Spare us the dog whistle Prime Minister...

Posted by Shami Chakrabarti on 22 August 2011

Another day, another unprovoked attack on the Human Rights Act. The Prime Minister, writing in the Sunday Express, gave the HRA another thoroughly predictable bashing. It’s all becoming depressingly familiar – the legislation carries the can for everything from the recent riots, ‘young people today’ to a perceived erosion of personal responsibility. Perhaps climate change and rising obesity can be laid at its door too?

Once again the Prime Minister rails against the ‘twisting and misrepresentation of human rights’ and vows to create a British Bill of Rights that won’t be used as ‘a cover for rules or excuses that fly in the face of common sense’. But hold on, is this the same Prime Minister who said no "phoney human rights concerns" about publishing images of riot suspects would be allowed to "get in the way of bringing these criminals to justice" – despite it being perfectly reasonable and permissible under the HRA to publish photos of wanted suspects? That’s twisting and misrepresenting human rights if ever we saw it.

And the idea that the HRA somehow provides unfettered and limitless rights without any corresponding responsibilities is patent nonsense – respect for the rights of others is inbuilt into the Act and rights can be limited for a number of legitimate reasons including public safety and national security. Further, you don’t have to be a lawyer to know that there is a statute book full of laws that we must all obey or face the consequences. The HRA is one of the few pieces of legislation that allows individuals to hold the state to account – perhaps this is what’s making those in power so hostile?

As for the false dichotomy of human rights versus common sense, isn’t it ‘common sense’ that rape victims shouldn’t be cross examined by their attackers? That councils shouldn’t be able to use James Bond style surveillance on families to police school catchment areas? Or that a mother should be granted an inquest into her daughter’s murder by a prisoner released too early? These outcomes have all been achieved through the use of the ECHR and the HRA.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised – after all, the Conservatives did make repealing the HRA a manifesto pledge. But where is our Deputy Prime Minister? In the run-up to the election, we remember the Lib Dem leader castigating the Labour party for failing to defend the legislation but not a peep from him amidst the recent anti-human rights clamour. Human rights need friends in powerful places to speak up – so come on Mr Clegg, find your voice. We agree with Mr Cameron that human rights have been twisted and misrepresented – often by those who should know better. But rather than trashing them, how about providing some accurate information about what the HRA actually does and doesn’t do? The Human Rights Act doesn’t protect an endless catalogue of rights. Indeed, it only protects 15 well-established fundamental rights and freedoms. So before politicians attempt to sweep away our small bundle of rights, surely they have a duty to tell us what we stand to lose?

We’re happy to lend a helping hand – on Thursday a new series will begin on the Liberty blog explaining, informing and mythbusting about a different article of the HRA each week. Because in truth the HRA does not undermine personal responsibility, or cause social divisions. It actually contains common values that bind us together in difficult times and protect everyone; young and old, rich and poor, you and me.

Anybody’s privacy could be breached by the prying eyes of the state or corporations, anybody can be wrongly accused of a crime, and anybody could fall foul of careless and insensitive decision-making by public authorities. The Prime Minister is right – British people did fight and die for these rights and freedoms. Before tinkering with Churchill’s legacy, perhaps he should consider the disservice he does their sacrifice when he denigrates these hard won British treasures paid for in courage and blood.

  • Find out more about the Human Rights Act on our website here
  • Then respond to the Government's Commission on a British Bill of Rights - and tell them we've already got one, the HRA - here