UK Government Responds to Petition Against Changes to the Human Rights Act
March 22, 2022.
In December 2015, the United Kingdom launched its bid for re-election to the United Nations Human Rights Council.
Now, seven years later, the same UK government - albeit with a different leader and Ministers - is proposing to make changes to the European Human Rights Act, which are widely perceived to water down the rights people in the UK have taken for granted since the European Act was brought into UK law by the last Labour Government under Tony Blair in 1998.
In effect the government wants to dump the existing act and replace it with what it calls a 'British Bill of Rights', a term coined by David Cameron when he was Prime Minister - in 2015. Cameron left office in July 2016, following the result of the Brexit referendum.
Image - Foreign and Commonwealth Office
This move by Boris Johnson's government led to a petition calling for the changes to be halted, with the government' response reproduced below and just as the government released it:
Do not reform the Human Rights Act
The proposed Human Rights Act reforms must be withdrawn. The Government must not make any changes to the Human Rights Act, especially ones that dilute people's human rights in any circumstances, make the Government less accountable, or reduce people's ability to make human rights claims.
The Human Rights Act as it exists currently protects all of us. We lose it at our peril. It is an essential law that allows us to challenge public authorities when they get it wrong and has helped secure justice on issues from the right to life to the right to free speech.
The Human Rights Act has changed many lives for the better. It must be protected, and not subject to reforms that reduce its scope and limit when people can rely on it.
This response was given on 17 March 2022
This Government was elected with a manifesto commitment to update the Human Rights Act. We have published a consultation on our proposals, which closes on 8 March 2022.
This Government was elected with a manifesto commitment to “update the Human Rights Act [...] to ensure that there is a proper balance between the rights of individuals, our vital national security and effective government.”
The Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) has been in force for over 20 years and it is entirely right that we should seek to update it and make sure that our human rights framework continues to meet the needs of the society it serves. We have therefore consulted on proposals to revise and replace the HRA with a modern Bill of Rights.
We have a long, proud and diverse history of freedoms in this country and our proposals build on this tradition. Our proposals for a Bill of Rights ensure that we continue to recognise the rights protected under the European Convention on Human Rights, and that individuals will still be able to enforce their rights in domestic courts.
Our proposals will make sure a proper balance is struck between individuals’ rights, personal responsibility, and the wider public interest. They include strengthening freedom of expression and adding a recognition of the right to a jury trial – giving greater prominence to home-grown UK rights.
Our proposals also look to prevent the misuse of human rights that has led to them being cited by criminals, with little regard for the rights of wider society. Our proposals would ensure that rights cannot be used to frustrate the deportation of serious criminals and terrorists.
Finally, we are seeking to empower our courts to apply human rights in a UK context by reinforcing the primacy of UK case law. We also want to ensure that the will of our elected representatives in Parliament is respected.
Ministry of Justice
Many people confuse the 1998 European Human Rights Act (HRA) with the European Union, the EU. The two are not connected. Although countries in membership of the EU do follow the protocols listed within the HRA, the EU was not the Act's creator, neither is it the act's enforcer. The HRA and the European Court that oversees it - the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) - actually came into being before the EU did (including that organisation's previous names and incarnations, along with the EU's own court).
The HRA is based, almost word for word, on the United Nation's Universal Declaration on Human Rights, to which all UN members are signatories, including the UK. The UN Declaration however, is not law. It is a voluntary code which UN member nations are expected to abide by and it contains no exceptions or 'get-out' clauses - which is where it differs from the European version.
The HRA is also a voluntary code - or it was until 1998 in the UK. When the Blair government brought it into UK law, it ceased being voluntary, meaning both institutions and people have to follow what it says.
As already referred to, the wording of the HRA mirrors that of the UN Universal declaration but unlike the UN version, the HRA does have clauses that allow its strictures to be overridden or ignored. And the key to this is that all that a government needs to do is pass a law that says it can. 'National Interest' or 'National Security' is cited as one reason for doing so.
A perfect example of this is government response to the COVID-19 pandemic; almost every aspect to that response shatters the HRA in every respect. Yet the HRA has not been used to challenge the government (any government, not just the UK) telling people what they can or cannot choose to buy in a shop, which shop they can use or where and when they can leave their homes, or with whom they can meet, when, where and why.
Or for that matter to dictate to people what medical procedures they must have.
And the reason for that lack of legal challenge is the HRA cannot be used - those get-out clauses allow governments to do what they did over COVID-19. If the government had not brought into law the Coronavirus Act, then and only then, could the HRA have been used to challenge the restrictions brought in over COVID-19.
The place to mount a challenge to the Coronavirus Act was Parliament itself and members of the House of Commons proved unable or unwilling to do so.
So if - as we dramatically saw after March 2020 - the government can introduce the Coronavirus Act that allowed them to cast aside the HRA, why can they not introduce similar laws that, as one example, allows the HRA to be ignored when it comes to deporting proven terrorists?
The answer lies in publicity. The Daily Mail newspaper, under its former editor Paul Dacre, often used the phrase, 'Labour's Hated Human Rights Act...' when reporting on some of those terrorism cases, among others.
But the HRA was not Labour's. Granted Labour made it UK law but Labour were never - as the Mail implied - the creators of it. And hated by whom? I do not believe the majority of the British people have ever hated it. I do on the other hand, think that many people hated the way it has been misused on occasion.
David Cameron used criticism of the HRA to gain what he thought and hoped would be 'popular' support. Boris Johnson is doing the same. It is little more than a Tory stick used against Labour, as well as an anti-EU message. But what does 'popular' actually mean? It means good newspaper headlines and coverage. This is what the Johnson government seeks.
It also wants to remove the European Court of Human Rights from oversight of what a UK government gets up to. By conflating and confusing the ECHR with the EU and its European Court of Justice, Johnson is merely using his success with Brexit (in other words his election success) with the significant number of people in the UK who voted to leave the EU.
But voting to leave the EU did not and does not mean voting to have one's freedoms diluted. Or for that matter removed entirely either.
Remember, the EU court is the European Court of Justice, which oversees matters to do with EU law - nothing else. Perhaps it could do with a more apt name but all it does is oversee the EU's 27 member states and their compliance with EU law.
The European Court of Human Rights is the one based in Strasbourg and it applies the strictures of the European Convention on Human Rights. Its task is to ensure that countries respect the rights and guarantees set out in the Convention.
The ECHR and its court are part of the Council of Europe, which has 47 member states (as opposed the EU's 27 who are all nonetheless members of the Council as well). The UK is one of the founding members and today it also includes interestingly enough, Russia.
The government was right to include a manifesto commitment to, as the wording above says, 'update the Human Rights Act.' But there is a difference between updating something, substantially re-writing it or ditching it entirely.
The solution to the problem of HRA misuse is not to do any of those but to emphasise the get-out clauses that already exist within the HRA; to require the courts to use them where necessary. It also can include seeking a similar move across the Council of Europe, rather than dumping the ECHR. And dumping it is what 'greater prominence to home-grown UK rights' and 'domestic courts' actually means in the government response above.