Under Attack: Why Labour Must Defend the Human Rights Act

Charlie Harris discusses the current role of the Human Rights Act and the potential ramifications of Conservative plans to 'update' the legislation.

Last week, the Government launched a review, the findings of which could be used to justify radical alterations to the Human Rights Act. Therefore, Labour must prepare to protect the rights it guarantees.

The Labour Party must examine whether this review is being launched in good faith. We must consider four main areas of concern: Whether this review will examine the successes of the Human Rights Act since its introduction; Whether the risks and negative implications of withdrawal are fully understood; Whether the timing suggests a genuine desire to improve the Act; What the review’s relationship will be to the concurrent Review of Administrative Law.

Without the Human Rights Act, those that have suffered due to the negligence of public bodies will lose a vital recourse to hold those bodies to account. It does not matter whether it is the police, a court, a local council, or the UK Government. If a public body acts in a way that denies a person their rights, that person maintains the right to make their case in a court.

The Government announced, on 7 December, that they would launch a review, led by former Court of Appeal Judge, Sir Peter Gross, to examine whether to reform the Human Rights Act. It will coincide with the Independent Review of Administrative Law, which will consider reforms to Judicial Review.  The panel will include Sir Stephen Laws, a Senior Fellow of the conservative think-tank, Policy Exchange.

The review comes after the Conservatives promised in their 2019 manifesto to ‘update’ the HRA. It will examine three main areas: The relationship between the domestic courts and the European Court of Human Rights; The impact of the HRA on the relationship between the judiciary, executive and Parliament; The way in which the Human Rights Act applies outside of the UK.

Labour’s Shadow Justice Secretary, David Lammy, has already condemned the Government for ‘prioritising launching an attack on human rights in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.’ Likewise, Labour must make abundantly clear the risks for the people of this country if this review is not, as the Government suggests, held independently from politics.

Alongside David Lammy’s critique, there are other causes for concern.

Firstly, the review does not ask the vital question of whether the Act has effectively protected individual rights in the UK.

Secondly, Governments interpreting human rights legislation at their own discretion will make the catastrophic decisions that this Government has already revealed an appetite for, making rough sleeping grounds for deportation and delaying investigations into allegations of torture by the military.

Thirdly, the Ministry of Justice currently faces a backlog of cases in the criminal courts and delays to family cases. The interpretation of human rights is not the imminent problem.

Finally, when asked whether the submissions and the Review itself would be published in full, unlike the Independent Review of Administrative Law, the Justice Secretary refused to answer.

There is, however, reason to think that this review could lead to some sort of compromise, rather than the wholesale destruction of the Human Rights Act. Some members of the review are staunch defenders of the Act. The Government’s pledge to ‘update’ the Act is, perhaps, a more moderate stance than previous Conservative pledges to abolish it entirely.

This argument is, of course, valid. However, even watering down the Human Rights Act to weaken restrictions on Government power sets a dangerous precedent. It will embolden Government to contravene the principles of the European Convention of Human Rights. This mandate will not magically limit itself to overriding minor disagreements between the Government and the judiciary.

The Labour Party is the party that stands resolutely for human rights. In an ideal world, their importance would have remained universally accepted and not reliant on a single party to advocate on their behalf.

We cannot accurately predict the findings of this Review. Nor can we say what changes the Government will decide to make as a result. We also cannot change the sad fact that the Conservatives currently hold a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, making Labour’s ability to meaningfully oppose dangerous legislative changes extremely difficult.

However, we must make the case at every turn to defend the core principle of limiting executive power and protecting human rights. The Human Rights Act was one of the greatest achievements of the last Labour Government. There is too much to lose if we do not preserve legislation that has already protected millions.


Charlie Harris is a freelance writer. He is particularly interested in criminal justice, constitutional reform, and international relations. He tweets at @cmdharris.

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