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The Tory attack on human rights isn’t over. Here’s why it threatens workers

The Bill of Rights will make it harder to take employers to court and to protect the right to protest. We must oppose it

Daniella Lock Jun Pang Natalie Sedacca
7 September 2022, 10.11am

Liz Truss has appointed Brandon Lewis as the new justice secretary

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Editor's note: Since this article was published it has been widely reported that the UK government has pulled its plans to enact a new bill of rights

The UK may have a new prime minister, but on civil liberties, Liz Truss is likely to pick up where her predecessor left off. Next week, the so-called Bill of Rights – unveiled by the then-justice secretary Dominic Raab earlier this year – will be voted on by MPs.

The bill, which might be better termed the Rights Removal Bill, aims to give politicians a greater say in the way that the courts interpret human rights law. It promises to repeal the 1998 Human Rights Act, which made the European Convention on Human Rights enforceable under domestic law.

But as a wave of industrial action sweeps the country, it’s vital to recognise the specific threat this bill poses to workers’ rights.

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It’s no secret that the Conservatives want to make it even harder than it is currently for people to defend their rights at work. Whether it is reviewing the rules around the 48-hour working week, introducing minimum service levels during industrial action, or raising the threshold for union members voting on strike action – to a level that Truss herself failed to reach in the Tory leadership race – a bonfire of workers’ rights looks imminent.

The Rights Removal Bill poses a particular danger, which is why trade unions are also taking a stand against it.

The bill would repeal the Human Rights Act, leaving us with a much weaker system of protection. It would put serious limits on the ability to pursue claims in the UK, for example by introducing a permission stage where an individual must show they have suffered “significant disadvantage” in order for cases to proceed. This means that in many cases, workers and unions would have to take their cases straight to the European Court of Human Rights, which upholds the ECHR.

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The ECHR – which the UK helped draft in 1950 – has given us some important mechanisms to challenge union-busting behaviour. It has prompted legislation to prevent employers effectively bribing workers to undermine trade unions. Article 11 of the ECHR guarantees the right to freedom of assembly and association, which includes the right to strike. Recent judgments at the European Court of Human Rights have put limitations on workplace surveillance and restricted employers’ ability to dismiss workers where this interferes with their freedom of expression outside work or has a severe impact on their private and family life.

But without the Human Rights Act, it will become much harder for workers to enforce the protections we have under the ECHR. While some workers and unions may pursue the lengthy and expensive route of taking their cases to the Strasbourg court, far more people will be left to face violations of their rights with limited recourse to justice.

What’s more, the Tory Right is no fan of the ECHR itself and has frequently stated the UK should quit the Convention.

The Rights Removal Bill contains other threats to workers’ rights. It includes a proposal to restrict “positive obligations”. These are steps that the state and public bodies must take to protect people’s rights – for example, to facilitate protest. Crucially for workers, they make human rights relevant to relationships with individuals and private bodies, such as employers – not just between the state and its citizens.

The bill prevents the creation of new positive obligations and restricts the application of existing ones. This could scupper challenges to new and concerning developments in the workplace, such as automated decision-making and facial recognition.

These technologies have previously been criticised for being inherently oppressive, racially discriminatory and entrenching exploitative working conditions. The proposal might also undermine existing obligations to protect the right to protest – linked to the right to picket – and against labour exploitation, by giving public bodies like the police greater leeway to ignore their duties in favour of operational priorities.

It’s dangerous when any government thinks it can decide who deserves access to human rights and who doesn’t.

Christina McAnea, Secretary General of Unison

The Human Rights Act and the ECHR are far from perfect. The RMT union, for instance, failed in a 2014 legal challenge to the UK’s ban on sympathy strikes. This shows that court battles will never be a substitute for an effective and militant labour movement.

Nonetheless, the government’s attack on the Human Rights Act should worry us all – not least because the loss of this ‘floor’ of protection is taking place at the same time as the government has been pursuing an increasingly authoritarian agenda in the courts, at the ballot box, in the streets, and in Parliament.

Opposing the Bill of Rights is also a vital way to show solidarity with those groups at the sharpest edge of the government's attacks, including migrants, particularly as the bill limits the rights of foreign nationals the government seeks to deport.

As Christina McAnea, Secretary General of Unison argues: “It’s dangerous when any government thinks it can decide who deserves access to human rights and who doesn’t.”

Human rights are indivisible from workers’ rights. Whether it is erecting hurdles in the way of seeking justice or paving the way for even more regressive legislation, the Rights Removal Bill must be seen for the threat that it is to workers – and as a result, to us.

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