Merris Amos

26 May 2017

Whilst all political parties have something to say about human rights in the run up to the 2017 General Election, the heat has gone out of the debate over “scrapping” the Human Rights Act, leaving the European Convention on Human Rights and drafting a “British” bill of rights. Clearly listening to her advisers, Prime Minister Theresa May has toned down her personal animosity towards human rights law and the European Court of Human Rights to make some fairly vague statements in the Tory Manifesto about what will happen to our human rights going forward. There are obviously limits to how far Euroscepticism can be pushed and entering into a negotiation about the terms of leaving the European Union whilst promising to strip those living in the UK, including nationals of other EU member states, of the protection of the HRA and international human rights law is not a good idea. Now we are actually leaving the EU, it is also no longer necessary to tell the people of the UK that “Europe” is responsible for giving prisoners the vote and blocking the deportation of suspected terrorists.

Early in its Manifesto, setting out some “principles”, the Conservative Party ominously states “we know that our responsibility to one another is greater than the rights we hold as individuals”. But rather than going on to propose a “bill of responsibilities” to replace the Human Rights Act, a series of postponements are set out. A Conservative government will not “repeal or replace the Human rights Act while the process of Brexit is underway” but it will “consider our human rights legal framework when the process of leaving the EU concludes.” The UK will also remain a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights “for the duration of the next parliament”. More substantively, and also widely known already, workers are to keep their EU rights and possibly also gain some “new rights and protections in the workplace”. The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights will not be made a part of UK law, and British soldiers will be exempted from the European Convention on Human Rights, possibly through a derogation, but there is no promise to exempt them from national human rights law.

Putting a timeline to any of this is difficult as the Tories are also promising to repeal the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. The next Parliament may only last five months, or it may be five years. So is that five more years of the ECHR, or five months? With Brexit negotiations having to be completed by 29 March 2019, will that be the date consideration of our human rights legal framework is to commence? Or will that be the date the bill to repeal the HRA is introduced into Parliament? Should the Conservatives win the election, all that is certain about the future of national and international human rights protection in the UK is that it will remain uncertain for many years to come.

Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have made far stronger, and stable, commitments. Labour promises to retain the Human Rights Act, enhance the powers and functions of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and put human rights at the heart of foreign policy. It also promises to ensure that trade agreements cannot undermine human rights and labour standards. The Lib Dems undertake to vote against attempts to scrap the HRA or withdraw from the ECHR and have also stated that they will strengthen the UK’s commitment to international human rights law. Similar to Labour, a promise to determine adequate funding for the Commission is made. They will control arms exports to human rights abusing countries and ensure that international human rights protections hard wired into the Good Friday Agreement are not compromised.

The axe has dangled over the HRA at least since 2006 when former Prime Minister David Cameron first promised to scrap it. Replacing the HRA with a bill of rights has been a commitment in Conservative manifestos in both the 2010 and 2015 general elections. It is a testament to its virtues, and its supporters, that it is still around. Trashing the ECHR and the European Court of Human Rights is a more recent phenomena which only started in earnest with the publication of the Conservative Party’s human rights consultation paper in 2014 and culminated in Theresa May’s Brexit speech in 2016 where she called for the UK to leave the ECHR, but not the EU as, amongst other things, it added “nothing to our prosperity”. Hardly a safe pair of hands in which to leave human rights law reform.

What the Conservatives have asked for in their manifesto is for voters to hand them a blank cheque on national and international human rights protections. Once the Brexit negotiations are complete, and public attention starts to turn away from the monumental implementation task ahead, consideration will turn to the next project and the new “other”. The sovereignty monster may need to be fed again with fresh meat with the HRA looking like a delightful appetiser, the ECHR the main course. The people of the UK deserve more than weak and wobbly possibilities on human rights protection. They need to know now exactly what their human rights will look like in the future - that the HRA will continue to protect them from the power of the State and, on the international stage, that the UK will continue to be a committed member of the ECHR system. With so much uncertainty in our futures already, could we at least have a strong and stable promise on our human rights?