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Update on The Rights Removal Bill: Why There is No Room for Complacency

The Human Rights Act is the UK law that exists to ensure that everyone’s rights are respected and protected here at home. 

On 22nd of June 2022, the UK Government published a new bill that would get rid of our Human Rights Act.  They called it the Bill of Rights Bill – but it’s exactly the opposite. It is a Rights Removal Bill which signifies the latest step in plans to reduce the responsibilities of government to respect, protect and fulfil the human rights which people rely on every day across the UK. The Bill is not supported by the public, as evidenced by the Government’s own analysis of the Responses to its Consultation on the Bill, and it ignores the recommendations of the Independent Human Rights Act Review, set up by the Government.

This blog post will explore what has happened since the Bill was published, what might happen now the Bill has been “shelved”, and what steps we need to take in order to prevent and prepare for future attacks by the Government on our Human Rights Act.

What Has Happened Since the Rights Removal Bill was Published?

When the Rights Removal Bill was presented to Parliament on 22nd of June 2022, the gravity of the Government’s assault on human rights became clear. The Bill is poorly drafted, uses terms which have no legal meaning in UK law, and contradicts  the universal nature of human rights standards. It fails to account for devolution, removes and restricts existing rights protections, and limits access to justice.

In response to the Rights Removal Bill, BIHR and hundreds of other civil society organisations mobilised in order to resist the Bill and to draw attention to the danger it poses to all of our human rights across the UK. We created ‘What the Rights Removal Bill means for…’ resources which include real life stories in order to expose the impact the Bill could have on different interest areas and groups within society. Although the Bill impacts all of us, it’s important to say that it disproportionately impacts people and groups often already in vulnerable situations, such as refugees and asylum seekers. We also created briefings, letter templates, and ran workshops to support others to campaign against the Bill.

In addition, BIHR met with MPs and Peers to ask them to stand firm on our Human Rights Act and vote against the Rights Removal Bill. The House of Lords engaged in an important debate on the practical value of our Human Rights Act in the days before Parliament broke up for summer. This debate, led by Baroness Whitaker, saw a number of Peers share BIHR’s concerns about the Bill and highlight examples of how our Human Rights Act supports people in their everyday lives.

Our work over the summer months was in preparation for the second reading of the Bill which was scheduled for 12th September 2022. The Second Reading stage would have allowed MPs to vote on the Bill for the first time. Had a majority of MPs voted for the Bill, it’s journey to become law in the UK would have progressed. However, following the change of Prime Minister and new cabinet appointments (including the replacement of Dominic Raab with Brandon Lewis as new Justice Secretary) on 6th September 2022, newspaper reports announced the following day that the Bill would be shelved, two years after the official Human Rights Act reform agenda began.  

The shelving of the Bill means that second reading did not go ahead as planned. While this delay is welcome news, it does not mean that our Human Rights Act is safe. Now is not the time to get complacent.

What Might Happen Now the Bill Has Been “Shelved”?

It is difficult to say what might happen now that the Rights Removal Bill has been shelved. It is worth noting that the Bill still remains on Parliament’s website, and due to the official mourning period for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, along with recess for party conferences, it looks like Parliament will not return until 11th of October. No clear messages on what may come of the Bill have been circulated at this time, and it is unlikely that we will have any clarification until Parliament is in session again.

Despite the current lack of clarity, the consensus amongst civil society organisations seems to be that there are three possible courses of action which the Government may take:

  • The Government may introduce a revised version of the Bill, more appropriately drafted, but with similar intent.
  • The Government may introduce a new Human Rights Act Amendment Bill, which rather than seeking to scrap the Act will try and change how it currently works, bringing in some of the restrictions proposed in the Bill.
  • Separate legislative proposals may be introduced to Parliament, which seek to make changes similar to those contained in the Rights Removal Bill. For example, we may see:
    • A Courts Bill that removes section 2 (the duty to take into account decisions of the European Court of Human Rights) and section 3 of the Human Rights Act (the duty to read and apply other laws compatibly with human rights), creates permission stages for court cases, and sets out restrictions on remedies awarded when rights have been breached.
    • The introduction of an Immigration Bill which creates restrictions on our Article 8 rights to private, family life, home and correspondence.

What we now know from Conservative Party Conference

Following the recent Conservative Party Conference, this third course of action presents as increasingly likely. When asked by Grace DaCosta of Quakers in Britain what was happening with the Bill of Rights Bill, Justice Secretary Brandon Lewis responded that a number of the issues which would have been dealt with in the Bill of Rights Bill (of which he lists freedom of speech, strategic lawsuits against public participation, and illegal immigration) ‘we will deal with, but we’ll probably do it in different pieces of legislation’. He reiterated at a later stage:

‘What we’re doing is working through all of the issues that were being considered for the Bill of Rights, looking (…) at which of those we take forward, and in which way we take them forward through different pieces of legislation, whether it’s through Ministry of Justice legislation, or potentially through Home Office legislation, etc, over the next period, whether it’s this session or the next session.’

Lewis suggested that it would be a waste of parliamentary time to ‘repeat legislation you’ve already got but to put it in a different format’, perhaps an indication that he would not be on board with the first potential course of action we have identified above around a revised version of the Rights Removal Bill – but we can only speculate at this stage.

What is clear is that there is nothing to suggest that the Government’s anti-rights agenda is dead. In shelving the Bill of Rights Bill, new Prime Minister Liz Truss told her cabinet that she would reassess ways to deliver her Government’s agenda on human rights reform.  New Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, stated in August that it was a ‘national priority’ to extricate the UK from the influence of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.  In her speech at the Conservative Party Conference on Tuesday she stressed that ‘UK policy on illegal migration should not be derailed by abuse of our modern slavery laws, Labour’s Human Rights Act, or orders of the Strasbourg Court.’ This is further indication that we may see the provisions of the Rights Removal Bill return in separate targeted pieces of legislation.

While one of the three courses of action set out above will likely be taken, in the lead up to the next General Election (December 2024 at the latest) we will also potentially see a rise in calls for the UK to abandon the European Convention on Human Rights outright. This presents as an ever-looming possibility.

What We Need to Do Now – A Call to Action

Our Human Rights Act remains under threat, and we must acknowledge that any future attack launched by the new conservative Government may be even more aggressive than the Rights Removal Bill.

We are not yet out of the woods. Far from it, the new Government is intent on weakening our human rights protections and limiting state accountability, and we need your help to combat this assault. Past complacency undoubtedly contributed to the creation of the environment which saw the emergence of the Rights Removal Bill – we must not let that happen again. We must continue to stand firm in protecting our Human Rights Act and amplifying the voices of those who rely on its provisions every day in order to safeguard their human rights, and the human rights of all of us.

Most importantly, at this time of uncertainty we must not wait in anticipation of how the Government might proceed. Instead, we must take advantage of the Bill being shelved and take a proactive approach that will prepare us for all eventualities, with the ultimate goal of protecting our Human Rights Act. After all, it is the law which protects us.

You can help us with this proactive strategy by:

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Parliamentary & Policy Assistant

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