of the low combined levels of support for the two largest parties, that we will again see no single party able to form a majority in the House of Commons.

We also go into the election with a political party, Ukip, committed to withdrawal from the European Union. And standing on an explicitly anti-immigration and anti-human rights ticket. Whether they can translate their apparent support into seats under our electoral system, we shall see.

More concerning is the fact that we go into this election with one of the two largest parties – the Conservatives – pledging that, if elected and able to govern alone, they will repeal the Human Rights Act.

Even more significantly for the UK’s future as a member of the international community, they have said that a majority Conservative government would also be prepared to walk away from the European Human Rights Convention. And, at the very least, they have committed to weakening its application in the UK.

So my argument this morning is a straightforward one: yes, this election does matter. And it matters for the UK’s commitment to human rights, perhaps more than any previous election.

And before I get into my argument let me make one appeal: I hope, whatever your political beliefs, whatever your views, and whether you have yet made up your mind about which party to support, that you will all - at least - make sure you are registered to vote. And, on May 7th, that you will exercise your democratic right….. a right not enjoyed in many, many other parts of the world and for which we all owe a debt to those who fought and campaigned for that right over many hundreds of years.

So, what are the human rights we are talking about and why do I think they matter? And why, specifically, do I think the European Human Rights Convention and Human Rights Act are so important.

Let me talk about some real people – people who I think would say, if they were here, that the European Human Rights Convention and the Human Rights Act mattered hugely to them at difficult times in their lives, when the state did not appear to be on their side.

Nadia Eweida worked for British Airways. She was a Christian and she chose to wear a necklace depicting a symbol of her religion - the Christian cross.

In 2006 her bosses at BA told her to cover it up. She refused and was placed on unpaid leave. BA argued that, in their view, wearing a cross was not necessary in Christianity in the way certain religious garments are a requirement of other faiths, such as the Muslim faith. There was a huge public row and, in the end, BA backed down.

Nadia Eweida nevertheless took her case to the European Court of Human Rights – it was heard in September 2012. The case was against the UK government for failing to provide domestic law to protect the claimed rights under the Convention.

And in January 2013, the Human Rights Court – sitting in Strasbourg – found in favour of Ms Eweida and judged that her rights under Article 9 had been breached. Put simply, their judgment was that British Airways had not struck a fair balance between her religious beliefs and BA’s wish for employee’s to conform to a particular corporate image.

Many people felt, me included as a Christian, that this was the Court absolutely doing its job and demonstrated one of the key purposes of the Convention – to protect an individual’s right to freedom of religious expression.

Now let me tell you about a couple, Richard and Beryl Driscoll.

They had lived together for more than 65 years until, in 2006, Mr Driscoll was moved into a residential care home. They were both 89 years old and totally reliant on each other. He could not walk unaided and she was blind, relying on her husband as her eyes as he relied on her for his mobility.

Understandably they wanted to remain together, but the authorities – in this case Gloucester County Council – said it wasn’t possible to accommodate them in the same nursing home. This couple who had been inseparable since they married in 1940.

She told the local paper at the time: "I'm completely lost without him. I'm heartbroken without him. Sixty-five years is a long time, I can't go on like this. We have always been together. Everywhere we went, we went together." Mr Driscoll said: "It should not be allowed. She is the best thing that happened. I love her very much, she is my backbone."

Thanks to the media attention and a campaign that argued that their treatment breached the Human Rights Act – and, specifically, their right to a family life, the council backed down and the couple were reunited.

It’s difficult to believe that, without the protection afforded to them by the Human Rights Act, there would have been a happy ending.

The Act rightly places public authorities in the UK under an obligation to treat people with fairness, equality and dignity.

Time and time again, the European Court of Human Rights and the Human Rights Act have been all that has stood in the way of injustice, most usually against the individual by an over-powerful state.

Real cases. Real lives.

And there are many, many examples – some of which you may well have studied.

Immigrants being charged a fee to get married unless they had a Church of England wedding. Banned in 2010 in the case of O’Donoghue and Others v the United Kingdom – a violation of the right to marry: Article 12 of the Convention.

A stepfather who repeatedly hit a child with a wooden case - ruled unlawful by the European Court in 1998 in the case of A. v the UK, after a domestic court had accepted it was reasonable chastisement. Article 3 of the Convention meant it was a violation of the child’s right not to experience inhuman or degrading treatment.

Until 2004 – in this country - it was possible for two men to be prosecuted for having sex if one of them was aged 16 or 17 even though it was perfectly legal for an opposite sex couple.

That inequality under the law was only removed as a result of an ECHR ruling, in B.B. v. the UK, that Article 8 - the right to a private life - had been violated.

The ECHR hasn’t just protected individuals, but the freedom of the press. The Sunday Times won an important victory in 1979 that forced an injunction to be lifted which was preventing them from reporting on the thalidomide scandal. Why? Because Article 10 protects their right to freedom of expression.

The right to privacy in Article 8 was the reason that, in 2008 - in the case of S. and Marper v. the UK - it was ruled that the police could not store the DNA of people who had been acquitted or released without charge.

And, in 2002, Christine Goodwin - a male to female transsexual – asked the European Court of Human Rights to determine whether there had been a violation of her right to respect and family life under Article 8. Why? Because she was not entitled to any legal recognition of her changed gender and had no right to marry. Her victory was a huge step forward in the battle for trans equality.

Real cases. Real lives.

You’d think that there should be no argument about the benefits brought by the European Court and our own Human Rights Act – but you’d be wrong.

For the last fifteen months I have been a Minister in the Ministry of Justice. I work with the Secretary of State, Chris Grayling – who, as you’ll know, is also the Lord Chancellor.

Our politics could probably not be further apart, but we work together. We both have to compromise and neither of us always gets our way. That’s the nature of Coalition politics.

In December 2013, Chris Grayling said that he thought that the European Court of Human Rights did not – and I quote – “make this country any better”. He has said that he would abolish the Human Rights Act tomorrow.

I could not more fundamentally disagree.

When you listen to those cases - and those are just a tiny handful of the many, many other times when the ECHR and Human Rights Act have made a real difference to people’s lives – I do not see how anyone could believe that our legal obligations under both the Convention and the Act have not made our country better.

It is nothing less than a lifeline to protect citizens against being unfairly treated.

Thankfully, despite the Lord Chancellor’s view of the European Court of Human Rights and the Human Rights Act, he has not been able to do anything in this parliament to weaken either.

And the only reason that is the case is because he, along with the Prime Minister and the wider Conservative Party, have been prevented from doing so by the Liberal Democrats.

Whatever flack gets thrown at us for going into government, that alone satisfies me that we did the right thing – although, of course, I would argue that there are many other reasons and achievements too.

When the Coalition Agreement was negotiated back in 2010, we insisted that the text clearly committed the Government to – and I quote – “all our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, ensures that these rights continue to be enshrined in British law, and protects and extends British liberties.”

And that is precisely what we have done over the last five years.

But as we head towards that election in a little over six weeks’ time, the battle for those hard-won human rights is going to have to happen all over again.

The Tories have again made clear that, if elected and able to govern on their own, they will scrap the Human Rights Act. And they have threatened to walk away from the European Convention on Human Rights with no guarantee about what would come in its place.

They say that they want to restore to our domestic legal system, and to Parliament, the role as final arbiter of human rights. Yet, the nonsense of their position is that this is already the case.

The Supreme Court must absolutely consider judgments made in Strasbourg, but it is equally entitled to take a different view.

Parliament should absolutely consider judgments made in Strasbourg, but it is entitled to determine how it responds to those judgments – as we’ve seen most recently over the issue of whether prisoners should have a right to vote.

Their attacks on the Court and the HRA are built on a legal misunderstanding – a convenient one nonetheless.

I honestly find it incredible that the party of Churchill (other than when he was a Liberal!) and a party that, this year, is happy to be at the forefront of celebrating the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, cannot bring itself to defend a Court and a Convention over which Britain played such a crucial role in establishing after the Second World War.

Sadly the few voices speaking up for human rights in the Tory Party have been ruthlessly silenced. Ken Clarke and William Hague have gone or are going. And Dominic Grieve, who described the Tory proposals as a ‘car crash’ was sacked as Attorney General despite praise for his work. We will be willing to work with him and others in all parties to defend human rights in the months and years ahead.

I am very clear. I believe that these rights should be above party politics.

Just remember what these rights actually are, and then consider how extraordinary it is that any British Prime Minister does not feel able speak up for them:

o   the right to life;

o   the prohibition of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; 

o   the prohibition of slavery and forced labour; 

o   the right to liberty and security of the person; 

o   the right to a fair trial; 

o   prohibition of punishment without law; 

o   the right to respect for private and family life; 

o   the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; 

o   the right to freedom of expression; 

o   the right to freedom of assembly and association; 

o   the right for men and women to marry and found a family; 

o   the right to peaceful enjoyment of personal property; 

o   the right to education; 

o   the right to free elections; 

o   and the prohibition of discrimination.

Surely these are unarguable – but apparently not.

And that is why I believe that this General Election matters for human rights.

Now, some people may say: but surely Labour are committed to human rights, so what would be the problem with a majority Labour government?

After all, the Human Rights Act was introduced on their watch. It was and I give them credit for that. It followed a long campaign by Liberal Democrats, not least by Anthony Lester who sits for us in the House of Lords. He campaigned for thirty years to make the European Human Rights Convention directly enforceable in British courts and introduced two Private Members' Bills on the subject which became models for the Human Rights Act 1998. 

The reason I urge caution on Labour is because of their record on human rights and civil liberties when they were in office.

Many of those cases I talked about earlier were defeats of that Labour government in the European Court. To give just two examples: the cases that led to an equal age of consent and the repeal of the ban on gay people serving in the Armed Forces. In both cases, the Labour government was only forced into action having fought, but been defeated, in both cases. 

And then I look at Labour’s record on civil liberties. It’s been left to the Coalition to roll back the state again.

We’ve scrapped ID cards, removed millions of innocent people from the DNA database, ended child detention for immigration purposes and stopped fingerprinting at schools without parents’ permission. And we have halved the period of detention without charge, which Labour had tried to increase to 90 days.

So you’ll have to forgive me if I am unwilling to give them the benefit of the doubt on whether they will do better next time – not least under sustained pressure from parts of the press.

To defend and protect human rights we are going to have to take on and challenge those myths that are whipped up by the Daily Mail, by Ukip and by many Tories.

For example, the suggestion that withdrawing from the ECHR would suddenly see all the issues to do with immigration or deporting criminals resolved.

What they never say is that this is nonsense: because we would still be bound by international treaties that even the Tories don’t dare threaten: such as the UN Convention Against Torture and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. 

None of this means that we should be willing to support reform to the European Court. As a Liberal Democrat, I am a natural reformer. And it’s very clear that there are ways that the Court works that need to be updated, not least to deliver faster justice. 

The backlog of cases is unacceptable. There are also decisions made at a European level that probably should, in reality, be made by national governments and we can work in partnership with other signatories to take forward change.

But, I believe, to walk away from the ECHR would remove at a stroke our moral authority on human rights when we engage with other countries around the world. To join Belarus – a dictatorship - as one of the only European nations not to be a signatory. 

It would send a signal to governments, including in Europe, that they would no longer be held to a standard that we ourselves no longer were willing to hold ourselves to. Just imagine the signal it would send to Vladimir Putin?

So, Liberal Democrats will go into the election with a clear principled position. We will defend absolutely the European Convention on Human Rights and the UK’s position as a permanent signatory to it.

But we will also go further. We believe the time has come for a written constitution with a British Bill of Rights. The Commission on a Bill of Rights we set up in 2011 looked at this. It failed to come to a unanimous view because the Conservatives saw it as an opportunity to weaken the ECHR, not complement it and strengthen it. The Liberal Democrats are committed to a constitutional convention after the general election and this should be central to its work.

So my conclusion this morning is this:

Yes, this General Election matters for human rights.

I believe that the Conservatives have demonstrated that they care less about the rights of British citizens than they do about losing to UKIP.

The plans they have set out make no sense. You simply cannot protect the human rights of Brits and pull out of the system that protects them.

And I believe there are good reasons not to trust Labour who, too often, cave in to populism when it suits them.

Liberal Democrats have always been 100 per cent clear that we will not allow the Tories or any other party to take away the hard-won human rights of British people, whether it is when they are in the UK or travelling or living anywhere else in Europe.

The fight for human rights in this election is on.

It’s a fight we should all care about.

And it’s a fight that, I am determined, we will win.

ends