Wednesday 21 April 2010

Op-Ed on UK Human Rights Act and ECHR

This is an interesting op-ed by the chairman of the Scottish Human Rights Commission, as published in yesterday's Guardian newspaper. It adds to the ongoing debate on a possible repeal of the British Human Rights Act. The author, Alan Miller, takes a strong stance against such a repealing. This is the article:

The Human Rights Act from a Scottish perspective

As chair of the Scottish Human Rights Commission (SHRC), human rights matter to me at three interconnected levels – global, UK and Scottish. I am concerned at the plight of the persecuted in Zimbabwe, the detention in Scotland by UK authorities of children of asylum seekers or the neglect of older persons in Scotland.

What happens after the general election to the UK Human Rights Act (HRA) has a significant impact at all three levels. Any UK government committed to building upon the HRA would have a positive impact. Any UK government committed to a "consultation" process that has as its starting point the repeal of the act would have a harmful impact. This is of course the manifesto position of the Conservative party.

First, at a global level – no developed country has repealed fundamental human rights legislation. No "consultation" process claiming to be leading to a bill of rights has started out on the basis of repeal of fundamental human rights legislation. Repealing the HRA and replacing it with something less effective would give a green light to regimes around the world to continue, or to escalate, human rights abuses, and in part justify this by pointing to the UK's rolling back of human rights protection. This has been the experience of the past few years with the so-called "war on terror" and rehabilitation of torture.

Second, at a UK level, such a "consultation" process over the next few years would seriously undermine the many efforts of everyone engaged in practical ways of using the HRA as a means of raising standards of public services, eg care of older people and other vulnerable members of the community. All public authorities in the UK currently have a duty to comply with the HRA and where best practice has been developed to assist public authorities in so doing the quality of public services has been significantly improved, as the SHRC has found in an independent evaluation of the State Hospital for Scotland and Northern Ireland.

At a UK level, the repeal of the HRA could also create a two-tier system of the level of human rights protection within the UK. The act currently provides a "safety net" or common standard of human rights protection for individuals throughout the UK. It is unlikely that the Scottish parliament would seek to lower the level of protection of human rights through supporting the repeal of the HRA as it applied in Scotland in relation to such devolved areas as health, , housing, criminal justice, education and social work. Consequently, residents in Scotland would enjoy a higher degree of human rights protection, more in line with the UK's international legal obligations and international best practice, than residents in England and Wales. The question will inevitably be asked: why should residents of Gateshead not enjoy the same protection as those in Glasgow?

Third, at a Scottish level, the HRA has been an important pillar of the constitutional framework of devolution. Under the Scotland Act 1998 (which established the Scottish parliament and the Scottish government) there is a duty of both to comply with the Human Rights Act and through it the European convention on human rights (ECHR).

This has had tangible benefits for the public. For example, it has ensured that all of the legislation passed by the Scottish parliament has been compatible with the rights of individuals under the ECHR. That of course has not been the case with certain Westminster legislation which has had to be successfully challenged in the courts. The HRA has also been influential in contributing to progressive and popular Scottish legislation relating to, for example, mental health and homelessness.

The Scottish Human Rights Commission is committed to defending the HRA and in fact progressively building on it. As part of our four-year strategic plan the commission is embarking on a "mapping" of the realisation of human rights throughout Scotland – identifying the "gaps", and good practices, of human rights protection. The purpose of this is to determine what needs to be done to bring the living experience of all, particularly the most vulnerable, up to the standards consistent with the UK's international legal human rights obligations.

This evidence will then inform a genuine public consultation on how to build upon the HRA and develop a national action plan for human rights in Scotland. This would be able to be progressively implemented by the Scottish parliament and Scottish government and all public authorities through a variety of means – legislative, administrative, policy and practice development and resource allocation

Rather than seeking to reduce the domestic influence of international human rights obligations through repealing the HRA this approach would aim to progressively bring the living experience of all, without discrimination, up to those international standards.
For a post on the situation in Northern Ireland, look on the UK Human Rights Blog.