Ministers ‘fuelling’ human rights myths

Government ministers are using the Human Rights Act to hide administrative failures in their departments, a scathing new report has warned.

The joint committee on human rights finds Tony Blair, home secretary John Reid and other senior ministers guilty of blaming human rights laws for government failures – and in doing so making public scepticism about the act worse.

The committee looked at three controversial cases this year – the Anthony Rice murder, the foreign prisoners scandal and the Afghan hijackers case – where the Human Rights Act or its misinterpretation by officials was blamed for a series of blunders.

In all three cases, “the Human Rights Act has been used as a convenient scapegoat for unrelated administrative failings within government”, the peers and MPs say.

“Moreover, when those assertions were demonstrated to be unfounded, there was no acknowledgment of the error, or withdrawal of the comment, or any other attempt to inform the public of the mistake,” the report says.

The Department for Constitutional Affairs (DCA) recently published the results of a review of the Human Rights Act, concluding that there was no need to repeal or amend it but calling for a new legal duty on officials to put public safety first.

Today’s report welcomes the first conclusion but says no new law is needed – instead, officials should be given better training and guidance on how to interpret the act.

It also welcomes the DCA’s statement that the public must be better informed about human rights laws, but warns that unless ministers take heed of this advice, myths about such legislation only protecting offenders will continue.

“We are extremely concerned that the Human Rights Act has been getting the blame for ministerial or administrative failings when it has nothing to do with those failings,” said committee chairman Andrew Dismore.

“The government has now accepted that none of the issues we examined provided justification for amending or repealing the act.

“We are convinced that more needs to be done to explain that the act can be a force for good for the people of this country, as well as debunking negative myths about it.”

A report into the murder of a young mother by prisoner Anthony Rice, who was on early release, said officials had put too much emphasis on his human rights. But today the committee says there is no evidence to back up this conclusion.

The act also came under scrutiny when a court ruled that Afghans who had hijacked a plane to get to Britain should be allowed to stay. Mr Reid said the ruling was “bizarre and inexplicable”, but the lord chancellor subsequently said it was the right decision.

In addition, the committee looked at the case of the 1,000 foreign national prisoners who were released without being considered for deportation. Both Mr Blair and Mr Reid said human rights laws were stopping them deporting these people but today’s report disagrees.