Hands off the Human Rights Act! Four reasons to oppose the consultation

The “British Bill of Rights” is the latest sign of the UK’s authoritarian drift.


Another day, another attack on our fundamental liberties. In its latest illiberal policy, the UK government are proposing to replace the Human Rights Act with what it calls a “British Bill of Rights”. This isn’t just a rebranding exercise. It’s an altogether different system, which will see our rights less protected than they currently are.

As with the other pieces of legislation the government is passing, a lot of authoritarian measures are ‘packed’ into a single proposal. But here are four reasons to oppose these new proposals.

1. ‘Government via Daily Mail focus group’ makes for bad policy  
The government argues that a ‘rights culture’ has been allowed to ‘displace personal responsibility and the public interest’ (see Chapter 3). Their charge sheet reads, frankly, like a compendium of Daily Mail articles.

At the centre of their argument is a de facto rejection of the universal element of human rights: the principle that they should apply to everyone and should not draw distinctions between those that are ‘deserving’ of rights and those that (supposedly) are not. They complain, for example, ‘that human rights claims have been brought by many people who have themselves showed a flagrant disregard for the rights of others’. This rather misses the point that the essence of a rights-based system is such unconditionality. Without it individuals could just be labelled as undeserving of their rights by the powerful and have them taken away in a completely arbitrary manner.

The UK government and right-wing tabloid media have been particularly critical of prisoners using the Human Rights Act to bring claims for alleged mistreatment. Disturbingly, the consultation document even complains about cases that the government won, arguing that they should never have been allowed to be brought in the first place.

Another aspect of this lies in the government’s culture war obsession with alleged ‘cancel culture’, which has led them to put forward the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill. Part of their consultation follows in this vein, seeking to ‘confine the scope for interference with Article 10 [(freedom of expression)] to limited and exceptional circumstances’. Like their freedom of speech bill, this could lead to hate speech becoming legally protected. But, at the same time, their proposed Policing Bill provides the state with sweeping powers to repress ‘bad’ protests, a form of freedom of expression, illustrating the legal inconsistencies that these culture war policies are leading to.

2. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it
If it survives the current government, the Human Rights Act will celebrate its quarter of a century in 2023. This legislation brought the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law, which meant claimants no longer had to face the difficult and costly process of going to the European court in Strasbourg. It gave UK citizens more power to enforce their rights in practice, allowing them to challenge unlawful practices and leading to public authorities (across the whole range of government) being more mindful of their human rights obligations. 

Although the government has stopped short of withdrawal from the European Convention (as right wing Conservatives, including Theresa May in 2016, once put forward), their Bill of Rights would weaken the relationship between UK domestic law and the European court. It would make it harder for citizens to uphold Convention rights in UK courts and, due to the expense of going to Strasbourg, puts obstacles in the way of access to justice. 

3. Asking for ‘permission’ in order to protect fundamental human rights?
Using highly contentious language (like ‘genuine’ human rights claims compared to the ones considered illegitimate), the government propose a ‘permission stage’ in order to bring claims under the new Bill of Rights. This would create a formal barrier in the way of justice that is deliberately designed to make the process harder (it should also be noted that under the current system defendants, i.e., those being sued, can already apply to strike out a case if they can show that there aren’t reasonable grounds to bring the claim to court). Under the government’s new proposals those making a claim would also have to show they have experienced a ‘significant disadvantage’.

4. Ignoring the government’s own ‘Independent Human Rights Act Review’
The consultation makes only occasional references to the government’s own review of the Human Rights Act, which is a more substantial document. This near-omission seems straightforwardly political. The review stopped well short of making the kinds of proposals now put forward in the government’s consultation document.

What can I do?
At Another Europe Is Possible we are encouraging individual citizens to engage with the consultation before the deadline of the 8th March 2022. Click here to use our letter writing tool.