Liberty at the Labour Conference: Human Rights - Unifying Values

Posted by Sam Hawke on 28 September 2016

Conference season continues apace, and Liberty is hosting several fringe events.

With the Liberal Democrats’ conference over, and Conservative and Scottish National Party events to come, we headed to Liverpool to host our Labour meeting on Monday.

Our Director Martha chaired a vibrant discussion with MPs Chuka Umunna, Emily Thornberry and Richard Burgon.

Access to justice

Several questioners asked about Government attacks on access to justice, from tribunal fees and the legal aid budget to “advice deserts” spreading across the country.

Richard Burgon and Chuka Umunna – both employment lawyers – were very clear on the devastating effects of recent rises in Employment Tribunal fees, saying they had left ordinary people unable to fight for their right to the minimum wage and combat discrimination.

Richard Burgon was unequivocal in his condemnation of the Government’s latest plans: "We should shudder when we hear fees for asylum tribunals have gone up by 500 per cent."

And he was firm on Labour’s future plans to boost access to justice: “Of course” we should put money into the legal aid budget “to give it the respect it deserves”.

Immigration detention and divisive Government rhetoric

Next came questions on the rise in hate crime and the UK’s continuing use of limitless detention of immigrants for administrative convenience – a practice our Director Martha branded “one of the greatest stains on the UK's human rights record today”.

Chuka Umunna pointed out that, if everyone personally knew an asylum-seeker, our view of them would be radically different – someone to be embraced and integrated, not locked up.

He told the audience that “the debate on immigration in our country in recent years has been ugly and at odds with British values” – and called on Labour to be “at the forefront” of detoxifying that debate.

The Human Rights Act, both at home and abroad

As to the Government’s proposals to repeal the Human Rights Act, Emily Thornberry was emphatic and concise: “Conservatives want to scrap the Human Rights Act because they don't want to treat everyone as human”.

She stressed the importance of the UK’s international record abroad – repeal would give dictators from around the world the green light to ignore rights.

Richard Burgon was explicit as to the Government’s real intentions in bringing its proposals forward: “Any attempt to abolish the Human Rights Act is an attempt to abolish the rights of ordinary people in the UK”.

And as to the application of the Human Rights Act overseas, panellists were clear: the rule of law requires it.

Richard Burgon told the meeting human rights laws should apply “to all countries and actors in the theatre of war”, adding “if we believe in the rule of law, people need to be protected by the rule of law and accountable to it”.

Joining Liberty

Martha opened debate with reference to a “crisis of compassion” in the UK today.

But she closed it with optimism: “If we had 600,000 members we'd make sure the UK was the most human rights compliant country in the world”.

  • Liberty will be at the Conservative Party conference on 4 October, 19.30 to 21.00, with speakers Crispin Blunt MP, Dominic Grieve MP, Maria Miller MP, Ryan Shorthouse, Director of Bright Blue, and Martha Spurrier, chaired by Fatima Manji.
  • We will then be at the Scottish National Party conference on 14 October, 17.30 to 18.30, with speakers Joanna Cherry QC MP, Anne McLaughlin MP, Michael Matheson MSP, and Martha Spurrier, chaired by Libby Brooks.