Plans for a British Bill of Rights will be revealed “in due course” according to the Queen’s speech, but what change would this bill bring to human rights?
Her Majesty’s annual address to the House of Lords touched on the proposal to replace the Human Rights Act (HRA) with a British Bill of Rights. This was first mooted by the current Government in 2014, when it published ‘Protecting Human Rights in the UK’, a document outlining its proposals for scrapping the HRA with the aim of limiting Strasbourg’s influence and creating a British Bill of Rights. There has been much anticipation about the recent announcement after months of waiting for a consultation on the proposed changes which was promised last year but has never materialised, but as far as I can see we are still no nearer to finding out the details. It had been thought that a British Bill of Rights would be law by summer 2016 but we still seem no closer to even finding out what the concrete proposals for such legislation actually are.
What is the Human Rights Act?
The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) was set up in the wake of World War Two to protect the most vulnerable in our society by enshrining in law key fundamental rights and freedoms such as the right to life, to not be enslaved or tortured and to have a fair trial. One of its key protagonists was the then Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill, the most famous Conservative politician of all time.
Before October 2000, if British citizens wanted to enforce their rights under the ECHR they would have to do so in Strasbourg. This took many years and was simply out of reach for most people. The HRA, introduced by the then Labour government in October 2000, incorporated the ECHR into English law and meant that individuals who felt their human rights had been breached could argue their case in the UK courts rather than going to Strasbourg, making this human rights legislation more accessible to British citizens.
How Would the British Bill of Rights Differ?
The HRA is already our British Bill of Rights in all but name. It belongs to us and protects us all as individuals against the power of the state. It enshrines in law that Parliament only has to take a declaration of incompatibility with the HRA into account and is not forced to change the law. It works well, means we access human rights in the UK, and preserves parliamentary sovereignty.
I just can't see how a British Bill of Rights could differ from the HRA in anything but name given the political, legal, moral and constitutional complications, although I recognise that the HRA has had a bad press over the years. A rebrand could potentially help to make the protection and promotion of human rights popular and something to be proud of.
My concern with any proposed changes is that the Government will find it hard to pick and choose the bits it likes without breaching the ECHR, not to mention the Good Friday agreement which sealed the peace process in Northern Ireland and incorporates human rights law.
Faced with no HRA, people could still take their cases to Strasbourg, which would take them a lot longer and have the opposite effect of what the Government says it wants which is to avoid Strasbourg ‘interference’ in British laws. Unless we withdraw completely from the ECHR, (which so far as I understand is not part of the proposal), then we will still be part of the ECHR.
The HRA has brought about many positive changes. It has helped to protect children from abuse, it means local authorities must be transparent when it comes to care proceedings, it has helped the mentally ill and vulnerable access appropriate care and support.
If the government wants to rebrand it as a British Bill of Rights then that's one thing, but on no account should any rebrand weaken any of our fundamental rights and freedoms.
Kim Harrison is Slater and Gordon’s national practice development leader for human rights.
The human rights solicitors at Slater and Gordon are dedicated to challenging discrimination, protecting the rights and freedoms of our clients and representing people who believe their human rights have been violated.
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