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Michael Howard

Howard, travellers and the Human Rights myth

It's stretching the truth to say the Human Rights Act allows travellers to settle where they like

"If you want to build a new home you have to get planning permission first. But if you are a traveller you can bend the planning law - building where you like thanks to the Human Rights Act."
Michael Howard's "I believe..." newspaper adverts, 20 March 2005
Michael Howard's claim was made in a newspaper advertisement outlining a seven-point plan on travellers. It included a promise to review the Human Rights Act, which the Tory leader says is becoming a "charter for chancers".

The advert was followed by an appearance on BBC1's Breakfast with Frost by David Cameron, the Conservatives' head of policy co-ordination, who said the proposals were not about race but fair play.

"At the moment if you build an extension to your house, the council comes after you, but if you set up an illegal traveller site they don't. That's wrong, and we want to change that," he said.

Labour condemned the proposals as an opportunistic attack that encouraged prejudice against a minority. The Liberal Democrats claimed Mr Howard was pandering to a mistaken view that the Human Rights Act was "undermining our culture".

Charter for chancers?

The implication of Mr Howard's comment is that the Human Rights Act gives travellers special rights that allow them to get round planning laws.

But the Act does not mention travellers or planning laws.

What it does say under Article 8 is that everyone has a "right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence".

This article has been used by travellers to appeal against refusal of planning permission and eviction notices, arguing that it violates their right to respect for family, life and home.

However, Article 8 goes on to say that a public authority can interfere with these rights if its action is "necessary in a democratic society ... for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others".

If a traveller uses Article 8 to fight a refusal of planning permission or eviction, the courts have to decide if a council has acted properly within the law, balancing the rights of the travellers with harm that is being done to others.

A single victory

Interpretations of the Act are still being tested in the English courts, with some rulings favouring councils, other travellers.

But of the few cases that have gone to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, human rights legal experts say the Court has decided for travellers only once.

This case, Connors vs the UK, was not about planning.

In another case - Chapman vs the UK - which did involve travellers appealing against refusal of planning permission and enforcement orders, the travellers lost.

The Court found that councils had interfered with travellers' rights to respect for family life but their actions were justified because they were legal and taken to protect the rights of others by preserving the environment.

Consolidating existing law

Marc Willers, a human rights and planning barrister who has represented travellers, said the Human Rights Act had formalised rights that already had to be considered by planning authorities and courts when dealing with travellers.

These existing rights had developed through legal precedents and the 1976 Race Relations Act, which recognised Gypsies as an ethnic minority, meaning public authorities had to recognise their need to live in caravans.

They meant travellers' need for homes, education and health had to be taken as "material consideration" even before the Human Rights Act incorporated the European Convention of Human Rights into English law.

"[These rights] have been made clearer by the adopting of the European Convention of Human Rights but they do not entitle any Gypsy or traveller to set up camp anywhere - that's why we have evictions going on all the time. And Gypsies go to prison if they don't obey an order to vacate the land," said Mr Willers.

Jonathan Cooper, chairman of the Human Rights Lawyers Association, said: "Gypsies have rights under the Act additional to the rights of non-travellers because it recognises the rights of minority groups, but it does not mean that you cannot lawfully interfere with those rights.

"Every time they have been required to move on the Court has held it was lawful interference."

Robert Walton, a barrister who has acted for local authorities in a series of cases against travellers, added: "There is no human rights method of getting round the planning system."

Defending their approach, a Conservative Party spokesman said: "John Prescott's Department has issued a series of changes to planning guidelines, citing the Human Rights Act and stating that travellers should receive special treatment. As a result, councils and the police have been discouraged from taking effective action against illegal traveller sites."

I believe in fair play (PDF), Conservative Party newspaper advertisement, 20 March 2005
Human Rights Act 1998
Chamber Judgement in the Case of Connors vs The UK, Register of the European Court of Human Rights, 27 May 2004
Chamber Judgement in the Case of Chapman, Coster, Beard, Lee, Smith vs The UK, Register of the European Court of Human Rights, 18 June 2004
Action against illegal traveller camps, Conservative Party, 21 March 2005

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