A Tory Future (Part 1): Repealing the Human Rights Act
The dust has settled, and all would agree that the result was surprising, and that moment that the BBC exit poll emerged showing a Conservative landslide might just go down in political history. In light of the Tories victory, Cameron announced in his victory speech that he intended to follow through on two of his fundamental campaign pledges; to abolish the Human Rights Act, and to offer the populace a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU.
In 2014, David Cameron made the decision to sack Dominic Grieve from his post as Attorney General, believing Grieve’s support for the Human Rights Act was too strong. Since then, the Conservative party line has been outright opposition to the Act, but what exactly does the Act entail, and why might the Tories want to scrap it?
The Human Rights Act was enacted in 1998, and was the UK’s method of enshrining human rights in its national law. The Convention on Human Rights was created by the Council of Europe, which, contrary to the Daily Mail and the Sun’s reports, has absolutely nothing to do with the EU. The Council of Europe was formed shortly after WWII, and the Convention itself was drafted to ensure the people of Europe never again endured the atrocities of the German Third Reich. Since then, the Convention has been used to influence how the UK government has dealt with various crises, from the IRA campaign to the so-called ‘War on Terror’.
With that brief history lesson finished, let’s discuss the content of the Act and why the Tories think it causes problems. The main features of the Act allow judges in UK courts to interpret English legislation ‘in line’ with Human Rights law, and, if this isn’t possible, to declare UK legislation ‘incompatible’ with Human Rights law. The Tories don’t like this, as it means that their policies are at the behest of the courts. In fact, the current Justice Minister, Chris Grayling, has been taken to court 10 times in the past term on account of his policies being irrational, incorrectly implemented, or just downright illegal. You might also be interested to know that he lost every single case, with some of these policies included banning libraries in prisons, and preventing people from claiming legal aid when going to court. The courts held that the former policy would fail to aid the rehabilitation process of prisoners, denying them a right to re-educate themselves, whilst the latter policy would discriminate against the poorest in society, denying them access to redress or justice.
As you can see, giving the courts these powers significantly hinders government policy-making, which is precisely why Cameron wants this piece of legislation out ASAP. In case you hadn’t already noticed, that’s not a good thing. This would mean that, to a large extent, the government would be unaccountable in its policy making, and if you combine this move with the Tories policy of restricting courts from reviewing the actions of public bodies, this recipe adds up to a government that doesn’t want to be questioned. Although it’s not often reported in the papers, the process of judicial review is one of the most important processes that checks the power of Cameron and his cronies.
The Conservatives will try to disguise the repeal of the Human Rights Act as England ‘reclaiming its sovereignty’, and promoting ‘English laws for English people’, but in truth this is a malevolent ruse. The press often use the most controversial human rights cases to paint it as an interference. Take, for example, the lengthy process of deporting hate preacher Abu Qatada, hampered by the need to ensure he was not to be tortured in his home country of Jordan. This case was, at its core, about the use of torture as a form of interrogation and punishment, a matter which unfortunately divides the people of Britain. The tabloid press galvanised this difficult human rights case into an illustration of how ‘meddlesome’ human rights were, and how human rights offer protection to criminals and terrorists. But what is not reported by the press is the fact that the Human Rights courts ensure thousands a year have fair access to healthcare, justice and privacy.
Only last week, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the invasion of peoples’ privacy on computers was a gross breach of human rights. What policy did the Home Secretary announce on the afternoon of the Tory victory? Why, of course, that the government was purchasing new security software from the US government that would allow them to collect the personal communications and data of all UK citizens without a warrant, conditional on the repeal of the Human Rights Act.
As you can see, the Tories are already planning the Acts demise, and what lays ahead looks like a surveillance state backed by Victorian-era courts that protect the wealthy whilst bankrupting the poor. Do not forget, the courts don’t just deal with sentencing criminals; the Tories are planning to remove legal aid for cases regarding child visitation rights, eviction law, and industrial accidents. The removal of the Act will weaken the courts, and make the judiciary less capable of questioning the government they will be made to serve.
It is unclear whether repealing the Human Rights Act will lead to the UK backing out completely of the Convention of Human Rights. We’ve never repealed an international law like the Convention before, it would be uncharted legal waters, an area unknown and as yet unexplored. What is known is that this would send a strong political message, namely that one of the most famous Western democracies no longer values Human Rights. It is a dangerous message to display at a time when Putin is creeping further Westward and many democratic nations are still finding their feet in areas of West Africa and the Middle East. This comes hand in hand with Cameron’s proposed referendum on the EU, and it really seems like the Tories are attempting to withdraw the UK from the international community.
The second part of this article will discuss the implications of the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union.