Book Review. Rights record pilloried

In 1991 Peter Lloyd, a former Home Office minister, stated: "The rights and freedom of the individual and their protection lie at the heart of our constitutional practices. Over the years, they have developed pragmatically in response to society's needs and perceived problems and in keeping with the British tradition."

In researching their democratic audit of the UK, the three authors of The Three Pillars of Liberty identified some 42 violations of the UK's international human rights obligations and another 22 instances of near infringement. Professor Kevin Boyle, director of the Human Rights Centre at the University of Essex, admits that none of those identified are gross violations. But in terms of human rights and liberties, the great British courtroom has become as complacent and as elegantly adept at evading "reality" as an annexe of the Garrick Club.

For the majority of the population, human rights issues are abstract and hypothetical. This attitude is bred by the blithe presumption that we live in a genuine democracy; a place where proactive rights are unnecessary while ordinary people are able to get on with their lives without discernible interference by the state.

While we are quick to condemn far-flung countries for allowing injustice to be done and be seen to be done, we rarely think to criticise the UK for its denial of rights and liberties: its defiance of both the European Convention on Human Rights and the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

We do this because of the great "British tradition" of personal freedom spoken of by Margaret Thatcher as "always our glory"; a tradition which runs in tandem with public order and strong government.

We have lost sight of the fact that non-accountability in government and the legal system does not render them purveyors of freedom.

A refusal to take responsibility and to offer adequate remedy in a domestic forum is more than an international embarrassment but also a danger made more grave by the UK's lack of a bill of rights, its unwritten constitution and its failure to incorporate the European Convention or International Covenant into domestic law.

Ordinary people in the UK are slowly waking up to the fact that their rights are "for the most part negative". They are what is left after the law has spoken rather than a key element of legal discourse. Unfortunately it is only when people find themselves clutching at straws as they wend their weary way to Europe that they focus upon the lack of rights or remedies available to them in a domestic context.

Domestic forums and institutions must be made accountable and answerable in the field of rights and liberties, but that can only happen if practitioners, politicians and the public alike demand and become responsible for ensuring accountability.

The British government has failed in its dual duty to review the law and to practice in adherence with the European Convention and the International Covenant. It has shirked its constitutional responsibilities. The Three Pillars documents the flaws of the great "British tradition" and is a vital piece of equipment, armed with which we may assume that responsibility.

The kind of naive complacency demonstrated by Peter Lloyd in a House of Commons debate in 1991 (as quoted above) must be eradicated from both government and the legal system. It is no longer acceptable to make a pretence of equal rights, liberties and safeguards, armed only with inadequate, outdated legislation which fails to cater either for the individual or for huge sectors of contemporary society, and with authorities which are anyway unwilling to ensure either rights or remedies.

Our record before the European Court of Human Rights is atrocious: since 1975 the Court has found against the UK 42 times (aside from the further 42 violations which the audit has discovered).

The attitude of our domestic courts is apathetic; of hundreds of thousands of cases since the 1970s it is only in four that either the European Convention or the International Covenant has influenced the outcome of a judicial decision.

Now is the time to depart from a "British tradition" and to seek a new direction using The Three Pillars as a compass with which to chart a course to Europe.