Category: ECHR

Theresa May considering scrapping Human Rights Act following Brexit

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The prime minister is to consider repealing the Human Rights Act after Brexit, despite promising she is “committed” to its protections, a minister has revealed. This is, after all, a government that has always tended to regard the human rights of some social groups as nothing more than a bureaucratic inconvenience. Many of us have been very concerned about the implications of Brexit for human rights in the UK.

The House of Lords EU Justice Sub-Committee has exchanged correspondence with the Government about clarifying the wording of the Political Declaration regarding the European Convention on Human Rights. 

There is no justification for editing or repealing the Human Rights Act itself, that would make Britain the first European country to regress in the level and degree of our human rights protection. It is through times of recession and times of affluence alike that our rights ought to be the foundation of our society, upon which the Magna Carta, the Equality Act and the Human Rights Act were built – protecting the most vulnerable citizens from the powerful and ensuring those who govern are accountable to the rule of law.

Observation of human rights distinguishes democratic leaders from dictators and despots. Human Rights are the bedrock of our democracy, they are universal, and are a reflection of a society’s and a governments’ recognition of the equal worth of every citizens’ life.

Nonetheless, the government will decide on the future of the landmark legislation once “the process of leaving the EU concludes”, according to a letter submitted to a parliamentary inquiry.

This disclosure comes despite the Brexit white paper stating last year that the UK would remain in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), after  following a warning from the European Union (EU) that pulling out would jeopardise a future security deal. However, the prime minister has previously pledged to leave the ECHR, expressing frustration because there was no Commons majority for doing so. 

It is in this context of previous statements of intent that the wording of the letter was described as “troubling” by the Lords EU Justice Sub-Committee, which has warned that the letter casts doubt on more recent, repeated pledges from the government to protect the ECHR.

“Is the government sincere in its commitment to the ECHR?”, Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws, the committee’s chair, asked.

“If so, why has it failed to give assurances that it will not repeal or reform the Human Rights Act, which in essence incorporates the rights set out in the ECHR into domestic British law?”

The committee wrote to the Ministry of Justice after the alarm was raised by the wording of the political declaration, which was agreed with the EU in December alongside the legally binding divorce deal.

The declaration said the UK would merely agree “to respect the framework of the European Convention on Human Rights” – dropping the previous pledge of being “committed” to it. Previous plans to replace the Human Rights Act with a ‘British Bill of Rights’ appeared in the 2010 Programme for Government, and in the Conservative manifesto in 2015. included an emphasis on interpreting rights more subjectively, rather than regarding them as ‘absolute’. 

In response, Edward Argar, a junior justice minister, wrote: “The difference in wording does not represent a change in the UK’s position on the ECHR

A central tenet of our future relationship with the EU is our mutual belief in the importance of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

But he went on to suggest that the Human Rights Act may be scrapped when Brexit is concluded.

He wrote: “Our manifesto committed to not repealing or replacing the Human Rights Act while the process of EU exit is underway.” 

“It is right that we wait until the process of leaving the EU concludes before considering the matter further in the full knowledge of the new constitutional landscape.

Many Conservatives are critical of Labour’s Human Rights Act, claiming it gives “too many rights to criminals” and some have even claimed it undermines “personal responsibility.”

However, in 2015 Amnesty UK commissioned a poll that indicated the British public are not particularly willing to see any change to existing Human Rights legislation, with only one in 10 people in the UK (11%) believing that scrapping the Human Rights Act should be a government aim.

It’s extremely worrying that a government thinks it should pick and choose which rights we are entitled to and select who they deem worthy of them. The whole point of rights and protections is that they are universal: they must apply to everyone equally in order to work at all.

It took people in the UK a very long time to claim the rights we have and we mustn’t let the Conservatives take them away with the stroke of a pen.

The peers said it would imperil human rights if the government “intend to break the formal link” between the UK courts and the EHCR.

Baroness Kennedy said: “Again and again we are told that the government is committed to the European Convention on Human Rights, but without a concrete commitment, and with messaging that is changing and becoming diluted.”

The government have played a long game, however, and have almost certainly always intended to repeal the Human Rights Act. One issue that prevented that happening over the last few years is the Good Friday Agreement, as the Labour government also committed to incorporate the European Convention of Human ECHR into the law of Northern Ireland and to the establishment of a Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. 

The politics of regression

In 2015, wrote about how the government has quietly edited the ministerial code, which was updated on October 15  without any announcement at all. The code sets out the standard of conduct expected of ministers. The latest version of the code is missing a key element regarding complicity with international law.

The previous code, issued in 2010, said there was an “overarching duty on ministers to comply with the law including international law and treaty obligations and to uphold the administration of justice and to protect the integrity of public life”.

The new version of the code has been edited to say only that there is an“overarching duty on ministers to comply with the law and to protect the integrity of public life”.

Conservative party policy document had revealed that the ministerial code will be rewritten in the context of the UK withdrawing from the European convention on human rights. In order to help achieve these aims the document says: “We will amend the ministerial code to remove any ambiguity in the current rules about the duty of ministers to follow the will of Parliament in the UK.”

In the original Conservative proposals to scrap our existing human rights framework, and replace it with their own, one sentence from the misleadingly titled document –Protecting Human Rights in the UK, (found on page 6 ) – is particularly chilling: “There will be a threshold below which Convention rights will not be engaged.”

Basically this means that human rights will no longer be absolute or universally applied – they will be subject to state stipulations and caveats. And discrimination. The government will establish a threshold below which Convention rights will not be engaged, allowing UK courts to strike out what are deemed trivial cases.

The Conservatives’ motivation for changing our human rights legislation is to allow reinterpretations to work around the new legislation when they deem it necessary. The internationally agreed rights that the Conservatives have always seen as being open to interpretation will become considerably prone to ideological bias, prejudice and open to subjective challenge.

Breaking the formal link between the European Court of Human Rights and British law would mean any judgement from Europe would be treated as “advisory” only, rather than legally binding, and would need to be “approved” by parliament. Such a Bill would profoundly disempower citizens because it will shift the balance of democracy completely, placing power almost entirely in the hands of the state.

Whatever constitutional or political configurations emerge following Brexit, the present threat to rights and equality is a major threat to citizens’ liberties and freedoms. It demands coherent and collective action in the public interest.  

 

Related

Concerns about the impact of Brexit on the human rights of disabled people in update report to UNCRPD

A strong case for the Human Rights Act

 


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Cameron pledges to leave the European Convention on Human Rights.

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BBC (Conservative) political editor Nick Robinson said a report written by a working group of Conservative lawyers has predicted that the so-called British Bill of Rights would force changes in the way the Strasbourg court operates. Robinson unbelievably quoted Theresa May on the radio earlier today, from this:

“We all know the stories about the Human Rights Act. The violent drug dealer who cannot be sent home because his daughter – for whom he pays no maintenance – lives here. The robber who cannot be removed because he has a girlfriend. The illegal immigrant who cannot be deported because – and I am not making this up – he had pet a cat.”

Of course this was a lie. At the time May made the bizarre claim, the Judicial Office intervened and stated “This was a case in which the Home Office conceded that they had mistakenly failed to apply their own policy – applying at that time to that appellant – for dealing with unmarried partners of people settled in the UK. That was the basis for the decision to uphold the original tribunal decision – the cat had nothing to do with the decision.” The recently “retired” Ken Clarke also clarified at a Telegraph fringe event that no-one had ever avoided being deported for owning a cat.

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Theresa May is far from alone amongst the Conservatives with a deep disdain for our obligations to uphold international human rights laws. It’s no surprise that David Cameron has also pledged to explore ways to leave the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) again, in the wake of the departure of his most senior legal advisor, according to the Daily Telegraph.

Ken Clarke said: “It is unthinkable for Britain to leave the European Convention on Human Rights,” as he also became a departing Cabinet minister. The Prime Minister is believed to have wanted rid of the Attorney General Dominic Grieve because he was supportive of Britain’s continued ECHR membership.

Labour has dubbed the Cabinet reshuffle “the massacre of the moderates”, pointing to the departure of pro-Europe and “One Nation” Tories such as David Willetts, Nick Hurd and Oliver Heald.

It’s long been the case that the Tories and the right-wing press have deliberately blurred the boundaries between the European Union and the European Council of Human Rights, which are of course completely different organisations. I assumed that this was a misdirection ploy.

However it is the case that the member states of the EU agreed that no state would be admitted to membership of the EU unless it accepted the fundamental principles of the European Convention on Human Rights and agreed to declare itself bound by it. I also think that Conservatives, who regard both institutions as “interfering”, do see the Union and the Council as the same in terms of both being international frameworks requiring the British government to have a degree of democratic accountability at an international level.

In his parting interview, Mr Clarke, who has held office in every Conservative government since 1972 and is also the party’s most prominent Europhile, said the debate was “absurd”.

“I personally think it’s unthinkable we should leave the European Convention on Human Rights; it was drafted by British lawyers after the Second World War in order to protect the values for which we fought the War for.” He’s right, of course.

The years immediately after the Second World War marked a turning point in the history of human rights, as the world reeled in horror of the Nazi concentration camps, there came an important realisation that although fundamental rights should be respected as a matter of course, without formal protection, human rights concepts are of little use to those facing persecution.

So in response to the atrocities committed during the War, the International Community sought to define the rights and freedoms necessary to secure the dignity and worth of each individual. In 1948 the newly formed United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), one of the most important agreements in world history.

Shortly afterwards another newly formed international body, the Council of Europe, set about giving effect to the UDHR in a European context. The resulting European Convention on Human Rights was signed in 1950 and ratified by the United Kingdom, one of the first countries to do so, in 1951. At the time there were only ten members of the Council of Europe. Now 47 member countries subscribe to the European Convention, and in 1998 the Human Rights Act was passed by the Labour Party in order to “give further effect” to the European Convention in British law.

Previously, along with the Liberal Democrats, Grieve was able to thwart attempts to reform the ECHR, and opposed pulling out altogether. The plan to reform it is being led by the Justice Secretary Chris Grayling but Grieve has pledged to continue to fight for Britain’s membership from the backbenchers. Though Clegg had agreed to a British Bill of Rights, he was strongly opposed to withdrawing from the ECHR.

Grieve understood that ECHR is about the fundamental rights of the citizen and ought to be cherished in the same way as the Magna Carta and Habeas Corpus are. But as we know, this is not a typical view amongst Conservatives, who frequently cite the same examples of “foreign criminals” being allowed to stay in the country as evidence it is “not working”.

The Prime Minister’s spokesman said that the sacking of Grieve had not led to a change in Government’s policy. However he pledged action if the Conservatives are elected next year without the Liberal Democrats: “If you are asking me about party manifestos, the Prime Minister has previously said that he wants to look at all the ways that we can ensure we are able to deport those who have committed criminal offences.”

Mr Grieve said he would defend human rights legislation from the back benches to “contribute to rationality and discourse”.

“If we send out a sign that human rights don’t matter, that is likely to be picked up in other countries which are also signatory states such as Russia.”

The Conservatives are very likely to go into the next election with a proposal to repeal Labour’s Human Rights Act, which enshrines the European Convention in British law, and replace it a British Bill of Rights. We have witnessed this Conservative-led government blatantly contravene human rights with policies such as the Bedroom Tax, the Legal Aid Bill, and there is a backlog of cases awaiting Hearing.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (established under Labour’s Human Rights  Act) have suffered significant cuts to funding, from 70 million when Labour were in Government to just 25 million since the Coalition took Office, up until 2012, with fears that this will be further reduced to just 18 million. This has meant severe staffing reductions, and a massive backlog of work, and at a time when many are seeking to bring forward cases regarding the impact of Government legislation.

Human rights were formulated to protect us from governments such as this one. This is a government that chooses to treat our most vulnerable citizens despicably brutally, with absolutely no regard for their legal and moral obligation to meet our most basic needs.

Such a disregard of fundamental rights is historically associated with despots and tyrants

It’s clear that this government see human rights as an inconvenience and an obstacle to their future policy plans.

A central tenet of human rights law is that all humans have equal worth. We know that Conservatives such as Cameron don’t hold that view, there is an inherent, persistent strand of Social Darwinism that is clearly evident in Tory ideology, manifested in their policies, and they prefer and shape a hierarchical society founded on inequalities.

Disregard and contempt for human rights has led to atrocities. Human rights are safeguards, they establish moral principles that set out certain standards of human behaviour, and they are universal, providing in principle social and legal protections for all.

We need to ask why would any government want to opt out of such protections for its citizens?

We know from history that a society which isn’t founded on the basic principles of equality, decency, dignity and mutual respect is untenable and unthinkable.

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Pictures courtesy of Robert Livingstone 

The UK Government have got it wrong about our Human Rights.

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The Joint Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights has conducted an inquiry into the UK Government’s implementation of Article 19 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) – the right to live independently and to be included in the community. The inquiry which began in 2011 has received evidence from over 300 witnesses.

The inquiry has highlighted just how little awareness, understanding and employment of the Convention there is by the Tory-led Government.  Very few of the witnesses made specific reference to the Convention in their presented evidence, despite the inquiry being conducted by the Parliamentary Human Rights Committee, with the terms of reference clearly framing the inquiry as being about Article 19 of the UNCRPD.

“This finding is of international importance”, said Oliver Lewis, MDAC Executive Director, “Our experience is that many Governments are of the view that the CRPD is nothing more than a policy nicety, rather than a treaty which sets out legal obligations which governments must fulfil.”

The report is particularly critical of the Minister for Disabled People (Maria Miller, at the time) who told the Committee that the CRPD was “soft law”. The Committee criticised this as “indicative of an approach to the treaty which regards the rights it protects as being of less normative force than those contained in other human rights instruments.” (See para. 23 in the report, the link is at the foot of this article.) The Committee’s view is that the CRPD is hard law, not soft law.

Dr Hywel Francis MP, Chair of the Committee, said: “We are concerned to learn that the right of disabled people to independent living may be at risk through the cumulative impact of current reforms. Even though the UK ratified the UNCPRD in 2009 with cross-party support, the Government is unable to demonstrate that sufficient regard has been paid to the Convention in the development of policy with direct relevance to the lives of disabled people. The right to independent living in UK law may need to be strengthened further, and we call on the Government and other interested organisations to consider the need for a free-standing right to independent living in UK law.”

“The Government is meant to include disabled people in making sure people have their human rights upheld. We are concerned that a part of the Law on treating people equally and fairly (Equality Act section 149) does not say any more that disabled people should be involved. This is a step backwards.”

In other words, the Tory-led Coalition has quietly removed this part of the Equality Act.

The budget of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), which was established by the Labour Party when they were drafting this flagship policy, is being reduced by over 60%, its staffing cut by 72%, and its powers restricted by the Coalition. Provisions that are being repealed by the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (ERR) Bill include the duty on public authorities to have due regard to the need to reduce socio-economic inequalities.

Savage Legal Aid cuts from April 2013 have also contributed significantly to creating further barriers to ensuring Equal Rights law protect us, and the Tory-driven Legal Aid Bill also contravenes our right to a fair trial under Article 6(1) of the European Convention on Human Rights.

This is not a coincidental multiple policy timeline, but rather a very coordinated political attack on potential legal challenges at a time when Tory-led severe and devastating multiple welfare and provision cuts have affected disabled people so disproportionately. The changes, which came into effect in April, will hit the same group of disabled people over and over again”.

The threats to the legal infrastructure make it all the more important to mobilise all disadvantaged groups around equality as a fundamental human right.

The Report draws attention to several significant Human Rights issues, including:

  • the need for freestanding legislation to protect the right to independent living in UK law,
  • the effect of current reforms to benefits and services on the ability of disabled people to enjoy independent living,
  • the role played by the UNCRPD in policy development and decision-making at all levels of government,
  • the need for the use of equality impact assessments,
  • the effects of devolution on implementation of the UNCRPD, and
  • hate crime

The right to independent living does not exist as a free-standing right in UK law. Although it is protected and promoted to some extent by a matrix of rights, the Committee believes that this is not enough. It argues that the Government and other interested parties should immediately assess the need for, and feasibility of, legislation to establish independent living as a free-standing right. In addition, the Committee concludes that the UNCRPD is “hard law” and that the Government should fulfil their obligations under the Convention on that basis.

The Committee finds that:

  • reforms to benefits and services (let’s be frank here, they are not welfare “reforms”, they are cuts) risk leaving disabled people without the support they need to live independently;
  • restrictions in local authority eligibility criteria for social care support, the replacement of the Disability Living Allowance with Personal Independence Payment, the closure of the Independent Living Fund and changes to housing benefit risk interacting in a particularly harmful way for disabled people;
  • people fear that the cumulative impact of these changes will force them out of their homes and local communities and into residential care.

It also finds that:

  • the Government has not conducted an Equality impact assessment of the cumulative impact of current “reforms” on disabled people. The Report urges them do so, and to report on the extent to which these “reforms “are enabling them and local authorities to comply with their obligations under the UNCRPD.
  • The Committee states that the Government should make a commitment to Parliament that they will give due consideration to the articles of the Convention when making legislation. The UNCRPD did not have a significant role in the development of policy and legislation, as is required by the Convention.

Furthermore, the Committee criticises changes to the duties of public authorities in England under the Equality Act 2010, which no longer require the production of equality impact assessments of changes in policy, nor the involvement of disabled people in developing policies which will affect them.

The Committee also expresses a major concern over a growing incidence of hate crime against disabled people and urges the Government take action to foster respect for the rights and dignity of disabled people.

Article 19 states that the Government must always ensure it “stops things getting worse.” This has NOT happened. The quality of so many sick and disabled people’s lives in this Country has been radically, significantly and DELIBERATELY reduced since the Tory-led Coalition took Office in 2010. This needs to change as a matter of urgency.

The Government’s “reforms” have led to a terrible increase in deaths amongst sick and disabled people, and we have already seen a significant rise in suicides that are directly linked with the Tory-driven austerity measures.

When we genuinely seek to improve the situation of the poorest and vulnerable, first of all we will need to spend time studying the privileged elite and their lifestyle choices of tax avoidance, their own economic lasciviousness and lack of capacity for personal and social responsibility.

We need to pay attention to Government handouts (of our money) to banks, private businesses and the wealthy: we need to appraise the dependency and culture of entitlement that these sponsored acts have fostered, and of course special focus should be on the amoral decisions and anti-social actions of the feckless, scrounging wealthy, and with particularly careful, critical scrutiny of the Government responsible for policies that re-distribute and concentrate our wealth and their advantage and power, therefore creating social divisions, inequality and poverty, perpetuating and extending it.

The Tory-led Coalition prefers to take money from the vulnerable, the sick and disabled, and hand it out to millionaires.

We need to ask why our Government refuses to instigate or agree an inquiry into the substantial rise in deaths amongst sick and disabled people, as these deaths are so clearly a direct consequence of this Government’s policies. What kind of Government uses the media to scape-goat and stigmatise sick and disabled people, by lying and inventing statistics to “justify” the persecution of some of our most vulnerable citizens, and the withdrawal of their crucial lifelines and support?

One that does not value those lives, or regard them as having an equal worth with others.

We are raising more money for the rich” – David Cameron, 12th December 2012


Further reading:

Archbishop Tartaglia adds to protest against Atos assessments which ‘trample on human dignity’

The European courts have their priorities wrong. Why aren’t they stopping the disability deaths? – Mike Sivier, Vox Political

Did They Hope We Wouldn’t Notice? Under The Smokescreen – John D Clare

The Coming Tyranny and The Legal Aid Bill – KittySJones

CRPD IS “HARD LAW” – UK PARLIAMENT

The Summary of the Report on Implementation of the Right of Disabled People to Independent Living: easy read version  and the full length report

644117_408620012540866_785481358_nMany thanks to Robert Livingstone for his outstanding art work.