Debating the British Bill of Rights: Shami Chakrabarti at Europe House

The European Parliament’s  office in the UK recently held a debate at Europe House as part of the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought 2011. The topic was centred around the controversial British Bill of Rights, proposed as an alternative to the current system based on the Human Rights Actand the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Shami Chakrabarti, Director of pressure-group Liberty got off to a fiery start, stating “we already have a British Bill of Rights, it’s called the Human Rights Act.” She stressed that the proposed bill will undermine the most successful international human rights regime in the world,  which since 1998 has helped to enshrine fundamental rights such as freedom from torture and arbitrary imprisonment into British law. Moreover, she emphasised that currently UK judges are not bound by rulings made in Strasbourg but are required take them into account, meaning that debates over Britain being overruled by ‘foreign judges’ are entirely misleading.

Richard Bellamy, Director of the European Institute at UCL, also emphasised this point, arguing that the proposed bill is more about the conservative-led government seeking to tighten its control of the judiciary and restrict the independence of judges than it is about reasserting British sovereignty.

Conservative MP Robert Buckland then took the floor in defence of the proposed bill, arguing that it was not about restricting rights, but about “building on what we’ve got already,” alluding to the concept of a Human Rights Act plus. He specifically mentioned Privacy rights but did not elaborate on others and said a full list was still being compiled.

Conservative MEP Charles Tannock took a different approach, claiming that there was a need to curtail powerful judges who ignore the public and fail to protect British liberties. He claimed that a new bill would allow an objective debate on the subject and allow things to be done in ‘our tradition.’ He also pointed out that Council of Europe members such as Turkey and Russia currently sit in the European Court, countries not known for their exemplary human rights record.

This then got the response from Shami that if the UK withdrew it would set a dangerous precedent for these other countries to either also withdraw or ignore the rulings of the court, undermining recent progress in respect for human rights. She also passionately recounted how a concerned Egyptian citizen had got in touch with her and demanded why the British were considering scrapping their human rights legislation, and whether we had considered the example this was setting for countries emerging from the Arab Spring.

Shami went on to criticise how the government has failed to properly educate people about the Human Rights Act, suggesting that perhaps not even all the panellists present had actually read it all properly. Perhaps most importantly, she pointed out the dangers of permanent constitutional revolution, arguing that the reason that the Human Rights Act has been so successful is that it has been free from bipartisan competition as it has not been directly drafted by either of the two major parties.  Shami then concluded by suggesting that the solution is for the government to properly educate the public about human rights, rather than intentionally misleading them.

This brings to mind Theresa May’s position in the now infamous ‘catgate‘ incident, in which she falsely claimed that under the Human Rights Act an illegal immigrant was not deported due to having a pet cat. Time and again, this important legislation has been portrayed by members of the right-wing establishment as protecting only benefit-scrounging immigrants, criminals and terrorists, all under the watchful eye of conspiring lefties and faceless European bureaucrats. In doing so they conveniently overlook the fact that up until the Human Rights Act, there were no laws protecting people in this country from abuses of their civil liberties, and that movements such as Charter88 had to fight for this privilege. Although now a British Bill of Rights is looking increasingly unlikely, we would do well to remember that our legally enshrined rights are still a relatively recent and fragile creation. For that reason, we should be very wary about tampering with them.

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