Clegg attacks "myths" about human rights

Deputy Prime Minister defends Human Rights Act, following Cameron's pledge to re-examine the legisla

Nick Clegg has issued a strong defence of Human Rights law, indicating that his party will stand in the way of any Conservative attempts to water down the legislation.

Writing in the Guardian, Clegg stressed his common ground with David Cameron -- namely, over the misrepresentation of the Act -- but it is clear that his article is intended to refute claims made by the Prime Minister after the riots. Speaking in the aftermath of the disturbances, Cameron pledged to re-examine legislation, saying that he would not be restrained by "phoney human rights" concerns.

Let's compare and contrast some of the points they made.

On the overall impact of the Act, Clegg staunchly defends the legislation, which defends the most vulnerable:

I believe [incorporating the Human Rights Act into domestic law] was a hugely positive step which has done three things: it has ended the long delays people used to experience before they could get a hearing at Strasbourg, embedded the principles of the ECHR in our own courts, and sent a powerful message to the rest of the world about the value we place on human rights. So as we continue to promote human rights abroad, we must ensure we work to uphold them here at home. We have a proud record that we should never abandon.

Meanwhile, Cameron, in his post-riots speech, was careful to emphasise the "interpretation" of the Act, but remains overwhelmingly negative, lumping human rights laws together with health and safety culture:

The truth is, the interpretation of human rights legislation has exerted a chilling effect on public sector organisations, leading them to act in ways that fly in the face of common sense, offend our sense of right and wrong, and undermine responsibility.

Clegg also appears to implicitly criticise the harsh sentences handed out after the riots, and with those advocating a law and order crackdown:

This myth [that human rights are a foreign invention] panders to a view that no rights, not even the most basic, come without responsibilities; that criminals 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.

Cameron, on the other hand, stood behind the legal response:

Last week we saw the criminal justice system deal with an unprecedented challenge: the courts sat through the night and dispensed swift, firm justice. We saw that the system was on the side of the law-abiding majority...

I am determined we sort it out and restore people's faith that if someone hurts our society, if they break the rules in our society, then society will punish them for it.

It is not the first time the two leaders have disagreed over human rights legislation (Clegg supports voting rights for prisoners, while Cameron does not), but Clegg's defence is a much-needed contribution to the pubic debate on the matter. Indeed, Ed Miliband might be wishing that he had written it.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.