For me one of the most disturbing of the proposals in the Conservative party’s manifesto at the 2015 election was to:
“scrap the Human Rights Act, and introduce a British Bill of Rights. This will break the formal link between British courts and the European Court of Human Rights, and make our own supreme court the ultimate arbiter of human rights matters in the UK.”
So what’s all this about?
What is the HRA?
The Human Rights Act puts directly into British law the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), something dreamed up by Winston Churchill and others in the aftermath of WWII to try and prevent the kind of atrocities seen in Nazi Germany from ever being repeated.
What did we do before the HRA?
The UK has always been a signed up member of the ECHR obliged by international treaty to stick to it and with our courts having to take account of it in reaching their judgments. The only difference the HRA made was that it put the Act directly into British law.
What’s wrong with the HRA?
There is some evidence that judges in the European Court of Human Rights interpret the Convention a bit too broadly using it to give rights such as the right to vote to long term prisoners where it might reasonably have been left to democratically elected national governments to decide.
Lots of the cases that you’ll read about in the papers however (e.g. a prisoner who was supposed have been allowed to remain in the UK rather than being deported because he had a cat which meant he had a family life) are, basically either a) untrue or b) not actually anything to do with the Human Rights Act but things like refugee conventions.
What’s good about the HRA?
A lot! These are the rights it says you have:
- A right to life
- A right not to be tortured
- A right not to be slaved or in forced labour
- A right to liberty and security
- A right to a fair trial
- No punishment without law
- A right to respect for private and family life
- A right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion
- Freedom of expression
- Freedom of assembly
- Right to marry
- Right to justice
The Convention provides that you have all these rights without discrimnination. Anybody not want any of those rights? Thought so (just so yo know Governments may, in a time of extreme national emergency, suspend these rights for a time – which is a good idea too).
But won’t we have these rights anyway?
Yes. It’s unlikely that getting rid of the HRA will make much difference to day to day life in Britain in the short term – especially since most of the rights will, no doubt, be included in the new British Bill of Rights in any case.
So what’s the problem?
There are several:
1) If we get rid of the HRA but remain signed up to the ECHR it won’t really change anything – so the Government’s stated aim of avoiding “interference” by the European Court in UK matters won’t be met.
2) If we withdraw from the ECHR we will hardly be in any position to suggest that other countries (like China, Russia and others) should do better on human rights.
3) Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish MPs will almost certainly vote to keep the HRA. And the Act is an important part of the devolution agreements with those countries. So either we’ll have to change the devolution agreements to something those countries didn’t agree to, or have different human rights in different parts of the UK! If you think the UK should stay together either of those is a bad outcome.
4) We can probably only stay in the EU if we stay in the ECHR – which again you might think is good or bad I suppose!
5) Even though some people don’t like it that other people get more rights than we think they should have which of us actually wants it to be possible for the Government to imprison us without a trial or torture us or say we can’t marry or ban our freedom of religion?
But doesn’t keeping the HRA mean some bad people get treated better than they deserve?
Yes it probably does. The Act tends to give rights to people who don’t really deserve them – because it strikes a balance that says the state has a lot more power than individuals so, on the whole, preference needs to be given to individuals rights over what the state wants. This is exactly the same principle that leads us to think that if somebody is probably guilty of a crime but it hasn’t been proved beyond doubt they ought to be let go.
Who thinks we should keep the Human Rights Act?
Politicians on all sides, and especially those who have had anything to do with international law, working with overseas governments and the legal system – in other words all those who actually know anything about this more than reading hysterical stories in the Daily Mail. If you want perspectives from across the political spectrum I’d suggest:
Dominic Grieve, Conservative former Attorney General.
Kier Starmer, Labour MP and former Director of Public Prosecutions.
Simon Hughes, Liberal Democrat.
Nicola Sturgeon, SNP.
Lots of other “celebs” have also called for us to keep the HRA. The most thoughtful of these is probably Benedict Cumberbatch
Abolishing the HRA is now, fortunately, off the cards for this year. But it’s still well worth writing to your MP (especially if they are a Conservative MP) to ask them to vote against abolishing it when it comes to the House of Commons.