A couple of weeks ago, on the evening before the Queen’s Speech, I went to a ‘Human Rights Act Bootcamp’ in Westminster. It was a free event, organised by the British Institute of Human Rights (BIHR), in order to raise awareness of what the Human Rights Act is and what it does, as well as informing us about the government’s plans to scrap it and replace it with a British Bill of Rights.
When I saw it advertised I immediately contacted the BIHR and explained that I would like to attend with some of my deaf friends. Very quickly they organised a British Sign Language (BSL) interpreter, live speech-to-text reporting and a hearing loop, making it fully accessible to all deaf and hard of hearing people. The communication support was brilliant, so I would like to thank the BIHR for organising such great access.
The hall in Westminster was packed that night with people of all ages and backgrounds. There is clearly a lot of interest in this issue at the moment.
The speakers told us about what human rights are and the history of human rights in Europe and the UK since after the Second World War through to the present day with the Human Rights Act. They also told us about how the Human Rights Act works with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and how it is applied in practice.
I also learned about how the Human Rights Act works in conjunction with many other laws such as the Equalities Act 2010, whose equality and anti-discrimination laws are underpinned by the rights in the Human Rights Act (HRA). In fact, all UK laws should be compatible with the human rights in the HRA Act and the government has to make an assessment on any proposed new Bill about whether it meets the rights outlined in the Human Rights Act.
Modern human rights were first legally defined after World War II in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of US President Franklin D.Roosevelt, was instrumental in drafting these basic human rights for everyone living in a democratically elected state. She was known as “The First Lady of the World” in tribute to her human rights achievements.
After the atrocities committed in the Holocaust in the Second World War by a democratically elected state in Germany, where people were massacred and treated as less than human, these new rules established basic standards below which the state must not go and provided basic protection for all of us from our governments, to avoid another Holocaust like this ever happening again.
This idea of human rights being universal and applicable to all of us has remained fundamental to our human rights legislations and protections since 1948. In 1950 The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) was established by the Council of Europe in response to World War II in order to help build the “foundation of peace, democracy, rule of law and respect for human rights” across Europe.
The Conservative Prime Minister Winston Churchill was one of the founding fathers of the ECHR. He saw this as a response to the barbarity of fascism in the Second World War and in order to protect the sinister threat to human freedom posed by the Soviet Union in the post-war period.
But it wasn’t until 1998 that we were able to access these rights here in the UK when Tony Blair’s Labour government established the Human Rights Act (HRA). This brings the ECHR into our domestic law. There are 16 rights included in it, including the right to life, the right not to be treated in an inhuman or degrading way, the right to freedom of expression and the right to liberty.
Not only should all UK laws be compatible with the HRA or if they are not, Ministers must make a statement on the front of any proposed new Bill declaring that it is incompatible, but public authorities must respect these rights in everything they do. Any person can ask the UK courts and tribunals to look at whether a public authority or individual has breached their human rights.
In real life, there have been numerous examples of peoples’ human rights being violated by public authorities in this country and they have been brought to account by the affected parties or their families for breach of their human rights. For example, there was the notorious recent case of serious neglect of patients by Mid Staffordshire NHS hospital, where many patients died. Article 3 (the right not to be tortured or treated in an inhuman or degrading way) was invoked and the NHS settled 100 cases out of court.
Other cases have involved the safeguarding and protection of disabled, elderly or vulnerable people with mental health problems and those who have been trafficked where their right to liberty, not to be treated in an inhuman or degrading way, or right to liberty have been breached. The rights protect people from harm, abuse and neglect and offer a vital safety net based on universal minimum standards.
We then had a talk and discussion about the government’s plans to scrap the HRA, curtail the role of the European Court of Human Rights and replace it with a British Bill of Rights. The BIHR said that they had assessed the proposals using a set of criteria to determine whether the new rights in the Bill would be universal human rights applying to us all, accessible via UK independent courts and the European Court of Human Rights, or whether they would be seeking to restrict certain groups or behaviours and conditions.
They concluded that the proposals do not stack up.
The new Bill of Rights will not introduce any new rights and it is not progressive. It is not universal because it seeks to restrict certain groups, suggesting that human rights are a “gift” that the government can take away or change according to government policy. They would prevent certain groups of people from accessing independent courts to determine whether they have a legal case. It would damage the protection of universal human rights here at home and abroad.
A member of the audience asked the speaker the question that was probably on all of our lips. Why does this government want to scrap the Human Rights Act then? What is the motivation behind it? The answer was that human rights legislation limits government powers, so it is no surprise that the government wants to scrap it, because they find having their powers restricted “irritating”. They are there to protect us from our government.
I think these proposals are very worrying for all of us. My deaf friend asked a question about who would be restricted under the new Bill of Rights and who would get to choose. How would universal rights apply to deaf and disabled people? The response was that there was a question mark over who would be included and excluded but the proposals were moving away from universal human rights.
I asked a question about how scrapping the HRA would affect the rights in the Equalities Act, which came from the HRA. Again there is a question mark over that as it has not been tested. I think that the future for deaf and disabled people could be very uncertain under these new proposals as I don’t think the impact on these groups has been considered.
The next day I found out that the new government plans to scrap the HRA were not included in the Queen’s Speech as they were pulled at the last minute. Instead, the Queen announced “my government will bring forward proposals for a British Bill of Rights”. Widespread political opposition was believed to be behind this decision.
Let’s hope the government abandons its plans to scrap the Human Rights Act. It is there to protect us all. No government has the right to pick and choose who should be included in human rights legislation and who should be excluded. No-one should be stripped of their rights because of their behaviour, identity, race, gender, sexuality or disability.
We can all make our voices heard by becoming a friend of the BIHR, signing their Human Rights Charter, getting in on the Twitter conversation and spreading the word with our friends, family and colleagues. We can also contact our local MPs about it, who are meant to represent the views of all of us.
No doubt the road ahead of us to keep our basic human rights will be long and difficult, but in the words of the BIHR “Once we’ve lost the Human Rights Act, we have lost the debate on why human rights matter”.