Is that a former Blue Peter presenter banging on about the Human Rights Act?

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By Amy Woolfson on

Sadly, no — it’s an MP instead. But a recent City of London event on whether the law should be scrapped still generates volatile and at times polarised debate. On which side of the fence do you stand?


The continuing tussle over the Human Rights Act is stereotyped a bit like this: sandal-wearing Guardian readers on one side of the fence hug the legislation close to their bosoms, while welly-wearing Daily Mail readers on the other side load up their shotguns to give the law both barrels.

But my first reaction at a recent City of London Festival debate on the merits of the legislation was to give myself a quick pat on the back for knowing the difference between Richard Bacon, the one-time Blue Peter presenter, and Richard Bacon, the Conservative MP for South Norfolk (pictured). This panel fielded the latter.


What I didn’t count on was there being two chaps called Martin Howe (pictured) to contend with. The one I expected was the human rights solicitor noted for working on the Gurkha Justice Campaign. The one we got was the Human Rights Act-sceptic and intellectual property silk from 8 New Square.


Howe and Bacon teamed to answer “yes” to the question posed by panel chairwoman Claire Fox of the Institute of Ideas and Radio 4’s The Moral Maze:

“Should the Human Rights Act be scrapped?”

Offering the “no” view were Labour’s shadow Attorney General, Emily Thornberry MP, and Professor Philip Leach, a qualified solicitor and director of the European Human Rights Advocacy Centre at Middlesex University.

The academic kicked off proceedings by stating that the Human Rights Act had ended the “complacent” idea that the common law was sufficient to protect people’s rights, and was a sign of the UK’s commitment to the European project.

Leach argued that the legislation had brought practical benefits to vulnerable people, for example, use of article 2 of the convention (the right to life) to secure proper inquests into deaths caused by the state. He maintained that much criticism of the act was actually misplaced criticism of the European Union.

But Howe wasn’t buying that. He described the Human Rights Act as “deeply flawed” — both politically and legally. The common law had been protecting our rights ever since a group of rebellious barons forced King John to sign the Magna Carta in 1215, and through to the Bill of Rights in 1688 and onwards. People were free and the state could only interfere with their lives to the extent that it was permitted by law.


For Howe, the Human Rights Act had introduced to English law the idea that people are only free to do things to the extent they were permitted by law. And he claimed the act was “not loved”, or at least only loved by a tiny minority of people.

Thornberry chimed in with a party-political point: criticising the Conservatives for portraying the legislation as being about “asylum seekers’ cats”. She maintained the Tories routinely lambasted the Act in a bid to draw attention away from their record in government.

She went on to point out that the European Convention on Human Rights was developed by British lawyers, amongst others, and said it was wrong to view European Court of Human Rights judgments as some kind of “Japanese knotweed”, invading and tangling our legal system.

The shadow A-G received a round of applause for her sharp message:

“The Human Rights Act is here to stay, get over it.”

For his part, Bacon made the more familiar arguments about the act taking power from parliament and handing it to judges, particularly those predominantly foreign judges on the European Court of Human Rights. He said that while some rights are universally accepted — such as the right to life — others are far more contested or at least specific to particular cultures, such as the right to bear arms in the US.

Before going to the event, I asked a non-lawyer friend for an opinion on the Human Rights Act.

“Scrap it,” he said, bluntly. When I replied that I was in favour, he said: “Yes, but all lawyers are.”

That is a fundamental problem with much of the current debate around the act — supporters need to find less legalistic ways of explaining its benefits. More than once during the City debate, the chairwoman had to stop speakers from talking about clauses or sections or articles and asked them instead to discuss principles and ideas.

Strikingly, none of the panellists mentioned that some Conservatives are in favour of the Human Rights Act — and Emily Thornberry didn’t say anything about the suggestion from shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan that Labour might amend the act if Ed Milliband’s party wins the next general election.

Perhaps the debate is less polarised than we think.

Check out Amy’s fantastic “The London Law Map” blog here.

Further Reading:

9 photos of how places which featured in famous cases look today [Legal Cheek]