Parliament and human rights

There has been a two-day conference at Westminster, organised by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, on ‘Redressing the Democratic Deficit in Human Rights’.  Today was the second day and I was part of the concluding panel addressing ‘How could the UK Parliament be more involved in debates about human rights?’

My starting point was looking at Parliament’s current strengths in considering human right: in my view, there are two – the Joint Committee on Human Rights (the JCHR), which has done a good job since its inception in 2000, and the House of Lords, which considers the issue more frequently than the Commons.  A data set published in a booklet for the conference showed that two-thirds of parliamentary references to JCHR reports were in the Lords and this, according to the research, ‘led to more detailed scrutiny and sustained debate regarding many of the issues raised in JCHR reports in the House of Lords than in the House of Commons’.

I then addressed problems, which I saw in terms of detachment, especially by the Commons: detachment from the JCHR (a tendency to leave human rights issues to the JCHR; in this context, I argued, the very success of the JCHR is also a problem) and detachment from the courts.  On the latter, I contended that the creation of the Supreme Court compounded the problem, taking the law lords away from Parliament, making it less likely that parliamentarians would have an appreciation of their work and role.

In terms of addressing the problems, I suggested that the JCHR (or the Commons members) could be empowered to trigger two or three debates a year on human rights – enabling some discussion of issues at an early stage, rather than relying on a reactive mode when legislation comes forward – and the creation of a forum that would enable MPs, peers and judges to come together to discuss broad issues affecting human rights and the process by which they are addressed.   These, in my view, could make a modest contribution to creating a greater awareness and engagement on the part of MPs.

In response to the discussion, I emphasised the value of the House of Lords, where the membership and less partisan nature of the House complemented the Commons, MPs necessarily looking at the issue from a different perspective.  In many ways, the current system helps contribute to the balance between parliamentary supremacy and the protection of human rights.

About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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5 Responses to Parliament and human rights

  1. ladytizzy says:

    Given the reported developments viz Mr Qatada, are the detachments you describe more or less present in the media when compared with the HoC, or rather, the Government or the Opposition?

  2. Neil M says:

    Not sure that I agree with the point about the Supreme Court.
    But isn’t one reason why the HoC is more wary that they feel more exposed to the court of public opinion?
    And whilst we deplore the absence of human rights elsewhere, our tolerance (of which you wrote in a previous post) reduces closer to home if we perceive that someone else’s human rights begin to impinge on our own – whether that be in terms of our economic, emotional or physical well being.
    We all struggle to overcome a tendency towards NIMBYism – not always successfully!

    • Lord Norton says:

      Neil M: “But isn’t one reason why the HoC is more wary that they feel more exposed to the court of public opinion?” Quite. That was the point I was making about balance.

  3. maudie33 says:

    Yes, MP’s may well feel more vulnerable as a result of the voting populous threatening to oust them from those green seats. However, the same public who vote, as well as those who do not, are given a line that is entirely fictional when it comes to the reality of Europe and the Human Rights Act.

    Newspapers who feed the line of ‘we are being ruled by Europe and remember what Europe did to us in both world wars,’ is their mantra. Add to that a daily return to a Hitler fest, with photgraphs and stories of Germany during WW2 and the added warning of ‘beware lest you too wind up in a German concentration camp’ continues as a fun propaganda, designed to free rich men and those who do not want to abide by the rights of humanity, to no have the power to abuse those in their control.

    Check out who is avidly against the Human Rights Act. Rich men with the power to buy press time, that’s who. Now why would that be? Can you ever imagine them in need of the European Court to make sure they get a voice or are treated with fairness. I don’t think so

    And here is another rarely aired fact. The European Human Rights Court receives more than a thousand applications a day. Imagine that. Yet our rich men and the right wing Tory bunch feel this is too powerful and is of no consequence to them. In fact it prohibits them from walking all over those who have little voice.

    When this government starts telling the truth about what it means to beling to the European Union, perhaps the education of the regular man will enlighten him. In the meantime those in power fear the loss of their ability to subjugate, or, use our Parliament as a stepping stone to wealth and unearned status.

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