The Council of Europe
In December 2022, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights said, “both the overall system for protecting human rights, and the rights of specific groups, are currently under pressure in the United Kingdom”. The Commissioner raised particular concerns about the Rights Removal Bill, saying it “would weaken rather than strengthen human rights in the UK, including by encouraging divergence between the interpretation of human rights by domestic courts and by the European Court of Human Rights.”
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe is currently carrying out an investigation into human rights reform in the UK.
Our CEO's Evidence
As part of the Council of Europe's investigation, our CEO, Sanchita was asked to give evidence to the Assembly in Paris.
Sanchita began by explaining the origin of the Human Rights Act, which was introduced to “bring rights home” and make the rights in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) accessible in UK courts. She explained that the Rights Removal Bill (inappropriately termed the “Bill of Rights” by the Justice Secretary) starts from a very different place – believing that “rights have gone too far”.
She briefly discussed the process behind the Rights Removal Bill – from ignoring the recommendations of the Government-commissioned Independent Human Rights Act Review Panel to refusing to publish the 13,000 public consultation responses that the Government’s own analysis shows were almost all unsupportive of the Bill.
She then set out three key ways the Rights Removal Bill would weaken human rights in the UK:
- It would make it harder for people to access the protection of their human rights in the UK.
- It would undermine the basic principle that human rights are for us all; restrict what people’s human rights mean by limiting them to reading the literal text in the Convention written in 1950 rather than what it means today; and separate the UK from other ECtHR countries by deciding not to follow temporary orders (interim measures) issued by the Court
- It would make it harder for people to access justice.
Overall, Sanchita described the Bill as “regressing Convention rights in the UK”, saying “the superficial veil of simply transposing the same list of Convention rights from the Human Rights Act into the Bill cannot be allowed to obscure the fact that the very meaning, application, and access to Convention rights will be significantly reduced for everyone in the UK.”
She emphasised that the Bill still remains on the Parliamentary timetable, so the Government could try and push it through at any point. She also flagged another way that provisions from the Rights Removal Bill could be snuck in by the Government: the Refugee Ban Bill.
Sanchita highlighted some of the many concerns about the Refugee Ban Bill (named by the Government the “Illegal Migration Bill) that are featured in our Human Rights Guide. She said, “It would be quite extraordinary, should the Illegal Migration Bill pass in any form that it currently resembles, for it to not be significantly challenged in the UK courts and the ECtHR.”
Meeting the Rapporteur
The week following Sanchita’s visit to the Assembly, Kamal Jafarov, Human Rights Rapporteur, visited the UK to meet with parliamentarians, academics and civil society groups to gather further evidence on human rights reform in the UK.
Our Head of Policy & Programmes, Carlyn, joined representatives from JCWI, an independent national charity fighting for justice in immigration, asylum & nationality law, and Justice, a charity committed to the rule of law and the fair administration of justice. They discussed our concerns with the Rights Removal Bill and the Refugee Ban Bill and the way they’ll impact people’s human rights across the UK. These included concerns about destroying the positive obligations on public bodies to uphold everyone’s rights and the way both Bills attempt to disapply the duty to interpret other laws compatibly with human rights wherever possible – which would lead to legal uncertainty and reduce the ways people can access justice if their rights are at risk.
The Draft Report
On Thursday 25th May, Rapporteur Jafarov published his draft report on his findings. He raised a number of concerns with the UK Government's proposed changes to human rights in the UK, including:
Overseas military operations: The Rights Removal Bill would exclude liability for state agents acting overseas, breaching the right to an effective remedy for people affected.
Interim measures: Both Bills set limits on when the UK authorities would listen to interim measures from the European Court of Human Rights which suggests “a potential disregard for the rule of law.”
Protections for survivors of trafficking: The Refugee Ban Bill prevents meaningful protection of survivors and investigation and punitive action against traffickers.
Detention safeguards: The Refugee Ban Bill risks breaching the right to liberty by sanctioning arbitrary and indefinite detention.
Protections for children: The Refugee Ban Bill grants powers to detain or remove children from the UK; to take them out of Local Authority care; and to limit appeals for age assessments which could lessen protections for children.
Due process: The Refugee Ban Bill limits appeal rights and could weaken the right to an effective remedy.
The full Parliamentary Assembly will debate the report in June.
Adopting the Report
On 21st June 2023, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe adopted (agreed) the report. This news came one year from the day the Rights Removal Bill was introduced in Parliament. The report describes the Human Rights Act as "an excellent example of an effective domestic mechanism for ensuring that Convention rights are respected and fully implemented at the national level" and raises concerns about the ongoing threats posed to it by the UK Government's proposed bills. It highlights the attempts to disapply Section 3 of the Human Rights Act to certain proposed laws, saying "would be regrettable to lose a system that is obviously working so well as a model, also for other countries, for effective enforcement of human rights at the national (rather than international) level. It may be asked what sort of a precedent this sets internationally for the respect of human rights, and the rule of law – including respect for international law."
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