THE BLOG

Now's the Time to Fight for the Human Rights Act

24/09/2015 12:08 BST | Updated 23/09/2016 10:12 BST

Next Friday is the 15th anniversary of the Human Rights Act coming into force in the UK, an anniversary that we should all be celebrating. It was promised in the Labour Party's 1997 election manifesto as a means to "establish a floor, not a ceiling, for human rights", and that is precisely what it did.

A simple piece of legislation, it enabled the rights protected by the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) to be enforced by British courts. Prior to the Act, the only way to use the ECHR was by taking a case to the European Court of Human Rights, which by the mid-1990s could take an average of 5 years and cost about £30,000.

The Human Rights Act was revolutionary, making it unlawful for public bodies to contravene Convention rights and forcing the courts to interpret legislation in accordance with those rights. Arguments regarding the 'right to a private and family life' (Article 8 ECHR) and the 'right to a fair trial' (Article 6 ECHR) transformed the legal system in the UK, vastly improving transparency and access to justice.

However, critics have had their knives drawn at the Human Rights Act from the outset. Perceptions have grown over time that it is little more than a 'villain's charter', giving criminals the right to sue the prison authorities and letting asylum seekers stay in the UK on the flimsiest of reasons.

One person who came to be synonymous with all that's wrong with the Human Rights Act was Abu Hamza. The terror preacher's lawyers argued he couldn't be deported for fear of breaching his Article 3 rights, which prohibit inhuman or degrading treatment, and he was such a nuisance to the British state that even the Queen was said to be upset he couldn't be arrested. Six Home Secretaries famously came and went before he was eventually deported, but Hamza was an exceptional case and we must always remember that.

Millions benefit from the Human Rights Act each year. Families kept together to protect their right to a family life. Refugees allowed to stay in the UK rather than being sent back to a country where they could be killed for their political views or sexual orientation. The right to wear articles of faith such as a small cross openly in the workplace. The right to free speech and the ability to protest peacefully. The rights of victims of crime. Even the services and resources that your local council offers. All are governed by the Human Rights Act.

In the Queen's Speech in May, the Tories set out their intention to get rid of the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights so that our laws are no longer beholden to the 'bogeyman' known as Europe. In reality, it will be difficult to achieve that. Britain has been a signatory to the ECHR since its inception in 1950. If we want to ensure that our Supreme Court does not answer to any other court, we would have to withdraw from the ECHR.

Withdrawing from the ECHR would set an unhealthy precedent. Since the Second World War, we have been able to take the higher moral ground and criticise many other nations for their poor human rights records. If we left the ECHR, we would no longer be able to do so. Worse still, it would give a green light to countries around the world to be selective about which human rights they protect. After all, if Britain can do it, why can't they?

The risks with introducing a Bill of Rights are massive. By removing the basics of equal treatment for all, we would be denying certain rights to some of our own citizens whilst at the same time losing any sense of credibility on the global stage on such issues. At a time when Britain's light of influence is dimming, this could put that candle out for good.

The Human Rights Act has made its presence felt for the last 15 years. It has been there to protect all of us equally and has done that impressively well. Let's mark that birthday by celebrating its achievements and making sure it doesn't disappear any time soon. Now is the time to be fighting for its survival, not consigning it to history. After all, you never know when you might need it yourself.