Government invites consultation on its Bill of Rights – but are they listening?
Dubbed by some as the ‘Rights Removal Bill’ the Bill of Rights is currently before Parliament and the government is inviting comments which can be accessed via the EachOther site. The bill has attracted considerable criticism and overall is likely to reduce the rights that people currently enjoy. A number of Conservative politicians have been unhappy with the Human Rights Act which they wish to see replaced with this Bill of Rights. Successive party manifestos have promised its abolition.
In a previous post we drew attention to a book published by the Justice Secretary Dominic Raab which goes someway to explaining the thinking and beliefs which led to this bill. We looked at some of the arguments in the book, Assault on Liberty (Harper Collins, 2009), which have led to the current bill. It claims that there is now an ‘arsenal of rights’ and this is reflected in the introductory remarks which refer to ‘mission creep’. We said that the history was of doubtful merit: the argument being that the country achieved greatness because of its freedoms and liberties and by inference, its decline came about because we have become rule bound of which the HRA is but one culprit. It is part of the small government and limited regulation which some conservative MPs desire. Significantly, the book is peppered with quotes from the Daily Mail which has carried a large number of stories critical of the act. The paper has also directly criticised judges on its front page, calling them ‘enemies of the people’ yet Liz Truss, when she was Justice Secretary, failed to support them until shamed into doing so.
Print media influence
The paper, along with others newspapers from time to time, have produced a series of stories critical of the act. Some are pure inventions and some claim the act is responsible when in fact it has been other legislation which has stoked their ire. Where positive stories appear, for example Hillsborough, the role of the act in achieving justice is downplayed or not mentioned. Readers of the Daily Mail where not told when it itself used the act to protect journalistic sources. The role of the media is important because over the years they have encouraged a negative view of the act to take hold claiming it aids criminals and help all sorts of undesirable people to escape justice by using, in a spurious way, some clause or other thus alleging justice cannot be served because it is their ‘human right’. It has enabled politicians to bring forward this bill safe in the knowledge that sections of the public have been primed over a period of decades to view the act as a thoroughly bad lot and the sooner it is done away with the better. Throw in Europe and the European Court overruling parliament and the scene is set.
If we look at the range of bills and acts, we see a pattern of thinking where laws are introduced to limit protest, restricting access to judicial review, proposals to limit the right to strike still further, and increased police powers amounting collectively to a real step backwards for the liberties of the individual. Taken with the Bill of Rights if it becomes law in its current form, the trend is worrying.
The bill has a number of aims. It seeks to dilute ‘positive obligations‘ on public authorities. In view of the current state of the police – one such authority – where a number of forces have been hit by scandal after scandal and several are in special measures, this seems to be particularly inappropriate. It is claimed that the bill will further hurt women’s rights. The already abysmally low level of prosecutions for rape with an even lower level of convictions, will not be helped if the requirement for positive obligations is diluted.
It introduces a permissive stage, a kind of trial before a trial. Since the justice system is already in a state of crisis with extensive delays before a case can come to court, this will have the effect of delaying matters still further. It will also add to costs.
European Court judgements will no longer be part of domestic law. The Supreme Court will also have superiority over the Strasbourg court which is where we came in really. The problem was always that people failed to get justice in the UK courts and had to go to Strasbourg to get it. In a significant number of cases, Strasbourg overruled the UK courts and this became more and more embarrassing. Hence the introduction of the HRA. The Assault on Liberty referred to above is notable for its romantic view of the past and our justice system. The desire to remove Strasbourg from the scene relies on the fantasy of the British justice system being somehow superior. Yet many of our judges, being a product of a very narrow education and from a small part of society, have often shown themselves to be reactionary and out of touch. There was no glorious past which the Justice Secretary seems to think has been taken away. This is discussed in more detail in Conor Gearty’s book, On Fantasy Island (OUP, 2016).
Finally, the desire for rights and responsibilities to be introduced. This is connected in some way to the idea that rights are conditional on good behaviour and that irresponsible behaviour – however that is defined – makes someone less deserving.
The Chair of Joint Committee on Human Rights JCHR, Joanna Cherry QC MP has said that the bill is an ‘unfortunate regression in rights protection’ and has written to the Justice Secretary in those terms.
The local Amnesty group is opposed to the bill. The local Salisbury MP, Mr John Glen has stated he wishes to see the HRA abolished and will be supporting the new bill.
We urge people to submit their views to government while there is still time. As we write (2 August), Liz Truss, seems favourite to become the new prime minister in which case it is certain to become law.