Reforming the Human rights Act


Will the proposed ‘reforms’ lessen our rights?

For some considerable time, the Conservatives have nagged at the Human Rights Act (HRA) and reforming it has been a standard feature of all recent election manifestos. Abolition has been promised but not delivered. Paradoxically, it was a Conservative government which played a key role in achieving the Universal Declaration and the HRA itself was a cross party bill (despite modern claims that it was ‘Labour’s Human Rights Act’).

Attitudes to the Act have in part been shaped by media stories particularly at the tabloid end of the market. There have many stories criticising the act and particular decisions. Some of the stories are just plain wrong and the HRA was not the crucial issue which decided a case. According to the UN rapporteur Prof. Philip Alston, visiting the country to look at poverty and human rights issues, tabloid news papers ‘fundamentally distorted and successfully stigmatised’ the act. The general theme is that the legislation allows criminals to go free, prevents foreign criminals from being deported and generally act against the best interests of the population at large. It is to be regretted that when these stories are published, the relevant minister does not point out the facts and correct the wilful errors or plainly tendentious reporting. Worse, some politicians know they can get favourable media coverage by joining in making erroneous or exaggerated claims.

To an extent therefore, the government is hoist by its own petard. There is also the link to Brexit and all things European such as the European Court of Human Rights. Having cast human rights as essentially negative in their impact, that they are contrary to common sense, and that we are subject to legal diktact from Strasbourg, it is only a short step to propose abolition or reform.

In the Spring 2022 addition of the Amnesty magazine (No: 212), the matter is discussed in an article entitled The Great Rights Robbery by Tom Southerden. One of the fundamental points – one which we have made here – is that the act applies to everyone, equally. Of course, the problem with this is that it undermines privilege. Those, through public schooling, inherited privilege, money or other means do not welcome challenges to their status and superiority. There is also the assumption that our rights are ancient and have evolved over centuries since the time of Magna Carta. So we do not need this act they argue. This ignores much of our history: slavery for example which was enthusiastically promoted for nearly two centuries and which we are only now slowly coming to terms with (although the crass royal visits to the Caribbean might argue against that assumption). Students of nineteenth century social history will know of the desperate struggles by workers and citizens to get safe working conditions, sanitation and any kind of justice or fairness.

It appears that the plan is to downgrade the act so that it is no longer more important than any other piece of legislation. The ability to challenge the ‘mighty state machinery’ as Southerden puts it will be weakened.

The last few months have seen the monstrous scandal of the Post Office unfurl. Honest postmasters were variously ruined, shamed or imprisoned not for anything they did but for failings in the IT system. Failings that were known. Some committed suicide. Yet achieving justice has been a very long and desperate struggle. Although the legal battle was won, the money lost has not been recovered. The point is that ordinary people need all the help they can get to stand a chance in fighting overweening state power. The comforting idea that evoking Magna Carta and chuntering on about ‘common sense’ will do the job is pie in the sky.

As we have discussed in an earlier post, the Justice Secretary, Dominic Raab, dislikes the act and we have his book discussing at length the reasons why. We must not allow prejudice, fantasy thinking and an aggressive tabloid media promoting misleading stories to reduce our basic rights.

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