Here's How the Human Rights Act Being Scrapped Would Actually Affect You

The Conservative government is intent on replacing the act with a "British Bill of Rights" – which campaigners argue is not a good thing.

by Adam Forrest
25 August 2016, 10:39am

Demonstrators at a protest against the government's plans to scrap the Human Rights Act (Photo: Will Worley)

If you give people something they believe to be permanent, they usually get quite angry if you try to take it away. This, of course, applies to the big, concrete things the government has been taking away in recent years: council housing, women's refuges, Sure Start centres, bus services, libraries and lollipop ladies.

But it also applies to less tangible things, like human rights. Somewhat terrifyingly, the present government thinks it's worth testing just how fond we are of our human rights by trying to take some of those away, too. Earlier this week, the UK's Justice Secretary, Liz Truss, made it clear that the government is pushing ahead with plans to scrap the Human Rights Act and replace it with something called the "British Bill of Rights".

Why? Essentially, the Tories want to try to detach the UK from the apparently overbearing power of European law. Introduced by the Labour government back in 1998, the Human Rights Act incorporated into domestic British law the basic principles of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), principles recognised by every country in Europe except Belarus. Belarus, by the way, is Europe's last dictatorship.

Leading Conservatives, including our new-ish Prime Minister Theresa May, think the 1998 act has been applied too widely. The Tories and supporters in the press argue that foreign nationals who have committed crimes are too easily able to "misuse" the protections of the Human Rights Act – such as article 8: the right to a family life – to justify staying in the UK.

When the government tries to convince us a British Bill of Rights will cover the good rights for good people, and get rid of the bad rights "misused" by bad people, we should be very wary indeed.

"Everything we have heard from the government on this has been really concerning," says Rachel Logan, legal programme director at Amnesty UK. "It looks like they want to water down human rights by picking and choose what rights people get, and who gets to claim them."

However abstract these arguments seem, they matter, because the Human Rights Act has proved it matters: it has had a real, subtly powerful and largely unsung impact on our daily lives. Scrapping it could affect a lot of things, from how we look after loved ones to how we deal with the police, or even how we choose to protest.

So what has the Human Rights Act done for you? How exactly would you miss it if it was gone?

First and foremost, it protects vulnerable people. Back in 2005, Gloucestershire couple Mr and Mrs Driscoll, both 89 years old, were separated for the first time in over 60 years of marriage. Mr Driscoll needed residential care, but Mrs Driscoll was told that she didn't qualify for a place in the council-run home, so was forced to live separately with their son.

It was only when human rights experts picked up the case and argued that it was a breach of the couple's right to a family life that the council finally dropped their legal case and Mr and Mrs Driscoll were reunited.

These cases might not be commonplace, but they do help establish firm guidelines on how we should all be treated. They make it less likely your nan and granddad could get split up or badly mistreated by their local council.

"If the Human Rights Act is working well, you can't always see it or feel it," explains Rachel Logan. "It's like an invisible safety net that helps make sure all levels of government, the police and other public bodies are carrying out their duties without violating the rights of ordinary people."

The Human Rights Act protects your privacy, and your right to protest. In 2010, Dorset mum Jenny Paton discovered she was under surveillance, spied on 21 times by council education officials investigating if the family was living in the correct school catchment area. She won a tribunal using the part of article 8 that upholds our right to privacy.

And in 2013, a Central London County Court judge ruled that anti-war campaigners stopped from protesting at RAF Fairford had suffered a breach in their right to freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly (article 11).

"The relatively small number of cases that have actually gone to court, where big rulings have been made – they have often established an important precedent that benefits everyone," says Logan.

READ: Are the Tories Actually Looking Out for Britain's Workers?

The Human Rights Act also helps us challenge big injustices. Article 2, which enshrines the right to life, helped the Hillsborough families get a wide-ranging inquest into the circumstances surrounding the deaths of the 96.

"Sometimes, unfortunately, it's only in your darkest hour you come to see quite how important your human rights are," Logan points out. "The Human Rights Act has helped a lot of families find out what happened to loved ones and get the justice they deserve."

Couldn't a new British Bill of Rights lay out a similar set of protections for us? The vague promise of a new act, one detached from the wide-ranging ECHR principles, is not reassuring. The European Court of Human Rights only makes a judgement when something is "incompatible" with those principles, then lets the government decide how to fix it. But without the European Court acting as an ultimate arbiter, many of the victories mentioned above would not have happened.

Theresa May knows it will be difficult to abolish the Human Rights Act. She knows how difficult it will be to conjure up a replacement. Prominent Tories like Ken Clarke, Andrew Mitchell and former attorney general Dominic Grieve have voiced their concerns. An Amnesty UK petition calling on the government to save the act has almost 130,000 signatures.

Yet Liz Truss' statement this week indicates the Prime Minister remains stubbornly bound to her party's manifesto commitment, and is exploring options to make the British Bill of Rights a reality.

Before going any further, May might want to dig out her old Home Office files and look up the name Gary McKinnon.

As Home Secretary, May successfully blocked a US request to extradite British subject McKinnon, a UFO-obsessive with Asperger Syndrome who hacked into Pentagon computers. It was a popular decision. How did she pull it off? The Human Rights Act: article 3, which prevents "degrading treatment or punishment".

Human rights are useful things. Take any of them away and some people, sadly and inevitably, will be forced to find out exactly how useful they might have been.


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Adam Forrest
human rights activism
British Bill of Rights