Speech to the Discrimination Law Association Annual General Meeting by Rt. Hon Sadiq Khan MP (Shadow Secretary of State for Justice), 12th February 2013

Speech to the Discrimination Law Association Annual General Meeting by Rt. Hon Sadiq Khan MP (Shadow Secretary of State for Justice)

Tuesday 12th February
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It is a pleasure to be with you here this evening and to see so many old friends and familiar faces

I’d like to thank Catherine (Casserley – Chair of DLA) for the kind invitation to come and say a few words after your AGM earlier this evening

I was really eager to accept, because I know just how important is the work that is done by many in those room to support the drive for equality and supporting those who have been discriminated against

So I want to pay tribute to DLA

And to all of those here this evening, and those who aren’t, that are active in one way or another unified in their commitment to tackling discrimination

Many of you will know that in my proper job before I became an MP, I worked as a human rights solicitor

I did a lot of discrimination

That is, acting on behalf of those who’ve been discriminated against rather than the unlawful kind

Throughout my career I acted on behalf of people who had been discriminated against, treated badly

I have sought to carry on this focus into my career in parliament

The drive to root out inequality and discrimination goes to my very core

Shaping my politics on a day to day basis

 

I read that DLA was formed in 1995, back when I was still at school

So 2013 is DLA celebrating your 18th birthday

DLA is moving from your youthful years into adulthood

Over those 18 years, an enormous amount has changed

 

I haven’t forgotten everything from my days as a lawyer

I appreciate still the importance of precedent

Knowing the cases that support your clients case but being aware of those that don’t

It’s similar to being a politician, an advocate for your party

It is easy to forgot the good things Labour did in its thirteen years in government in tackling discrimination and rooting out inequality

One of the finest achievements on our watch was the Human Rights Act

For the first time, British citizens were empowered to seek recourse in British courts if their human rights had been abused

I am very proud, unashamedly so, of the HRA

It is a crucial healthy check and balance on the power of governments

It means that no government, no organ of the state, no public authority, is above the rule of law

 

And our record in other areas is worthy of praise

We supplemented the role the HRA plays as a check and balance by legislating for freedom of information

Yes, it can be a damn nuisance when you are in power, but that is precisely its aim

For the first time citizens have a right to access public information

And we know that FOI has led to the exposing of a number of scandals, and brought to light some major failings of public bodies

All crucial if we believe that transparency is the best form of disinfectant

 

But the list is long

Labour equalised the age of consent

We introduced civil partnerships, paving the way for last week’s commons vote on same sex marriage, which I was pleased to support

We ordered a public inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence and the wider issues, which led to the Race Relations Amendment Act

 

And there was the Equalities Act which brought together 25 years of fragmented legislation and updated it for the modern world in which we live

Positive duties to promote equality and eliminate discrimination

Legislation not just to protect those who suffer discrimination on the grounds of race, gender and disability but extended to include age, sexual orientation, religion and belief

And the Labour legacy runs much deeper than that

By 2010, this country was more at ease with itself than at any time in history

I speak to this not just as an MP representing a very diverse constituency in inner London but from my own experience also

And a political consensus had developed around the need to root out discrimination and to support attempts to achieve equality

Which manifested itself in some of the policies of the incoming coalition government

 

But I also know that we didn’t get everything right

Many of you in the room will be thinking to yourselves areas where we got it wrong – the case law, the precedents against me

On social and economic inequality, the gap remains stubbornly wide, and worsening in the current economic climate

On civil liberties, we got the balance wrong on too many occasions

British liberties have been hard fought and hard won over many centuries, and we must take great care in protecting them

But, on occasions, we seemed too casual about them

We lost sight of the importance of protecting all of the public’s freedoms when it came to protecting the public

Already, Ed Miliband has said the Labour Government were wrong on 90 days without detention, on the Iraq war and on ID cards

And I think we were wrong on extradition too 

By taking the position we did, we contributed to the coming together of the Lib Dems and the Tories on this issue in opposition

Their common interests in liberty issues pre-dates their coalition

They played on Labour as being the authoritarian and statist party

A Labour Party that was too quick to legislate in a way that curtailed individual freedoms

 

We saw that the coalition agreement included a section specifically on civil liberties

It committed the coalition to be “strong in defence of freedom” and to “restore the rights of individuals in the face of encroaching state power, in keeping with Britain’s tradition of freedom and fairness”

And they got off to a good start in delivering on this commitment

They ditched ID cards and reduced pre-trial detention from 28 days to 14

But there’s increasing signs that they’ve already run out of steam 

We’ve seen over the last 12 months the coalition’s draconian plans on secret courts and their so-called snoopers charter

And, from a discrimination and equality perspective, there’s been an assault on access to justice unprecedented in modern times 

The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act has seen £350million cut from civil legal aid and a curtailing in the use of no-win, no-fee cases so instrumental in many of you being able to bring justice for vulnerable members of society

Social welfare legal aid has been decimated

Law centres, CABs and advice centres, some already in a precarious position, have been under threat as a result

Just the other week, Birmingham Law Centre announced it is to close

And Shelter confirmed the closure of 8 of their housing advice centres as a result of the legal aid cuts

If ever there was an example of David Cameron’s big society, these kinds of institutions fit the bill

They’ve been putting the Big Society into action for years before David Cameron woke up to the invaluable work they do

I know from my own patch in Tooting just what a great job my local Law Centre does

They rely on donations, grants, volunteers, people giving up their time and expertise for the greater good

Helping some of the most vulnerable in society who are utterly daunted and overwhelmed by complex legal issues

 

But the cuts to civil legal aid are part of a triple whammy

They are leading to cuts to services at a time of economic hardship for many, made worse by cuts in public spending and massive upheavals in housing benefit and other types of welfare support

Just when demand is likely to go up, the support on offer goes down, or evaporates altogether

With the added slap in the face of being termed “ambulance chasers” and “fat cat” by the government – when the reality of those who work in social welfare legal aid is as far from that as you could get

 

Putting aside for a moment the most vulnerable in our society being denied access to justice – think of the medium to long term impact of these policies

High Street firms and law centres closing down have a huge impact on the legal profession

Only one of the judges in the Supreme Court is a woman, 23% of judges are women and 4% are from BAME communities

The idea that we will have more diversity in the judiciary or the legal profession when one of the main ways by which women and BAME lawyers enter the profession and progress is closing down should worry us all

 

But legal aid cuts, and changes to no-win, no-fee are just part of a wider onslaught on access to justice that should worry everyone involved in tackling discrimination

There is a pattern emerging

The government is systematically removing the tools that enable ordinary citizens to get justice

Tens of thousands are now without legal aid to help them get recourse when things go wrong

And don’t forget the Government has also made it harder to get a ‘no-win, no-fee’ case, after pressure from the insurance industry

But the impact of these changes means that future McCanns or Dowlers won’t have access to justice

 

 

And now we have a Government that wants to slash back the use of judicial review

They’ve described judicial review as ‘red tape’

It’s something that stops democratically elected government’s getting things done

But they ignore the usefulness of judicial review

And how it has become a crucial tool in checking shoddy decision making, by remote distant public authorities

 

We’ve seen over recent years examples of its use at its best

From the debacle over the Government’s West Coast Mainline Franchising

To Michael Gove’s botched cancelling of Sandwell Borough Council’s Building Schools for the Future investment

To small local planning issues and challenging decisions of Councils to evict families unlawfully to recent fiasco over remarking GCSE examinations

The Government say they want to stop the speculative use of judicial reviews as a campaigning tool

But their proposals won’t achieve that

The well resourced, professional outfits will still be able to mount challenges

But the small, local campaign groups and charities, or the individual citizen, will be prevented from seeking judicial reviews

The little people will be hindered in their legal right to hold government decision-making to account

 

Add to this the Tory commitment – dare I say, obsession – to abolish the human rights act

They talk of replacing it with some vague notion of a British Bill of Rights

This is despite the fact that the HRA is a Bill of Rights

 

What worries me is that the incidents of the HRA being used that generate the tabloid media headlines – often even only the bringing of a case, and not the fact the case is quickly dismissed as being erroneous – has infiltrated Tory thinking on human rights

That, and a dose of fervent anti-Europeanism thrown in for good measure

Somehow our human rights laws are imposed on us by Europeans, when the facts are quite the opposite – they are our human rights we exported to the rest of Europe!

 

And their idea for a British Bill of Rights is a set of rights that aren’t for everyone, some people being eligible for all, but some people being excluded from others

This is a slippery slope and is very worrying

We know who will be in the excluded groups – the vulnerable and the marginalised

Those discriminated against

Those on the end of inequality

The very people you in this room represent

This is an insult to the protection of human rights our forefathers intended

It was the British – including many Tories – who helped draft the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights

They will be turning in their graves

 

And, under this Government, more and more public contracts are going to the private and voluntary sector

This means more and more of public spend is being taken out of the normal ways of providing checks and balances, such as freedom of information and use of judicial review

The decreased ability of the citizen to hold those private companies delivering public services to account by the use of FOI or judicial review is a loophole that needs closing

So, taken as a package:

  • cuts to legal aid,
  • curtailing the use of judicial review and no-win, no-fee
  • increasing use of the private sector without proper checks and balances
  • and attacking the Human Rights Act

...amounts to an assault on the critical checks and balances that any healthy democracy needs

By weakening these checks and balances, we risk the state becoming ever more powerful

Ever more unwieldy

And ever more likely to ride roughshod over the rights of the individual

 

Chris Grayling has taken an oath as Lord Chancellor to “uphold the law”

Yet he seems relaxed at presiding over a dismantling of the very infrastructure that the downtrodden, the suppressed, the wronged use to challenge abuses of power

To make sure Government’s aren’t above the rule of law

Unless things change, this Parliament could see the biggest reduction in the ability to hold power to account in living memory

Leaving Government’s and public authorities potentially above the rule of law, free from the checks and balances we need in a healthy society

And freer, in the future, to abuse that power 

I want Labour to be the defender of checks and balances

To champion and be proud of the Human Rights Act

The Freedom of Information Act

Our drive for equality

Not ashamed or embarrassed by it

Checks and balances are a healthy component of a democracy

No one should be above the rule of law, let alone governments or public authorities

And governments should not dismantle the means by which its citizens can hold power to account for any wrongdoing

The ballot box is only part of the solution – means to legal recourse is also crucial if the rights of minorities aren’t to be trampled on by the majority

ENDS

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