In the aftermath of the riots, David Cameron talked a load of nonsense about human rights.I have been waiting for Nick Clegg to slap him down to size and make the case for the Human Rights Act - which he has done today, in an article for the Guardian's Comment is Free site. Now, it's all very well writing about such things in the earnest and well meaning kind of liberal Guardian, but he should actually be writing about them, and talking about them in things that people actually read and watch, on This Morning, or in the Mirror. That's just an aside, though. The article itself is very good.
He's doing what he always has done - sticking up for the most vulnerable people:
Yet something strange has happened in recent years: while governments have continued the call for greater rights abroad, they have belittled the relevance of rights at home. The Labour government that passed the Human Rights Act then spent years trashing it, allowing a myth to take root that human rights are a foreign invention, unwanted here, a charter for greedy lawyers and meddlesome bureaucrats.
This myth panders to a view that no rights, not even the most basic, come without responsibilities; that criminals ought to forfeit their very humanity the moment they step out of line; and that the punishment of lawbreakers ought not to be restrained by due process.
The reality is that those who need to make use of human rights laws to challenge the decisions of the authorities are nearly always people who are in the care of the state: children's homes, mental hospitals, immigration detention, residential care. They are often vulnerable, powerless, or outsiders, and are sometimes people for whom the public feels little sympathy. But they are human beings, and our common humanity dictates that we treat them as such.They are just the sort of people that Alex Salmond described as the vilest people in society earlier this year in the row over the UK Supreme Court. Nick didn't address that row directly, but showed how having cases considered in London was helpful:
many others were resolved by British courts thanks to the incorporation of the convention into domestic law under the Human Rights Act. I believe that was a hugely positive step which has done three things: it has ended the long delays people used to experience before they could get a hearing at Strasbourg, embedded the principles of the ECHR in our own courts, and sent a powerful message to the rest of the world about the value we place on human rights.Often the Human Rights Act is cited as an excuse for foolish courses of action by officialdom. Being married to a health and safety adviser has taught me that many things done in the name of health and safety have no basis in regulation or law. I personally think that these sorts of things are deliberately to sabotage important legal protections by people who have a vested interest in employees or prisoners being as downtrodden as possible. Nick sensibly points out that we maybe have to look at this, but we don't need to be throwing any babies out with the bathwater.
Too many people have succumbed to a culture of legal paranoia where common sense decisions are questioned – not by the courts, but by overcautious lawyers and officials. This creates an ever-worsening cycle: the more we perpetuate the myth that, in the words of Jack Straw, human rights are a "villains' charter", the more those dealing with lawbreakers curtail their behaviour because of a general sense that rights trump common senseI think one of my favourite lines is "there is no human right to fried chicken". But then that would be obvious to anyone with half an ounce of common sense, wouldn't it?
Praise from Shami Chakrabarti is probably worth more than praise from just about anyone else - and it's ood to see that she has endorsed Nick's comments:
This is a welcome intervention from the deputy prime minister and certainly not before time.
"The coalition was stitched together on a civil liberties ticket. You can't talk human rights in the Arab spring whilst trashing them at home all year round."
Nick has to pick his public battles very carefully, but the next one I want to see him fight is calling out Cameron for his disgraceful remarks about people on benefits. Scapegoating addicts and denying them the means to recover, especially when addiction servivces really do struggle for funding, is an utter disgrace. Cameron hasn't been challenged on this properly by Nick - and I want to see him do that in the next few months.