We speak to an expert about the Conservatives' plan to get rid of the law that protects our right to life
The Tories aren't wasting any time. Boris Johnson has shut down ten fire stations in London, Iain Duncan Smith is pressing on with his plan to cut £12 billion of welfare funding and Michael Gove – a man who once wrote of his support for hanging – is in charge of scrapping the Human Rights Act, a law that's been in place since 1998 to ensure that our human rights are protected. Human rights are basic things like freedom from torture and inhuman or degrading treatment, right to education and the right to a fair trial. They're pretty important.
The Tory party wants to replace the Human Rights Act with a "British Bill Of Rights". How that'll affect us is unclear. So we asked Bella Sankey, director of policy at human rights organisation Liberty, what that change in law might mean for you. We also asked Michael Gove but at the time of writing, he is yet to respond to our questions.
How dangerous is scrapping the Human Rights Act?
Bella Sankey: The Human Rights Act (HRA) is one of the few laws that allows ordinary people to hold the State to account for abuse, mistreatment and negligence. It has defended victims of rape and domestic violence and those in care, safeguarded soldiers, protected journalists’ sources and given bereaved families long fought-for answers. Its repeal and replacement with the planned “British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities” will diminish the rights of everyone in the UK, and the vulnerable will suffer most.
Can you cite some examples of how the Human Rights Act has saved lives?
Bella Sankey: Patience Asuquo was saved under Article 4 of the Human Rights Act – no slavery or forced labour. Patience had been brought into the UK on a domestic worker visa and was then forced to work long hours without any time off for almost three years. Her “employer” confiscated her passport, refused to pay her and subjected her to verbal and physical abuse.
When Patience escaped and reported her treatment to the police no effective investigation was carried out and the employer was not interviewed. After Liberty issued judicial review proceedings, the police reopened the investigation but the prosecution was ultimately unsuccessful. At the time there was no criminal offence in the UK of subjecting a person to slavery or forced labour.
Is Michael Gove the right man to be in charge of this decision?
Bella Sankey: Like his predecessor as Lord Chancellor, Chris Grayling, Michael Gove is a non-lawyer – a Tory experiment that has so far seen the annihilation of legal aid and is now aimed at the Human Rights Act. Mr Gove will find it tough to convince Britain's senior judges that he respects the Rule of Law.
If the government scraps the Human Rights Act, how do you think the British Bill Of Rights will be different?
Bella Sankey: The Tories say a new British Bill of Rights will ensure people who pose a national security risk, or have entered illegally, cannot rely on “questionable human rights claims” to prevent deportation. This nasty proposal seeks to allow the government to remove and deport people to places where they face a real risk of torture. It would place the UK in breach of international law and entirely disregard the rights of innocent British children, whose interests will no longer be considered when courts consider the deportation of their parents.
The most chilling part of the Bill is the claim that it will “limit the use of human rights laws to the most serious cases” – a blatant declaration that the Conservatives want to take away certain rights from British people, picking and choosing who gets human rights protections and who doesn’t; which case is serious and which too trivial to matter.
Are there any positives to the new Bill?
Bella Sankey: At best, the repeal plans are merely a vapid attempt to indulge xenophobia and English nationalism. At worst, they’re a conscious bid by Government ministers to unilaterally renounce the universality of human rights and choose when and to whom they apply. As well as diminishing all of our rights, axing the Act would give a green light to tyrannical despots the world over – if UK leaders think it’s fine to limit human rights to certain groups, why shouldn’t they?
How much do we know about the actual Bill?
Bella Sankey: Few details about the contents of the Bill have been released – so far only a short strategy paper published in October last year, which was widely condemned as incoherent, legally illiterate and containing factual howlers. The arguments for repeal seem to centre on the political deceit that the HRA allows judges in the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) to order British judges around, and that it reduces parliamentary sovereignty.
In fact, under the HRA, Britain’s courts are only required to "take account" of ECtHR judgments. The Supreme Court remains the ultimate arbiter of UK human rights cases and has on a number of occasions explicitly disagreed and departed from Strasbourg jurisprudence. The HRA has in fact increased British sovereignty – pre-HRA, UK cases were taken directly to Strasbourg without any judgment from a UK court. Now British judges rule on all human rights claims arising in the UK. Introducing an incoherent Bill that leaves certain groups without protection, would actually increase Strasbourg’s supervision of the UK and make judgments against the UK more likely.
Head here to sign a petition asking David Cameron not to abolish the Human Rights Act.