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banner Wednesday, 4 October, 2000, 14:36 GMT 15:36 UK
No human rights please, we're British
"No one knows" how far reaching will be the effects of the European Human Rights Act, former home secretary Michael Howard warned a Conservative Party fringe meeting.

An audience made up of keen Oxbridge law students, members of the Society of Conservative Lawyers and conference representatives certainly didn't know. But on one thing alone a remarkable level of consensus was reached: whatever the act brought in its wake, they didn't want it.

Was it true that the act would mean British citizens had "fundamental" rights as well as the human ones we were all so used to hearing about? asked one perturbed attendee. What, for that matter, were these fundamental rights?

By way of reply, Michael Howard QC mused in lawyerly fashion on the intricacies of the European Charter: legislation designed to be the "constitution of the EU", but "a potentially very dangerous document" with which, mercifully, the British legal system had not yet had to contend.

His questioner nodded in silence, looking somewhat perplexed. As so often was the case during the meeting, a complex question led to a complex answer.

Judicial supremacism

Mr Howard's remarks to the SCL-backed meeting, entitled The Rise of Judges and the Decline of Parliament: Judicial Review and the Human Rights Act, were accompanied with a promise to take into account the merits of the act.

But the picture he painted of life under this latest piece of European law-making was a troubled one.

"Judicial supremacism," he argued, could be the only result of an act that allowed judges to make decisions which are "essentially political in nature".

The act, said Mr Howard, involved "a significant shift in power from government to judges".

He had discovered to his own detriment, he continued, that government ministers and MPs "can be summarily dismissed by the electorate". Not so judges, he reminded his audience, who are not publicly accountable and can only be removed in extreme circumstances.

'Some kind of raving lunatic'

The "possibility that the act could be used against the armed forces" had to be taken into account, said Mr Howard, as the act could mean that people with disabilities were able to sign up for front-line service.

Polygamy could be tolerated, he warned, since the act defends an individual's right to privacy in their private life.

If a Conservative government wished to reintroduce the married couples' tax allowance, he complained, it may be prevented on the grounds that it discriminated against unmarried couples.

Myra Hindley, whose case has bedevilled successive home secretaries, could even be released.

The "continental" attitude to law making was not the British way, sighed Mr Howard. European ministers had tended to regard him as "some kind of raving lunatic" for his concern with legislative detail, he said, preferring instead to consider the broader picture.

(Anglo-Saxon) common sense revolution

A local county councillor in the audience expressed fears that the human rights act would complicate an already difficult task she faced: "looking after travellers and gypsies... for my sins".

Mr Howard nodded sympathetically at her tale of the impossibility of having "to go to the High Court to evict them," remarking that travellers were "a problem" in his constituency also.

Could not "sensible Anglo-Saxon" adjustments be made to the act? Mr Howard was asked. He hoped they could.

With that, the assembled company of sensible Anglo-Saxons dispersed - with travellers to evict, and good Anglo-Saxon common sense to uphold, time was, no doubt, of the essence.

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