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Speech Archive

"Speech to the DCA Human Rights Conference", London 2006

Lord Falconer of Thoroton (Labour)

Location: London

Good morning, I am delighted to be here at this the second DCA Human Rights conference. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the first Manchester event - but by all accounts it was an extremely successful and valuable day.

This conference today and the conference in Manchester are important events.

It is very important to argue the case for human rights. Very important to argue for the Human Rights Act. And to argue that case now.

Not for the sake of the legislation - though the Act is under attack. But for the sake of the values which underlie the Act.

That is what I want to do today.

This is a time when we must demonstrate our values as a society, and proudly adhere to them.

There are key ways in which we can do so. Firstly, we must ensure that the argument prevails as to why we need these values. And secondly, we must ensure that the implementation of the Act is sensible and accurate. And that the public believe those human rights reflect common sense.

This conference is an important contribution to delivering these aims.

I want to say something today on three points. On terrorism, and human rights. On our examination of how the Human Rights Act has been working. And on the practical points of implementing the legislation.

Now I know and you know that human rights and the Human Rights Act have their opponents. Opponents in politics, and opponents in the media.

I know too that as an idea, human rights to some people in this country is a concept about which they feel uneasy. They see human rights as foreign - foreign to them and their families, foreign to their lives and experiences, foreign to their communities and their country.

I want to say this: human rights are far from foreign. Human rights are for you. They are for me. Human rights are for everyone.

Let's not forget how central to Britain is the concept of rights. Rights and the responsibilities which go with them are at the core of how societies work. How Britain works.

Human rights are not some kind of European idea, grafted on to Britain. Far from it: human rights, in terms of the conventions which govern the idea, are if anything a British idea, grafted on to Europe.

Look at the European Convention on Human Rights, which lies behind our Human Rights Act 1998.

Invented by Britain.

It was drafted by British people - someone in the Home Office in fact.

Ratified first by Britain.

Exported by Britain to Europe.

Brought back to Britain from Europe by this Government in the Human Rights Act.

Human rights are British rights.

Human rights are British. Human rights are as British as the Beatles. As British as the BBC. As British as bitter.

Human rights are part of the British way of life. Human rights are British to the core.

Nobody doubts the importance of those freedoms or the need for effective protection of them. The Convention was drafted in the aftermath of the appalling actions of the axis powers in the Second World War. They represent the values on which our society is based.

They represent the freedoms which a pluralist society accepts - freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom to have a private life, freedom from death, unfair imprisonment, degrading or inhuman treatment or torture.

Our citizens should have basic freedoms. Some of those freedoms are absolute. Others will need to be curtailed to the extent necessary to protect the wider community from harm. The greater the threat of harm the more they need to be curtailed.

The state has an obligation to preserve these freedoms as much as is possible. These freedoms are not just for defendants and minorities. They are for everyone.

The protection of the individual's freedoms depends just as much on that individual being protected from crime or terrorism as it does from the individual being protected from arbitrary imprisonment. Naomi Bryant, who was murdered by Anthony Rice when he was wrongly released from a life sentence, was entitled to have her freedoms protected. Every one of the innocent victims on the tubes and bus where suicide bombers struck on the 7th July 2005 were entitled to have their freedoms protected.

The existence of those freedoms goes hand in hand with democracy. We believe in a society where everyone is equal, where each person is free to live and think as they wish, subject only to limitations required to protect the wider community.

We reject as a society the idea of the imposition of spiritual or political uniformity whether by force or otherwise.

Terrorism

That is why the struggle against global terrorism is more than a clash of arms, it is a battle of values and ideas in which the aim of our enemy is not only to destroy life, but to destroy a way of life.

It is an enemy who feels nothing but contempt for democracy, for tolerance, for the rule of law. It is an enemy who is prepared to murder indiscriminately out of hatred for what he believes we stand for. It is an enemy with a fundamental disregard for any human rights.

We will not defeat terrorism by the force of arms or the apparatus of the state, police and security services alone. The Prime Minister said: "we will defeat it by values and ideas set in opposition to those of the terrorist".

The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Phillips said: "respect for human rights must be a key weapon in the ideological battle".

Human rights are the means for all of us to live our lives, freely; free from prejudice, free from fear and free from terror. They are the best expression of the values that make the UK a thriving, liberal, prosperous society. The reason why the UK remains such an attractive destination for immigrants from across the globe.

A society in which the human rights of every single individual are respected and indeed protected under the Human Rights Act is in stark opposition to the repressive, violent alternative offered by the terrorist.

And it is a thoroughly good thing that we have embedded in legislation our commitment to those rights.

But to win this battle of values and ideas we need to be able to convince people of our adherence to these principles.

Extremists within the UK and abroad argue that our Government is Islamaphobic. That our foreign and domestic policies are designed to discriminate and oppress Muslims. They claim Belmarsh is the UK's Guantanamo in which anyone can be locked up indefinitely without trial, they accuse glorification of terrorism legislation as being a gagging order on Muslims, that Muslims can be shot on sight by the police for wearing a beard or Islamic dress.

This is utterly, utterly wrong.

Every aspect of our response is, and must be, in accordance with our values; democracy, tolerance, rule of law. The Human Rights Act ensures this providing protection for every individual under the law.

All counter-terrorism legislation looks to strike a balance between public safety and individual rights, one that establishes the boundaries of a lawful and proportionate response. And by public safety I mean the safety of each and every person in the UK. If a Government gets that balance wrong an independent judiciary can declare legislation incompatible with the Convention.

We must convince our citizens that human rights are applied universally, fairly and consistently - something, of course, which is not confined to counter-terrorism.

Last week the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Phillips captured the point, and let me quote him:

"people should be confident that their adopted country treats them without discrimination and with due respect for their human rights. If they feel that they are not being fairly treated, their consequent resentment will inevitably result in the growth of those who, actively or passively, are prepared to support the terrorists who are bent on destroying the fabric of our society. The Human Rights Act is not merely their safeguard, it is a vital part of the foundation of the fight against terrorism."

I agree entirely with Lord Phillips' analysis. It goes without saying that we must practice what we preach. We cannot espouse our values on an international stage if we ignore them at home. To ride rough-shod over human rights is to hand victory to the terrorist.

The Human Rights Act operates on a practical as well as an ideological level- it protects us as individuals from the state, while defending our values as a society.

The practical application of the Human Rights Act has not, as some ill informed commentators may argue, given free reign to the terrorist. It does not weaken our response. As Kofi Annan commented "Human rights law makes ample provision for strong counter-terrorism action, even in the most exceptional circumstances". He is right, but it also does far more. It puts our values to the forefront of the fight against terrorism.

It is through the application and adherence to these values that we can show that these values are the right values - for everyone. We can demonstrate that our policy is not - even remotely, Islamaphobic - but, fundamentally, is based on equality of the individual.

If we are to reach such understanding and appreciation we need to persuade the public that the Human Rights Act works, we need to demonstrate that it works, we must ensure that it works in practice in a way that accords with common sense and in a way that reflects our values.

And that is why you are here.

If we are to win public confidence in Human Rights the Act must be applied with confidence and applied with accuracy. We should not be in a position in which we are having to defend the importance of human rights, we should be advocates not apologists.

July review

The events surrounding the Anthony Rice case provide a very conspicuous and sobering example of the operational problems that are a product of lack of confidence and understanding of the implementation of the 1998 Act.

In the immediate aftermath of the Inquiry Report into the release of Rice and the subsequent murder of Naomi Bryant, as you will know, the Prime Minister asked me to conduct a review into the implementation of the Act. It was essential that the Government took time to consider fully the implications of this case if we are to avoid such tragedies in the future.

The review is significant, and I won't go over each point, but I want to highlight some key areas of the review and our response; The review concluded firstly;

1. The Human Rights Act has had no significant impact on the criminal law or on the Government's ability to fight crime - if the review had found that the Act put public safety at risk, we would have considered its future. But it didn't. As it is, we can move on with the utmost confidence in the Act's effectiveness, and be passionate in its promotion.

2. The Human Rights Act has had an impact on counter-terrorism legislation, but that the main difficulties in this area have arisen not from the Act itself but from decisions of the European Court of Human Rights - and the Government will remain committed to respecting human rights in its approach to counter-terrorism. As I have described at length in the earlier part of this speech, it is fundamental to our defence.

3. The Human Rights Act has had a significant, but beneficial, effect on the development of policy - and we are determined that these benefits are experienced by all public authorities. The tool kit, and further training that my department is taking forward as a result of the review will help embed the Act into the very culture of policy formation. It is not an add-on - but should be at the heart of how policies are conceived and implemented.

 

And finally, the review concluded;

4. Deficiencies in training and guidance have led to an imbalance whereby too much attention has been paid to individual rights at the expense of the wider community -it is these last two points that I will discuss in more detail.

 

The review, along with the Rice report, makes the point that the problems lie not in the principles but the process. The Act itself, does at it was intended to do; it codifies our political will of entrenching the values of democracy, tolerance and the rule of law. It expresses our values and does not need to be amended by legislation. However, it shows that there are significant issues that we must address around the implementation of the Act.

Application/Implementation

Before the Rice case, the DCA had produced guidance on the Act. And yet what became apparent is that there is more that must be done to assist public authorities in their responsibilities under that Act.

The review has helped us to identify some of the areas in which misunderstandings could lead to errors.

We must strive to educate and inform to correct these misunderstandings.

Improved training and guidance, events such as this and the publications that we are launching here and in Manchester will help build confidence among public authorities who must apply the Act

The Human Rights Act needs to be understood. Its value, what it stands for, what it achieves for all of us, needs to be better appreciated by practitioners and the public.

We need to redouble our efforts to make sure that all of us who develop policy and practice understand and apply the human rights act correctly. One of the act's greatest successes has been its positive impact on policy formulation and it is imperative that we build on this.

To a greater or lesser extent, all public authorities build into their policy and procedure development exercises a process of human rights proofing. But there is no doubt that we need to encourage a levelling-up to the performance of the best, and my department's programme of work following the review into the working of the act is tackling that.

In essence this involves ensuring that each department, before making a decision which might affect an individual's human rights, addresses the issues of possible infringement, justification and proportionality. People's rights get thought about in a way they never were before. The immediacy of the possible action in the English courts makes sure that happens.

For the levelling-up process to work, we must make better training available.

We must strive to ensure there is no repeat of cases like that of Anthony Rice. There needs to be better and more consistent guidance and training on human rights within all public authorities. This is something we must get right, and something that my department is actively taking forward, and the publication I am launching here today are an important part of the plan.

John Kissane will tell you how we intend that they should be used, and later speakers will tell you how they are mainstreaming human rights in their public authorities.

We are providing the toolkit, training and guidance because we recognise that there are deficiencies. Yet our role in central government is limited - it is the practitioners and the lawyers day in day out who are making human rights decisions.

One of the key aims of these resources is that as practitioners you have the confidence to apply the Act more robustly than has been the case for some public authorities. Public bodies should ensure that concessions are not made on the basis on an unduly cautious interpretation of the Convention and of the case law. Nor should public bodies shy from asking the courts to recognise the competing rights and public interests involved in human rights cases.

The main benefit however of such a strategy is that it will reinforce our positive Human Rights message, and I hope reduce public suspicion. Few things undermine public confidence in human rights more than the utterly nonsensical cases that occasionally come to public attention and dominate the headlines.

We must prevent these examples from becoming urban myth. Which is why we will be firm in rebutting stories like the one that has emerged this week in which a serial jewel thief in Kensington was captured on CCTV in the act of robbing a store. The shop owner wanted to distribute stills of the female thief to other shops in the area, but when she contacted the local police, she was informed that would be an infringement of the thief's rights.

There may be circumstances in which it would not be appropriate to publish photographs, but the Human Rights Act does not, I assure you, prevent shopkeepers circulating the CCTV stills of people who have been robbing their shop. The Human Rights Act applies to public authorities, not private businesses. And secondly, circulating photos is an entirely legitimate way of preventing crime

In any case there is no absolute right to privacy and there is no right to be a thief. The Human Rights Act specifically allows for a person's right to privacy to be balanced with the need to prevent and detect crime. That is the very reason it makes sense for the shopkeepers here to circulate the photograph.

Balancing rights

We want to help public authorities to redress the imbalance in which the right of the individual has too often been considered above the rights of the wider community. The advice provided in the jewel thief example for instance, is plainly wrong. We have to get these decisions right. We must be robust. Common sense dictates that in the example I have just given, circulating the photos is entirely sensible.

One very important thing we must recognise is that the Convention places positive obligations on public authorities to ensure the safety of society as well as the protection of individual rights. Striking the balance is critical and the package of information we are providing today is aimed directly at improving your ability to find the right balance.

When this balance is wrong or the Act is inaccurately applied it is the principles of human rights that are at stake.

We cannot give full effect to our values unless they receive protection under the law.

 

Conclusion

The Human Rights Act and the European Convention don't grant rights to anyone. They protect rights we all have simply by virtue of being human. It is as straightforward as that. And it is we in public authorities who provide that protection. All public authorities are statutorily obliged not to act in ways that are incompatible with the Convention Rights. And if we do, the Act provides sanctions.

We must persuade the public that the Act works. We must do that by ensuring it does not lead to injustice or to a reduction in public protection.

We in government are committing ourselves to campaign passionately and defiantly for human rights for everyone in Britain.

Human rights. Britain's rights.

Thank you.

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