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Human Rights Act Debate

Entrenched in the ideals of the Liberal Democratic Party is a fundamental commitment to the inviolability of human rights, and there are few issues more pressing for members of the party than the preservation of those rights both in the UK and around the world. So it was in that spirit that on the 23rd of November, CSLD debated with CUCA, Cambridge University Conservative Association, at the Cambridge Union, opposing the motion ‘This House would scrap the Human Rights Act, and replace it with a British Bill of Rights’.

The Human Rights Act 1998 compels British judges to rule in accordance with the European Convention on Human Rights. Although the Act has done much to protect the rights of vulnerable people in society, in recent years it has come under criticism from certain members of the Conservative Party and from the right-wing media who feel that it gives too much power to European judges and results in overly soft sentencing. Notably, David Cameron has publicly supported replacing the act with a ‘British Bill of Rights’, and the current government has pledged to investigate the issue of whether or not to repeal the act.

First to speak in support of the Human Rights Act was Ieva Lismane, current chair of CSLD. Ieva put forward the legal argument in support of the act, pointing out that all it does is allow matters to be settled by British courts rather than European ones, saving vast amounts of time and money. Were we to reject the authority of the European Convention on Human Rights, we would have to leave or renegotiate our terms of membership with the European Union.

Next to speak in opposition to the motion was Dan Bental, a member of the executive of the Cambridge University branch of Amnesty International. ┬áDan began his speech by pointing out some of the inaccuracies in the cases cited by the speakers from CUCA, and then went on to reject the idea that the Act gave too much power to European Courts – the whole point of the European Convention on Human Rights, he argued, was to safeguard the rights of citizens of the EU, including British citizens, should their national governments attempt to curtail them. No British Bill of Rights, he claimed, could ever provide the same degree of security for our rights.

Last to speak from CSLD was Colin Rosenstiel, the Cambridge City Councillor for Market Ward. Colin’s speech was perhaps one of the best received of the evening – he forcefully, and emotively, ridiculed the notion that there could be specifically ‘British’ rights. Human rights, he argued, belonged to everyone in virtue solely of their humanity, and to withdraw from an international convention on human rights would be to undermine that message. In particular, he challenged CUCA on the cases they had cited of the government being unable to deport criminals back to their countries of birth because doing so would put them at risk of their human rights being violated. He argued that, if we would protect the rights of our own citizens, we ought also to protect the rights of all those living in this country.

Speaking for CUCA were Edward Turnham, David Cowan and Nick Clarke, the Leader of Cambridgeshire County Council. The debate was at times a heated one, at times an intellectual one, but always an engrossing one. At the end of the evening, an informal poll of the audience suggested that CSLD had – narrowly – carried the vote.