The Coalition Government has presented its legislative agenda for the coming year in the Queen’s Speech. Below are links to some of our previous posts which address some of the proposed policies.
The full line-up of bills announced can be found on the Number 10 website, or you can also read the full transcript. Our analysis of the Coalition’s human rights policies is here. The list will probably not be exhaustive, as some of the promises made in the Programme for Government may be instituted via secondary legislation or attached to other related Acts of Parliament.
One notable absence is any mention of reform to extradition policy (see our post from yesterday). The Programme for Government included the promise to “review the operation of the Extradition Act – and the US/UK extradition treaty – to make sure it is even-handed.” Liberty, the human rights organisation, had already welcomed the change in a statement on Monday. The family of Gary McKinnon would have also been waiting for this, as Mr McKinnon is currently awaiting a decision from the new Home Secretary as to whether he will be extradited to the United States on computer hacking charges. That being said, a change to the extradition arrangements may be included in another bill, although this seems unlikely.
The Economist has provided a useful analysis of the Coalition Government’s proposed policies on civil liberties.
The article highlights the fact that the policies detailed may not represent the transformative change which Nick Clegg suggested in his reform speech, but rather “uncontroversial quick wins” which will be dwarfed in policy terms by the incoming government’s policing and immigration policies:
The disagreements can probably be haggled away, with the Lib Dems getting their way (eventually) on human rights in return for agreeing to control orders. Coalition government is such a novel and interesting thing that almost any fudge or u-turn can be passed off as a natural product of the “new politics”, at least for now. Continue reading →
The Electoral Commission, an independent body which sets standards for the running of elections, has released its report on problems experienced by voters during the 2010 General Election. It calls for “urgent action” to ensure that “the restrictive rules which prevented participation should be changed”. This has probably opened the door to legal claims.
The Interim Report found that at least 1,200 people were still queuing at 27 polling stations in 16 constituencies at 10pm. It concludes that the main contributing factors to this problem were:
Evidence of poor planning assumptions in some areas.
Use of unsuitable buildings and inadequate staffing arrangements at some polling stations.
Contingency arrangements that were not properly triggered or were unable to cope with demand at the close of poll.
Restrictive legislation which meant that those present in queues at polling stations at the close of poll were not able to be issued with a ballot paper.
We posted earlier this week on whether those who were locked out from voting in the 2010 General Election can claim for compensation under the Human Rights Act 1998 (read our post here). Liberty are asking spurned voters to contact them with a view to further legal action. But Joshua Rozenberg argues in this morning’s Law Society Gazette that those voters will face significant difficulties finding a legal remedy.
Our post concentrated on potential remedies under the Human Rights Act 1998, highlighting that the European Court of Human Rights has been reluctant to award monetary compensation in the past. The European Court has generally held that the “just satisfaction” remedy under human rights law was fulfilled by the fact that criticism from the court would lead to a change in the respective State’s voting system. As such, financial compensation to reflect the breach of the voters’ rights was not seperately awarded. It should be noted, however, that many of the recent cases involved prisoners and ex-convicts being barred from voting. We concluded that
Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, has already said that the problem “shows a lack of foresight and preparation”, so it seems unlikely that voters will be left without a remedy, and that may come in the form of compensation probably by way of an out of court settlement… However, how much that will be is by no means clear, and it may be difficult to prove in practice that a person was prevented from voting as a direct result of administrative difficulties.
What about trying to get the election re-run in a constituency where a lot of people were unable to vote? A dissatisfied voter may present a petition which may be tried by an election court. But there is little chance of a second poll unless the number of people who were locked out in a particular constituency is more than the winning candidate’s majority. Even then, there might need to be some evidence that the non-voters were likely to have supported the candidate who came second rather than, as seems more likely, that they would have voted in proportion to the constituency as a whole.
That is because section 23 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 says that ‘no parliamentary election shall be declared invalid by reason of any act or omission by the returning officer or any other person in breach of his official duty… if… the election was so conducted as to be substantially in accordance with the law as to elections and the act or omission did not affect its result’.
It will be clearly be difficult for spurned voters to bring claims. However, there is a strong duty imposed by human rights law on the State to conduct free and fair elections. Further, it seems that at least some of the constituencies where voters were turned away were ultimately decided by a small majority. This is unsurprising, as one would expect turnout to be higher in places where people expect the vote to be close. So, the uphill climb which spurned voters face may still lead to some kind of legal remedy.
The appointment of Ken Clarke as the new Justice Secretary may have saved the Human Rights Act 1998 from repeal. The Conservative plans for the Act to be replaced with a Bill of Rights may be scrapped in any case under the full terms of their agreement with the Liberal Democrats. In the mean time, supporters of the Act will be encouraged by supportive statements by the new Justice Secretary.
The policy agreement between the two parties has now been published, and the Human Rights Act is notable by its absence under section 10, entitled “Civil Liberties”, which promises to “reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties under the Labour Government and roll back state intrusion“. What the agreement does promise, amongst other things, is the scrapping of the ID card scheme and the Contact Point Database, extending the scope of the Freedom of Information Act and protecting the right to trial by jury. There will also be a “Great Repeal” or “Freedom” bill.
No withdrawal from the European Convention
Whilst the Human Rights Act is not mentioned in the document, its supporters will take heart at the new Justice Secretary Ken Clarke’s comments on today’s BBC The World At One. He said ”We are not committed to leaving the European Convention on Human Rights, we have committed ourselves to a British Human Rights Act. We are still signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights”. He continued that he has “also got to see when the coalition agreement is completed how high a priority this is going to be given.”
Whilst he may have hedged his answer, Mr Clarke gave an even clearer indication of his views in 2006, when David Cameron first announced his plans to repeal the Human Rights Act. He said that “I think he’s going to have a separate task force on the Bill of Rights, isn’t he? He’s going out there to try to find some lawyers that agree with him, which I think will be a struggle myself.” Even more strikingly, he went on to describe the presentation of the Act as a foreign invention to be “anti-foreigner” and that “I think the Convention of Human Rights was written by a Conservative lawyer after the war. It was a British document“.
Ken Clarke, well known within his party as a fan of European integration, is to be the new Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice. Like his predecessor Jack Straw, he started out as a barrister and became a QC in 1980 whilst he was already part of the Thatcher Government. His views will be key in shaping the new Government’s policies towards civil liberties.
Safety for the 1998 Act?
The coalition partners have opposing policies towards the Human Rights Act, and the policy agreement suggests that these remain. In their manifesto, the Conservative Party pledged to repeal the Human Rights Act, a key early New Labour reform, and replace it with a Bill of Rights. The form and content of the Bill has remained deliberately vague. By contrast, the Liberal manifesto promised to “ensure that everyone has the same protections under the law by protecting the Human Rights Act.”
Of course, Mr Clarke’s 2006 comments do not necessarily reflect his views now, and his word will not be final when it comes to policy. Further, it is notable that the Act’s repeal, a well publicised plank of the Conservative Party manifesto, has been left out of the draft policy agreement. Given that the civil liberties section is fairly detailed, this is probably deliberate. It may be that a Bill of Rights in some form is still on the policy agenda, perhaps to work in tandem with, rather than as a replacement to, the Human Rights Act.
It is also notable that the Liberal Democrats’ longstanding policy to introduce a written constitution, which some commentators argue would be the best way of enshrining and protecting the Human Rights Act in future, is also absent from the policy agreement.
However, on balance it seems likely that the new Justice Secretary’s pro-European outlook and past comments, an addition to the Liberal Democrats’ manifesto commitment to protect the Human Rights Act, puts the Human Rights Act in a far stronger position than it would have been in the face of Conservative majority parliament.
With possibly thousands of people prevented from voting in the 2010 General Election, can those who were locked out claim for compensation for breach of their human rights, and how much are they likely to receive?
The legal basis:Article 1 of Protocol 3 to the European Convention on Human Rights, the duty on States to hold free and fair elections, has been receiving more than its usual share of attention. Under Section 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998, it is unlawful for a public authority to act in a way which is incompatible with a convention right. Under Section 7,a person may bring proceedings against a public authority which has acted unlawfully. One of the potential remedies is compensation.
How many: It appears that thousands of voters may have been prevented from voting as polling stations were unable to handle the amount of people who arrived in the last few hours before voting closed at 10pm. For example, The Guardian reports that “In Chester more than 600 people were unable to vote because the electoral list had not been updated and Labour won on a majority of 549“and in Hackney “The council estimated that 270 voters were turned away at four polling stations in the south of the borough.” In Sheffield Hallam “students tried to prevent ballot boxes being taken to the count after up to 500 voters were turned away”.
How much: We posted on Friday on an article by Lord Pannick, a human rights barrister, in which he said that prisoners denied the right to vote (a separate but certainly comparable issue to those who were turned away) may be entitled to awards “in the region of £750 and possibly more”. Geoffrey Robertson QC, also a well known human rights barrister, told the BBC that spurned voters may be entitled to “at least £750”.
However, it is not clear where either lawyer derived the £750 figure from. Continue reading →
One of the enduring images of the 2010 General Election will be of long queues of people turned away from polling stations due to lack of facilities. This may well result in legal action. But according to Lord Pannick, the worse scandal may be the exclusion of 85,000 prisoners, which he says is “a constitutional disgrace that undermines the legitimacy of the democratic process”.
The BBC reports this morning that hundreds of voters were turned away from polling stations throughout the UK. This was initially blamed on a higher than expected turnout. The Electoral Commission has promised a “thorough review“, but legal action may follow from the individuals, who have been denied their basic rights, but also from the parties who may argue that marginal results would have been different if people hadn’t been turned away. In the likely outcome of a hung parliament, every seat counts and litigation may therefore follow (Update – Afua Hirch in The Guardian: Legal challenge to polling stations could result in byelections; meanwhile, Liberty, the human rights organisation, says that it will investigate the issue on behalf of voters.)
Those who have been disenfranchised may be entitled to claim under the Human Rights Act 1998. Article 1, Protocol 3 of the European Convention provides:
“The High Contracting Parties shall hold free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature.”
This Article imposes obligations on States, and the provision includes the right to vote. Voters should be able to claim for damages under section 8 of the Human Rights Act if they can prove that they were denied a vote due to administrative incompetence, which appears to have been the case in some places. Whilst high turnout may have been a factor, voters will argue that high turnout has been predicted for a while, and should have been planned for. Similar claims were made in respect of the controversial 2000 presidential election in the United States, which was ultimately decided by the US Supreme Court, but resulted in months of paralysis.
Whilst a few hundred appear to have been affected by administrative incompetence, Lord Pannick, barrister and cross-bench peer, argues that the absolute ban on prisoners voting runs contrary to repeated decisions of the European Court of Human Rights. We have posted recently on the tens of thousands of potential compensation claims that may result, which Lord Pannick estimates will be worth at least £750 each. Similar claims may be available to those who were denied the vote for other reasons.
Lord Pannick is scathing of the Government’s failure to implement the European decisions. He says:
The three main political parties have now have set out their stalls on human rights in their election manifestos, and the future of the Human Rights Act is very much in the balance.
We have been following the arguments for and against a Bill of Rights, which has been proposed either as a replacement for or supplement to the Human Rights Act 1998.
After a period of uncertainty, now only the Conservative Party say they will actually replace the Human Rights Act, with both Labour and the Liberal Democrats committing to keeping it on the statute books. The Conservatives have not spelled out how or within what time frame their plans will take shape. Dominic Grieve, the shadow justice secretary, spoke to lawyers recently on the issue but provided little further detail.
The Human Rights Act 1998 came into force in October 2000, and despite approaching its 10th birthday, it still inspires strong views either in support or opposition. As Francis Gibb writes in The Times, “it… became derided by the Government’s own ministers as well as by the Conservatives as a “charter for the undeserving” and for criminals.”
The two parties which support keeping the Act may be reluctant to raise the issue over other more obvious vote winners, and as such it remains to be seen how much it will feature in debate leading up to the election. However, whether or not it becomes a key issue on the soap boxes, the fate of the Human Rights Act will be one of the important lasting effects of this election.
The manifestos can be found (in alphabetical order) below:
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