What place for human rights?

Hannah ThompsonYouGovLabs and UK Public Opinion Website Editor
August 26, 2011, 7:52 PM GMT+0

As Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg reignites the debate on the Human Rights Act, our poll from earlier this year shows that the British public is split over the place the Act should hold in our society. While Brits largely agree with Clegg on the too-wide extent to which the Act is invoked, many disagree with his view that human rights should never be taken away from anyone, no matter what their crime.

Clegg, whose Liberal Democrats party disagrees with the Conservatives’ desire to scrap the Act and replace it with a ‘Bill of Rights’, wrote today that the Human Rights Act is sometimes ‘manipulated not just by the media but by over-cautious officials’ to justify decisions which, in the words of the Prime Minister David Cameron, ‘fly in the face of common sense’.

However, he was also clear that human rights should always apply, even if the individual in question has broken the law. Clegg condemned the idea that human rights could be taken away as a ‘myth’.

  • 75% of Brits think that the Human Rights Act ‘is used too widely to create rights that it was never intended to protect’, suggesting agreement with Clegg’s comment that ‘human rights were of no help to anyone when police spokespeople blamed human rights for a decision to deliver a KFC meal to a fugitive’
  • While just 12% feel that the Act is used ‘about the right about to protect rights which are necessary for the individual’s protection’ and only 4% think it should be used more
  • However, 64% of Brits disagree with the statement ‘Everyone should be entitled to have their human rights protected, even if they have broken the law themselves’
  • Compared to less than half of this (31%) who agree with the statement

Human rights at home

Clegg’s comments come in a Guardian article following on going changes in the Libyan capital Tripoli, which has been taken over by rebel forces in recent days, and seen formerly-despotic leader Colonel Gaddafi go into hiding. Clegg highlighted the need for the interim Libyan government to exercise ‘restraint’, prevent ‘reprisals’, and ‘respect human rights’, before launching into a discussion much closer to home, criticising the former Labour Government’s ‘trashing’ of the Act throughout their time in office.

Clegg underlined the need for the Human Rights Act in this country, and listed several high-profile cases in which the Act has successfully protected potential victims.

‘As we continue to promote human rights abroad,’ he said, ‘we must ensure we work to uphold them here at home…There is a sensible discussion to be had about the details of how the act operates.’

What solution for ‘misrepresentation’?

The public remains very much split on the issue. Clegg voices agreement with Cameron that ‘we need to get a grip on the misrepresentation of human rights’, and Brits seem to agree with this. However, our results suggest that the public strongly disagrees with Clegg’s suggestions on how exactly Britain should ‘get a grip’.

While Clegg insists that ‘we have a proud [European Convention of Human Rights] record that we should never abandon’, David Cameron used the words ‘rights without responsibilities’ and talked of 'phoney human rights concerns' when addressing the causes of the England riots that engulfed the country earlier this month, before reiterating his support for ‘our own British bill of rights’ as a solution to the Act’s ‘misrepresentation’. Our poll shows that, despite agreeing that the Human Rights Act is used too widely, the majority of Brits feels that for some, rights should only go so far.