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Portfolio Justice Interview

Only human

Ross Reid Justice Correspondent

Professor Alan Miller discusses a crucial time for human rights legislation in the UK

News stories berating human rights legislation and the so-called soft touch environments they have created have become a staple in many UK newspapers in recent years. Aggressive headlines lambasting potential prisoner voting rights or inmate compensation claims have helped fuel an intense debate that has led to calls for reform and potential changes to the UK’s relationship with European law. For those who take on the task of defending human rights laws, the job has become increasingly unpopular. Professor Alan Miller, chairman of the Scottish Human Rights Commission, agrees this is one of the most critical times for human rights law in the UK in recent years. “I think since the time of the UK General

Election last year and the period leading up to that we have seen some important things begin to emerge in human rights within the UK,” he said. “At the UK level, across a range of fronts there has been a retreat from the UK accepting its international human rights legal obligations and seeking to make itself less accountable to the public through limiting access to the European Court of Human Rights. Tis has resulted in the Westminster coalition, at least the Conservative part of it, trying to repeal the Human Rights Act and substitute it with a weaker British bill of rights.” Britain’s human rights obligations have been criticised by some over the last 12 months. Much of the frustration has centred on a row over a European Court of Human Rights’ ruling in 2005 that the UK was unlawfully operating a blanket ban preventing prisoners from voting. MPs have since voted overwhelmingly to continue defying the ruling and maintain the ban. Opponents have said the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), written into UK law in the form of the

50 12 December 2011

European Court of Human Rights or the UK Supreme Court, and that contributed to an atmosphere where a consultation on a UK bill of rights could be launched. “As a human rights commission, we are very much internationally connected and among our peers the UK position is viewed with some bewilderment.

“Te UK has become obstructive in a number of areas and it is to the great disappointment of people across the international community. “For example, to see what happened at Dale

Farm on our TV screens a month ago or so just causes bewilderment that a developed country in the 21st century cannot solve a problem like that other than through forced evictions and the scenes we saw. “And then some of the quality of debate at

Westminster and the campaign against the HRA amongst serious commentators and judges and politicians has been held in very low regard.

“Scotland has, to a significant extent, not been caught up in that but we still have the same newspapers here and hear the same views so a culture [against the HRA] can still exist. “It has been a very difficult time for human rights in the UK over the last year or so, but that’s part of being in this field, you don’t get involved to have an easy life.” Te commission, which started operating in 2008, has already expressed its opposition to a bill of rights and Miller is hopeful nothing significant will progress in the immediate future. He said: “As long as the UK Coalition

Government stays together for the term of office it is difficult to see how anything practical will take place this side of the next election.

Professor Alan Miller

Human Rights Act (HRA), is being unfairly exploited, often citing examples of prisoners winning compensation claims for breaches of human rights as proof. Earlier this year a consultation was launched

by the Westminster Government to explore the possibility of establishing a UK bill of rights, which could replace the HRA. Miller said: “Tere is no doubt that some of the statements that have come from UK ministers have been unprecedented in terms of their unfounded, distorted criticisms of particular judgements from courts, either the

“I think the commission on a UK bill of rights is clearly composed to reflect the divisions within the UK Government – the Lib Dems defending the HRA and Conservatives wanting it repealed. “I would imagine each of the parties would go into the next UK election with different manifesto commitments regarding the HRA and it would depend on the outcome of the election and then it also depends on the outcome of the Scottish referendum, which will be around about that time and that will have significant implications for human rights and the ways we protect them in Scotland.” He added: “Our position is quite clear that the HRA should be retained and better promoted with greater public understanding

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