The Great Bill of Rights Commission Shambles

18 December 2012

Another chapter in Coalition rows over Constitutional reform ended today with the conclusion of its 18-month commission on a British Bill of Rights. The final report exposed deep divisions. Labour Peer and leading civil liberties lawyer Baroness Helena Kennedy of the Shaws QC and Lib Dem International Law Professor Philippe Sands QC produced a minority dissent defending the Human Rights Act and European Convention on Human Rights.

Even the remaining commissioners are divided on the fundamental issue of whether the UK should pull out of the Convention and nothing in the Report sheds any light on the proposed contents of a mythical British Bill of Rights or how this could be imposed upon the devolved countries of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland without jeopardising the current constitutional settlement.

The Kennedy-Sands dissent says:

"In short, the fault lines amongst us are real and deep. They relate to the failure to grapple with the content of such a Bill and its purpose, the underlying desire by some to decouple the UK from the European Convention and the jurisprudence of its Court, and the inability to recognise that the days when Westminster can impose its will on these matters across the whole of the United Kingdom are long gone. We see no benefit in creating a superficial consensus."

“It is impossible to speak of principle when the true purport is not being addressed explicitly and would include, for some at least, a reduction of rights……… We note in this regard that our colleagues in majority have, in our view, failed to identify or declare any shortcomings in the Human Rights Act, or in its application by our courts.”

Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty, said:

"This 18 month-long shambles wasn't an attempt at papering over cracks of consensus on rights and freedoms but at bridging the Grand Canyon. The majority includes people who would replace human rights with citizens’ privileges that can be stripped away by Government – they ignored their consultation responses and own terms of reference which were supposed to be about building on Convention rights, not destroying them. Whatever your view of human rights you have to respect the courage and clarity of Kennedy and Sands for exposing the nonsense."

To coincide with the Report’s publication Liberty is today launching a series of new films featuring the stories of people from all walks of life who have benefited from the protection of the Human Rights Act. The videos are part of its Common Values campaign, which challenges untruths surrounding the Act.

Contact: Liberty Press Office on 020 7378 3677 or 07973 831128

NOTES TO EDITORS:

1. Three of the Conservative Commissioners – Lord Faulks QC, Jonathan Fisher QC and Martin Howe QC advocate withdrawal from the ECHR in breach of the Commission’s own terms of reference. The terms of reference can be found here: http://www.justice.gov.uk/about/cbr

2. 88 percent of respondents who answered “retain or repeal the HRA” opted for retention. 98 percent who answered the question on the relationship between the Convention and UK law thought that the Convention rights should continue to be incorporated.

3. Liberty’s responses to the Commission’s consultations can be found here:

http://www.liberty-human-rights.org.uk/pdfs/policy12/liberty-s-submission-to-the-commission-on-a-bill-of-righ.pdf

http://www.liberty-human-rights.org.uk/pdfs/policy12/liberty-s-submission-to-the-commission-on-a-bill-of-righ.pdf

4. The videos, produced by DNR Films, feature stories and reflections on the importance of the Human Rights Act from the following:

  • Jenny Paton, who used Article 8 (the right to a private and family life) when her local council subjected her and her children to James Bond style surveillance to see whether they lived in a certain school catchment area. “We wouldn’t have won the case without it,” she said. “I know it’s always looked upon as saving terrorists, and people who should be deported etc, but actually in my view the most vulnerable people in the community should be protected. You can’t have human rights just for some people and not for everybody”;
  • Nicholas Mercer, who won Liberty’s Human Rights Lawyer of the Year award in 2011 for his integrity and courage in the face of dissembling and denial of human rights abuses by British forces in Iraq, and who has thrown his support behind the Human Rights Act ever since. “The Human Rights Act has been a civilising force upon a well-respected institution in our society,” he said. “I wish it would be seen in that light rather than the negative way it’s always portrayed”;
  • Janet Alder, who took a case to the European Court of Human Rights, under Articles 2, 3 and 14 – the right to life; no torture, inhuman or degrading treatment and no discrimination – after her brother, Christopher Alder, choked to death while in custody at Hull Police Station in April 1998. “The whole experience has emphasised to me that everybody has got human rights; everybody is entitled to justice,” she said. “Human rights really get a bad press and I think that’s due to the fact that people aren’t really concentrating on what’s actually going on in this country. To scrap it would be dangerous. There wouldn’t be justice in this country for a lot of people”;
  • Diane Blood, who won her lengthy legal battle to get her late husband’s name recognised as her children’s father on their birth certificates thanks to the Human Rights Act. “I was told there was never any legal mechanism to enable me to name their father on the birth certificate,” she said. “That changed thanks to the Human Rights Act 1998. The Human Rights Act gets a bad press because people don’t really understand it. You might not change colour or be from another country but you can become a minority who’s affected at any time in the same way that I was”;
  • Verna Bryant, whose daughter Naomi was murdered by convicted rapist Anthony Rice after a shocking catalogue of failings by several agencies led to his release and inadequate supervision in the community; contributing to her death. Verna only secured an inquest into Naomi’s murder, and some sense of justice following her daughter’s death, thanks to Article 2 of the Human Rights Act; the right to life. “It was in fact the Human Rights Act that allowed the inquest to take place and uncovered all the failures,” she said. “This was only made possible for me because of the Human Rights Act”;
  • Rachel Cox, who used Article 8 of the Human Rights Act, the right to a private and family life, to get Wiltshire Police to remove a damning and misleading piece of information on her CRB record after she briefly left her children playing in a local park. “I understand that they are allowed to release some information about people, obviously, to keep the community safe,” she said. “But they shouldn’t have released this information and they shouldn’t really be storing it on me because I haven’t even committed a crime”;
  • Richard and Gillian Rabone, who turned to Article 2 of the Human Rights Act, the right to life, after their middle daughter, Melanie, who suffered from depression, took her own life after being bizarrely and negligently granted home leave from hospital by her doctor. With huge determination the Rabones fought the case all the way to the Supreme Court, which delivered a judgment meaning that hospitals must now take reasonable steps to safeguard the right to life of mental health patients in their care, whether or not they are formally detained. Gillian Rabone said: “Having finally been successful with this case, I feel now as if Melanie’s death hasn’t been for nothing. It’s brought some good for very vulnerable people like Melanie was when she died – they have more protection. Without the Human Rights Act we wouldn’t have had the means to carry on the fight”;
  • Patience Asuquo, who used Article 4 of the Human Rights Act to make an uninterested police force investigate after she was subjected to forced domestic labour and abused by her employer for more than two-and-a-half years. “All I wanted was justice,” she said. “Without human rights I wouldn’t even have had that opportunity for the police to reopen the case. They realised they made a mistake and they wrote an apology letter to me. Something like that wouldn’t have taken place if Liberty hadn’t have stepped in”;
  • Janis Sharp, whose son Gary McKinnon was only saved from extradition to the US after a ten-year ordeal thanks to Article 3 of the Human Rights Act, which outlaws torture, inhuman or degrading treatment. “It was very, very frightening,” she said. “This can happen to anyone; it’s not just certain people. That’s the thing that people have to understand. It was done under Article 3 of the HRA and without it, it couldn’t have happened. We are so happy and so relieved that Gary will be able to get his life back”.

5. To watch the films, visit www.youtube.com/libertyhumanrights