In the Media

Reid humbled by U-turn on human rights

PUBLISHED July 21, 2006

John Reid's announcement that the Human Rights Act will not be repealed or amended is a major climb-down for the Home Secretary and a victory for the Act's two main supporters in Government, the Lord Chancellor and the Attorney General.

Lord Falconer and Lord Goldsmith have praised the Act as one of the Government's major achievements.

By contrast, Tony Blair sent a "personal minute" to Mr Reid on May 15, in which the Prime Minister said: "We will need to look again at whether primary legislation is needed to address the issue of court rulings which overrule the Government in a way that is inconsistent with other EU countries' interpretation of the European Convention on Human Rights."

The minute, published by the Government, would undoubtedly have reflected the views of both the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary at that time. Downing Street made it clear that amendment of the Human Rights Act was one option under consideration.

No longer. "The Government does not accept that we should repeal the Act," Mr Reid's paper said yesterday. "Repealing or amending the Act will not assist in rebalancing the system."

Instead, the Home Secretary promised to be "robust" in challenging decisions from the European Court of Human Rights that prevent ministers from striking a proper balance between freedom of the individual and protection of the public. He was referring to the Chahal case from 1996, when the European Court of Human Rights decided that Britain could not deport a Sikh nationalist at risk of inhuman treatment in India.

"We are working with our partners in Europe to challenge this as vigorously as possible," Mr Reid said yesterday. This was a reference to the Government's decision last October to intervene in a case being brought against the Netherlands by Mohammad Ramzy, an Algerian accused of involvement in Islamic terrorism. However, the European Court of Human Rights said yesterday that no date had been fixed for the Ramzy challenge.

Mr Reid is promising action to ensure that the Human Rights Act is not misinterpreted by the police, probation, parole and prison services. In May, it was reported that police forces were unable to publish photographs of wanted suspects because Article 8 of the Human Rights Convention says that everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life.

The police appeared not to have noticed that Article 8 goes on to allow public authorities to interfere with the right to privacy, provided that this is necessary in the interests of public safety or for the prevention of crime.

Yesterday, Mr Reid promised to make "better practical 'myth-busting' advice and guidance available to those working at the front line".

Mr Reid did not explain why the police and other "front-line staff" had not previously managed to obtain clear legal advice from their lawyers.

The Government faces real problems over human rights. A High Court judge quashed control orders on six suspected Iranian terrorists last month, holding that house arrest for 18 hours a day was incompatible with the right to liberty. An appeal against this decision, which was not taken under the Human Rights Act, will be heard next week.

However, campaigners welcomed Mr Reid's apparent U-turn. Shami Chakrabarti, the director of the human rights group Liberty, congratulated him "on his promise to fight the myths which now shroud the Human Rights Act".

Katie Ghose, the director of the British Institute of Human Rights, was "delighted that the Government recognised the Human Rights Act as a tool for balancing the rights of victims and criminals".