HUMAN RIGHTS – 19 February 2007

Dr Julian Lewis: Although I agree with a great deal of the robust analysis put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Douglas Carswell), I should like first to refer to one of the opening remarks in the excellent speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Richard Shepherd), who asked why, if this human rights legislation is as rosy a garden as its advocates on the Government and Liberal Democrat Benches would like us to believe, it is necessary for us to have a debate of this sort at all, and why the tone of Members on those Benches is so defensive.

The more the debate went on, the more I became aware of something ticking away at the back of my memory reminding me that I had lived through something similar before, and eventually it dawned on me what it was. My mind went back to those junior common room debates in Balliol College, Oxford – not the most Conservative-oriented of Oxford colleges in my day – when I used to engage the Marxist majority along these lines: if communism and Marxism is such a wonderful thing, why is it that whenever one looks at it working in practice the people are oppressed and suppressed, and often not only are denied their human rights but lose their lives? The answer was always: “Well, it’s because the countries that are trying to put Marxism and communism into practice haven’t really understood it, so they misapply it. It’s not that the theory is wrong – it’s just that it hasn’t been tried properly.” That is what I am hearing today in what is being put forward by defenders of this legislation.

It is blindingly obvious that I am not a lawyer of any sort, but I like to think that I know a little bit about common sense. Government and Liberal Democrat supporters of this legislation keep having to say that we must bring common sense to it. When one gets a system or theory that systematically leads to the misunderstanding and misapplication of what it is meant to do, that suggests to me that there is something wrong with the system or theory itself. I believe that to be the case in this situation.

I am not qualified to say whether it is possible to introduce a new Bill of Rights instead of the Human Rights Act, as my party proposes, without also, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich suggested, ripping up our allegiance to the European Convention on Human Rights. However, if we are to introduce a Bill of Rights, I should like to make a few suggestions that Conservative Front Benchers and the leadership of my party might bear in mind. I hope that they will find some resonance in wider society, if not on the Government Benches or among Liberal Democrat Members.

First, we should recognise that any Bill of Rights must be a fairly short catalogue. One of the problems that has led to the concept of human rights being discredited by the legislation is that most people rightly believe that, for something to be a human right, it should be fundamental. They do not like to hear that people cite their human rights in cases that are obviously trivial and often perverse.

Secondly, people should recognise that there are few, if any, absolute rights and that most rights are provisional or contingent. We acknowledge that in, for example, times of war, when we impose conscription, which requires our citizens to go to war and put themselves in mortal danger. There are many lower-level examples of the fact that the choices that we must make about the way in which we conduct our affairs mean, more often than not, choosing the lesser of two evils. What sticks in the throat about some cases is that, all too often, a human right is declared in an absolutist way, as if, once that is established, it is the end of the matter and its impact on the rights of other people does not count.

Let me revert to my undergraduate days of reading philosophy and politics. It would be useful for those who frame a new Bill of Rights to bear in mind the simple principle that John Stuart Mill spelled out so effectively in his classic essay On Liberty. It is worth reading some of it into the record. It states:

“The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle ... That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others ... the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others.”

That is clear. We must ask ourselves whether justice, common sense and the principle of liberty that Mill outlined with so much emphasis and rightful attention, focusing on limiting people’s ability to harm others, has been taken further forward or knocked back by the introduction of human rights legislation.

I believe that people who come to this country without a legal right to do so and proceed to commit grave criminal offences are not in a position morally to claim that they have a right to remain here at the end of their prison sentence, irrespective of the misbehaviour that led them to be imprisoned. It is easy for people to say, “This particular group will be targeted for assassination.” It is not as clear as that in nine cases out of ten. It is usually a question of a risk assessment of some sort.

I believe that I am right – hon. Members must forgive me if I am conflating different cases – to say that one of those currently on the run on suspicion of murdering a female police constable not only got out of the country dressed in a burqa, wisely calculating, I suspect, that he would not be searched to establish whether his disguise was bogus, but has fled to the very country to which, he had previously successfully maintained, it was too dangerous for him to return. That would be funny if there were not a dead policewoman lying in a coffin as a result.

I believe in the principle that was enunciated – I am sorry that my repertoire is rather limited to my brief period as a philosophy undergraduate – by the late Sir Karl Popper when he talked about the Paradox of Tolerance. I have quoted it many times before and I intend, if I am spared, to quote it many times again:

“If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them”.

I fear that the problem with this legislation – the perversity of this legislation, the sub-culture that it has generated – is a culture of tolerating the intolerant and of setting their rights to look after their aims and their abuses over and above the rights of innocent people to be protected from harm.

The Government and the Liberal Democrats can convince themselves all they like that this is all about the media misrepresenting cases, and half-educated bureaucrats misapplying the law, or even fully educated bureaucrats gold-plating the law – how often have we heard that given as an excuse in respect of daft European legislation? – but the great British public can usually tell when something is working well and when something is working badly. This legislation is working badly. The Government know that it is working badly and the reason they keep prating about the need to inject common sense into it is that it is a body of legislation that is inimical to common sense.