Scrapping something called the Human Rights Act sounds like a tough sell for any governmental PR department. But in the UK, the Conservatives have just won a new five-year term with a slim but significant majority, so now may be the time for big, controversial changes.
They certainly seem to think so. Repealing the act, brought in by Tony Blair’s Labour government back in 1998, is high on the agenda. Michael Gove, who was removed from the post of education secretary in the last government after he became “toxic” to teachers, has just been given the job of justice minister where his remit will include this new battle.
The act enshrines in UK law the principles Britain agreed to back in 1950 when, in a Europe shattered by the Second World War, the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms was drafted. The Convention is overseen by the Council of Europe, which the UK signed up to in 1949 along with, eventually, all European countries but Belarus.
Signing the convention meant promising to uphold certain fundamental freedoms: right to life, prohibition of torture, prohibition of slavery and forced labour, right to liberty and security, right to a fair trial, no punishment without law, right to respect for private and family life, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and association, right to marry, right to an effective remedy, prohibition of discrimination. Some more have been added over the years, dealing with discrimination and the death penalty, among other things.
It’s these additions, and the convention’s implementation by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, that bother the Conservatives.
They call it “mission creep,” and chafe at what they see as interference by Europe. For example, the European court has repeatedly ruled that Britain is breaching prisoners’ human rights with its blanket ban on voting in jail. David Cameron has said the prospect of changing such a law makes him “physically ill.”
The Conservative proposal is to replace the current act with a “British Bill of Rights and Responsibilites” that would tie it less closely to Europe.
The plan dismays many, but it also plays into two themes the party will be concentrating on in the coming years.
First is greater freedom from European control, which the prime minister has promised he’ll deliver ahead of a planned referendum on whether or not to leave the European Union. In fact, the European Court of Human Rights and the Convention are entirely separate from the EU. But many people are unaware of the specifics, and any change will still likely be used as an example of clawing back powers from across the Channel.
Changing the law would also make dealing with immigrants and suspects in terrorism cases less complicated for a government that has promised to crack down on both. It would give UK courts power to decide when human rights would be breached—for example, by sending someone back to a country where they might be tortured—rather than giving Strasbourg the ultimate decision.
This will likely lead to clashes. During the transition, the government has said, it will try hard to find consensus with the European court. But it has also warned that may be impossible: “In the event that we are unable to reach that agreement, the UK would be left with no alternative but to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights,” they wrote in 2014.
The change isn’t going to be easy. The legal and political problems of repealing the act are so complex it will require either “exceptional skill and patience” or dramatic legislation to disentangle them, wrote barrister Matthew Scott in the Telegraph. Meanwhile Scotland, strengthened by a landslide victory for Scottish National Party MPs, will likely try to block the change.
But with opposition Labour Party tattered by its defeat and leaderless, and without the constraints of coalition partners as in the last parliament, the time may be ripe for Cameron to axe “human” rights, and put “British” rights in their place.