My Lords, historically, the people of Britain were protected not by a written human rights Bill but by ancient statutes such as the Magna Carta, the 1689 Bill of Rights and the principle of habeas corpus. However, as we approached the 21st century, it became necessary to offer a more structured definition of the rights of the individual and how these should be protected in our modern society. This resulted in the Human Rights Act 1998, which came into force in October 2000, tying Britain to rights detailed in the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.
The Human Rights Act solidified the relationship that Britain already had with the European Convention on Human Rights, of which it had been a signatory since 1966. The intention was to make it easier for individuals to protect their rights inthe British judicial system. Since 2000, however, the interpretation of the Act and the failure to find the right balance between individual and community rights have led to the emergence of a culture of rights, which is being exploited to the extreme. Several high-profile cases have attracted media attention by highlighting the difficulties that the British courts have had in translating the Act into practice—for example, the Court of Appeal’s refusal in 2004 to deport nine Afghan hijackers, despite the fact that the Taliban regime that had threatened them had been toppled. This was seen as evidence of the Act’s ability to put the needs of an individual above the safety of the community or even the nation.
Not only has the Human Rights Act not been fully effective, but this Government have taken an increasingly anti-libertarian stance in the wake of September 11. Legislation such as the Preventionof Terrorism Act 2005 has attempted to restrict some of the very rights that the Labour Government intended to protect with the introduction of the Human Rights Act. Furthermore, the introduction of ID cards is totally wrong. It interferes with the privacy of citizens but does not offer them protection against harm. It is an unwanted imposition.
There are alternatives. A debate is emerging on the feasibility of the repeal of the Human Rights Act, to be replaced by a British Bill of Rights that would reflect more accurately the relationship between the citizen, the state and security. A Bill of Rights would have to balance rights with responsibilities. It would have to outline clearly the core values that give us our identity as a nation, and would likely mirror many of the rights set out in the European Convention on Human Rights. However, it would also provide the opportunity for national discourse on what fundamental civil liberties should be protected, and greater clarification of the exact details in a British context would enable the courts better to apply the Bill of Rights. This change would not remove all controversy. We could not deport some people because of the fate that awaited them in their own country. To deport them would constitute a violation of Article 3 on protection from inhuman and degrading treatment. The Bill would help to prevent decisions, such as the one concerning the Afghan hijackers in 2004, which appear to be irrational and wrong.
A Bill of Rights would also silence critics who believe that the UK has lost too much parliamentary supremacy due to compliance with European laws. By entrenching a new Bill of Rights in Parliament, the UK would be asserting her own decision-making power and restating our legislative independence from Europe. That would clarify fundamental duties, safeguard liberties and provide equality in law and civil rights.
Undoubtedly the system as it stands is creating far more questions than it is answering. The introduction of a new Bill of Rights would strengthen our hand in the fight against crime and terrorism. Ultimately, a British Bill of Rights would have the power to promote awareness and be a reminder to British citizens that each person has as much of a responsibility to uphold another’s human rights as they have a right to have their own rights protected. If the Bill is suitably drafted, it will incorporate common values so that British citizens of all backgrounds will feel that it applies to them and there will be common ownership of the Act. I am sure, therefore, that there will be acceptance from everyone in the country.