The coalition’s human rights timebomb

The Human Rights Act is a flash point for the Coalition. Theresa May says "no decision" has been made but Nick Clegg says a Government would tamper with it "at its peril".

Our guest writer is Adam Papaphilippopoulos, a solicitor

It seems that the focus of the coalition is to force agreement on the economy to the front and centre of the political news. Given the importance of the issue, this is hardly surprising. The question is, who is going to sacrifice which of their manifesto pledges in order to preserve the “strong and stable” government Clegg and Cameron constantly promise.

The economy is a convenient smokescreen to conceal the sacrifices and battles that may lie ahead. The provisos to the approval of the coalition by the Liberal Democrat conference show that the Human Rights Act will be one of the battlegrounds, rather than a Liberal Democrat sacrifice. So far the issue has been fudged. The Guardian today reports that the decision “is to be passed to an independent commission after a disagreement within the new coalition.”

On the Today programme, Home Secretary Theresa May said, “We are currently discussing with our coalition partners what we will be doing in this area … There is no decision on this particular issue.” In the Times, Nick Clegg said, ““Any government would tamper with [the Human Rights Act] at its peril”. Given the gulf between the two parties, it may also prove to be one of the sterner tests for the coalition.

The Conservative Manifesto (p.179) made it a flagship aim to “replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights” in order to “protect our freedoms from state encroachment and encourage greater social responsibility”. The fallacy of that argument and its use to score cheap political points has been dealt with elsewhere, not least on the pages of Left Foot Forward and Liberty’s recent awareness-raising campaign.

Importantly, for present purposes, the Liberal Democrats take exactly the opposite view in their manifesto, stating they will “ensure that everyone has the same protections under the law by protecting the Human Rights Act”. That statement shows a clear commitment to preserving the HRA.

It also suggests protection of the HRA from the kind of uninformed, unsophisticated and misdirected criticism it receives from the right wing press. For the coalition to take such a position we would have to see a significant volte face from front bench Conservatives, provoking inevitable anger from their grassroots support.

The question is therefore whether the difference can be buried for the (widely used, but undefined) “national interest”. As Clegg and Cameron clearly realise, burying incompatibilities relies on keeping the issues as narrow as possible: hence the single-minded focus on the economy. If successful, the HRA may remain the subject of background muttering.

However, the recent Liberal Democrat conference has shown the party faithful are not going to make that an easy task. Having built something of a reputation for making inroads into human rights protections, by the use of such measures as control orders, Labour may be less than well placed to exploit this particular area of difference. It may be time for the party to rediscover and re-emphasise the reasons it fought for the enactment of the HRA.

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