What has the human rights act ever done for you?
A new Prime Minister could expect to have a field day at her first party conference and so Theresa May played to her audience when she said that she would never again “ let those activist left wing human rights lawyers harangue and harass the bravest of the brave” – the armed forces on active service. The party faithful went wild.
The Prime Minister was referring to the large number of law suits brought against British soldiers for brutality and torture in Iraq. Some were scurrilous claims but the Ministry of Defence still paid out £ 20m to 300 claimants in out of court settlements.
The left wing lawyers probably included the former Director of Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti who had just been elevated to the House of Lords by the Labour Party and the legislation at fault was the Human Rights Act (HRA), passed with all party support in 1998 but now dubbed a Labour initiative and set to be scrapped by the Conservatives any time soon.
The Act protects individual privacy, provides a right to trial, prohibits torture and allows us to seek redress against intrusive and unwarranted action by the public bodies. For a full description visit liberty-human-rights.org.uk.
It does not help that the Act is underpinned by the European Convention on Human Rights which was masterminded by the Conservative politician, Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, after the second world war. It has nothing to do with the European Union but in the current climate is wrongly seen as more interference from Strasbourg.
Liberty had invoked the Human Rights Act to support Des James in obtaining a second inquiry into the death of his 18 year old daughter from rifle shots at Deepcut Barracks. The HRA required the Surrey Police and Ministry of Defence to release documents relating to her case that had been withheld from the family after the initial botched investigation and subsequent inadequate review.
The second inquest earlier this year revealed an appalling tale of bullying and abuse at Deepcut, where young soldiers were not properly supervised and sexual shenanigans were condoned. Liberty has now obtained a second inquest into the death of Sean Benton, who apparently committed suicide a few months before Cheryl and many, including former Army chief Lord Dannatt, are calling for a more wide ranging public inquiry to investigate the Army’s shortcomings once and for all.
If you are thinking that HRA has nothing to do with you, recall the case of Jenny Paton who won her action against Poole Council in 2008 under Human Rights Act after officers had snooped on her family to establish whether they really lived in the catchment area of the highly acclaimed Lilliput Primary School.
On other occasions, the provisions of the Act enabled an investigation into the death of Zahid Mubarek who was beaten to death by fellow prisoners and which revealed widespread racism in prisons; an inquiry into the murder of Naomi Bryant by convicted sex offender Anthony Rice, which showed that institutional shortcomings contributed to her death and a review of the case of the so called “black cab rapist” John Warboys, who raped or assaulted over 200 women which showed the Metropolitan Police had been negligent.
The Human Rights Act has enabled the prosecution of phone hackers, stopped journalists from having to reveal their contacts, protected the rights of the mentally ill and disabled and, along the way, secured the privacy of Naomi Campbell, Sara Cox and Max Mosely.
The Conservative manifesto included a commitment to abolish the Act. David Cameron talked of replacing it with a “British Bill of Rights” but his advisers could not agree how best to do so. The new Lord Chancellor, Liz Truss, has repeated the commitment. The government would have difficulty getting a majority in favour of abolition in the Commons and would probably be defeated in the Lords.
So why pursue the idea? Is this a government that wants to avoid scrutiny of its institutions; that will let the vulnerable and the victimised go to the wall and does not want to cut slack to troublesome citizens. Are we going back to the days of cloaks and daggers?
If you only see one film this year..
Thank you Ken Loach and everyone involved in making the film I, Daniel Blake shot in Newcastle. Iain Duncan Smith and others think it is grossly unfair but it had a plausible ring of truth about it to me. The government may even be admitting as much by reviewing the way that medical assessments are carried out.
The film critic Mark Kermode says the scene in the food bank is the most outstanding few minutes of cinema he has ever seen. I, Daniel Blake may be a swinging critique of the way the benefits system tries to drive people back to work to reduce the benefits bill rather than caring for their needs but it is told in a compassionate way that fully deserved the Palme D’ Or. Geordies come out of it well. The film is still running at Tyneside Cinema, Forum Hexham and other cinemas for a few more days so there is time to make your mind up for yourself. Even if you only see one film this year, take a large hanky and get along down.
Published in Newcastle Journal 1 November 16