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Tuesday, July 06, 2010

What next for the UK parliament joint committee on human rights?

What next for the UK parliament joint committee on human rights?

Human rights committee's successors will have to take up the rallying cry with renewed vigour to hold government to account

Liberal Democrat peer Lord Lester is member of the parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights . Photograph: Steve Maisey/Rex

One of the little reported side effects of the UK general election of 2010 was the toll taken on one of parliament's most effective and independent bodies, the joint committee on human rights. This committee, set up in the wake of the Human Rights Act 1998 coming into force, was intended to fulfil the role of parliamentary watchdog, overseeing the compatibility of legislation and government acts with human rights norms and monitoring steps taken by government to conform to judicial decisions highlighting breaches of human rights by the United Kingdom.

The committee's chairman, Labour's Andrew Dismore, lost his Hendon seat by a mere 103 votes. Dismore led a vocal campaign in defence of the Human Rights Act against what he regarded as populist attacks from the left and right:

"What is wrong is the way that political leaders of all persuasions rush to judgment on human rights legislation. The Human Rights Act, like "Health & Safety" before it, is the scapegoat for unpopular decisions. It's an easy target for politicians, having become an esoteric tool of the legal profession. Whether it's giving hamburgers to roof protesters, failing to publish photos of escaped murderers, or any other urban myth, the Human Rights Act is at the root of it all."

Under his leadership, the committee became a thorn in the side of the Labour Government, needling ministers over their failures to comply with human rights requirements. Where issues such as prisoner enfranchisement have proven to be "legally straightforward, but politically difficult", the committee has "drawn attention to a number of cases where significant delay in implementation has tarnished the otherwise good record of the United Kingdom in responding to the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights". This has allowed the committee to take on what Francesca Klug and Helen Wildbore describe as a "quasi-judicial" role in Breaking new ground: the Joint Committee on Human Rights and the role of Parliament in human rights compliance [2007] EHRLR 231. This involves the committee flagging up judicial decisions and maintaining the pressure on government to act in light of them.

The committee also lost Liberal Democrat Dr Evan Harris, who lost his Oxford West and Abingdon, again by the very narrow margin of 176 votes. Both figures were subject to vitriolic campaigns in the right-wing press in the run up to the election. Dismore was rounded on by the Daily Telegraph with regard to his travel expenses claims (he was cleared of wrongdoing by the Committee on Standards in Public Life). The Daily Mail's description of Harris as "Dr Death" (in relation to his stance on embryo research, his support for the right to seek abortion and in favour of permitting euthanasia) was frequently employed by some of his most vocal opponents.

Political life, nonetheless, continues without much sentiment. The House of Lords have already chosen their representatives to the reconstituted Joint Committee, which feature three returning names, Conservative peer Lord Bowness and Labour peers Lord Dubs and Lord Morris of Handsworth. The committee also receives powerful reinforcement in the form of Lord Lester of Herne Hill, a Liberal Democrat peer and respected public lawyer who spearheaded the campaign to introduce a Bill of Rights into UK law which culminated in the Human Rights Act 1998.

When the new committee meet (the House of Commons has yet to appoint its six representatives) they will be confronted with a voice from beyond the (political) grave. In the previous committee's final report it detailed how the outgoing Labour government had adopted a position of "minimum compliance" with the ECHR. The report went on to deliver a powerful statement of what they regarded as the role of Parliament with regard to protection of human rights:

"[I]t is increasingly seen as the shared responsibility of all branches of the state (the executive and parliament as well as the courts) to ensure effective national implementation of the Convention, both by preventing human rights violations and ensuring that remedies for them exist at the national level."

In particular, the committee attacked the government's failure to legislate to enfranchise prisoners (as Ireland did in 2006), finding it

"unfortunate that the UK's generally good record on implementation is undermined to a considerable extent by the very lengthy delays in implementation in those cases where the political will to make the necessary changes is lacking. In our view, whatever the challenges thrown up by a judgment of the European Court of Human Rights, a delay of five years or more in implementing such a judgment can never be acceptable."

The committee's successors will have to take up this rallying cry with renewed vigour if it is to fulfil the promise of providing a parliamentary forum in which the government can be held to account for the UK's human rights record.

Comment: What next for the UK parliament joint committee on human rights? Well, for a starters, it should get rid of the corrupt Lord Dubs who is one of those guilty of trying to defend the indefensible of denying prisoners the vote under Labour. So, a breacher of human rights is now on the JCHR monitoring human rights abuse? It should be made into a film and called Carry On Abusing Human Rights!

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