UK Liberty

Ministers told not to use human rights law as alibi

Posted in law and order by ukliberty on November 15, 2006

The Times reports,

Ministers told not to use human rights law as alibi. All-party report accuses Government of hiding behind the Human Rights Act to cover up failures. TONY BLAIR and other senior ministers are using human rights law as an excuse for failures in the running of the Government, a parliamentary report published [by the Joint Committee on Human Rights] today says.

The report itself seems highly critical of the Government. Here is a section worth quoting verbatim:

40. In our view, whatever other arguments there may be about whether the Human Rights Act should be amended, repealed, or replaced by a UK Bill of Rights, none of the three cases we have discussed so far – the Afghani hijackers judgment, the failure to consider foreign prisoners for deportation, and the Anthony Rice case – demonstrates a clear need to consider amending the Act. In each case, the Human Rights Act has been used as a convenient scapegoat for unrelated administrative failings within Government. The Lord Chancellor expressed his complete agreement that not one of them justifies amendment or repeal of the HRA, which, he says, is the conclusion of the review published in July.[44] Moreover, that review, according to the Lord Chancellor, is not the view merely of one department, but expresses the views of the Government.[45]

41. We welcome the Lord Chancellor’s candour in acknowledging that “maybe we were not quite quick enough to spot the absence of human rights issues in relation to all three of the issues”.[46] We also accept that, in the circumstances, in which there was considerable public debate about whether the HRA was responsible for various failings, a thorough but expeditious review of the operation of the Act was “the right course for a responsible government.”[47] We must, however, draw to Parliament’s attention the extent to which the Government itself was responsible for creating the public impression that in relation to each of the three highly contentious issues under consideration it was either the Human Rights Act itself or misinterpretations of that Act by officials which caused the problems. In each case, very senior ministers, from the Prime Minister down, made assertions that the Human Rights Act, or judges or officials interpreting it, were responsible for certain unpopular events when, as we have shown above, in each case these assertions were unfounded. Moreover, when those assertions were demonstrated to be unfounded, there was no acknowledgment of the error, or withdrawal of the comment, or any other attempt to inform the public of the mistake.

The Afghan hijackers judgement and the judgement on appeal are worth reading. A particularly critical comment from Mr Justice Sullivan in the former sums up the situation very well:

It is difficult to conceive of a clearer case of “conspicuous unfairness amounting to an abuse of power” by a public authority. It is particularly disturbing that this was not simply the conduct of a junior official, but that the process was authorised, if not initiated, “at the highest level”.

No matter what we might think of the Afghan hijackers themselves, it seems important to keep in mind that the Government is bound by the law. It may not make up the rules as it goes along. As Mr Justice Sullivan said:

That there is a public interest in deterring hijacking is not in dispute. This case is concerned with the means by which hijacking may be deterred, and in a democracy governed by the rule of law there is an equally powerful public interest in the court ensuring that the means adopted by the executive are within the law.

You may recall that the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, saw fit to describe the ruling as an “abuse of common sense“, blaming the judge’s interpretation of the law (that Blair’s Government introduced) rather than the repeated failures of the Home Office to adequately address the problem.

And this is exactly the point that the JCHR made in its report:

We very much welcome the Lord Chancellor’s assurance that there is now an unequivocal commitment to the Human Rights Act right across the Government but, in our view, public misunderstandings of the effect of the Act will continue so long as very senior ministers fail to retract unfortunate comments already made and continue to make unfounded assertions about the Act and to use it as a scapegoat for administrative failings in their departments.

3 Responses

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  1. Jack Straw on liberty « UK Liberty said, on October 29, 2007 at 10:20 pm

    […] and Government Ministers – often cite this as an illustration of how regard for human rights puts the liberty of […]

  2. Jack Straw on liberty « UK Liberty said, on December 18, 2007 at 1:30 pm

    […] Including Labour Government Ministers! Nonsense. However uncomfortable the idea may be, it must be the case that, in a democratic society, even those who deny rights to others have rights themselves – for example, to a fair trial. […]

  3. […] You can see similar blame-shifting in a previous article. […]

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