Human Rights at the Party Conferences: An election battleground

With the party conferences came a fair degree of attention on human rights. One thing is certainly clear, this issue is not going away and the position on human rights will be a dividing line in the run-up to the General Election in 2015. That sounds like a good old while away, but in fact it is now that parties will be considering their manifesto commitments, now is the time that our political representatives will be having discussions about their position on the future of our human rights protections. So what exactly was said at the party conference?

Liberal-Democrats: stopping the Human Rights Act being scrappedLD

  • Nick Clegg’s speech listed “not ditching the Human Rights Act” as one of the top 16 things the Lib Dems have prevented the Conservative party from doing in the coalition Government.
  • Conference motion F41 on Human Rights was passed (proposed by Julian Huppert MP and summated by Brighton and Hove Lib Dems). The full text of the motion is here. It has 6 main points and begins with “The Human Rights Act to be retained”. It also refers to the ways the HRA protects people in everyday situations – often the examples that reflect BIHR’s practical experience of bringing rights to life beyond the court-rooms.
  • During the motion debate Lord McNally, current Justice Minister with human rights responsibility, said “So long as the Liberal Democrats are in Government there will be no repeal of Human Rights Act…I have said to my Tory colleagues – if the Tories really want to call into question our commitment to the Human Rights Act, to the European Convention on Human Rights, to the European Court on Human Rights, then let’s take that case to the hustings…I still have great faith in the value of the British people and their respect for human rights. It is an argument that we can win.”
  • At a fringe event organised by Liberty, Lord McNally said: “I want us to go out and win the argument, even in difficult places,” he said. “Of course our human rights legislation will defend criminal suspects but also the grandma in the care home, the child that has been abused; it will protect the right of people to protest against politicians. If we don’t keep to the Convention, what hope is there for the gay man in Russia, for the political activist in Belarus? We have to be resolute in taking this on. We will be at the barricades and Liberty will be there with us.

Labour: supporting the Human Rights Act, and its role in protecting peoplelabour

In his conference speech, Sadiq Khan, Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, said:

“…what if the Conservatives succeed in their clamour to abolish human rights laws? There’d be less protection for victims of crime. We’d lose:

  • Laws that halted the diabolical situation of rape victims being cross-examined directly by their attackers.
  • Laws that helped bereaved families find out how loved ones died.
  • Laws that offer protection against the grotesqueness of modern day slavery, human trafficking.

Human rights laws the Tories want to scrap. Human rights laws of which Labour is proud. Human rights laws Labour will defend.”

At a fringe event by Liberty, Diane Abbott concluded the event by noting that the test of a society’s commitment to civil liberties is how it treats the marginalised and unpopular minorities, she said “Sometimes we must take a stand in advance of public opinion because it is the right thing to do”.

Conservatives: a manifesto promise to scrap the Human Rights Act Conservative

The conference speech of Theresa May, current Home Secretary detailed plans for the future of the HRA and for the specific right to respect for private and family life (Article 8):

  • “..the next Conservative manifesto will promise to scrap the Human Rights Act…it’s why the Conservative position is clear – if leaving the European Convention is what it takes to fix our human rights laws, that is what we should do. Those are issues for the general election, when Labour and the Lib Dems will have to explain why they value the rights of terrorists and criminals more than the rights of the rest of us.”
  • “The Government will soon publish the Immigration Bill, which will make it easier to get rid of people with no right to be here.” Focus on cutting appeals, deporting with appeals from abroad and “the Immigration Bill will sort out the abuse of Article Eight – the right to a family life – once and for all.  This is used by thousands of people to stay in Britain every year.  The trouble is, while the European Convention makes clear that a right to a family life is not absolute, judges often treat it as an unqualified right.”

In addition Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling’s conference speech, focused on scrapping the HRA and altering UK’s relationship with European Court of Human Rights:

  • “never in their wildest dreams could they have imagined it would end up where it has; twisted by political correctness … with the all too familiar yob’s catchphrase ‘I know my rights’ … rulings that make our judges doubt they can say to the most heinous of murderers ‘you’re going to prison for the rest of your life’.”
  • “For me no change is not an option. One small problem.  We are the only major party committed to radical reform of human rights laws. Labour are opposed.  The Liberal Democrats are opposed.  I don’t know why.  It’s blindingly obvious the public want change.  I simply don’t believe that the majority of the people in this country think that human rights laws are fine as they are.”
  • “We will go into the next election with a clear plan for change. In the New Year the Conservatives will publish a document setting out what we will do, when we will do it, and how we will do it. And then later in the year we will publish a draft Bill which will set out in legal detail exactly how our changes will take effect. We will scrap Labour’s Human Rights Act. We will make sure that with legal rights go legal responsibilities. Our Supreme Court should be in Britain and not in Strasbourg.”

However, at a fringe event organised by Liberty, the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve said:

  • “I defy anyone in this room to read the European Convention and find a right within it with which they disagree.”
  • “That’s not to say we always get it right – we’re a human society, there will always be examples of judicial decisions which are probably wrong. But the question is how do we tackle this problem in a way which leads to a satisfactory long-term outcome for this country. That’s what I’m committed to try to help my colleagues achieve.”

What next

There can be no doubt that the future of human rights protections in the UK is set to be a key issue in the run up to the General Election in 2015. BIHR believes now is the time for people and organisations to learn more about these debates, to understand their relevance to everyday life and practice, and join with others to speak up about the importance of human rights to us all.  Watch this space for more information and resources! In the meantime you can:

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