Chris Grayling has a pretty toxic record of having people's rights curtailed. Photo: Getty
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The takeover of the Tory party by those opposed to human rights is complete

Walking away from Strasbourg and abolishing the Human Rights Act would merely serve as a convenient smokescreen for an out-of-touch government playing dog-whistle politics.

Announced last week, the Conservative party’s proposals to repeal the Human Rights Act (HRA) and almost certainly leave the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) represent the latest attack on the post-1945 settlement that all main parties have remained signed up to until now.

It is as significant as their undermining of legal aid, the welfare state and the NHS, though for the first time it does not have the support of their Lib Dem coalition partners.

An angry mix of europhobia and the threat of Ukip has brought us to a point where a mainstream party of government is openly suggesting that the UK join Belarus as the only European country willing to walk away from the universal principle of human rights.

The 1998 Act enshrined in UK law our commitment to the ECHR. Although it was the Labour party that introduced the HRA, it did so with cross-party – including Conservative party – support under the banner of ‘bringing rights home’.  The same slogan is now being used to justify repeal of the Act, a hint at the incoherence of the policy.

Practitioners have already indicated that refusing to take account of European Court judgments may have a snowball effect which will make the UK’s position incompatible with membership of the European Union or the Council of Europe – of course a large number of Tory MPs would welcome this also – not to mention throwing into doubt both the Good Friday Agreement and the devolution settlement for Scotland.

Historically, there is support for human rights within the Tory party. Winston Churchill and David Maxwell Fyfe were enthusiastic supporters of the Convention which Britain took a leading role in drafting and was the first country to join. Shadow Lord Chancellor Sadiq Khan has recently expressed his fears that “were Churchill to be in the Tory cabinet today, Cameron would have sacked him.”

In the aftermath of the proposals former cabinet ministers Ken Clarke and Dominic Grieve have powerfully made the case for the HRA, rebutting Grayling’s "puerile" "howlers".  The silence of the new Attorney General, Jeremy Wright, by contrast, shows how the takeover of the Tory party by those opposed to human rights is complete. There can be no doubt that the price for speaking up for the rule of law in the Tory Party now is the sack.

It is regrettable that the libertarian wing of their party, ably represented by David Davis, who spoke out strongly against the revival of the Snoopers’ Charter this week, is also silent on this issue. Their irrational hatred of Europe trumping their rational support of the citizen against the state.

And this is the crucial point. The HRA exists to support the citizen against the state. Not only to protect him or her from its excesses and arbitrary exercise of power but to give positive duties to governments to uphold fundamental rights of citizens.

Seen from this perspective, the jettisoning of the Act and convention fit very well with Grayling’s record as Lord Chancellor. Almost every policy and legislative initiative has seen him rebalancing the law away from the individual and toward the state or other powerful vested interests like big corporations. Slashing legal aid, curtailing judicial review, making freedom of information requests more difficult, and introducing policies that have seen an 80 per cent fall in employment tribunals add up to a pretty toxic list of people’s rights curtailed.

The reality is that these back-of-the-envelope plans will not even achieve what the Conservatives truly desire or claim. Walking away from Strasbourg and abolishing the HRA would merely serve as a convenient smokescreen for an out of touch government playing dog-whistle politics. Under David Cameron, the Conservatives find themselves turning inwards, ignoring international treaties and pandering to its base. This is not the United Kingdom that we know and love. We should be leading the way in the world, proud of our legacy, not falling back.

Andy Slaughter is Labour MP for Hammersmith and a shadow justice minister

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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