CONSTITUTIONAL AFFAIRS – HUMAN RIGHTS – 19 February 2007

Dr Julian Lewis: I thank the hon. and learned Lady for being so generous in giving way. She has given a number of examples in which people who perhaps should have known better have over-applied what they imagined to be the provisions of the [Human Rights] Act, but does she not accept that many verdicts handed down in court have also seemed to fly in the face of common sense? I think particularly of people involved in restraining others who have trespassed on their property, who are then pursued into court and sometimes convicted of assault on the trespassers; or of people who had no right to be in this country in the first place and who have launched attacks on and committed crimes in this country, but who cannot be excluded from the country for fear of their human rights being abused if they were sent to another country. It does not all come down to misinterpretation, does it?

[The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Vera Baird): There was a heady mixture – [Interruption.] Yes, a dolly mixture of cases. It is difficult to unravel them to answer specifically on each. I cannot see the human rights implication in the first scenario – that of someone assaulting another person to stop a burglary – although there would be issues of appropriate defence of self and of property, which is a common law defence that has been around for a very long time. As for not deporting someone because of a danger to them, if there is an acute danger of a person being killed, I should have thought that even prior to the Human Rights Act being passed we would have been as reluctant as we are now to deport that individual. It is to some extent a question of balance, but the right to life is absolute and I do not shrink from saying that it ought to be.]

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Henry Bellingham: ... I wish to examine the context in which the Human Rights Act operates. The answer to the question of whether it helps to protect our citizens from ill-thought-out authoritarian legislation is manifestly “no”. As for the question of whether it acts as a restraining influence on the Government's illiberal tendencies, I submit that it certainly does not do so. Of course, the Act has resulted in some positive outcomes, including those mentioned by the Minister. ... The Assets Recovery Agency, for example, was forced to spend millions of pounds fighting legal challenges brought by criminals under the Human Rights Act, thus ensuring that many cases are bogged down for years. The backlog in the courts has grown, with 146 incomplete claims. The agency's director has directly blamed the human rights “bandwagon” for thwarting efforts to recover assets.

Dr Lewis: Does that not illustrate the point that I was trying to make earlier? It is all well and good for Government Ministers to prate about applying common sense, but in the courts, judges have to apply and interpret the law. Applying and interpreting the law and applying common sense are often two very different things.

Mr Bellingham: My hon. Friend is spot on. It is not just a question of applying the law but of the impact of the Act on the police and many other practitioners in the legal and justice system. It has created a risk-averse culture, which has had many unintended consequences. ...

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Andrew Dismore: ... The basic aim of the Human Rights Act was to bring rights home, so that British residents did not face a long and expensive journey to Strasbourg to ensure that they are enforced, which would be the consequence of the policy advanced by the Opposition. Clear examples can be given of how the Act has benefited individuals who would have had no redress at home without it. We have already heard about the local authority that wanted to separate a couple who had been married for decades by putting them in separate care homes when they could not look after themselves. Action under the Human Rights Act prevented that. The adult children of an elderly woman who was fed her breakfast while sitting on a commode used the Human Rights Act to argue that that was against her human rights, and stopped the mistreatment.

Dr Lewis: The hon. Gentleman says very assuredly that action under the Human Rights Act prevented or stopped those abuses. Does he not think that perhaps the benefits of a free press and the public outrage that those abuses generated had rather more to do with those bureaucracies changing their opinion?

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David Heath: ... In an intervention, the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) raised an issue to do with an assault case. I am sorry to have to tell him that if someone is accused of assault, they are accused of it not under the provisions of the Human Rights Act. It might be the case that they are wrongly accused of assault – that they are preposterously accused of assault – but that would not be the fault of the Human Rights Act, so why pretend that it is?

Dr Lewis: The problem that the hon. Gentleman fails to address is that when legislation on the statute book is so systematically misinterpreted – as he would put it – by all the authorities high and low that affect people's lives day to day in the enforcement of the law, one has to say that somebody has badly failed in educating those authorities on how to apply that legislation. Is the fact that so many people are led to misinterpret it a failure of Government or a failure of the concept of the legislation itself? I know which of the two options I think is the right answer.

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[For Julian's speech in this Debate, click here.]