Bill of Rights to be key election issue

9 April 2010 by

The Bill of Rights will be one of the major issues in the May 6th Election, even if it may not capture as much public attention as crime or the NHS. Whichever party (or parties) takes control after May 6th, their attitude towards the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) will have significant and long lasting consequences for the UK.

Joshua Rozenberg blogs today on his verdict of Labour’s record from 1997-2010. He says that the HRA is “what legal historians will remember as the defining reform of Labour 1997-2010 (if this year does, indeed, mark the end of an era). Even if the Human Rights Act 1998 is modified by an incoming government, it will not be repealed. There would be little point in doing so; no government would withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, jeopardising the UK’s membership of the Council of Europe and even of the EU.”

He continues:

I am closer to Dominic Grieve than David Cameron on this one. I don’t regard Labour’s “incorporation” of the convention into domestic law as a disaster. I saw it as a political imperative – although it was one that would never have happened if Lord Irvine of Lairg, who became Lord Chancellor in 1997 – had not hit the ground running. It is he, I believe, who devised the subtle “declaration of incompatibility” on which the entire Act rests, preserving parliamentary sovereignty while giving judges strong powers to “read down” legislation in a way that complies with human rights standards.

Robert Stevens writes in The Guardian this morning on the dangers of drawing back from the European Convention on Human Rights:

The convention helps to ensure compliance with human rights norms, with countries which fail to do so, like Belarus, internationally isolated by being excluded from the Council of Europe. Because of this, it is obviously important that signatory states do not get to interpret for themselves the convention’s open textured provisions. The ECHR, or equivalent body, is necessary if the convention is to fulfil its purpose. If we do not think Belarus should be free to interpret the convention in any manner it sees fit, the bargain is that we are not free to interpret the convention for ourselves either.

He also warns of the consequences of non compliance with decisions of the European Court of Human Rights, a view which the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, may disagree with:

If the ECHR holds that to be convention complaint the signatory states must take a particular action, for an English court to hold otherwise would place the United Kingdom, so far as the ECHR is concerned, in contravention of both the substantive human right violated and article 13.

We will continue to follow this issue closely in the run up to May 6th 2010. However, it is likely that the election will mark the beginning, not the end, of the debate. At present, the parties’ proposals on the Bill of Rights are still (perhaps deliberately) unclear. It is likely that only once the new Government is in place will its future plans for human rights in the UK be brought into sharper focus.

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