"I KNOW my rights!"
We all know people who say that, generally in the middle of an argument with a shopkeeper or some petty bureaucrat. And of course it is the people who say that who do not normally know what their rights are.
There are different sorts of rights. Trade unionists campaign for the right to a 3Shour week and regular paid holidays. This may be practical in Britain — although it may ring hollow in the ears of the unemployed — but it would be absurd to call this a 'right in Third World countries where people are grappling with massise underemployment, malnutrition, and even starvation.
Clearly by "rights" we must mean something else, something which should be guaranteed to
everyone regardless. These human rights include the right to life, security, feeedom of expression, freedom from torture. These rights do not cost anythin4, they do not require any minimum standard of living. They should therefore he available to all.
Yet they are not enjoyed by individuals in Russia, blacks in South Africa, Arabs in Israel, or indeed Israelis in some Arab countries. Russia is a staunch defender of certain social rights — such as the right to work, if only down a salt mine — but certainly does not afford Dr Sakharov freedom of expression or movement. It could be argued
that the mark of a civilised state is the extent to which it protects the rights of all its citizens in domestic law, or permits the actisities or protectiVe agencies to defend or extend particular rights.
So what has this got to do with Britain? VVe are almost alone among nations in not having a written constitution or Bill of Rights. Apart from shadowy statutes such as Magna Carta, our mass of legislations provides a hew ildering range of remedies. Up to now we have regarded this as sufficient. But there are signs that our constitutional safeguards are coming under increasing strain. We learn of telephone-tapping on a massive scale. What remedies do we have against that? Government is grossing in power and numbers. There are now over 700,000 national civil servants and some 3,0(10,000 local government officials, and the new agencies and commissions financed, directed and staffed by the state. Bureaucracy is now buttressed by data banks, computer files and mechanised and coded card indexes.
Then there is the growth in credit card facilities. Our credit rating rules our lives. We are becoming names to be tabulated, details of our private lives mailable at the press of a button.
Offices of Fair Trading, Citizen's Advice Bureaux, councillors and MPs are there to guide people. But how able is the individual to take on big Industry, big trade unions, or art inquisitive press?
The British have one protection against Big Brother and an overweening Parliament. That is the European Convention of Human Rights for which the European Commission of Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg are the agencies. This was the court vshich resolved the
allegations of torture In Northern Ireland. It also condemned birching in the Isle of Man.
But we have only ratified the Convention. We have not incorporated it into our own law. This means that an individual with a grievance has to exhaust his remedies in the British courts first — an agonisingly slow and expensive process. Also it means that every time a case is brought, it ends up being dragged through the European headlines. As a result there is enormous delay and expense, itself an infringement of rights. And Britain is currently regarded as the worst offender against human rights in Western Europe.
A Bill to incorporate the European Convention has been piloted through the Lords by former Liberal MP Lord Wade. It has the support of Lord Denning and Lord Scarman.
No one voted against it in the Lords. Yet it is now languishing in the Commons with no chance of becoming law, because the Government is refusing to give time.
No one is arguing that such a Bill would be a panacea, but it would aid us, both individually and through pressure groups and political parties, to make sure that vie did "know our rights."