The government’s long-threatened, misleadingly titled and highly controversial bill of rights is finally here. It has been trailed by Dominic Raab and other ministers for years, but the European court of human rights’ intervention in the disgraceful Rwanda refugee scheme last week was apparently the opportune moment to launch this unwanted, uneccessary legislation.
The Ministry of Justice has taken a hatchet to the single most powerful rights tool this country has ever had. Yet its press release announcing the bill suggests this is somehow good news for us all. Suspend your disbelief, but apparently “watering down” the Human Rights Act will in some way equate to an “expansion” of the right to freedom of expression. The MoJ cites journalists and their right to protect sources, suggesting this will be a valuable new protection. In fact, just a few months ago the journalist and former MP Chris Mullen relied on the Human Rights Act for precisely this purpose in an important press freedom case.
Believing that we are set to gain rights through this legislation requires serious mental acrobatics. The bill takes particular aim at “positive obligations”. These are the obligations that apply to public authorities and make it incumbent on them to take positive steps to protect people’s rights rather than merely restrain themselves from violating them. Positive rights are a vital tool that allows victims to hold the police accountable for serious failures in rape case investigations, for example, such as the appallingly mishandled case of the serial rapist John Worboys.
Repeated failings in the way that police and prosecution authorities investigate endemic violence against women has prompted a crisis of public confidence – yet Raab is now reducing victims’ rights to hold the authorities to account.
Positive obligations are also integral to the ability to secure effective public inquiries into deaths where the state may be responsible, such as the long-delayed Covid inquiry. It’s no coincidence, you might think, that the very politicians the Human Rights Act potentially holds to account might want to see it removed and replaced with this ersatz version.
If the government thinks that taking away the rights of ordinary people in this country with the stroke of a pen will be popular, it is mistaken. In a recent poll commissioned by Amnesty, almost three-quarters of respondents (73%) said they thought it was important to keep the Human Rights Act as a vital tool to hold the government to account when things go wrong. And by wrong, I mean terrible, avoidable disasters such as the Hillsborough tragedy, or the woeful handling of the Covid pandemic.
This is not just a domestic matter. Our poll showed that the horrors of Ukraine have highlighted the value of basic human rights to almost everyone in this country. Four out of five (79%) people said that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had made it especially important that countries such as the UK uphold human rights, and almost two-thirds (65%) said they thought reducing human rights protections at home would negatively impact Britain’s ability to stand up for human rights on the global stage.
It gets worse. As the government has been repeatedly warned, any significant change to the Human Rights Act could constitute a breach of the Good Friday agreement, upsetting a delicate balance of peace.
Our government is increasingly resistant to legal scrutiny. After last week’s Rwanda refugee flight was halted, we witnessed the kind of bitter sniping about the European court of human rights that could have come straight from Viktor Orbán or Vladimir Putin. The UK is now throwing its toys out of the pram. Yet the European court of human rights in Strasbourg is an invaluable last resort to millions. Indeed, lawyers acting for British national PoWs who have been sentenced to death in Ukraine may turn to this court for recourse.
Ignore the name of this new legislation. It is a rights removal bill, and it will leave us all the poorer.