The Conservative Party, led by David Cameron, are looking to speed up the process of replacing the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) with a new British Bill of Rights (BBR). Although not garnering as much media attention as many of the Prime Minister’s other recent activities, such as the drone strikes over Syria, this is a major change that could alter the legal system in the UK dramatically, as well as affect the UK’s already strained relationship with the EU.
To explore what these changes could mean, it’s important to look at what the current Human Rights Act means and how the Bill of Rights differs from the current legislation. Not all the facts are present at the moment as to what exactly the Bill will contain, so we’ve put together all of the information that’s currently available and summarised the speculation surrounding it. Crucially, the article explored the benefits and drawbacks of the current HRA, compared with the benefits and drawbacks of the proposed Bill and how they could affect UK citizens.
Human Rights Act 1998
In a nutshell, the Human Rights Act of 1998 makes UK Law compatible with the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) . In particular, the Act makes it unlawful for any public body to act in a way which is incompatible with the Convention. If the UK and EU law are not compatible the judges are not allowed to override it. The Human Rights Act has come under scrutiny, particularly from the Conservative right, for being “feeble” and for constantly being abused through loopholes. These “loopholes” are usually linked to Foreign convicts using the HRA to stay in the country.
However, many of the alleged loopholes are in fact myths. The Human Rights Act 1998 contains extremely important laws for which improve the quality of life for the UK Citizen, and as reported by the Independent, the following could also be scrapped if David Cameron and Michael Gove are successful –
- Right to life
- Freedom from torture and inhumane or degrading treatment
- Right to liberty and security
- Freedom from slavery and forced labour
- Right to a fair trial
- No punishment without law
- Respect for your private and family life, home and correspondence
- Freedom of thought, belief and religion
- Freedom of expression
- Freedom of assembly and association
- Right to marry and start a family
- Protection from discrimination in respect of these rights and freedoms
- Right to peaceful enjoyment of your property
- Right to education
- Right to participate in free elections
New British Bill of Rights
The Conservatives’ plan for change, as taken from their literature, takes the view of allowing UK more power to govern themselves and to stop the EU from overriding UK law, which they currently can. The proposal states that the new Bill of Rights is not a complete overhaul, but more of a restoration of “common sense”. Indeed, the new British Bill of Rights’ goal is to allow Britain to govern Britain and to avoid the legal roadblocks that the ECHR can place.
As an example from the Conservative’s proposal:
“We will set out a clearer test in how some of the inalienable rights apply to cases of deportation and other removal of persons from the United Kingdom. The ECHR has ruled that if there is any ‘real risk’ (by no means even a likelihood) of a person being treated in a way contrary to these rights in the destination country, there is a bar on them being sent there, giving them in substance an absolute right to stay in the UK. Our new Bill will clarify what the test should be, in line with our commitment to prevent torture and in keeping with the approach taken by other developed nations. ”
The Liberal Democrats were the reason that the BBR wasn’t enforced during David Cameron’s first tenure, as they, lead by Nick Clegg, blocked it. Now that David Cameron has the majority and there is no longer a coalition, there is nothing to stop them. Labour, of course, brought the HRA into force in 1998 and the SNP are also against it. As reported in the Scotland Herald, Alex Neil, went on record to say “The Scottish Government’s position is that these proposals will require legislative consent, and this parliament should make clear that such consent will not be given”.
With opposing parties against it and a minority within the Conservatives themselves, is this a cause for concern about the validity of scrapping the HRA? Many parties have stated the reason for opposition is that the proposed Bill of Rights is against human rights. In response, Bill Cash, the Conservative MP for Stone, said in a Sky News article “We are not against human rights – that’s very simple…What we are in favour of is making sure the law regarding human rights is consistent with what we expect…We would be removing the absolute right of the judges in Strasbourg to make decisions – many of which have been bizarre.”
In the same article, in defence of the HRA, the MP for Holborn and St Pancras, Labour’s Keir Starmer, stated “The HRA contains universal rights that are approved by the world…What I think will happen – why it’s very challenging – is that the Conservatives will exclude certain people from human rights protection.
How will the change affect you?
The BBR, in simple terms, means that the British justice system will have the final word and won’t be overruled by Strasbourg or the ECHR. An example of a possible change is when a foreign national commits a serious crime in the UK; currently if this was to happen the foreign national would be allowed to stay in the UK due to the ECHR. Another example of how the BBR will change is in regards to life imprisonment, currently the ECHR prohibits life sentencing as it is “inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”.
This is clearly a polarising move by the Conservatives, which has already divided opinion. Those who are involved in the legal system in any form could be affected massively, while others may not be affected at all. However, with so much opposition it may never happen but it clearly shows that there is unrest with how the legal system in the UK works as a whole and the country is taking interest in how the justice system works and Britain’s relationship with the EU.