Bill of Rights


Plans to abolish the Human Rights Act and replace it with a Bill of Rights was set out in the Queen’s Speech given to parliament today (10 May 2022) by Prince Charles (the Queen was indisposed).

The Conservatives have long wanted to rid themselves of the HRA seeing it as a drag on the British legal system, not allowing them to deport foreign criminals at the end of their sentences and providing opportunities for ‘lefty lawyers’ to use spurious grounds of a right to family life to frustrate deportations. Salisbury’s local MP John Glen is one of those who has supported the idea of abolition. The problem all along has been replace it with what? The proposal has appeared in all the recent party manifestos but action has seemed difficult to achieve. The government is keen to capitalise on our departure from Europe (and there are other bills in the speech concerning post Brexit matters) and the role of Strasbourg has long been a thorn they wish to remove. Below is the detail behind the speech:

Bill of Rights

[Extract of the proposed bill of rights legislation from the Queen’s speech]

 “My Government will ensure the constitution is defended. My Ministers will restore the balance of power between the legislature and the courts by introducing a Bill of Rights.”

The purpose of the Bill is to:

● Introduce a Bill of Rights which will ensure our human rights framework meets the needs of the society it serves and commands public confidence.

● End the abuse of the human rights framework and restore some common sense to our justice system. The main benefits of the Bill would be:

● Defending freedom of speech by promoting greater confidence in society to express views freely, thereby enhancing public debate.

● Curbing the incremental expansion of a rights culture without proper democratic oversight, which has displaced due focus on personal responsibility and the public interest.

● Reducing unnecessary litigation and avoiding undue risk aversion for bodies delivering public services.

● Tackling the issue of foreign criminals evading deportation, because their human rights are given greater weight than the safety and security of the public.

The main elements of the Bill are:

● Establishing the primacy of UK case law, clarifying there is no requirement to follow the Strasbourg case law and that UK Courts cannot interpret rights in a more expansive manner than the Strasbourg Court.

● Ensuring that UK courts can no longer alter legislation contrary to its ordinary meaning and constraining the ability of the UK courts to impose ‘positive obligations’ on our public services without proper democratic oversight by restricting the scope for judicial legislation.

● Guaranteeing spurious cases do not undermine public confidence in human rights so that courts focus on genuine and credible human rights claims. The responsibility to demonstrate a significant disadvantage before a human rights claim can be heard in court will be placed on the claimant.

● Recognising that responsibilities exist alongside rights by changing the way that damages can be awarded in human rights claims, for example by ensuring that the courts consider the behaviour of the claimant when considering making an award.

Territorial extent and application

● The Bill will extend and apply across the UK.

Key facts

● An estimated 70 per cent of foreign national offenders who had their deportation overturned in the last five years on human rights grounds in the First Tier Tribunal did so due to Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (Right to Family Life).

● Between 2005 and 2011, the Prison Service in England and Wales faced successful legal challenges from over 600 prisoners on human rights grounds. This has cost the taxpayer around £7 million, including compensation paid out and legal costs.

[END OF EXTRACT]

What is the Human Rights Act?

The Human Rights Act protects all of us. It brings home fundamental, universal rights we all have as human beings, and allows us to challenge authorities if they violate them. It’s an invisible safety net, working to ensure our rights are respected. It is a crucial defence for the most vulnerable.

We know the Human Rights Act works. It worked for the Hillsborough families in their fight for justice. It worked for the victims of John Worboys. It worked to overturn the near total ban on abortion in Northern Ireland. We don’t need to change it.  

The Police Bill has shown that the government does not want to see protests against its actions. The proposed bill of rights will further weaken the rights of ordinary citizens against the power of the state. Take the clause above ‘guaranteeing spurious cases do not undermine public confidence in human rights …’ Who is to decide what is spurious? A government minister? Or ‘reducing unnecessary legislation to avoid undue risk aversion by public bodies’. Reducing checks on fire safety is almost certainly to be found to be one of the causes of the fire at Grenfell Tower.

The local group will be among many opposing this attack on the HRA. Perhaps the bill should be renamed the ‘Bill of Reduced Rights’?

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.

Seasons Greetings


May we wish all our supporters, readers and followers a happy Christmas and a happy New Year. We have had an increase in readership to this site this year which is very gratifying although sadly, we seldom get much in the way of interaction. Human rights are increasingly important and the local group will be focusing on the threat to the UK Human Rights Act which the government would like to see neutered in various ways. We are also concerned about the bills the government is pushing through to limit protest and to reduce the powers of the courts to hold the government to account.

We have welcomed several new members this year and it is a shame that we cannot meet in person more often because of Covid.

Threat to the Human Rights Act


The Justice Secretary announces sweeping changes to the act

It has been a long term ambition of some Conservative politicians to either abolish or seriously curtail the HRA.  In 2006 David Cameron said he wanted to scrap the HRA and replace it with a British Bill of Rights.  The Justice Secretary, Dominic Raab, wrote a book The Assault on Liberty: What Went Wrong with Rights which we earlier reviewed, which set out his arguments.  We suggested there that the reasoning was flawed, feeble and far from historically accurate. Along with three other members of the current cabinet, he contributed to Britannia Unchanged with its much quoted derogatory remarks about British workers who were alleged to be the laziest in the world.  There is footage of him saying ‘I don’t support the Human Rights Act and I don’t believe in economic and social rights’. 

The Conservative position has received much support in the right wing and tabloid press.  Articles regularly appear which assert the act is used to give succour to terrorists, foreign criminals and – most famously – reporting Theresa May’s claim that it was a cat which stood in the way of the deportation of a Chilean national.  It wasn’t.  Some of the stories are gross exaggerations.  Raab even quotes the story of a man in a siege demanding a Kentucky fried chicken because it was his ‘human right’ despite admitting it was not the reason: it was just normal police practice to help defuse a tense situation. 

The many benefits the act has brought to the lives of ordinary people are rarely mentioned.  Even when, in cases like the Hillsborough disaster, or the events at Deepcut, the act was central to securing justice for the families of those who died, that role is omitted from the coverage.  The act has been used in countless cases to secure rights for individuals in their relations with government agencies and local authorities.  Its provisions are built into every day provisions in those organisation’s activities.

 Review

In December last year the government established a review of the HRA and this was published on 14 December 2021.  In short, the Review does not call for substantial changes to the act and argues that it is a good piece of legislation.  The ‘vast majority of submissions [were] in support of HRA’ and they argue that ‘more needs to be done to dispose of the negative perceptions of the HRA (paragraph 14).  They go on to argue for a ‘stronger focus on civic, constitutional education on the HRA and rights more generally’ (15). 

They discuss the ‘margin of appreciation’ that is the degree of subsidiarity and the degree of latitude we have to interpret the law and conclude there is no need to change the current arrangements (26).  They were struck by ‘a high level regard in which the UK Courts and Judiciary are held by the ECtHR and the beneficial influence this has, both domestically and for the European Court’ (35). 

It would seem that the decision to make a sweeping overhaul was not informed by the Review but was a decision already decided on

The Justice Minister announced sweeping changes to the HRA in a statement before the Review was published.  The changes will counter ‘wokery and political correctness’ he claimed.  It is difficult to reconcile the results of the Review with the statement by Mr Raab of the need for radical reform.  It would seem that the decision to make a sweeping overhaul was not informed by the Review but was a decision already decided on.  

If we take into account the other bills before parliament: the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill and the Judicial Review and Courts bill, they represent, together, a serious attack on our liberties.  The ability of ordinary people to assert their rights, to protest or to correct injustice done to them will be seriously curtailed.  There is also a proposal to introduce a ‘permissions stage’ before someone can argue their case in court.  The right to a family life (art 8) may be removed altogether.  As the chief executive of Amnesty International has argued ‘if ministers move ahead with plans to water down the HRA and override judgements with which they disagree they risk aligning themselves with authoritarian regimes around the world’.  

In the last few months, we have seen serious failings by those who are meant to look after us. Serious police shortcomings and allegations of institutional racism have been made. The abysmally low level of rape cases which result in successful prosecutions. Serious failings in childcare with the tragic deaths of some small children. There have been failings within government too numerous to itemise. Far from a reduction in the means of redress, we need an increase. Yet the government seems determined to curtail our rights based on false assumptions and a desire for populist support.

It is likely the Salisbury group will be focusing on these assaults in its future campaigning.

Review of the Human Rights Act


At last we are to see what is proposed in a review of the HRA which several in the Conservative Party wish to see changed. The group is likely to campaign against the changes if, as seems likely, they weaken protections that the act presently provides. Taken with other bills currently going through parliament, they represent a serious attack on our liberties and echo actions by authoritarian regimes around the world.

For now, it might be worth highlighting our post on Dominic Raab MP, the Justice Secretary who is one of the proponents of the changes.

Next meeting


The next meeting will be on Thursday 14 October starting at the earlier time of 6:30 (please note) and will be in Attwood Road (just off Castle Road) in Salisbury. There will be lots to discuss and in particular a report from three group members who had a long meeting with Mr Glen (MP for Salisbury) to express our – and over a hundred other organisations’ concerns – about a raft of legislation currently before parliament. Mr Glen has promised to reply so that will feature in a future post.

We hope to welcome some new members who came to our stand at the People in the park event a few weekends ago.

Meeting with Mr Glen MP


Members of the Salisbury group will be meeting the MP for Salisbury on Friday

In common with well over a hundred organisations, Amnesty is extremely concerned about several of the bills currently on their way through parliament. These are the enormous Police, Crime and Sentencing bill, the Justice and Courts bill and the Nationality and Borders bill. Together with the expected review of the Human Rights Act, they amount to a concerted attack on our freedoms. The group wishes to express our concerns to the MP. We will report on his reactions after the meeting.

The views of the Justice Secretary Dominic Raab were discussed in our last post.

Podcast

Dominic Raab MP


Dominic Raab appointed Justice Secretary last month: should we be worried?

It is not often that we can read the thinking of a cabinet minister and rarer still for an MP to write about a topic which becomes central to his ministerial appointment. Dominic Raab, the new Justice Secretary after the recent reshuffle, has written about human rights in a book The Assault on Liberty: What Went Wrong with Rights, (Harper Collins, 2009) and was co-author with Kwasi Kwateng, Priti Patel, Chris Skidmore and Elizabeth Truss of Britannia Unchained: Global Lessons for Growth and Prosperity (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

The latter book became famous (infamous?) for the much quoted passage accusing British workers for ‘being among the worst idlers in the world’ and for Britain being what they termed a ‘bloated state with high taxes and excessive regulation’. The book was criticised for its slipshod research. Four of the authors have achieved senior positions in the Johnson cabinet.

Raab’s book is devoted to a demolition of human rights as expressed in the Human Rights Act. There are several key themes in the book the main one being that it is an attack on British Liberties. The act he claims has led to a proliferation of rights beyond the original intention caused by the court in Strasbourg widening the net with each new case.

This has led to confusion by those dealing with the law, police and local authorities he claims. Teachers can no longer keep control in class because of the act. Professionals have ‘their judgement trumped by being fettered by the diverse and onerous burdens dictated by human rights’.

Claims by individuals can now ‘select from an arsenal of new rights’ by which the individual can ‘force the state to prioritise the interest of the individual claimant over the claims of other individuals and the rest of society’.

There are interesting passages on torture. He says ‘[A] whole range of comparatively minor mistreatment is now covered by the wide ban on torture and inhuman treatment, well beyond the original intention of the convention’. No evidence is given to support this.

Significantly, a number of references are quotes from the Daily Mail which has maintained a steady stream of stories critical of the act and of human rights generally. Curiously, Raab quotes one concerning a man under siege who demanded Kentucky fried chicken as it was his ‘human right’. This made headlines in the tabloids but it turned out not to be true. Police routinely accede to reasonable requests in these circumstances in an effort to diffuse the situation and has nothing to do with human rights. Raab acknowledges this but explains that ‘if officials got it wrong it only serves to demonstrate the pervasive confusion’.

His history is not on sure ground either. He claims that the huge rise in prosperity between 1800 and 2000 was due to liberty. The argument seems to be that liberty is under threat from human rights and hence it will harm our prosperity. He rather ignores the influence of slavery and the slave trade which provide enormous wealth enabling the financing of the industrial revolution: hardly an example of liberty at work.

The entire book is a kind of peon of times past. We lived in a country which enjoyed liberty, trial by jury and a parliamentary system which is now threatened by a proliferation of rights ‘conjured up by human rights lawyers and campaigners’ he states. Conor Gearty refers to the ‘myth of the glorious past’ in his book On Fantasy Island (Oxford University Press, 2016). There was no glorious past. Women for example, then as now, could not look to the law for much in the way of protection. Ferocious laws were enforced against ordinary people to protect the interests of the wealthy and the landowners. Working conditions were atrocious for millions who died early deaths from industrial accidents or from the conditions they worked under. People were deported for the merest offence. It took decades of struggle to achieve basic sanitation and clean water in our towns and cities. And let us not forget that the judiciary are drawn from an extremely narrow section of society with 70% of them educated in just a handful of public* schools.

Raab’s book is thus based on the dubious proposition that we all enjoyed halcyon days of liberty and then along came the Human Rights Act which is slowly and surely destroying it. We can ask ‘liberty for whom?’ The wealthy, the elite, the well connected and the products of elite schools did enjoy the fruits of liberty. But the vast majority of citizens (actually subjects, we are not citizens) had little recourse to the law even if they could afford it. They were unlikely to get a fair hearing even if they did.

Perhaps one of the facts about the Human Rights Act is that it gives every person a list of basic rights. Everyone can in principle at least, use these rights to achieve justice, something they could not do before.

Dominic Raab’s book is worrying since it reveals reasoning which is feeble, flawed and far from historically accurate. Together with his contribution to Britannia Unchained it also reveals someone who seems to have both a low opinion of his fellow citizens and a somewhat disdainful attitude to their rights.

He is now our Justice Secretary.


American readers. Since we have many USA readers we should explain that ‘public’ schools are not public at all. They are extremely expensive private schools.

Podcast

People in the Park


The Salisbury group took a stand at the People in the Park event held in Elizabeth Gardens on Saturday 18 September 2021. It was an all day event. Our main focus for the day was to warn of the government’s four bills which, individually and together, will reduce our freedoms. They are the Police, Crime and Sentencing bill, Judicial and Courts bill, Election bill and Nationality and Borders bill. Added to the review of the Human Rights Act which is not popular with many in government, it represents an assault on our freedoms to seek justice and hold the government to account.

We had a steady flow of interest through the day and all our handouts (below) were distributed by the close.

Coalition formed to counter review of the Human Rights Act


A coalition of over a hundred organisations has been brought together to try and counter the threat to the Human Rights Act and proposed changes to the process of judicial review. The Conservative government has introduced a range of bills to try and curb or limit protest, human rights and judicial review of their actions. The coalition has been put together by the Humanists.

The unprecedented coalition of over 220 organisations has spoken out against the UK Government’s new plans to reduce the scope of judicial review. They have together formed a coalition [the link provides a list of supporters] to defend human rights and judicial review from Government attack. The coalition, established by Humanists UK, is believed to be the largest human rights coalition in UK history. Those joining include charities, trades unions, human rights bodies including Amnesty, and religion or belief groups. On 21 July 2021 the Government published a new Bill that will curtail judicial review, if it becomes law.

The coalition reflects widespread concern that the various moves made by the current government are taken together, a threat to our freedoms. The Conservatives have long disliked the HRA, characterising it as ‘Labour’s HRA’ when in fact it was cross-party. We await the review itself but there is little doubt it will recommend changes that will weaken it.

Sources: Each Other, Humanists, Amnesty, Politics.co.uk

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