Thursday, October 6, 2011

Human Rights for Pot Plants!

Yes, it’s true. A violent criminal was saved deportation because he successfully argued that without him around there would be no-one to water his pot plants. Oh, and he had a cat too.

OK, I made that all up although one cannot rule out the possibility that a story like this will be on the front pages at some stage. But this does show the ridiculous level of debate that human rights in this democratic country has sunk to - especially when even our Home Secretary has to resort to a kitty story to play to the crowd. Cats don't have human rights, Ms May, because, er, well, they're not human!

The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) is quite a small document. You could read it in under 15 minutes. The purpose of the Human Rights Act (“the Act”) is to install it into UK law. Human rights, and the rights of the individual, have historically been of prime importance to British society, and so you would have thought that this issue would be of such importance that it would be above party politics.

We all have the right to hold different political views, to criticise the government without fear of arrest, to practise whichever religion we want, and to live peacefully in our own homes without interference from the authorities.

Hence people all over the world, especially in eastern Europe who had to fight for decades for their human rights, and many across Asia and Africa who hope to enjoy the freedoms we take for granted, must be amazed to find that a major British political party, and large sections of our media, want to do away with an Act which enshrines us with that most basic of protections.

Let’s get one thing straight – the ECHR says nothing about not deporting criminals and it says nothing about cats. In fact, I find it amazing that the Home Secretary, of all people, has not read it! What she, and others, refer to is how judges have interpreted the law, not the law itself.

For example, Article 3 bans the use of torture. The British authorities should not practise torture. Surely we can all agree with that. Judges have taken that to say that if the government were to deport someone to a country in which they would be tortured, they would be guilty by association, and hence breach Article 3.

We have a free and independent judiciary – and they interpret the laws as they will. That’s how it should be. Yes, they make the odd daft verdict, and say the oddest thing, but would we have it any other way? Should the judges have to base their judgments on what The Daily Mail will say in the morning? Dozens of criminals get deported yet the one that does not is guaranteed to get on the front page.

It may be the case that the Act does not work as well as the government would wish – in which case, the Home Office should provide advice and guidance to the judiciary. But can we really repeal the Human Rights Act, at a time after the Arab Spring and when millions still dream of having one of their own?

The Conservative proposal of a British Bill of Rights may be a reasonable idea – but it should work alongside the Act, to further clarify and reinforce our basic liberties. It would also be helpful if the Tories published a draft of what they had in mind.

Not for the first time, the people have more sense than the politicians – in three years of door knocking, not one person has mentioned the Human Rights Act to me as a major issue. And polls show no eagerness to repeal the Act.

So let’s stop the headline grabbing. Britain has always been proud of its human rights record and of opposing injustice and tyranny around the world. Let’s keep that pride and keep the Act.

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