Tory human rights "reforms": watering down our rights

Tory human rights "reforms": weakening protections, empowering oppressors and undermining accountability
6 min read
24 Dec, 2021
The Tory government's new plan to scrap the Human Rights Act is the latest in a series of flagrant attacks on basic civil rights that undermines our legal protections and ability to hold the powerful accountable, writes Malia Bouattia.
Rights groups warn that UK Justice Secretary Dominic Raab's "overhaul" of the Human Rights Act is a flagrant assault on civil liberties. [Getty]

The Tory government will seemingly be ushering in the new year with yet another massive assault on human rights. The Justice Secretary, Dominic Raab, has announced that there will be an “overhaul” of the Human Rights Act, which will be replaced with a new Bill of Rights. He said the move, which followed the publication of the Human Rights Act Reform: A Modern Bill of Rights consultation, would inject a “dose of common sense” and strengthen "typically British rights". 

Raab’s plans, however, demonstrate exactly what our Conservative government means when they refer to so-called British rights. This “dose” includes a dollop of repression, a dash of weakening equality, topped off with a total undermining of any means of accountability of our political leaders and public bodies.

The entire thing is being framed as a means of cracking down on “foreign criminals” by facilitating deportations and depriving migrants of the ability to challenge such cruel processes using the Human Rights Act. 

In reality, alongside targeting vulnerable migrants by stripping away any specs of hope for justice and due process, the proposed changes will also severely undermine the right to family and private life for all. This means a weakening of everyone’s data privacy and more scope for state-led mass surveillance, to name but a few examples. We are being asked to “protect” British borders by signing away our own civil liberties.  

"The Human Rights Act has a 20-year track record of delivering justice, including for some of the most vulnerable people in our society"

The Conservatives are also, in the process, appeasing pro-Brexit voters by presenting the overhaul as a way to "restore Parliament's role as the ultimate decision-maker" rather than Strasbourg when it comes to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). However, this narrative feels like an exercise in garnering support to push through the plan, and a way to avoid international responsibilities when it comes to human rights. 

Rights groups, as well as legal and political figures, have already raised the alarm that these changes would represent a massive setback for human rights across the board. 

Scottish Deputy First Minister John Swinney was amongst those to speak out against Raab’s plans, which he called “ill-judged” and “irresponsible”. In his letter to the Justice Secretary, Swinney highlighted that “the Human Rights Act has a 20-year track record of delivering justice, including for some of the most vulnerable people in our society.” He also pointed out that “expert evidence gathered by the UK Government’s own independent review demonstrates beyond argument that replacing the Act is not just unnecessary, but undesirable.”

The attack on the judicial review process within the bill is one area that could see catastrophic results, since this process is a critical means for individuals and communities to force powerful institutions like the police, army and government to be held responsible for their wrongs in court. 

The bill therefore promises a weakening of our ability to hold institutions like these to account for their ill-treatment, inequity, and even crimes against their own employees, as well as the wider public. As Martha Surrier, director of civil liberties group Liberty, warned: "this plan to reform the Human Rights Act is a blatant, unashamed power grab from a government that wants to put themselves above the law". The organisation added that this “will ultimately restrict our ability to stand up to power.”

 Some of the most important fights for justice in recent British history have relied on the Human Rights Act to hold the powerful to account. This includes, amongst others, the justice campaign for the victims of the Hillsborough disaster, which fought to hold the police accountable for the senseless death of 97 people and the injuries of hundreds at a football match. 

The families of those crushed to death on that fateful day in 1989 used the Human Rights Act to uncover the truth and bring justice to their loved ones in the face of the failures of South Yorkshire Police and their subsequent attempts to lie and evade responsibility. They won their inquiry as a result of pursuing the very laws that the Tories are now trying to gut.  

Part of Raab’s plans to slow processes like these down – and potentially even stop them all together – is to introduce a so-called “permissions stage”. This would mean that, when prosecuting cases of human rights abuses, evidence would have to be gathered prior to even reaching a court. This effectively makes the task close to impossible, given that many cases rely on court-specific processes to gather said evidence, such as witness testimonies and cross-examinations.

Moreover, under Raab’s new guidelines such a case would have to demonstrate not only that human rights infringements have taken place –i.e. that a crime was committed – but also that these caused “significant disadvantage,” effectively turning the procedure from one about the law to one about the extent of the suffering caused.

It took 30 years for the Hillsborough campaign to reach a verdict in its battle for truth and justice under the current guidelines. Just imagine what further roadblocks would have meant in terms of time, effort, and costs. The truth is that the primary outcome of this move would be to increase the impunity of perpetrators like the South Yorkshire Police in crimes like these.

Of course, justice for the Hillsborough victims is not alone. Protecting freedom of the press, defending religious freedoms, challenging institutional failures to investigate and stop sexual and racial violence, supporting carer rights of parents, supporting LGBTQ people, respecting devolution settlements with Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales - the reasons so many are fighting against the overhaul of the Human Rights Act are vast.

"The Tories are attempting to turn the entire system of rights, fought for and won by the most oppressed in history, on its head"

It is also for this reason that we all have a stake in opposing Raab’s plans. As Sacha Deshmukh, CEO of Amnesty International UK explained, “Human right laws and standards are hard-won, built from historic struggle and impassioned campaigning - politicians of the day must not be allowed to redefine rights based on which the Government likes and which it does not.” 

The Tories are attempting to distract people with the manufactured immigration crisis and by whipping up anti-EU sentiments as a way to push the bill through, but these changes will affect everyone’s rights. They will further disadvantage the poor, the exploited, and the oppressed. 

It is depressingly ironic that the Conservatives are saying that this latest assault is a means of taking on "abuses of the system" by migrants when they are the system’s biggest abusers - scammers, liars, corrupt to the bone. They are attempting to turn the entire system of rights, fought for and won by the most oppressed in history, on its head, all to ensure – and profit from – their positions of power.

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

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Opinions expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those  of The New Arab and its editorial board or staff.