Tories v human rights

The Indy has an explainer piece about what the (UK) Human Rights Act is and why the Tories plan to ditch it.

The Human Rights Act is a piece of law, introduced in 1998, that guarantees human rights in Britain. It was introduced as one of the first major reforms of the last Labour government.

In practice, the Act has two main effects. Firstly, it incorporates the rights of the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic British law.

What this means is that if someone has a complaint under human rights law they do not have to go to European courts but can get justice from British courts.

Secondly, it requires all public bodies – not just the central government, but institutions like the police, NHS, and local councils – to abide by these human rights.

So, speaking from the pov of a Yank, it’s somewhat like the US Bill of Rights, but also unlike it in that here the court of appeal is still a national court rather than a transnational one. As I understand it that’s part of what people on the right dislike about it: it messes with national sovereignty. The trouble with that thought is that national sovereignty is only as good as it is. If you have a government that flouts human rights, then national sovereignty is no way to protect human rights. History has one or two examples of this actually happening.

What rights are we talking about?

The Act covers all the rights included in the European Convention.

These rights are: Right to life, right not to be tortured or subjected to inhumane treatment, right not to be held as a slave, right to liberty and security of the person, right to a fair trial, right not be retrospectively convicted for a crime, right to a private and family life, right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, right to freedom of expression, right to freedom of assembly and association, right to marriage, right to an effective remedy, right not to be discriminated against, the right to the peaceful enjoyment of one’s property, and the right to an education.

National governments don’t always strictly honor every one of those rights. Not absolutely always. I’m sure they mean well, but they stumble now and then.

Ok so what is this here European Convention on Human Rights?

The European Convention on Human Rights is an agreement that all countries in Europe will respect human rights. It was drawn up in 1950 in the aftermath of the Second World War.

The Convention was spearheaded by Britain and the committee that drew up its final draft was chaired by British Conservative MP  Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe. The UK was a founding signatory and ratified the Convention in March 1951.

That’s after the UDHR. Both were drawn up “in the aftermath of the Second World War” – i.e. in an effort to prevent repetitions of the kind of thing that led up to, caused, went on during and after that war.

Different countries implement the Convention in different ways. The Human Rights Act is the British way of implementing the convention into domestic law.

So why do the Tories want to ditch it?

The Conservatives say in their manifesto that they want to scrap the Human Rights Act. They would replace it with what they call a “British Bill of Rights”.

They say this new bill will “break the formal link between British Courts and Human Rights”.

Um…what? Could they say anything more sinister?

Do they have any more brilliant ideas?

The Home Secretary Theresa May has said Britain could leave the ECHR if British courts were not allowed to overrule the decisions of the Strasbourg court, which ultimately decides ECHR cases.

Oh ffs –  of course they wouldn’t be allowed to overrule the decisions; that’s the whole point!

Mind you: again, the ECHR is only as good as it is. We in the US have a mostly-Catholic Supreme Court now, and a majority with some quite peculiar ideas about human rights.

Tell us about the political background, Indy.

The ECHR has told the government it can’t do various things – such as deport prisoners to countries where torture is routinely used – because such moves breaches human rights.

The Human Rights Act is also subject to a lot of negative reporting in the right-wing press, with regular inaccurate or partial stories about cases brought under the Act.

That’s freedom of the press for you. Ironic, isn’t it.


  1. johnthedrunkard says

    Britain’s horrific state secrecy laws are probably behind the desire for a ‘special’ rights document.

  2. sonofrojblake says

    unlike it in that here the court of appeal is still a national court rather than a transnational one

    A better analogy here is if you consider Britains courts as state, as opposed to federal courts. Without the act, you had to literally go to a court Strasbourg to make a case, because that was where the court with jurisdiction was located. Post ’98, British courts had that authority devolved to them.

    Sovereignty wasn’t the issue. We signed up to the convention long ago. In order to remove our legal restrictions it’s not enough to simply repeal this British law – we’d have to actually leave the ECHR, and we could only do that if we leave the EU. And handily, Head Boy Cameron has promised a national referendum on that very issue within two years, possibly one. Of course, there won’t be any biased fearmongering in the press in advance of that and all debate will be fair and balanced. And I’m a Dutchman named Franz, pleasetameetcha.

  3. Bluntnose says

    we’d have to actually leave the ECHR, and we could only do that if we leave the EU

    No, that’s not right. The ECHR is not an EU institution, we could withdraw from the EU and remain a contracting member of the ECHR, or vice versa.

  4. sonofrojblake says

    True, technically. After all, we were signatories to (hell, we were among the founders of) the ECHR decades before we joined the EEC/EC/EU. Continued membership of the ECHR would be perfectly fine even if we left the EU. But continued membership of the EU would be politically difficult if we rejected the ECHR. I’m not sure an analogy with the US would work, but could, say, Texas remain in the union if it somehow no longer recognised, say, the Fifth Amendment? (Note for yanks: the UK removed the right to remain silent in 1994, and in 2000 made remaining silent in certain circumstances (specifically when asked for an encryption key) an offence punishable by up to two years in prison).

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