Wednesday, May 17, 2006


But still seems to think that he can reform them to make them work

Tony Blair risked a fresh clash with the legal establishment yesterday when he targeted a "distant" justice system that most believed let people get away with breaking the rules. In his latest assault on the criminal justice system and human rights laws, the Prime Minister rounded on those who failed properly to supervise drug offenders and criminals who have been given community punishment.

Mr Blair reiterated his oft- repeated call for a shake-up of the criminal justice system to ensure that the security of the law-abiding is put ahead of the rights of offenders. The Prime Minister said it was time for a "profound rebalancing" of the debate on civil liberties to ensure that wrongdoers pay the penalty for breaking the rules. He was speaking after a string of high-profile cases in which prisoners released early from jail have committed murders while on licence, as well as a High Court ruling - condemned as "inexplicable" by John Reid, the Home Secretary - that nine Afghan hijackers should be allowed to stay in Britain.

His comments were dismissed by opponents as an attempt to "relaunch" the party after bruising weeks of negative headlines, internal feuding and poor election results. Lawyers also attacked the Prime Minister and said his criticism of human rights laws was a "smokescreen" to hide the Government's failure to deliver on law and order.

The Prime Minister, speaking at the start of a Labour consultative initiative, said that the criminal justice system was the public service "most distant" from what reasonable people expected. "I think what people want is a society without prejudice but with rules - rules that are fair, rules that we all play by and rules that if they are broken carry a penalty," he said. "The truth is most people believe that we don't live in such a society today."

Mr Blair signalled that, despite identifying the problems four years ago and more than 40 law and order Bills since Labour came to power, he now thinks that far-reaching reform is needed to tackle the problem. "The criminal justice system is the public service most distant from what reasonable people want. I believe we need a profound rebalancing of the civil liberties debate." Mr Blair added: "We should not have to fight continual legal battles to deport people committing serious crimes or inciting extremism. "We cannot allow violent or drug-abusing offenders to be put back out on the street again without proper supervision and, if necessary, restraint. We cannot have bail requirements, probation orders or community sentences flouted without proper penalty" In fact, drug-abusing offenders are given treatment and supervision, while offenders given community sentences are expected to be monitored by the Probation Service to ensure that they keep to the terms of the order.

Senior legal figures reacted with fury or incredulity last night to the Prime Minister's assault on the human rights laws that are a flagship statute of his own Government.

Mr Blair and Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the Lord Chancellor, are considering amending the Human Rights Act to ensure that public safety takes primacy over human rights. Lawyers said that amendments would be difficult, if not impossible, and would make no difference to the way judges reached their decisions. The real problem, they said, was that officials were not doing their job properly and not applying proper procedures: the attack on the Act was a "smokescreen" that hid the failure of ministers to deliver.

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Bentham was correct. There are no fundamental human rights. The concept, said the great utilitarian, is "nonsense on stilts". It induces tendentiousness, large legal fees, and possibly war.

Last week saw Britain engulfed in a Hallowe'en of human rights. Bishops in cassocks and counsel in wigs were flying in and out of parliament, courts and broadcasting studios like Harry Potters on broomsticks. Afghan hijackers and ranting mullahs had a human right not to be deported. A Nigerian visitor had a human right to a National Health Service heart transplant. A released killer had a human right not to have his parole terms enforced. The dying had a human right to euthanasia and the living a human right to reject a cancer-carrying embryo. As Bentham said, there are "reasons for wishing there were such things as rights", but that does not mean that such rights exist. "Hunger is not bread."

There may be rights under contract, rights tied to obligations, matrimonial rights and rights ordained by statute. There are principles of human dignity and respect that should guide such statutes. We should observe compassion in all things. As the Bible says, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." But you may read as many tomes on human rights as you like and (with your brain slowly fried) you will find yourself back with nonsense on stilts.

From the moment this government decided to incorporate the European convention on human rights into British law under the 1998 Human Rights Act (HRA) there were two racing certainties. One was that the government would be the main offender under the law and the other was that Tony Blair would wish he had never signed it. He has already said he may well "reform" it if it impedes his terrorism legislation.

Liam Byrne, a government minister, admitted last week that the government was seeking a new balance between its own discretion and what was implied by the act. This is despite the act being largely declamatory. It can be overridden by parliament, with judges merely declaring any new law "incompatible" with the HRA. Ministers can go on doing what they like if parliament supplies them with a majority.

The case of the Afghan hijackers is to the point. In 2000 these nine men hijacked a plane full of fellow nationals and flew it to London. They and 50 others on the plane claimed asylum and were allowed to stay since deportation would have meant certain death. This decision was bizarrely reinforced in 2003 and 2004 despite Afghanistan by then having been "liberated" by British and other forces. The hijackers have since been allowed to live rent-free on benefits in London, incurring some 20 million pounds in various costs.

Last week Mr Justice Sullivan, a High Court judge, reasserted this decision, not because it was right but because the government's refusal to fully implement it was wrong. He was scathing of three home secretaries in denying the hijackers proper asylum, including freedom to move about and earn a living. Blair in reply said that the failure to deport was "an abuse of common sense". But all the case served to do was give human rights a bad name and invite ministers to pass a new law.

Last week Lord Goldsmith, the attorney-general, called the act "one of the greatest achievements of this Labour government". He was commenting on what proved a tragically wrong decision by the Parole Board to weaken the terms of release of a dangerous killer who went on to commit another murder.

The board said it was nervous of judicial review if it denied his claimed "human right" to greater freedom under parole. As in many such cases, a quasi-judicial panel's professional judgment was polluted by outside pressures: a horror of media attack if it let someone out and a horror of the astronomical cost of human rights litigation if it did not do so. The panel may have been using human rights to excuse its incompetence, but such considerations should not have been an issue.

Indeed, Goldsmith's trumpeting of the HRA is hypocrisy when contrasted with his dismay at the Afghan hijack ruling, his support for military action in Iraq, his acceptance of "asymmetrical" deportation to America and his fight to stop the Diego Garcians from regaining land stolen from them by the British in 1973. To him as to the prime minister, human rights were fine for the manifesto but a pain in the neck in practice.

Penal reformers are now appealing to human rights as a generalised weapon in what should be a more specific battle against bad laws, mostly introduced by Labour home secretaries. Lawyers are exploiting the procedures of asylum boards, parole boards and employment tribunals to assert what amounts to a "human right to disagree" with any adverse decision taken by a minister or his agents.

Rights are cited against sexual harassment, personal offence, noisy neighbours, landscape views and the wheelchair navigation of a spiral staircase. It was said that the 1998 act could not fall foul of ridicule because judges would see that common sense prevailed. They have not done so. A tribunal actually bothered to hear, at public expense, a teacher claiming that a "farting chair" infringed her human right to avoid embarrassment. A silly law is an invitation to silliness.

Whether or not foreigners who break British laws should be sent home should not be a matter of human rights, any more than whether prisoners should be released on parole. Such rights will always run up against the conflicting "rights" of others to be protected from them, rights usually as interpreted in a tabloid headline or a political soundbite.

Not a week passes without the "human rights of the majority" being asserted not in defence of some personal freedom but against it. Decisions on prisoner release should turn on testing personal freedom against a threat to the wider community. That is a matter not of rights but of risks

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Australian Navy said woman officer was mad

The Navy is necessarily very tough on anybody who is seen as not fitting in -- anything else would be a danger to shipboard life -- so there are endless troubles with the female recruits that are forced on it by politically correct laws

The Federal Opposition has called for a full judicial inquiry after yet more claims of bullying within the Defence Force. One of the Navy's most senior female officers last night told the 7.30 Report she had endured years of mistreatment and verbal abuse. Lieutenant Commander Robyn Fahy was the second-in-command at HMAS Stirling in Perth, Australia's largest operational navy base. But six years ago she was stood down after a Navy-appointed doctor wrongly diagnosed her as having a serious mental illness.

Although she has just been offered another position, Lieutenant Commander Fahy says she could never go back to a military workplace after what she has been through. The picture Lieutenant Commander Fahy paints of her last six years in the military is not a happy one. "At one time they threatened to crucify me and I couldn't, I suppose, conceptualise an organisation that talked about loyalty and integrity and then matched that up with the manner with which they were behaving - not just towards myself but towards my family," she said.

She told the 7.30 Report about her long battle for justice after being stood down from the military in 2000. Back then, she was wrongly diagnosed by a naval base doctor of having a serious mental illness. "And I found this to be the most frightening, I suppose, concept to deal with and it's taken me quite a lot of time to actually get over that," she said.

After five and a half years of fighting with the military, Lieutenant Commander Fahy has now been declared fully fit and has been offered a new position by the Navy. But she says she would find it impossible to go back into a military workplace after everything she has been through.

The Opposition's spokesman for Defence personnel, Senator Mark Bishop, says he does not blame her. "She was on a rapid career path to [the] top, or near top in her career in the Navy," he said. "She alleged a whole range of harassment, bullying, the most offensive behaviour - she's been set up and been through numerous court inquiries. "All of which, all of which have fully vindicated everything she said. "She would be patently foolish to go back into that environment and expect anything but the same treatment she now complains of."

Defence does not accept many of Lieutenant Commander Fahy's claims, but it says it has offered her a position suitable for someone of her rank. Defence's spokesman Colonel Andrew Nikolic said: "Defence has been working very hard to resolve what is a medical termination issue. "Late last year, following receipt of specialist reports which supported the upgrade of a medical status, Lieutenant Commander Fahy became fully employable and Navy has attempted to generate with her a mutually agreed posting plan." ....

Tom Fahy says the Navy has now offered to appoint an independent mediator to resolve the situation. "I sincerely hope that this time the chief of Navy is sincere in that offer because there have been so many opportunities for him and for even chiefs of Navy before him and other people to settle this matter," he said. "Particularly following the findings of the medical board and for some reason they just don't seem to be able to bring themselves to do it."


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