Lord Lester of Herne Hill QC

How did you first become interested in human rights?

I became involved with human rights while at Cambridge in the late 50s as part of the struggle against Apartheid, and then at Harvard Law School in the early 60s and in the Deep South during the long hot summer of 1964 (writing a book for Amnesty International).

When did you first start actively to campaign for some form of legislation on human rights in the UK?

I became actively involved in the UK when called to the Bar in 1964. I helped set up CARD (the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination) and was legal adviser on the lobby for effective legislation to tackle that social evil. I am still campaigning for effective equality legislation.

I first called for the incorporation of the ECHR in 1968 in a Fabian lecture and campaigned to that end for thirty years.

Are you satisfied with what we ultimately got: the Human Rights Act 1998?

I was satisfied with the compromise that is the Human Rights Act [HRA] as a way of reconciling the need for effective remedies for violations of human rights with the doctrine of parliamentary supremacy. But the effectiveness of the HRA depends on the willingness of the government of the day to treat it as no ordinary law. It has become increasingly apparent that senior ministers, including the Prime Minister, do not regard the HRA as a constitutional measure of sufficient priority within our system of law and public administration.

I have concluded that we need a measure like my first Private Member’s Bill which gives the courts equivalent powers to those conferred by the European Communities Act 1972, and that a British Bill of Rights – stronger than the ECHR, but building on it – is called for.

What would you assess as the lessons of the HRA’s first five years or so in operation?

Senior British judges have interpreted and applied the HRA wisely and carefully without usurping the functions of the other two branches of government. Senior politicians have not accepted the political legitimacy of the HRA in a way that commends it to the public.

The government’s failure to create a strong, independent, well-resourced Human Rights Commission during the past nine years has seriously weakened its stated aim of promoting a culture of respect for human rights – as has the PM’s and successive Home Secretaries’ failure to give strong positive leadership.

Would you accept that there is a ‘cultural deficit’ in terms of public support for the Act?

There is a cultural deficit.

What do you think should be done about that?

Campaign actively.

What do you think should be the next big development in human rights in the UK?

In addition to the campaign for an effective single Equality Act and Commission for Equality and Human Rights, we need a British Bill of Rights as part of a modern constitutional settlement as advocated by Leslie Scarman more than thirty years ago.