Where did you first politically encounter human rights as a concept?
Only after I became director of the Civil Liberties Trust (CLT) in 1989. It was the charitable sister organisation to Liberty with its own trustees and director. It produced research for Liberty and this led to the publication of A People’s Charter, Liberty’s draft Bill of Rights, published in 1991.
What attracted you to the idea of human rights?
Human rights resonated with me through my previous experience both working at the Runneymede Trust on race equality and as a policy adviser at the London Borough of Hackney. At Hackney, there had been enormous dispute over the attempt to introduce a fairer distribution of resources and a fairer employment policy in a borough that had not, hitherto, recognised the diversity that had grown up within it. I came to see that we lacked a sufficient ethical framework to address the inevitable conflicts and tensions, including between disadvantaged and dispossessed groups, that this process unintentionally stoked. Those with the loudest voices often got heard the most. I also realised how useful human rights could be in areas like social services where I was working and where decisions are taken every day that could benefit from human rights standards, particularly in a context of unequal power relations between individuals and their social workers or carers. My starting point on human rights was more about this than the role of human rights in preventing the state riding roughshod over individuals’ liberties, though of course that is absolutely crucial as well. At Liberty, there was a debate about whether to embrace the international tradition of human rights or the domestic British tradition of civil liberties. I came down on the side of human rights and during my time at the CLT, Liberty began more and more to embrace human rights as a principle.
What was the context at the time, in the early 1990s?
The Institute for Public Policy Research published its own version of a written constitution by Lord Lester and others shortly before Liberty produced its People’s Charter. Charter 88 was becoming well-established and taking forward debate on the future of democracy in the UK. This included a debate about a Bill of Rights.. In response to arguments within the Labour Party and elsewhere that a bill of rights would transfer many crucial ‘political’ decisions to unelected and unrepresentative judges, I worked with John Wadham, then Liberty’s legal officer, to develop a model that allowed Parliament the final say, which we called ‘democratic entrenchment.’ We wanted to make sure that politics were not deadened through a bill of rights whilst seeking greater judicial protection of rights, particularly at the extreme. As the result of all this activity, the 1992 Labour manifesto expressed support for the ‘democratic enforcement’ of a Bill of Rights.
What happened after the disappointment of Labour’s loss of the 1992 election?
I continued to work with Liberty but moved to a post as research fellow at the Human Rights Centre at Essex University, under Professor Kevin Boyle. We continued to advise the Labour front bench – including Tony Blair, who was then leader of John Smith’s Home Affairs team, and subsequently Jack Straw, when he took over as Shadow Home Secretary and whose personal commitment, alongside Lord Irvine’s, was significant. We were trying to develop a model that would fulfil John Smith’s commitment to introduce the UK’s first Bill of Rights based on the ECHR. As it got nearer the election, there was more and more concern about the precise mechanism of entrenchment. In 1996, I moved to King’s College (London) Law School to work with Professor Robert Blackburn on his Human Rights Incorporation Project. I also continued to work within the Labour party. With others, like Andrew Puddephat of Liberty and Stuart Weir at Essex, I was also involved in the Labour Rights Campaign – an attempt to involve grassroots Labour members in a commitment to rights. I was on the council of Charter 88 which continued to be active across all political parties.
How do you explain the difficulty that the government appears to have felt over support for the Human Rights Act?
There was no real consultation over the Human Rights Act beyond a relatively small elite of political activists and lawyers. A major justification given for incorporating the European Convention was that it would prevent the need for individuals to go to the Strasbourg European Court of Human Rights to determine issues. However, the real reason for using the Convention rather than a newly drafted Bill of Rights was that we would never have got agreement to any other list, that governments were not already bound by. The lack of consultation might have been less of a problem if there had been a concerted attempt to provide political leadership once the Act was passed. However, after 9/11, there was vocal disassociation from the Act and even blame heaped on it from a high level. Without proper leadership, it was totally predictable that there would be hostility among the tabloids and a widespread lack of understanding among the public.
Has the government changed?
Yes. I think the government considered whether they should amend or even repeal the Act and they decided to pull back from the brink, lead from the front and explain to officials how to interpret the broad rights in the HRA. There is now speculation that Gordon Brown will advance a Bill of Rights that will seek to build on the Human Rights Act.
You are a member of the Commission for Equality and Human Rights. Will this make a difference?
It should do. The Chair and the commissioners expect it to do so. We cannot afford to allow human rights to become a dirty word in this country and it will be helpful for those who are concerned about this to encourage the CEHR to fulfil its human rights mandate with vigour. It will undoubtedly be hard to reconcile the competing expectations on the Commission.
Are you now optimistic about the government’s position?
Hugely more so than a year ago.
What about the Tories?
David Cameron appears to have decided that it would be popular to repeal the Human Rights Act. He wants the power to deport people to any country, regardless of whether they will be tortured. He wants, he says, control anti-terrorism policy, without judicial interference. The spirit in which you engage in debate seems to me to be terribly important. My fear is that he will repeal the Human Rights Act and then get bogged down in consultation on a British Bill of Rights which may never see the light of day. I think also there is code in some of the terms he is using: His vision for a ‘British Bill of Rights’ appears to signal rights for ‘the British’ rather than rights which have a ‘British pedigree’. This proposal fills me with anxiety.
Was the struggle for the Human Rights Act worth all the energy and time that it took?
Of course. The irony is that the one thing that has made the Act so unpopular was 9/11 but it also provided the best test of its worth. Nothing else was going to put a check on the assumption of powers by the government in response. For all the tabloid attacks, you can begin to see people understanding its importance.