Here’s what you need to know about the ‘Rights Removal Bill’
The UK government says it’s about sovereignty, but it will weaken human rights – especially for the most vulnerable
The UK government has published its so-called Bill of Rights Bill, which lawyers and campaigners have warned will leave more people vulnerable to human rights violations.
The new legislation will tear up the Human Rights Act 1998 and ensure that rulings from the European Court of Human Rights no longer bind the UK.
Justice secretary Dominic Raab told readers of The Sun that the bill will “curb abuses of the system and reinject a healthy dose of common sense” by “strengthen[ing] traditional UK rights such as freedom of speech – under attack, from expanding privacy law to stifling political correctness – and recognis[ing] the importance of jury trials in the UK”.
But experts have told openDemocracy that rather than further safeguarding human rights, this bill will actually diminish them.
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Andy Hull, chief executive of human rights charity EachOther, said: “In terms of human rights violations, this bill undermines both prevention and cure. It reduces the onus on authorities proactively to safeguard our rights.”
The government wants to make UK law the last word
The bill’s introduction sets out aims to distance UK courts from the European Court of Human Rights. While the UK will remain signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights, the bill will mean that UK courts won’t have to follow British laws in a way that is compatible with the convention.
Additionally, UK courts won’t have to comply with case law and rulings made in other European courts when making decisions. And they will be ordered not to adopt any expansion of the protections given by the European Convention.
Charlie Whelton, policy and campaigns officers at Liberty, which campaigns for civil liberties in the UK, said: “Despite the government saying the bill will separate us from the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights, it ties us closer, by establishing the Strasbourg court’s interpretations of rights as an absolute ‘ceiling’ our courts cannot go beyond.
“We may have weaker rights protections, but never stronger, and that level will be set by Strasbourg.”
The bill specifically targets interim measures of the European Court of Human Rights – such as its decision on 14 June that effectively grounded the first flight due to take asylum seekers from the UK to Rwanda.
Whelton said that this bill will mean that the European Court of Human Rights “can’t act in emergencies to protect us from situations that put us at risk of serious and irreparable harm”.
It will be easier to deport people
The bill will make it easier to deport refugees by almost completely blocking article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights – the right to respect for private and family life. A “foreign criminal”, as the bill puts it, will be forced to prove that a dependent member of their family will come to “extreme harm” if they are deported.
“Refugees and migrants, already disadvantaged, will find it harder to defend their basic rights and challenge deportation,” said Whelton.
The clause also tries to limit the definition of “extreme harm” so that it applies only to children of a person facing deportation – not other family members.
Hull said: “[The bill] puts new and higher hurdles in the way of ordinary people who turn to the law to uphold their rights. In particular, it will make it much more difficult for the loved ones of someone who committed a crime but has served his time to invoke rights to fair trial or to family life to prevent his removal from the country.”
Public bodies can allow bad things to happen
The new bill says that public authorities will have less obligation to go out of their way to prevent human rights abuses.
These ‘positive obligations’ are the steps that authorities have to take in order to protect our fundamental human rights. For instance, police must take steps to ensure that people aren’t killed in police custody, thereby protecting article 2 of the Human Rights Act – the right to life. When this right is violated, victims’ families can try to seek justice through the law.
The Bill of Rights Bill will prevent any “new interpretations or further expansion” of such obligations.
Whelton said: “This will make it much harder for people who have relied on these obligations to seek truth and justice for their loved ones, like the families of people who have died in state custody or because of failings by the state.”
Positive obligations that already exist aren’t safe either. The bill will ensure that there are certain circumstances where public bodies can ignore them – for example, if the positive obligation undermines the police’s ability to set their own priorities.
Hull told openDemocracy: “[Reducing the obligation for public bodies to safeguard our rights] could make it harder, for instance, for victims of violent criminals like John Worboys or Stephen Port to hold the police to account for failing properly to investigate their previous crimes.”
Free speech – if it makes no difference
LIke Raab, the bill makes a big deal of freedom of speech, saying that “a court must give great weight to the importance of protecting the right”.
However, the right will have no weight if a person wants to argue that a criminal conviction would breach it. For example, the right to freedom of speech would not help a protester wanting to argue that a protest offence breaches their human rights.
The bill also explicitly says the right to free speech should make no difference to decisions about whether a person can enter or remain in the UK, or be a citizen.
Anti-censorship campaigners have pointed out the hypocrisy of ministers bragging about bolstering freedom of expression at the same time as they are pushing a public order bill that the Joint Committee on Human Rights said will “create a hostile environment” for peaceful protests by imposing a new offence of locking on and increasing stop and search powers.
More power to the government, more barriers to justice
If the bill is passed, Parliament will be given “the greatest possible weight” in court decisions and will have the power to dictate how courts should interpret human rights.
If that isn’t bad enough, section 15 of the bill says that people will have to get permission from the court before they can bring proceedings against a public authority. The court will grant permission only if it thinks the person has suffered a significant disadvantage.
This will present additional hurdles for anyone trying to challenge the state.
Impunity for armed forces
The bill will also mean that people can’t bring human rights proceedings against the military when rights violations occur during military operations in the UK or overseas.
What will the human impact be?
This new bill will affect all of us – but some experts have said that the government wants to override the Human Rights Act because it sees certain people as less deserving of rights than others. Often, these people are already marginalised in society.
“People who are deemed undeserving, be they migrants or in prison, will be less protected,” Whelton said.
Section 6 of the bill, for instance, will make it more difficult for prisoners to bring human rights claims to court.
“The plans will weaken the state’s commitments and duties to us all, including the need to investigate when things go wrong. Here it will be bereaved families, such as those of the 97 who died at Hillsborough, who will miss out on justice and closure,” Whelton added.
What happens next?
“The government has just released its response to its consultation on the bill’s provisions. This shows respondents in opposition to almost every proposal. For example, 90% opposed the introduction of a permission stage [for taking public authorities to court] that has made its way into the bill,” Whelton told openDemocracy.
“Four parliamentary committees and 150 organisations called on the justice secretary to submit the bill for pre-legislative scrutiny. He has refused. This is not the way to go about a radical overhaul of our legal frameworks and how we interact with the state,” he added.
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