Last month at the Conservative Party conference much was said, and not said, about plans to replace the Human Rights Act 1998 with a new British Bill of Rights. Having read through a number of article and comments, both for and against this proposal I think we should all be very concerned about what it proposed.
Human rights law is much misunderstood and often misinterpreted. The Human Rights Act was brought into being by the Labour Party and David Cameron, in his speech, consistently referred to it as “Labour’s Human Rights Act.” But is it really Labour’s legislation?
When the Act was originally passed, it was supported by most Conservative MPs because what it does is to enable all people in the UK to seek redress through local British courts and tribunals when there has been a breach of their human rights. Prior to this act the only way to seek redress was though the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg at considerable cost.
The purpose of European Convention on Human Rights is to give citizens in any of the 48 countries who are members of the Council of Europe, the ability to challenge the rules and behaviours of their government or its agencies, if they believe those rules and behaviours breach human rights. Removing the Human Rights Act would mean in practice that all cases would then go back to being referred to the ECtHR. What is clear from the recent announcements is that the Conservatives no longer plan to withdraw from the Council of Europe, and therefore Britain would still have to take account of ECtHR judgements.
But what about the replacement? The British Bill of Rights proposals are alarming to say the least. Reading though legal opinion, and listening to speeches from leading conservative supporters like Teresa May and Chris Grayling, it is clear that the intention is to largely water down the basic human rights. Last year the ECtHR rejected 98.8% of the nearly 1700 cases it heard and made judgements in only 13 cases. The court found violations of convention rights in only 8 cases.
What the current proposals appear to be advocating is the setting of a benchmark of responsibilities against which UK citizens are first measured to determine if we are entitled to our human rights, together with a number of other “get out” options to allow the behaviour of officials and government offices to be determined as reasonable. These proposals largely mean that in the event of a court hearing, it would be easier for the state to justify human rights violations .
If we stay in the council of Europe – the only change is that it becomes more difficult and expensive again for people to get redress. If we leave the Council of Europe, and I can see little purpose in a watered down version of the Human Rights Act where the state can seldom be held to account if we don’t, then the consequences are dire indeed. Once the government has the power to decide who is entitled to basic human rights – we are heading backwards towards a medieval system of power we have fought tirelessly to replace.