Politicians in two minds over human rights

Two very different responses to Human Rights Day in London and Belfast yesterday. In London Lord Lester, the eminent human rights lawyer and politician who resigned recently as a government adviser launched a scathing attack on Justice Secretary Jack Straw’s “sly” attack on the Human Rights Act which he, Straw, introduced 10 years ago as Home Secretary.

“In spite of its achievement in introducing the Human Rights Act, the government has a deeply disappointing record in giving effect to the values underpinning the Human Rights Act in its policies and practices. Through a lack of political leadership, it has also failed to match the expectations raised by the Governance of Britain green paper for much-needed constitutional reform.”

While in Belfast as already noted, proposals for Northern Ireland’s own HR Act were at long last handed over to the Secretary of State.
The immediate focus of Lester’s ire was Straw’s interview in the anti- HRA Daily Mail complaining about the impact of the HRA in creating
” too much litigation from ambulance-chasing lawyers” and …

“Some judges have been ‘too nervous’ about deporting terrorist suspects, he says, when there was no reason to believe they were at risk of death or torture – which would preclude their deportation under the act. And he is ‘frustrated’ by some of the judgments which have encouraged voters to conclude that the act is a ‘villains’ charter’ which favours the rights of criminals over those of victims.”

Almost certainly this amounts to little more than huffing and puffing against judges whose power is likely if anything to accelerate the human rights momentum – unless derailed by something a s severe as another 9/11. Its natural check will be the caution of the British courts. According to the Constitution Unit, any new Bill of Rights and Responsibilties is very unlikely to depart from the definitive norms of the European Convention On Human Rights despite criticisms from both UK main parties. But when they get down to it, the parties may find that although an attack on the HRA for being soft on terrorists and criminals may get an easy cheer, they’ ll find it hard to amend it significantly in practice and would do well to avoid a dutch auction for the Daily Mail vote in the general election. The suspicion must be that the wily Straw is trying to draw out the Tories to mount a sharper attack on the HRA and that in the end, Labour will do nothing this side of an election other than defend its essentials.

The proposed NI Bill adds to the basic British HR Act in several important ways. One in particular would meet with Straw’s approval – giving special consideration to victims. The basic politicians’ complaint against both the HRA and the proposed NI one is that expressed by commission member Daphne Trimble: that it takes too much power away from elected politicians and gives it to unelected judges. Whereas in GB the two main parties both grumble about it, in NI the politicians are divided along the predictable sectarian lines. Maybe an incongruous case for unionists to make, with all the furore over devolving justice and policing?

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London