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Human Rights Act 1998: Audio transcript

Curator Ian Cooke talks about the landmark 1998 act which, far from being an 'imposition of Europe', owes its origins to the efforts of Britain 50 years previously

Universal Declataion of Human Rights, 1948

Curator Ian Cooke and the Human Rights Act 1998

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My name is Ian Cooke. I am the Lead Content Specialist for International and Political studies, and I am going to talk about the Human Rights Act of 1998, which is one of the exhibits in the Taking Liberties exhibition at the Library.

The Human Rights Act of 1998 can be seen as far-reaching, and some would argue controversial, in the UK's history of rights. At the same time, it can be described as a somewhat cautious document, that provides the starting point for a wider application of law to rights.

In many ways, the freedoms and protections contained with the Human Rights Act were not new to people living in the UK. The act puts into UK law most of the clauses of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Convention itself was devised following the end of the Second World War by the Council of Europe. UK lawyers played a significant role in the drafting of the Convention, and the UK was among the first governments to ratify the Convention, in 1951.

What are 'human rights'?

Human Rights are sometimes described as being of a positive or a negative nature. IE some can be expressed as a "right to", and others as "freedom from". The 1998 act therefore puts into place 15 specific rights and freedoms, including:
Rights to liberty and security; a fair trial; free expression and free elections; and to marry and found a family.
Freedoms from torture, from slavery or forced labour, and from discrimination on grounds such as race, sex, religion, political opinion or social origin.

What is significant about the 1998 Act?

The act is ground-breaking and significant in a number of ways. First, it represents the principle that these rights are universal. They are not dependent on being a citizen of the UK. Neither are they contingent on any duties or obligations. These are rights that apply to all people regardless of who they are or what they have or have not done.

A second way in which the act is significant is that it has an affect on other legislation passed. All legislation must not take away from the rights ensured in the act. The act makes it unlawful for public bodies to act in contradiction to the rights and freedoms established.

How does it affect people in Britain?

As a result of this act, people in Britain no longer have to take claims to the European Court. This has had a great effect on access to justice for many, as well as reducing the costs and administration involved.

The Human Rights Act has been described as the start of a process. The act itself does not expand on the provisions made by the European Convention, which some consider as forming a baseline or minimum standard for human rights. It makes no statements about the rights of potentially vulnerable groups, such as children.

Some have also suggested that the UK should have a statement of social and economic rights, such as the right to housing or to health care, even if such a statement was only aspirational in nature.

The passing of the act created much public debate in the UK, and by no means was all of the debate favourable. The act was described in some cases as a foreign, even un-British, imposition. It was described as something imposed by the European Union, even though the Convention did not originate from the EU, and that the UK was very much involved in the original drafting.

What has been the effect of the 1998 Act?

The debate over rights, and their expression in law, has continued over the ten years following the passing of the act. The use of the language of rights has spread across a range of activities and needs.

However, there is by no means a consensus on whether this spread has been beneficial. On the one hand, some argue that the language of rights has helped empower groups of people who have traditionally been excluded from decision making processes, either because of social or economic status, gender, disability or other reasons.

On the other hand, some argue that the spread of rights-based thinking has led to an approach that is too technical and removed from the experiences and knowledge of many people. Some warn that an attempt to apply rights to too many situations threatens the credibility and effectiveness of human rights where they have already been established by law.

At present, there is a willingness politically to at least investigate the potential to develop the Human Rights Act. In Northern Ireland, a Human Rights Commission was established by the Good Friday agreement to advise on the need for a Bill of Rights to reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland. Last year, the UK Government launched a consultation titled The Governance of Britain. It raises the possibility of adding, 'specifically British rights,' to those already existing.

Will the Act lead to a new British Bill of Rights?

The suggestion of a modern national bill of rights raises a number of opportunities and challenges. There has been support from a variety of people and organisations for a Bill of Rights that could carry a statement of national values.

However, there has been less certainty whether these should be described as British values or values shared across the UK regardless of nationality. Some have suggested that a Bill of Rights could build on the Human Rights Act, to include social and economic rights.

There has also been discussion as to whether some rights should be linked to obligations or duties, or to a person's status as a citizen. None of these questions have an easy or an obvious answer.

Milestone or millstone?

The passing of the Human Rights Act has been described as a both a milestone and a starting point. The act underlines the importance of the rule of law in protecting our liberties. The continuing debate will focus on how far the law can or should define our shared values and protect our wellbeing.

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