Are human rights to blame for the riots?

16 August 2011 by

Many explanations have been proposed for the recent British riots, including poor policing, Twitter and violent video games. Yesterday, the Prime Minster suggested that the Human Rights Act is to blame.

In a major speech, he said that when considering questions of attitude and behaviour, “we inevitably come to the question of the Human Rights Act and the culture associated with it“. What is “exerting such a corrosive influence on behaviour and morality“? No less than “the twisting and misrepresenting of human rights in a way that has undermined personal responsibility“.

I have four points to make about the speech.

First, this is a pretty bold statement. The Prime Minister does not explain in any detail how the causal chain runs between legislating the protection of human rights to the collective looting of a Footlocker shop. His case is not quite as tenuous as historian David Starkey’s indictment of rap music, but it is pretty thin.

And it is hard to see how the main bugbears of human rights detractors, such as the inability to deport foreign criminals as a result of family rights, have anything at all to do with the riots, even in the most tenuous sense.

Secondly, the Prime Minister may be right but not in the way that he intended. If there is any connection to be drawn between the riots and “the twisting and misrepresenting of human rights”, a case could be made that it is mainstream politicians’ longstanding opposition to the Human Rights Act that has done real damage.

Cameron says that we are “proud to stand up for human rights”. But when was the last time he or a senior politician publicly supported the decision of a judge in a human rights case? The Prime Minister has been variously “uneasy“, “appalled” and “physically sick” over recent rulings. Alex Salmond, his counterpart in Scotland, has been just as scathing; he said that the UK Supreme Court made judgments “in favour of “the vilest people on the planet”, prompting today’s resignation of Lord Steel from his post advising the Scottish government. It is hard to see how respect for the rule of law – lacking in the first days of the riots – is encouraged by such comments.

Many politicians have campaigned to scrap the Human Rights Act for years. They have been cheered on by journalists in the tabloid press and Daily Telegraph who have consistently maligned and misrepresented human rights law. This corosive hum of discontent has obscured many of the good things human rights law has achieved, including prompting the laws which convicted the phone hackers.

Thirdly, whatever the Prime Minister says and however much he rages against rights culture, very little will change during this administration. As The Economist’s Bagehot points out,”politicians confident that they can actually change something tend to avoid phrases like: “We’re working to develop a way through the morass by looking at…”

The Coalition’s Bill of Rights Commission, the Prime Minister’s answer to the problem posed in his speech, is effectively impotent as it has no remit to recommend full or even partial withdrawal from the European Convention or European Court of Human Rights. This was an early concession to the Liberal Democrats, and given its adversarial composition – effectively four members who like and four members who dislike the Human Rights Act – it is hard to see how the Commission will reach any creative solutions to the problems which have emerged since the Human Rights Act began operating in 2000. As the Prime Minister said, change will be “frustratingly slow”.

Finally, any politician who claims to be “proud to stand up for human rights” should remind the public that nearly every protection under human rights law – for example the rights to privacy, freedom of expression and freedom of religion – need not be enforced by a public authority if a policy legitimately and proportionally protects the public.

This is a reasonable get-out clause for public authorities and particularly the police, who have a wide discretion to do things like publish photographs of alleged rioters . So human rights, if properly enforced and not misrepresented, should allow for the protection of the public whilst still ensuring that the state has not “abused and eroded fundamental human freedoms and historic civil liberties“. That is a quote from the Coalition’s 2010 Programme for Government. May 2010 is starting to seem like a long time ago.

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  1. John Dowdle says:

    Stephen: thank you for your most interesting clarification regarding bank transfer payments. I also want to support your stance against state intrusion into individual privacy. I would argue that the state-citizen relationship is subject to a zero-sum game outcome. The more power the state gets, the less remains for the individual. Eventually – as you have pointed out above – we end up with a state so powerful that it is no longer capable of being checked.
    I cannot help but feel that Cameron’s commission of enquiry into human rights is largely a waste of time as the probability of the UK derogating from the provisions of the ECHR would be so low as to be unimaginable. How can the UK government adopt a high moral or ethical tome towards other governments if it itself has derogated from szome of the provisions of the ECHR? It simply will not happen.
    “Things got out of hand & we’d had a few drinks. We smashed the place up and Boris set fire to the toilets.” 1986 – David Cameron
    “The looting and arson last night were criminality, pure and simple. Justice will be done and the people will see the consequences for their crimes” 2011
    – David Cameron

  2. maggie says:

    Sadly under the so called human rights, it is the children who are the most at risk, with many children taken on a whim by social services, then sold via the foster and adoption agents, who are paid billions of pounds a year, the human rights for children have stated children should have a say in their lifes, but every child in this country is denied that right and so for thousands a year are sold, and the parents or grandparents have a gagging order placed on them, when all these fasmilies wanted to do was to stop lies deceit and to give the children of this country their human rights. So lets do as this country has always done, have more meetings at the tax payers expence for what, days out of the office, and children will still go unheard, is it any wonder they are rioting on the streets, we need to take back the communities we once had, it was after the world war 2, when Goverments decided to build high rise flats break up the communities and make us all into a nation with no rights.

  3. Stephen says:

    @ John Dowdle
    If a bank or other relevant entity suspects that a transaction has a dubious source then it is legally obliged to report the transaction to the Serious Organised Crime Squad. The transaction is then frozen pending authorisation by SOCA for the transaction to proceed. There is no de minimus – in other words, the amount concerned could be a low as 10 pence. It is a myth that £10,000 is the reporting threshold. The reporting entity is obliged to lie to the affected party about the processing delay, otherwise it is deemed to be tipping off. Tipping Off is an imprisonable offence.

    Delays are likely to occur when individuals are seeking power of attorney. A bank is likely to proffer all sorts of excuses for the delay, such as, “you didn’t supply your middle name”, “we have lost the file”, etc, when, in fact, the applicant is being investigated by SOCA. Cases of suspected minor tax evasion, e.g. undeclared income (cash jobs) must also be reported to SOCA as a suspected money laundering offence. Tax evasion, however minor, is now a predicate offence for the offence of money laundering. So the plumber doing a cash job which he or she does not declare can be convicted of money laundering, an offence carrying a sentence of 14 years in prison. Moreover, the plumber’s accountant is legally obliged to report the suspected tax evasion to SOCA without the plumber’s knowledge.

    @ Father Donegal
    So the State never makes mistake, eh? Innocent people were never hanged, eh? So the State’s motives are always pure, eh? The State, or the individuals who work for it, never pursue their own private, or twisted, agendas, eh?

    The point about placing limits on State power and granting citizens civil liberties is to protect the innocent from unnecessary State intrusion and the abuses of power that inevitably follow. Do you really want to suspend civil liberties and human rights? There are many books about Germany under the Nazis or under the Stasi. They illustrate the type of Society you seem to wish upon us all. Well worth a read, I would say. Innocence is no defence when human rights and civil liberties have been revoked. Think on.

  4. Blaming human rights is not very constructive. And the search for a single, isolated cause is futile. Here’s a much fuller and more holistic article explaining the causes of the riots:

  5. John Dowdle says:

    I am a supporter of People’s Pledge, an organisation committed to demanding that all prospective parliamentary candidates sign-up to a pledge to hold a referendum on continuing UK membership of the EU. I hold no particular for or against position on the issue; I just feel that the UK electorate have never been consulted on the issue and – with the obvious agenda of a United States of Europe clearly facing us all – I think it is right and democratic that the people of the UK should make a once-and-for-all-time determination on this issue.
    I am, of course, aware that UK membership of the EC/EU converted the status of UK residents from being subjects of the crown to citizens of the EU – the first time, really, that people in the UK had become citizens since, at least, 1066.
    We should not lose our human rights and liberties in the event of the UK leaving the EU – if that should happen. It might be the case that an updated UK Bill of Rights may have a role to play in the event that the UK leaves the EU, so the current enquiry being held on this topic may yet have an important role to play in all our futures.
    With regard to money transfers, I believe delays usually occur if the amount being transferred internally exceeds £9,999.99; it may also be similar when tranferring moneys to overseas accounts, though I do not know if any limits apply in this case.

  6. Stephen says:


    Yes, I agree with you. I suspect most UK citizens are completely unaware of the Money Laundering Regulations and the POCA. They will not know that their bank transactions are being monitored and that any exceptional transaction is being reported to Serious Organised Crime Squad. Nor will they know that the law now compels, under threat of imprisonment, Lawyers, Accountants, Estate Agents, Banks and myriad other organisations to be the unpaid informants of the State merely on grounds of “suspicion”. The State is indeed now watching its citizens in ways about which they have no inking. So next time a bank transaction takes a long time to be processed, be afraid. It is likely that the transaction has been reported to the Serious Organised Crime Agency and has been frozen pending investigation. All this on the basis of suspicion – it could well be, and probably is, a completely innocent transaction.

    1. FatherDougal says:

      ‘…The State is indeed now watching its citizens in ways about which they have no inking…’

      Why is that a problem for any geniune, law-abiding decent and honest person? I often walk through Birmingham City Centre and see a deluge of CCTV. Does it bother me? No, Why? because I know I am not doing anything wrong and I know that the coverage is likely to catch the feral youth of today marauding through out streets, towns and Cities.

      1. Stephen says:

        If I am doing nothing wrong then the state has no need and indeed no right to monitor me. The British state is out of control. It squanders hundreds of millions of pounds listening into electronic communications that it should not be monitoring and watching people that do not need to be watched (CCTV and ANPRS). There is a word for the state’s behaviour and it is paranoia. Interestingly, however, when its agents kill innocent people, it is a very different story and it proves quite impossible to bring the criminals responsible to justice. Scratch any ‘democratic and liberal’ politician’ and you find a latent tyrant underneath. Governments should fear the people. The people should not fear the government. The previous Labour regime took this country to the edge of tyranny and it is clear that this government loves the unaccountable power so much that it is disinclined to repeal Labour’s repressive laws..

  7. Sorry but going further than human rights act we look at the role of French Revolution’s product ‘Right of Man’

  8. obiterj says:

    Who seriously trusts modern British politicians to exercise the “supremacy of Parliament” responsibly? In recent times, the European Convention on Human Rights has been and remains about the only basic guarantee of freedom for the British citizen. Even that is, strictly speaking, open to the right of Parliament to withdraw.

    Having said this, it is rapidly becoming more seriously arguable that the UK would be better out of the EU with its insistence on the “Eurozone” and the recent agreement between Germany and France to support this at the UK’s expense. (Many arguments could be found by eurosceptics to support withdrawal). Should such arguments prevail then it would not be exceptionally difficult to pull out of the Council of Europe either. Withdrawal from that would enable the UK to pull out of the European Convention.

    Sadly, I fear that Cameron’s working party looking at the UK and the Convention has got off to exactly the start he wanted.

    We live in not only interesting but also dangerous times from a viewpoint of maintaining our freedoms.

  9. Tim says:

    Well done, I completely agree.

    Right-wing “logic” has often been disjointed and upside down, fiddling ill-fitting jig-saw pieces into place to make whatever surreal picture they want.

  10. Tara Davison says:

    I expect a Totalitarian society would suit Mr Cameron he would than be able to remove the last of British (England and Wales) Citizens civil liberties and give the Police even more Power than they have now.

    These Children and Young People have grown up in multicultural nightmare without even the basic rights which we had, they are spied on and controlled by the State from birth conversely their parents have no right to discipline them or choose which school they go to.

    Bring back the community, give power back to parents and the people and return civil liberties. Roll back the intrusion and oppressive society of the last 12 years and make being born free mean something again.

    These riots have nothing to do with the Human Rights Act, if we did not have the Human Rights Act then this country would descend into total chaos because there would be no-where ordinary people could obtain even the simplest of justice.

    As I write the Police under the Proceeds of Crime Act have the right to enter any man or woman or child’s home on mere suspicion and remove everything they own from a piece of paper to a their gold jewellery or their inherited antiques and freeze all their assets before charge and without evidence.

    The few rights we have retained are by virtue of the Human Rights Act and without this we would be a totally oppressed people.

    1. FatherDougal says:

      Return ‘Civil Liberties’ you say, I think that is the problem, society have, contrary to what you suggest, been given to many civil liberties. What is required is the reverse – for civil liberties to be restricted.

  11. By and large, I agree, Adam.

    What I fail to see is how a repeal and replacement of the HRA with another instrument, perhaps a Bill of Rights, could solve what the Prime Minister perceives to be the problem.

    By their very nature, human rights – whatever their incarnation or legal basis – are protective. Thus they will always be cited in defence by those who break the law and face punishment.

    Accordingly, human rights will always be derided and criticised by those frustrated by this tactic.

    I am not satisfied that reframing rights’ legal basis could prevent this. As you rightly point out, the HRA and ECHR already qualify most rights in circumstances where a contradictory policy would legitimately and proportionately protect the public.

  12. Excellent post Adam.
    I was shocked to hear that this was Cameron’s response to the riots; his statement is not at all helpful for the perception of human rights in the UK. Already we have a culture whereby human rights are perceived as somehow ‘ridiculous’ (not helped by some of the UK media coverage) and this just adds fuel to the fire. I have see Cameron’s statement – that the ‘twisting and misrepresenting of human rights… [has] undermined personal responsibility’ – all over the internet, in some cases, it has been interpreted, worryingly, as a direct attack on human rights. Even so, I’m not sure I really understand what he means. The very point about personal responsibility is that it is personal: each person takes responsibility for his/her own actions and accept the consequences which ensue. Surely a few questionable judgements from the ECHR cannot undermine something as fundamental to the human condition as this. I’m glad Cameron has also started exploring other avenues as a response to the riots…

  13. public_lawyer1986 says:

    “But when was the last time he or a senior politician publicly supported the decision of a judge in a human rights case?”

    I like this. When was the last time you hear the PM or a senior politician publicly support a HR decision which only serves to obstruct them in going about their business…

    1. mike farrell says:

      personally, since enactment, I have not seen a single example of politicians supporting the use of the Human Rights Act by the courts. That is not to say that it may not have happened. at some point. In the distant past.

  14. Stephen says:

    The Human Rights Act has nothing to do with the riots.

    The art of government is to keep the separate social classes which comprise Society happy, not to represent a particular class at the expense of other classes/social groupings. This notion used to be subscribed to by the Tories and was known as “One Nation Toryism”. Since Thatcher, despite her many virtues, the Tory party has governed in favour of big business and the bankers and has shown almost complete indifference to the rest of Society. Brown and Blair, in their lust for power, continued with factional Tory policies and failed to address the growth of a “chav” underclass.

    The riots are a symptom of governmental failure Cameron’s attempt to blame the HRA for the riots is an attempt to evade government responsibility for the riots. Ironic really, considering how he and the political class is now introducing the concept of “responsibility” into its rhetoric.

    There is more to the art of government than Thatcher and her successors dreamed of in their philosophies.

  15. mike farrell says:

    being in favour of and standing up for human rights, which is the right thing to do can only be likened to hefting sandbags against a flood just now. it seems that no matter what the issue in question, our government and in particular prime minister is prepared to spin any issue unfavourably against the human rights act. the simple fact is that they dont like it and are willing to do anything and say anything to get rid of it, and not for the benefit of those who elected them regardless of the electorates own personal stance on the subject. dark days indeed. keep up the good fight against it is all i can say.

  16. John Dowdle says:

    Adam: I think you are being a bit too hard on poor young David Cameron.
    I believe we should all be standing shoulder to shoulder with him in condemning absent parents who can’t be bothered to raise and guide their own children, even if they send them to private fee-paying schools like Eton.
    The spectacle of those young toughs engaging in outright wrecking behaviour and running riot in eating and other establishments is utterly unacceptable, even if it is members of the Bullingdon Club, who have the cash to pay off the people who have been upset by them afterwards.
    Lets face it, poor young David Cameron has a remarkable insight all of his own into dysfunctional families and anti-social behaviour to draw upon as he has been at the centre of most of these sorts of activities himself for longer than he might care to want to remember.
    Of course, it is so much easier to claim that the real problem has been permissive attitudes among the liberal establishment stretching back decades.
    The only problem with this claim is that the sort of riotous behaviour he complains about has only happened under his government (and the last Conservative government). Strange, is it not, that we only ever see this sort of riotous behaviour whenever there is a Conservative-controlled government in office. I wonder why that is?
    More to the point, will it get any better under his premiership? Any bets on it?

  17. Great article. Some further developments today:

    Nick Clegg says European court of human rights “isn’t working properly” –

    And: Government orders all public authorities to review approach to human rights to ensure ‘twisted interpretation’ isn’t having a ‘chilling effect’:

    The latter could prove interesting as in essence it demands a programme of education for all public sector bodies and their staff…..wonder who’ll be funding that?

  18. ian says:

    Human Rights my hoopajoop?

    It’s lazy bone idle immoral scum who sense an easy opportunity to make a fast buck whilst everybodies back is turned. Stick em all in the army for nine months and watch it stop in nine months.

    Those who like to carry guns, send em to Afgan if they want a fight, give em a fight and see how brave they are!

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