POLITICS

Human Rights Act To Be Scrapped By Michael Gove Now Tories Have A Majority After General Election

11/05/2015 11:29 BST | Updated 26/05/2015 15:59 BST

Michael Gove, the new Justice Secretary, is wasting no time pushing forward with controversial Tory plans to scrap the Human Rights Act.

Gove has returned to the cabinet with the job of scrapping the Act, a long-held Tory pledge which has caused alarm among human rights experts who claim the party wants to reduce rights.

Removing the legislation, which enshrines the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into UK law, would be a major Conservative victory in an area which has bitterly divided public opinion.

michael gove

Michael Gove, who has now been appointed justice secretary, during the election campaign

The move would scrap European laws which include right to life, the right to a fair trial, and the right not to be enslaved or tortured - but David Cameron plans to introduce a 'British Bill of Rights' to replace the Act and protect similar rights.

Aspects of European guidance on human rights have caused tensions in Britain, such as a ruling saying that it is illegal to ban all prisoners from voting - which contradicts parts of British law. David Cameron has said the idea of prisoners being allowed to vote makes him "feel physically sick".

This is the first time the Conservatives have the power to drop the Act - which was introduced by Labour in 1998 - because they were blocked in the last government by the Liberal Democrats, their coalition partners, who are committed to keeping the laws in place.

But after winning a Conservative majority for the first time in more than two decades, the Tories are reportedly keen to push through abolition of the Act, which is expected to be in The Queen's Speech on 28 May.

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Chris Grayling, the last justice secretary, said the Tories were even willing to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights if the Council of Europe rejected their proposal to set up a British bill, Politics Home reports. This would make Britain the only European country along with Belarus which is not signed up to the convention - of which Britain was a founding signatory in 1951.

The British Bill Of Rights that the Tories have proposed includes many similar rights to the European law, such as protection from torture and right to a fair trial, and other "qualified" rights which are limited and can be overturned, such as the right to privacy.

READ THE TORY PROPOSAL FOR A NEW BILL OF RIGHTS IN FULL

What is the human rights act?

The Human Rights Act 1998 (also known as the Act or the HRA) came into force in the United Kingdom in October 2000, according to the Equality And Human Rights Commission. Effectively, it puts the protections in the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law, and must be followed by all public bodies in this country. The Act means judgements around the laws can be taken through UK courts, rather then European ones.

The ECHR is an agreement for member states of the Council of Europe, and is not related to the European Union, although signing up to the convention is required to join the EU.

Fundamental rights in the Act include:

  • Right to life
  • Freedom from torture and inhuman or degrading treatment
  • Right to liberty and security
  • Freedom from slavery and forced labour
  • Right to a fair trial
  • No punishment without law
  • Respect for your private and family life, home and correspondence
  • Freedom of thought, belief and religion
  • Freedom of expression

Many commenters on Twitter have voiced concerns about the Tory plans, some with fear and some with bitter humour:

Blogging on the Huffington Post, Sonya Sceats, Director of Policy and Advocacy at Freedom from Torture, said the Conservative plans were "not the answer" to the debate around the Act and was "obviously intended to weaken protection" of human rights. "It is essential instead to show the public how the Act is positively changing lives for patients, care home residents, domestic violence victims, children and other disadvantaged members of our communities," she said.

In another blog, Adam Wagner, a human rights barrister, writes that the Tories intend to "reduce" human rights, not protect them:

"In a different political reality, a bill of rights for the UK might be a great idea. It could include the public in a project which has since 1997, rightly or wrongly, been seen as an elitist one, drawn up by lawyers and politicians, not the people who are meant to be benefiting from those rights.

But that isn't that reality. The Conservative plan for a bill of rights, as vague as it is, is not about building the large tent you would need to construct a modern, inclusive bill of rights. It is about protecting the narrow interests of party supporters.

You only need to read the press release, since buried, which came with the original proposal. It talks about taking rights away from travellers, victims of abuse by the British military, illegal immigrants. Human rights are universal, they apply to everyone. The whole point is that minorities and unpopular groups are shielded from the random attacks of populism.

The focus of the Conservative policy, or at least the small group behind it, is reducing rights, not reforming them. Others have written beautifully about the fundamental danger in this approach - see, from the left, Nick Cohen, or, from the right, Lord Finkelstein."

But writing in the Daily Mail on Monday, journalist James Slack called the act "hated" and argued that it must be repealed, giving a list of examples showing "criminals and legally aided lawyers using the legislation to their advantage".

He named the decision - based on the Human Rights Act - that some convicts should be entitled to vote in UK elections as an example of the Act being misused. Slack also cited the decision to award £2,500 to alleged Al Qaeda affiliate Abu Qatada for being unlawfully detained, after being held indefinitely without trial following the 11 September 2001 attacks.

Others on Twitter agreed that the act was misused, and pointed out the critics of the move were largely overlooking the fact that the government plans to replace the Act with a new bill which also promises to protect human rights: