The Human Rights Act was in the news yesterday (14th December 2021) because the Government published a long-awaited Report by the Independent Human Rights Act Review and alongside the Report, released a new consultation paper setting out the plans for how they want to replace our Human Rights Act with a UK Bill of Rights. We’ve put together a summary of what’s happened so far and what might happen next.

The history of Human Rights Law

The Human Rights Act is a UK law that was passed by the UK parliament in 1998 and became law in October 2000.  Before that, there was (and still is) the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights. These are all connected and share the same core values.

Pink text box: Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 (UDHR) A set of rules agreed upon by governments all over the world after World War II. The UDHR is not legally binding but the rules have since been made law in lots of countries. Orange text box: The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR/the Convention) An agreement made in the 1950s. It’s based on the rules in the UDHR and signed by all the governments in the Council of Europe (including the UK). If a government doesn’t look after a citizen’s rights, the citizen can take their case to the European Court of Human Rights. This is separate from the European Union. Click here to read more about the European Convention on Human Rights. Green text box: The Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) A UK law that means public bodies have to look after the human rights included in the ECHR and UK judges have to consider the ECHR when they make decisions. Click here to read more about the Human Rights Act.

The Human Rights Act was passed by Parliament with cross-party support. It was introduced when Tony Blair was Prime Minister. He said he wanted to “bring these rights [in the ECHR] home” and to “give people in the United Kingdom opportunities to enforce their rights under the European Convention in British courts rather than having to incur the cost and delay of taking a case to the European Human Rights Commission and Court in Strasbourg.”

What’s happened so far?

In the past

In 2005, when Michael Howard was the leader of the Conservatives, he complained about the “rights culture” created by the Human Rights Act and the protection of “special interest groups”. During his campaign, he said that “if [the Act] can’t be improved it will be scrapped”. His campaign was criticised by lots of people in the UK for targeting ethnic minorities - specifically travellers and asylum-seekers.  

In 2006, when David Cameron was the leader of the Conservatives, he said he wanted a UK Bill of Rights instead of the Human Rights Act. During the Labour government, key figures also publicly criticised the Human Rights Act, with Jack Straw (then Justice Secretary), telling the media he was “greatly frustrated” by the way the courts sometimes interpret the Act.

In 2009, the Labour Government launched a consultation on “Rights and Responsibilities: developing our constitutional framework” looking at a new constitutional settlement.

In 2010, Labour lost their place as the ruling party. The Coalition Government, led by David Cameron put together an independent team of people known as the Commission on a Bill of Rights to investigate the idea of creating this Bill. The Commission published a consultation, which BIHR responded to. Click here to read our response and our summary of the final report. It was decided at the time that a Bill of Rights wasn’t needed because “the UK already has a bill of rights in the shape of the 1998 Human Rights Act.”

In 2015, the Conservative Party set out in their manifesto that they would, “scrap the Human Rights Act and curtail the role of the European Court of Human Rights, so that foreign criminals can be more easily deported from Britain.” The Conservative Party won that election with a very small majority of 11 seats.

In 2019, the Conservative Government, now a majority government, led by Boris Johnson, said in a statement about leaving the European Union that it would “respect the framework of the European Convention of Human Rights”. This statement was not legally binding but was agreed between the UK and the European Union. However, the Government said they would wait until after the UK had left the European Union before considering it fully. This made a lot of people worried that they would change their minds about respecting the ECHR.

The current Government's plans

In December 2020, the Government set up the Independent Human Rights Act Review Panel to see how the Act is working and whether it needs to change.

In January 2021, the Panel published a “call for evidence” – a set of questions about the Human Rights Act that any people or organisations could answer. It closed in March 2021 and the responses were published on the gov.uk website. BIHR worked with over 400 people to submit a full and an easy read response to this Review. You can read the response here. 

In January 2021, the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) also put out a call for evidence in relation to the Human Rights Act review. This was so that they could use the information they gathered in their response to the Panel. They also used the information as part of their own inquiry into the Human Rights Act. BIHR’s responses to the JCHR’s review, full and Easy Read versions, can be read here. The JCHR published a report on the findings of their inquiry in June 2021.

In October 2021, the Panel wrote a report on their findings and sent it to the Government and on 14 December 2021, this report was published on the gov.uk website. You can read the full report (580 pages) and an executive summary (28 pages) here

On the same day the Panel’s report was published, the Government released a “consultation paper” containing their suggestions of ways to change the Human Rights Act. They want to replace it with a Bill of Rights. Whilst the consultation paper refers to the Independent Review report, the proposals go much further than the review suggested.

Yesterday (14th December 2021), the Government showed this consultation paper to the public. They asked for people to respond to it by sending in their opinions on the suggested changes. People have until 8th March 2022 to respond.

What happens next?

The law has not changed and the proposals in the consultation paper are not final. The Government’s Code of Practice on Consultation says a consultation paper should not be put out if “everything is already settled” because the responses should influence the final policy.

In March 2022, the consultation will end. After this, the Government will publish a report summing up the responses. They will also have to do an impact assessment which checks how any changes would affect different groups of people.

If the Government does then want to change the Human Rights Act, it has to propose a bill containing the actual wording of the new law. This has to be voted on by both the House of Commons and the House of Lords before it becomes law. It will also be scrutinised by the Joint Committee on Human Rights as part of this process.

This means that it’s important that as many people as possible respond to the consultation so that their voices are heard before any decisions are made about their rights. 

We put together an Explainer to simplify the information in the report and the consultation paper to make it easier for everyone to understand. Click here to read it.

In the meantime, you can click here to read our director, Sanchita’s, statement on the Government’s proposals and here to read BIHR’s news story.

You can also click here to join our Human Rights Act mailing list. We’ll keep you up to date on the latest news and any actions you can take to show our political leaders why the Human Rights Act matters.