A creeping agenda

Lordsdispatchbox4x3.jpgCharlie Falconer on why Conservative legislative proposals put narrow partisan interests ahead of real ‘one nation’ policies

Earlier this week, I opened the Lords’ debate on the justice, constitutional and devolved affairs aspects of the Queen’s Speech – something billed, with a fair bit of chutzpah, as a ‘one-nation’ legislative programme.

If the government were really serious about presenting its legislation in this way, David Cameron’s government would have put forward proposals to bind our nation together: Scotland with the rest of the UK, employers and employees, rich and poor, young and old, north and south, London and the rest. This would encourage everyone to realise their full potential while providing proper support and protection for those who need it.

The upcoming Bills covered by the debate appear motivated by short-term political advantage. Not only did we hear about divisive proposals to create two-tiers of MPs, but also plans to make it more difficult for trades unions to donate to political parties while doing nothing to increase the transparency of private donations by the wealthy. There was also nothing to deal with the damage done in the past five years on access to justice.

If Ministers truly want a ‘one nation’ outcome, they should also deal with the fact that only 43% of 18 to 24 year olds who were registered to vote did so at the election. And of them, only a quarter backed the Conservatives. Shortly, Ministers must decide whether or not to bring forward, to December 2015, the end date for transitional arrangements for individual electoral registration. If they do, potentially millions of people, many of them young, will be removed from the register.

None of these proposals however, have more potential to create division than those to abolish the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights. The new Lord Chancellor, Michael Gove refused three times in the Commons to say whether the government would leave the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Since then, we have heard contrary reports that the Prime Minister opposes withdrawal and others that he hasn’t ruled it out. They appear to be making it up as they go along.

Mr Gove has dismissed those who defend the current human rights laws as being like Fat Boy in The Pickwick Papers, who liked to make your flesh creep. I wonder if the sisters of Anne-Marie Ellement would agree with him. She was a member of the Military Police raped by two colleagues, and who killed herself after being bullied for making the allegation. At the first inquest there was an inadequate investigation. Only by relying on the Human Rights Act were her sisters able to get the court to order a second inquest, at which the truth emerged.

Ministers say they support “British Human Rights”, by which they seem to mean “the British Government’s view of human rights”. The ability of the Executive to pick and choose the extent to which such rights apply and to whom is illusory. Anybody serious about providing our citizens with protection would not consider this course. Gove insisted on Thursday that he would “enhance the traditions of human rights” but his use of the word “enhancement” sits oddly against proposals that clearly involve a reduction.

The Conservatives also say that they want to prevent the ECHR overruling our own courts, and make the Supreme Court “genuinely supreme”. But this betrays a misunderstanding of the current position. The UK courts are the final arbiters of what UK law provides and the UK Supreme Court has been clear – in both statements and practice – that it will not treat itself as bound by decisions of the ECHR.

This is just one example of how the government is willing to risk not just our standing in the world but the relationship between the different parts of our country for narrow partisan interests. Labour wants fair and lasting reform, done in a way that builds the broadest possible consensus – and involving a constitutional convention. Ignoring the latter, the Conservatives are choosing to proceed with piecemeal, top down reforms dictated by the Chancellor.

Lord Charles Falconer of Thoroton is Shadow Lord Chancellor in the House of Lords.

Published 3rd June 2015

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