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Is the Risk to the Human Rights Act Over-Hyped?

29/04/2015 19:12 BST | Updated 29/06/2015 10:59 BST

The Conservatives have so far refrained from fully 'weaponising' the Human Rights Act in the election and the prospect of repeal in the next Parliament is scant. But it is still vital to speak out about the role of the Act in protecting vulnerable people including torture survivors seeking sanctuary in this country.

The Human Rights Act will almost certainly be safe after the election no matter who takes power. This is not because our political parties have reached enlightened agreement about the value of the Act, but because its rightwing detractors will struggle to muster enough parliamentary votes to axe it.

The Conservatives have renewed their 2010 election pledge to replace the Act with a British Bill of Rights. However the possibility of them winning an outright majority on 7 May is remote, meaning that to scrap the Act any Tory-led government would need to cobble together support from other parties.

Ukip's cooperation is assured but it also demands that the UK quit the jurisdiction of the Strasbourg human rights court. This is unrealistic without making us the first country to renounce the European Convention on Human Rights which, lest we forget, was largely drafted by British lawyers at the instigation of Winston Churchill.

The Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland calls for reform of the Act to stop foreign nationals convicted of serious criminal offences from relying on the right to family life to block deportation, but its backing for repeal should not be assumed given the centrality of Convention rights to the Good Friday Agreement.

At best, however, Ukip and the DUP would only be able to offer a dozen or so parliamentary votes which, on current projections, still leaves the Conservatives woefully short of the numbers they would need to push a repeal Bill through the House of Commons.

The Conservatives, it seems, have no chance of forming a government without the support of the Liberal Democrats. But the Liberal Democrat manifesto promises, not only once but twice, to protect the Act and any surrender is virtually inconceivable after the party waged such a principled fight to save it while in government.

Labour brought shame upon itself by resiling from the Act towards the end of its last stint in government but has recovered its nerve in opposition. Now the party pledges to protect the Act and even makes a positive case by emphasising the redress it provides for groups including disabled people and victims of crime.

The Greens, Plaid Cymru, Scottish National Party and the Social Democratic and Labour Party are all fully signed up to defending the Act.

Political battle lines are thus firmly drawn but the Conservatives and their media sympathisers have held back on kindling a blaze, choosing to fight the final weeks of the election on economic and other issues of more concern to voters. So this once stormy political disagreement has become a shadow-boxing exercise. Coupled with the improbability of imminent repeal, this should be a huge relief to human rights campaigners after years of fire-fighting.

And yet the relegation of human rights in this election debate - left-leaning politicians and press are largely keeping a benevolent silence - has drawbacks in a context where public opinion is still so deeply divided on the Act. If discourse about how the Act is used and who benefits cannot be put onto a more truthful footing, it will stay vulnerable to another outbreak of dog whistle politics further down the road, perhaps at a time when parliamentary arithmetic favours its demise.

Herein lies the importance of campaigns for the Act such as those led by Amnesty International, Equally Ours and Liberty. They all recognise that the Conservatives' proposal for a British Bill of Rights is not the answer, because it is obviously intended to weaken protection, and that it is essential instead to show the public how the Act is positively changing lives for patients, care home residents, domestic violence victims, children and other disadvantaged members of our communities.

We know from outreach work by Freedom from Torture's Survivors Speak OUT network that after hearing directly from those who have suffered torture, British people overwhelmingly feel proud to live in a country that upholds human rights and provides protection to those denied them elsewhere. The fact is that the Act is a lifeline for survivors of torture in the UK, ensuring they are not sent back to their torturers, helping them rebuild their lives here in the UK, and protecting them from destitution, discrimination and detention.

Last week's images of desperate migrants drowning in their hundreds trying to reach this continent is a potent reminder of Europe's achievement in forging systems based on dignity and justice after our own Second World War humanitarian crisis. The Convention, and the Human Rights Act on which it is based, is the embodiment of this triumph. Regardless of changeable dynamics inside the Westminster bubble, we must restore a social consensus about the value of human rights to ensure this legacy is not ship-wrecked.