Civil Liberties in the UK
Civil liberties are those freedoms and rights which the citizen of a state may enjoy at any particular time. They are freedoms seen in relation to the state itself and to its laws. They are freedoms that are guaranteed by the state and the constitution. Until the passage of the human rights act in 1998, the UK has no codified set of civil liberties. Freedom was, up to 200, 'negative in nature'. This mean that the citizens of britain were considered to be free to do anything up to the point where the law limited their actions.
The threat to civil liberties
- Increases in police power, in general terms the growth in crime rates gave rise to growin calls for even more powers to be granted to law enforcement agencies.
- Legislation passed in the 1980's, limiting trade union activists.
- Increasing quantities of information about individual citizens being held by the state and its agencies, such as the police, social security system and NHS.
- Increasing tension between government and the media concerning the right of the government to limit what they printed and broadcast.
- General fear that the executive power was grown and the ability of parliament to limit that power was weakening. This persented a generalised fear that civil liberties might be threatened by over powerful government.
Freedom of information and open government
- FOI act was passed in 2000 but did not come into force until january 2005.
- It was intended to be the main stage in a longer term process of creating more open government.
- During the 1970's there was a concern that government was to secretive.
- Other political systems eg. USA were in the process of opening up government to public scrutiny which made Britain look out of step with the rest of the democratic world.
- First major development was the introduction of departmental select committees in the house of commons which had powers to question ministers and civil servants and call for official papers.
- Next came the data protection act in 1984 which gave citizens the right to see computer files that contained information about themselves.
- The FOI act gives all citizens the right to public documents however government can withhold information if it is felt publication will cause damage to public interest. This is considered a too wide an exemption, because it means that government retains the oppurtunity to maintain a good deal of screcy about its processes.
- Nethertheless the act is an important extension to civil rights in the UK. The media in particular are beginning to find that they can obtain more back dround information on government than ever before.
The human rights act
- Passage of human rights act in 1998
- Act stated that all legislation, actions and decisions made by government, its ministers, regional parliaments, assemblies and governments, local government or by any agency engaged in public business had to conform to the european convention on human rights. It seems to be extremely powerful but it contained one crucial exemption.
- The government and parliament itself were unwilling to set aside the principle of soverignty of parliament. Therefore westminster parliament would not be subject to the conention.
- However there is one safeguard, if a citizen challenges a law on the basis that it conflicts with the european conventionn the court may agree and declare the law to be incompatible. eg. Belmarsh detainees, December 2004
Human rights in the UK
- When we refer to human rights in general we are including civil liberties but also adding two other categories of rights.
- One is the prevenetion of discrimination against certain groups in society, notably women, members of ethnic and religious minorities, gays and the disabled.
- The other is usually described as economic and social rights which concern our status as citizens in relation to emplyment and to welfare benefits, including health and education.
- Human rights are protected in a number of ways in the UK. In each case it is the courts, or perhaps a tribunal, that is involved in the enforcement of laws, conventions and EU directives.
- In each case appeal procedures can be undertaken and, ultimately, cases may appear in the House of lords or one od the european courts if they are considered to be of great deal of importance and to have wider implications.