The Tories' plans threaten our power to hold the state to account
One of the key pledges in the Conservative manifesto this year alongside commitments on the economy, the EU and housing policy, was a promise to scrap the Human Rights Act (HRA) and to replace it with a British Bill of Rights. Although this policy was in their 2010 manifesto, they were unable to get it through the coalition government. Now they are trying again.
Last week, the attorney general Jeremy Wright said that he could not guarantee the UK would not pull out of the European Convention on Human Rights, which the HRA enshrines in UK law, under their soon to be announced reforms to the act.
The HRA was brought in by the Labour government in 1998 and at the time the Conservatives voted for the legislation. A decade later, they have changed their minds.
Scaremongering stories from some sections of the press, such as an article in The Sun (which they later had to apologise for as it was factually incorrect) claiming that European judges rule against the UK in 3/5 cases (the real number is less than 1 per cent), mean that the British public have a warped idea of what the HRA does, and how it relates to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
As a country we value the idea that people have certain rights regardless of who they are, and this belief is at the heart of the debate about the HRA. Human rights are essential to our relationship with the state, and the HRA is vital for allowing us to seek justice when we believe these rights have been violated.
Consider the case of Amrit who was placed in residential care on a short-term basis due to mental health problems. While his parents were visiting him one day, they noticed some bruising which no one could explain. Managers dismissed their complaints and they were no longer allowed to visit him.
By using Article 3 (right not to be treated in an inhuman and degrading way) and Article 8 (the right to a family life) of the Human Rights Act, the parents were allowed to resume their visits and an investigation was started into how the bruises came about. In this way, Amrit’s parents were able to challenge the authorities about their behaviour and to make sure he was treated in a way which respected his rights.
There are also other important concerns, such as when it is believed that the state needs to be challenged as it has breached one or several of our fundamental rights. For example, Liberty was able to challenge DRIPA (Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014) on behalf of Tom Watson MP and David Davis MP because they argued that DRIPA was a breach of Article 8 (the right to privacy) of the HRA.
They won the case and the government was held to account for introducing legislation which violated the human rights of citizens.
What is so worrying about the potential scrapping of the HRA is that it sets a dangerous precedent that the state can have the power to decide which citizens have and have not got rights. This erodes 800 years of British history which have slowly led to clear limits on the power of the state on its citizens, as the above cases show.
The government’s final plans for a new Bill of Rights are yet to be announced. However, in a strategy paper last year, one of the aims set out was to limit rights only to the most serious cases. This policy runs the danger of creating tiers of rights where the rights of some people in some cases are worth more than others, destroying the foundation of universality which human rights rely on.
The fight to retain the HRA will be a long and difficult one, but the Labour Party must be committed to it, not only because of our beliefs in equality and fairness but because it is vital to our democracy and acceptance of the universality of human rights.
Sue Hayman is Labour MP for Workington
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