Fundamental rights / Human Rights Act and Government accountability

Liberty’s view on Government plans to overhaul the Human Rights Act

Posted on 10 Dec 2021

In the UK, we have a careful balance of power in place for a reason. It’s to make sure when Governments get things wrong – as they inevitably do – we have a way of holding them to account. This balance ensures that power is held in check, and that nobody is above the law. Right now the Government is looking to ‘overhaul the HRA’. This has been a long held ambition for some of those currently in power – and while the language is about ‘making amends’ we should be under no illusion – some of our most basic rights are at risk. This is, after all, a Government intent on making rules that only apply to us – not them. In fact they are rewriting the rules so that only they can ever win.

The Human Rights Act protects all of us. It is a vital part of a healthy democracy, ensuring that governments and public bodies act within the law and respect everybody’s fundamental rights. The HRA has allowed ordinary people from all walks of life challenge decisions they think are wrong and unjust.

This is a Government intent on rewriting the rules so that only they can ever win.

In the case of Craig Mathiesen, for example, a challenge using the Human Rights Act has meant we now have new laws in place where they did not previously exist, so that no family of a sick and disabled child loses their benefits no matter how long they have to stay in hospital. In other cases, like for the family of 18 year old army recruit Cheryl James who died from a gunshot wound to the face while training at Deepcut barracks in 1995, it’s helped families get proper investigations into the deaths of their loved ones where initial police-led inquests lasted less than an hour and key evidence wasn’t produced.

Yet despite this, the Government (and more specifically Dominic Raab) have long wanted to overhaul the Human Rights Act. Raab himself wrote a book on the matter, and it’s been his personal pet project for over a decade now. However, the justifications for an overhaul make little sense to those of us who’ve seen the Act change countless lives for the better.

Recently, planned reforms to the Act have been tied cynically to tragedies, like the deaths of 27 people in the Channel. In the aftermath of that, one Conservative MP called for a ‘spicy’ reform to the HRA, akin to a vindaloo. They’ve been tied to free speech, at the same time that the Government is shutting down protests for being too ‘noisy’. We have seen Article 8 – the right to a private and home life – be used as a reason for reform. That same right ensures our home life can not be interfered with, and means we cannot be evicted from our homes without due process, and safeguards our private data and our personal correspondence. Reforms such as these will pull dangerously at threads that will change the law quite significantly, and in ways that will allow future governments of all stripes to be unaccountable to the public.

So why are the Government proposing these changes? The truth is this is a Government desperately trying to give itself more power right as public trust in their decision-making plummets. While the country asks who attended parties last Christmas in Downing Street, the Government have passed new laws in the Nationality and Borders Bill giving themselves the ability to remove citizenship from predominately people of colour without needing to give any prior warning. As the country asks who paid for the Prime Minister’s wallpaper, his government has added amendments to the Policing Bill that allow them to jail any protesters they don’t agree with for up to 51 weeks. Behind paywalled newspapers, the government has teased new powers to throw out any legal decisions that ministers may deem ‘incorrect’, or in other words inconvenient.

Protecting our Human Rights Act is the first fight back – and it’s about to start in earnest.

The Government is currently trying to rewrite the rules in its favour and it is coming at the expense of our human rights.

Democratic governments protect the right to protest, to vote, to challenge power and they above all fight to protect our human rights. We deserve and we must demand a Government that acts in our best interests – not in its own. Protecting our Human Rights Act is the first fight back – and it’s about to start in earnest.

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