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Human Rights Act could be scrapped by UK government, experts warn

Sources suggest Dominic Raab was appointed as the new justice secretary because of his opposition to the Human Rights Act

Seth Thévoz close-up
Seth Thévoz
17 September 2021, 11.09am
New justice secretary Dominic Raab has long criticised the Human Rights Act
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Tayfun Salci/ZUMA Press Wire/Alamy

The Human Rights Act could be scrapped by the UK government, following the appointment of Dominic Raab as justice secretary, legal experts have warned.

The former foreign secretary was given the new role in Boris Johnson’s cabinet reshuffle this week.

Raab has a long track record of criticising the Human Rights Act (HRA), which he has described as “feckless” and “undemocratic”.

He championed a failed attempt to replace the Act in 2011, and criticised its “continental approach to rights”.

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Multiple sources in Westminster have told openDemocracy that Raab’s predecessor as justice secretary, Robert Buckland, was sacked partly because of his more nuanced views on the HRA.

The act was brought in by Labour in 1998 to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into British law.

Conservatives close to Raab told openDemocracy that his new role should be seen as the firmest sign yet of the government planning to scrap the HRA entirely – possibly replacing it with a UK ‘Bill of Rights’.

I don’t support the Human Rights Act and I don’t believe in economic and social rights

In video footage from 2009 – uncovered by Labour’s David Lammy – Raab says: “I don’t support the Human Rights Act and I don’t believe in economic and social rights.”

In a book published the same year, entitled ‘The Assault on Liberty: What Went Wrong with Rights’, Raab also claimed that “the spread of rights has become contagious” and attributed the HRA to the influence of “Marxists”.

And, in 2011, Raab managed to describe his proposed reform as both “radical” and “not radical”.

Legal blogger David Allen Green told The Guardian: “One would not be surprised that one stipulation made by Raab in accepting the position as lord chancellor is that he get another crack at repealing the Human Rights Act.”

Replacing the act has been a Conservative policy for 15 years, following David Cameron’s announcement in 2006 that he wanted to swap it with a “British Bill of Rights”.

The Conservatives’ attempt to replace the Human Rights Act in 2011 was dropped after it was vetoed by the party’s Liberal Democrat coalition partners. But Brexit has rekindled long-held wishes by many Tory MPs to change or scrap it.

At the last election, the party’s manifesto pledged to “update” the Human Rights Act.

Raab’s appointment

Veteran Conservative MP Bob Neill said Raab’s predecessor, Robert Buckland, had been ”shabbily treated” by Boris Johnson – and later praised him as he “always stood up for the rule of law and the integrity of the justice system”.

In his resignation letter, Buckland referred to the “balance between legal and political”, and said how he was “glad to have started to re-balance those elements with the reform of judicial review and the Human Rights Act”. In his reply, Johnson made no reference to the Human Rights Act.

As justice secretary, Raab also holds the title of lord chancellor, with responsibility for the independence of law courts. This role technically outranks the prime minister, because of the relationship with courts and judges. But Raab has also been appointed deputy prime minister.

Unfortunately the rule of law is not high on this government's agenda

Leading human rights barrister Helena Kennedy QC told openDemocracy: “It is actually constitutionally ridiculous to hold that role and be deputy prime minister.

“The lord chancellor, once upon a time, told the PM when he was crossing the line on the rule of law. He had that level of independence. Unfortunately the rule of law is not high on this government's agenda.”

The Ministry of Justice commented on the ongoing review of the Human Rights Act: “The new secretary of state will carefully consider the independent review’s findings when the panel reports back later this year.”

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