Comment: Why the coalition should steer clear of the Human Rights Act

The Human Rights Act has the capacity to blow the coalition up.

By Michael Wills

The Liberals have always taken an honourable position, which I espouse as well, that the Human Rights Act is profoundly important in protecting the rights of every British citizen and their liberties.

The Conservative party are split on this issue. Wise MPs such as Kenneth Clarke and Dominic Grieve understand the importance of this Act. They also understand that many of the issues that most concern Conservative backbenchers do not arise as a result of the Human Rights Act, but as a result of the European Convention on Human Rights.

If those backbenchers want these issues tackled, therefore, it would mean the UK resiling from the European convention which in turn could lead to an exit from the European Union.

Sadly, some people appear to have forgotten the recent history of our continent.

The European Convention, largely drafted by British lawyers, came about because of the terrible history of 20th century Europe when states abused their power to murder, torture, and deprived individuals of the dignity and rights and liberties to which every human being should expect.

The Human Rights Act brought those principles home to Britain so they could be enforced in British courts.

But David Cameron continues to flirt with the idea of repealing the Human Rights Act. This pandering to ill-informed prejudice among his own grassroots would in practice mean significant damage to the rights and liberties of every British citizen.

If the prime minister pursues this course it will pose an existential problem for the Liberals. They can either go along with the Conservatives to stay in power or they can honour the principles, which they have so long upheld. Sooner or later this is likely to be a defining question for this coalition.

The process of legislation in government is often flawed, no matter how worthy the motives. Down the line, it often appears it could have been done better. But I’ve been struck, in all my years as the human rights minister, by the fact that never once did any lawyer, no matter what their party political allegiances, ever criticise the Human Rights Act from a legal perspective as flawed legislation.

It has already proved its value to individual citizens in ways that the media hardly ever recount – enabling, for example, an elderly couple to live out their years together in dignity by stopping a local authority separating them.

That’s not to say that we should not constantly look to improve these protections. But I fear the Conservative MPs who pursue a crude populism on these issues have not foreseen the consequences of their actions, not least for the future of the coalition.

Lord Wills was the human rights minister for four-and-a-half years under the Labour government. He represented Swindon North in the Commons from 1997 to 2010

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