The Human Rights Act (HRA) was a major achievement of the last Labour Government, putting explicit human rights protections into British law for the very first time. However, we should expect it to come under sustained attack in 2014. Already at Tory Conference in 2013 the home secretary announced the Conservatives will scrap the HRA and possibly withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, from which it is derived. Next year the European elections will be a lightning rod for a renewed assault.
The debate about the HRA invariably gets conflated with the debate about membership of the European Union, although the HRA and the European Convention on Human Rights actually have nothing to do with the EU. Nonetheless, UKIP and the Tories like to pretend the HRA is evidence of foreign interference. Therefore, they’ll likely see the European elections as a good opportunity to beat the war drum.
Labour needs to get savvy about defending the Act. Sadiq Khan, the shadow justice secretary, is already doing great work on this, and as MPs, councillors, and party activists we need to get out there and build on it. We need to be prepared to defend the HRA from first principles, clearly demonstrating the value of universal human rights.
That does not mean getting into an abstract conversation about universality on the doorstep. It means showing people how the Human Rights Act is relevant to their lives. We need to show how it gives them support and protection, rather than allowing the debate to focus on the extreme cases that get media attention – such as convicted terrorists fighting deportation and the like.
The Labour Campaign for Human Rights is working to develop a campaigner’s guide to the Human Rights Act, giving examples of the best arguments we can use on the doorstep. It’s an exciting project with the potential to get us off the back foot.
Many of these arguments are somewhat unexpected. Student activists may be interested to know, for example, that because of the HRA the police can only kettle protests as a last resort, and it’s illegal to deny protestors passage to a demonstration. People who have relatives in care homes, meanwhile, can rest a little easier knowing that the HRA ensures that before a care home can be closed down, the impact on residents must be fully investigated. The HRA also ensures elderly married couples cannot be separated by the care system.
The HRA protects the rights of people fleeing domestic violence, helping to ensure they have access to accommodation. And it protects children, putting a positive obligation on local authorities to stop children being exposed to neglect and abuse, and outlawing corporal punishment in schools – with no exceptions. It also ensures gay people can serve in the military, helps journalists to protect their sources, and renders blanket stop and search powers unlawful. These are real benefits that help all sorts of people, not the terrorists and criminals the Tories and UKIP like to focus on.
And when the Tories and UKIP bang on about the HRA and European Convention on Human Rights being “anti-British”, it’s worth reminding people that they’re actually very British indeed. The European Convention on Human Rights was largely drafted by a British Lord Chancellor, inspired by the Magna Carta and other historical British texts.
So in 2014 let’s take the fight to the Tories and UKIP. We need to celebrate the Human Rights Act as a proud Labour achievement. We can show people how the HRA impacts positively on their lives and start a broader conversation about the universal benefits of human rights. I look forward to getting onto the doorstep and turning this debate around.