June 25, 2006

A New Bill of Rights

Writing about web page http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/politics/5114102.stm


David Cameron has suggested that the Conservative party could scrap the Human Rights Act (HRA). This suggestion has also come from Tony Blair over the past few months (though strangely it was Blair who passed the law). The Human Rights Act, it is argued, gives too many rights to criminals and not enough protection to the population at large.

Cameron's suggestion differs from that of Blair because he is suggesting getting rid of the HRA but introducing a Bill of Rights for the UK, along the lines of the American on (though evidently different from the English Bill of Rights, which was passed in 1689). Cameron said that the current HRA is both giving too many rights to criminals whilst failing to protect civil liberties, a new act would be an attempt to reverse both these trends.

For my part, I would argue that this is desperately needed. We are losing rights every day because the current government's attitude is “even if it isn't broke… introduce more laws”, a tribute to that never give up, never think things through, attitude. The 90 day detention was a case in point; there is no need to have any length of detention without charge over and above about 24 hours. If you suspect that someone has committed a crime then you should charge them, at least then they know what they are meant to have done and can try and produce some counter evidence. This was a horrific breach of civil liberties which we couldn't stop because the laws which forbade it were seen to be too old, too remote and not clear enough. The 90–day law clearly breached the Habeas Corpus Act (1679) but this is still just a law, and Parliament can get rid of or over right any law it wants. If we have a new Bill of Rights it could be set up in such a way that it cannot be easily overwritten or changed.

It is also not too difficult to see examples of criminals been given too many rights. An example is the man who whilst escaping from the police climbed on top of a house. He threw bricks and tiles at the police and yet the police was bound to provide food for him because to not do would go against his “human rights”.

We clearly need a new set of rules which everyone can see, understand and feel confident with. A new Bill of Rights is a very good start.

- 5 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. We should be protecting the Human Rights act, not undermining it. It feels weird criticising this post, since I agree with quite a few points. For example, the 90 detention attempt was in fact overriding the Human Rights Act, as does the other stains on the legislative carpet like the Terrorism Bill and all its derivatives.

    A few specific points:

    not enough protection to the population at large

    I wouldn't support a Human Rights bill that was aimed at supporting the majority. This completely undermines the idea. It is to protect those that need protecting the most.

    [The HRA fails] to protect civil liberties

    You can't argue this point whilst simultaneously stating that it gives "too many rights to criminals". The rights decribed by the act are universal, hence there is either too many rights or too few, make the call..

    Finally, the much publicised example:

    …the man who whilst escaping from the police climbed on top of a house. He threw bricks and tiles at the police and yet the police was bound to provide food for him because to not do would go against his “human rights”.

    I remember when this was happening, and didn't actually know what was going on or why the man was on the roof, except for what the police said (ie he was running away from them). What was largely a peaceful "protest" (inverted commas since it was more of a self–protection display), except for him throwing tiles at local youth taunting him below, was resolved in a non–violent, unforceful fashion. We should be applauding the police in this case.

    Human rights are universal, not simply kept for the "population at large". This attitude will always leave those that need protection the most on the fringes of society having a 'boot stamp on their face for eternity' (to paraphrase Orwell).

    26 Jun 2006, 20:11

  2. James

    "We clearly need a new set of rules which everyone can see, understand and feel confident with. A new Bill of Rights is a very good start"

    Are you kidding? When was the last time a bill of rights – be it the European Convention on Human Rights, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the US Constitution, the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, or whatever – constituted a set of rules which everyone could understand? Each one of those documents necessarily sets out very broadly worded rights which then gives the courts a very wide discretion to apply as they see fit. The American version is an exception, in that a number of rights are stated absolutely, eg Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech. This would rule out all kinds of IP and copyright law, protection of military secrets, etc etc. So the courts indulge in silly intellectual gymnastics whereby anything they want to allow is called 'speech' and anything they don't they reclassify as 'action' or some other form of 'non speech'.

    We have human rights closing in on all sides. As well as the ECHR, there is the threat of the European Constitution, which contains similar but not identical rights, and if passed would be interpreted by a different court (European Court of Justice, not the European Court of Human Rights). Now Cameron's is bearing down on us. We also have some vestiges of the common law left, which used to be thought sufficient protection of liberty along with the two tiers of Parliament.

    Law isn't law if it isn't knowable in advance. There will always be gaps, ambiguities and contradictions in the law; it's unavoidable given the complexity of human affairs including the English language. But we're not really helping ourselves with all these broadly worded documents which will be interpreted by unelected judges as they see fit.

    28 Jun 2006, 15:29

  3. James

    I have read a little more about Cameron's proposal, without gaining any more enthusiasm. I have written about it on my own blog link

    Essentially Cameron's proposal involves handing a lot more power to judges, and I'm not sure why anyone's enthusiastic about that.

    29 Jun 2006, 10:08

  4. Joe

    I think the idea is that judges will be able to look at our own fundamental law and then will be able to know what we, as a people, think on these issues. I think the hope is that whilst it will not bind the HRA on what is seen as the most basic of rights (which would be included in our bill anyway) this will say that what we, as a people, think on what we might call the peripheral issuses of the HRA will take precedence over the interpretation of judges in Euro–land.

    29 Jun 2006, 10:55

  5. James

    It would be a good thing to get our interpretation of the HRA away from Europe. European judges have an alarming propensity to ignore whatever constitutional document they're considering and just come up with whatever they feel is socially appropriate. This isn't surprising: the European Court of Human Rights comprises judges selected on very different grounds to our own. Even the High Priest of the Human Rights movement in Britain, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, criticised their appointments process as 'too political'. If he, the apologist for all things ECHR, is moved to say that, it must be a sorry state of affairs indeed.

    You've missed the point though. What "we the people" think won't be set out in detail on any issue, but will necessarily be contained in a very broad set of general statements that the judges will be able to construe every which way. That is so under the Human Rights Act and it will be so under Cameron's alternative. 'Twas ever thus in the world of written constitutions.

    In any event, the point of these documents is mostly to protect minorities, and thus go against what a 'majority' of people might like. But again it will turn on what the judges fancy. It is conceivable that they might decide that fox hunting is a way of life of a minority, and thus the ban is a breach of the hunters' rights under art 8 of the ECHR. But then again they might not. Look at the mess they all got into about the schoolgirl who wanted a different form of Islamic dress than her school allowed. Was all that suitable material (excuse the pun) for unelected judges to be involved in? A very learned judge in the High Court decided one way; very learned judges in the Court of Appeal decided another; very learned judges in the House of Lords went back again.

    29 Jun 2006, 11:22

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