Coalition braced for internal battle on human rights

By Ian Dunt

The dividing lines for the upcoming battle between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats on human rights law were mapped out by the deputy prime minister today.

Nick Clegg's defence of human rights came after weeks of attack from the prime minister and assorted Conservative backbenchers, as right-wingers sought to use the riots as a trigger to renegotiate European human rights law.

The Lib Dem leader contrasted David Cameron's criticism of domestic human rights legislation with his praise for it abroad, particularly in Libya, where the prime minister spearheaded global efforts to involve Nato in the conflict.

Comment: The libel against human rights

"As we continue to promote human rights abroad, we must ensure we work to uphold them here at home. We have a record we should be proud of and never abandon," Mr Clegg wrote in the Guardian.

Mr Cameron plans to establish a British bill of rights and subdue the influence of European courts. Both moves would open up a space to abandon the Human Rights Act (HRA) – widely detested by Conservatives – as long as the British bill of rights still satisfies the European convention, albeit with minor alterations.

Those changes are likely to focus on article 8, which guarantees the right to privacy and family life. It is this section which is mostly commonly used by prisoners in court cases which have incensed Conservative backbenchers and the tabloid press.

"Though it won't be easy, though it will mean taking on parts of the establishment, I am determined we get a grip on the misrepresentation of human rights," Mr Cameron wrote in the Sunday Express last week.

"We are looking at creating our own British bill of rights. We are going to fight in Europe for changes to the way the European court works and we will fight to ensure people understand the real scope of these rights and do not use them as cover for rules or excuses that fly in the face of common sense."

While Mr Clegg welcomed much of Mr Cameron's approach, including his arguments on the "misrepresentation" of human rights and efforts to reform aspects of it in Europe, his article reflected an entirely more positive approach to the subject.

"Court judgments themselves tend to tell a very different story about our rights culture than tabloid papers," he wrote.

"The Human Rights Act and the European convention on human rights have been instrumental in preventing local authorities from snooping on law-abiding families, in removing innocent people from the national DNA database, in preventing rapists from cross-examining their victims in court, in defending the rights of parents to have a say in the medical treatment of their children, in holding local authorities to account where they have failed to protect children from abuse, in protecting the anonymity of journalists' sources, and in upholding the rights of elderly married couples to be cared for together in care homes."

Ina telling aside, the Liberal Democrat leader rejects the view that prisoners lose all their human rights at the moment they are found guilty of a crime – a key emotional and intellectual facet of Conservative opposition to the HRA.

Mr Clegg criticised the argument that "a criminal 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".

A speech delivered soon after the coalition was formed saw Mr Clegg allude to the idea that the Human Rights Act might be forced wholesale into the British bill of rights, thereby satisfying Tory backbenchers with a largely cosmetic change and allowing the Lib Dems an oppourtunity to fix Britain's civil liberty laws in stone so that no future government could undo them.

Mr Clegg will head a commission into the establishment of the bill of rights with Kenneth Clarke, justice secretary. Mr Clarke's liberal views are expected to compliment the deputy prime minister's on the panel, although a separate Conservative commission on the legislation is also being set up to offer the party a distinct voice in future debate.

Several prominent Lib Dems, including energy secretary Chris Huhne, are liable to step down if the HRA is scrapped.