Britain Needs a Bill of Rights for the Individual and the Country
Telegraph View: We understand the concern for civil liberties expressed by those who favour retaining the Human Rights Act. But it is far too open to abuse, and it is time to repatriate legal authority
This week will presage the first serious domestic test for the new Conservative Government. The Queen’s Speech will include a proposal to scrap the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights. For some this represents an assault on the very principle of universal human rights. The Government, however, sees it as a repatriation of British legal authority. The man who has been appointed to make its argument is Michael Gove, formerly in charge of the education department and now the Justice Secretary. As one Tory put it, taking on this particular task “will make education reform look like child’s play”.
There are voices of scepticism to be found within Mr Gove’s own party – and a rebellion allied to the SNP, Lib Dems and Labour looms. As we report today, one member of the Government has threatened to resign. Speaking to this newspaper, senior Conservatives have said that they fear scrapping the Act might remove certain legal safeguards and send the message that Britain is somehow uninterested in the principle of human rights. These concerns are well motivated by people worried about the rights of their constituents.
The Sunday Telegraph has long documented its abuses. These include foreign-born criminals evading expulsion from the country on the grounds that it would undermine their right to a family life in Britain. So cynically is this loophole manipulated that there is even a slang term for those who abuse it: “babyfathers”, men who have children just to evade deportation. Equally frustrating was the long, costly effort to repatriate Abu Qatada to Jordan – hamstrung because there was a threat that the Jordanians might have used evidence that had been derived from torture.
To add insult to injury, some European judges have embraced judicial activism. For instance, the European Court of Human Rights has argued that the rights of UK prisoners are breached when they are prevented from voting in elections. Whatever position one takes on the matter, it should be something for the UK Parliament to decide, rather than judges who operate beyond the control of the ballot box.
In short, the effort to scrap the Human Rights Act is not an attack upon human rights as a principle. It is a criticism of how they are currently applied in practice. So long as the replacement Bill of Rights is sufficiently robust in its defence of the individual then it would surely do the job of the present Act but in a manner that doesn’t subvert British democracy or sovereignty. Ultimately it comes down to this: the Government rightly believes that it should be the UK’s courts and elected representatives who have the final say in legal matters pertaining to the UK.
Mr Gove will bring intellect and tenacity to the task of reforming Britain’s justice system. And this historically minded man could take advantage of an approaching anniversary. It was 800 years ago, on June 15 1215, that King John sealed the Magna Carta. Britain’s long, complex journey towards establishing a democratic legal system confirms that the UK is more than capable of drawing up its own Bill of Rights – ironing out the faults of the old system and restoring the reputation of the noble cause of human rights.
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