Human rights sound bites without any teeth

Elizabeth Davidson visits Liberty's Law and Order Conference to find the Government in fine voice on law reform, but lacking substance. MOST civil rights lawyers will agree that it will not be difficult for Labour to improve on the Tory's civil liberties record.

But there were already some rumblings of discontent from the legal community at Liberty's Law and Order conference in London on 31 May.

Labour's minister of state for criminal policy, Alun Michael, outlined an ambitious programme of reforms. They ranged from as yet unspecified, policies to speed up youth justice to the development of codes of practice for CCTV cameras.

Michael promised the creation of new offences for racially motivated violence and racial harassment, a new Community Safety Order to prevent persistent anti-social behaviour, increased cooperation between police and lesbian and gay communities to beat homophobia, and increased control of surveillance operations by police and customs.

For many, however, the most eyecatching Labour reform is its commitment to incorporating the articles of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into UK law.

But as yet it is unclear how this will be achieved and it is uncertain to what extent judges will have discretion to overule parliamentary statutes.

Liberty has welcomed this move, but stressed it is “only a first step” in a process which would be improved by introducing a Bill of Rights.

But as Mike Schwarz, a partner at human rights firm Bindman & Partners, said: “It is disappointing that Labour is falling short of anything more adventurous than the ECHR, which is 50 years old and showing it. For example, there is no mention of environmental rights, and the right of access to information and the privacy sections are out of date.

“It seems inconsistent to support incorporation of the ECHR, yet not to make any commitment to repeal important parts of Tory legislation. Inroads into the right to silence, for example, probably undermine the right to fair trial set out in the ECHR, so the two don't work together.”

Schwarz, who conducted a seminar on Protest & Public Order at the conference along with Liberty's Liz Parratt, added that Labour was in danger of fudging the issue and putting judges in a very difficult position.

The Government's proposed Crime and Disorder Bill is also causing speculation among civil liberties observers.

According to Michael, the key points of the Bill, due at the end of the year, will be to speed up the administration of justice in the youth courts, and to create a partnership approach between police, local authorities, the Crown Prosecution Service and other arms of the justice system.

Some attendees thought this would lead to a blurring of roles or that the independence of the CPS would be jeopardised. There was also concern that information would increasingly be shared between the agencies of police and prosecution.

On the right to silence, Michael said there was a “general indication” that answers were being given in a greater proportion of cases by suspects at police stations and the situation would be kept “very much under review”.

He added: “It is nonsense to speak about being in favour of the right to silence which has been used by well-organised criminals in the past.”

Michael stressed the need for “getting the balance right” to protect the vulnerable, but stop the hardened criminal.

The future remains uncertain. Critics of New Labour's commitment to civil liberties have, above all, highlighted what they are not doing, not what they are.

As one commentator put it: “There doesn't seem to be anything in Labour's proposals to distinguish them from the Conservative Party.”