The new Government has made clear commitments to fundamentally change the legal protection of our human rights. These plans, outlined in the policy paper published in October 2014, the 2015 manifesto and other public statements essentially boil down to:

Taking each of these in turn:

  • “Scrapping” the Human Rights Act: The language being used mirrors the direction of travel – a negative one. If what is on the table is better protection of our human rights then why does it come from a place where human rights are viewed so negatively? We should all be concerned about getting rid of the law that empowers us to hold the Government to account, should we never need to.
  • The European Court of Human Rights: when the European Convention was established countries also set up a Court to make sure people have access to independent judges to hear their cases. This is a basic tenant of ensuring justice. Given that human rights place limits on power, it’s hardly surprising that the Court will throw up decisions that governments don’t like – the judgements are against them. But that is what it means to live in a democracy where no one is above the law, including those with power.
  • British Bills of Rights: There are many facets to this. A bill of rights is about setting down the basic rights people have and the duties of their government to respect these…sound familiar? This is what the Human Rights Act does. The idea of “British” rights takes us away from universal human rights, the rights expect other countries to uphold. It takes us into the territory of what the rights the Government wants to grant, which is made all the clearer by proposals to restrict rights depending on criteria set down by Government. And of course there is the rather larger question of devolution and what a “British” law would mean in that context.

We know that the Prime Minister has committed to putting forward measures to scrap the HRA in the Queen’s Speech on 27 May. With the announcement of Michael Gove as the new Justice Secretary, media coverage has been quick to reference abolishing the Human Rights Act as one of his key tasks. 

The reality is that anything could happen. Scrapping our law could be kicked into the long-grass or it could be full steam ahead and part of the new government’s immediate plans. This could take many forms. There is an assumption this would involve consulting on the new bill of rights, and then passing this to “scrap” the Human Rights Act – this would follow usual pattern for legislative changes. However, it is also possible that the Human Rights Act could be repealed with the promise of consulting on a future new Bill of Rights, only leaving people with recourse to the European Court (provided that is not immediately effected). Being live to all the eventualities is important. 

But isn’t it all too complex to happen?

No doubt there will be much to discuss in terms of the legal and political realities of the proposals, how they might happen and how they might be challenged. This detail will obviously be important, but those of us who value universal human rights must not get so caught up in the technicalities that we are (inadvertently) co-opted into the cause for getting rid of our protections. 

Ultimately, universal human rights are challenging. You don’t have to like human rights, you can be annoyed about the kinds of decisions the law throws up, safe in the knowledge that your freedom of belief and expression is protected. Universal means everyone, and that includes people who are liked and not liked. That’s why human rights are not simply about being nice, or treating people how you’d like to be treated, and we need to be honest about that. Human rights are about more, they are the cornerstone of a democratic and fair society, a safety-net for us all, a rule book for our Government. Moves that take the UK away from these universal standards, the ones we tell other countries they must obey, risks what protects us all. 

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