View from the House – David Walker

War in the Balkans has been fought – Tony Blair has repeatedly said – for the sake of the human rights of the Kosovo Albanians. Rights are all the rage, at home as well as abroad. The Human Rights Act 1998 has now got an implementation date, 2 October next year: on that day, says Jack Straw, our constitutional history will mark a major step-change on the way to ‘creating a new culture of rights and responsibilities’.

In the 15 months until then there is a huge amount of preparatory work to be done, not just in Whitehall and town halls but in companies and auditors’ offices as well.

On the face of it the Act, which incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law, applies mainly to public bodies. But the courts may interpret ‘public’ widely. Professional bodies, for example, exercise public functions so could find the convention’s clauses on privacy and due process being applied to them.

Might the exercise of the audit function in a public limited company also be potentially subject to investigation by the courts under the Act?

‘Human rights’ isn’t a phrase which trips lightly off tongues at the Department of Trade and Industry. It has just launched a bid to recruit people to employment tribunals without mentioning how super-conscious their members are going to need to be about human rights. Departmentally, human rights are the Home Office’s baby. It has convened a task force which is supposed to be ensuring the wide world wakes up to the ramifications of the new law. But neither business nor the professions are strongly represented on it.

That is a gap, since human rights law could affect them directly. Take staff rights. Union solicitors note the clause in the European Convention which specifies a right to belong to a union. Company lawyers also note the articles in the convention which could be interpreted as giving employees an absolute right not to belong to a union.

‘We will have a presumption against regulation,’ said Stephen Byers, the trade secretary, the other day: but that’s not going to stop cases going to the courts demanding workers’ hours be restricted or their maternity rights increased.

David Walker writes for The Guardian

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