Conservatives seek to abolish the Human Rights Act with a new Bill of Rights
Human rights are about power, who has it, who wields it and the effects on those without it. These rights have been struggled over for centuries. Once it was kings (and the occasional queen) who wielded absolute power. Gradually, it was wrested from them and parliament achieved supremacy after 1688 and the Glorious Revolution. It was a rather more bloody affair a century later in France.
The all party Human Rights Act in 1998 – a fact rather overlooked by some ministers who characterise it as ‘Labour’s’ act – incorporated the European Convention into British law and marked a sea change in the relationship between the people and the government and agents of government. It set out a series of rights which enabled the ordinary subject to challenge government decisions, negligence or criminal acts. Notable successes include the Hillsborough disaster where the police attempted to shift blame onto the supporters but after years of campaigning – using the HRA as a key lever – the surviving families were able to achieve measure of justice and highlight police failings as a key factor in the tragedy. Other scandals have involved hospitals and other police miscarriages where victims have been able to bring to light serious failings in these institutions.
Despite being such a step forward, many in the Conservative party and a major parts of the press, have waged a remorseless campaign against the act. The Conservatives have pledged to reform or abolish it in all their recent manifestos. The press have published story after story along the lines that the act prevents criminals getting their just deserts, it helps terrorists escape justice and most recently, preventing asylum seekers from being exported to Rwanda. Many of the stories are exaggerated or have nothing to do with the HRA. For readers of this material, the decision by Dominic Raab to publish the Bill of Rights this week (June 2022) cannot come too soon and will enable they believe, proper justice to return to the UK. ‘Lefty lawyers’ will be put in their place and before long, plane loads of asylum seekers will be jetted off to Africa. The power of the judiciary to intervene will be reduced.
To understand these actions, as we said above, you have to start with power. If power is exercised fairly, with the rewards of society evenly disbursed, then the holders of power have little to fear. If the leaders have the trust of the people, they are unlikely to feel threatened. But when the divide in the nation between the haves and the have-nots gets wider and wider, when the poor get ever poorer and the nation’s leaders lose the trust of the led, then they will feel threatened. The life of easy privilege will be under threat. It is tempting in these circumstances to clamp down on the means of protest, to close off avenues of redress and to curb the means by which the ordinary person can assert their rights. Hence the spate of bills and the desire to end the HRA, the very means by which the ordinary person can assert their rights against the power of the state.
In addition to the power question, we have to look at some of the other doubtful reasoning behind this bill. In an earlier post we discussed the book written by Dominic Raab and two of his cabinet colleagues arguing for the end of the act. One element was the notion of liberty and it was this which enabled Britain to become a wealthy nation they argue. Laws and regulations have hampered this liberty and thus removed our ability to be properly wealthy. Get rid of these restrictions and we will regain our prosperity.
The argument overlooked slavery which provided the money for investment, imperial preference which stifled competition, and the terrible state that ordinary people lived in, the squalor, the slums, disease and malnutrition. Indeed, they, like many other people, have forgotten the ‘recruits crisis’ where losses in the Boor war at the end of the nineteenth century were hard to replace because the physical, malnourished and unhealthy state of volunteers was so poor.
The Bill of Rights, should it become law – together with the other legislation to limit protest, enhance the powers of the police and to limit judicial oversight – will be a backward step in the development of our society. It will shift yet more power to the government and its ministers. It will drastically reduce the power of the citizen to right wrongs. It is a retrograde step.
We and others will be working to oppose its passing.
For American readers, the Hillsborough disaster was a fatal crush of people during an FA Cup football (soccer) match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, England, on 15 April 1989. With 96 fatalities and 766 injuries, it remains the worst disaster in British sporting history. Initially, the supporters were blamed but after decades of campaigning, using the HRA as we’ve said, police failings were eventually recognised.