THE BLOG

Heartening as It Is That Treacherous Human Rights Act Plans Have Been Delayed, There's No Room for Complacency on Civil Liberties

28/05/2015 18:23 BST | Updated 28/05/2016 10:59 BST

Now the dust has settled on a general election that confounded pollsters and politicians alike, it's time to get to work. Wednesday saw the first Conservative-only Queen's Speech in almost two decades - and it's already clear that our new Government will be providing plenty to keep those concerned with civil liberties busy during the next legislative year.

Talk had been of a bill to replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities - but press coverage of growing dissent within and outwith Government ranks seems to have tempered enthusiasm somewhat. The only mention in the Speech was of 'proposals' to be brought forward for a British Bill of Rights.

As heartening as it is that these treacherous plans have been delayed, there's no room for complacency. This Government has made clear its intentions for our rights and freedoms - and we will fight them every step of the way.

The Human Rights Act enshrines fundamental freedoms into UK law and has allowed countless ordinary British people to challenge abuse, neglect or mistreatment at the hands of the State. Its introduction in 1998 prompted positive changes in legislation and public policy UK-wide, ensuring all of our authorities treat people with fairness, dignity and respect.

The Government claims its British Bill of Rights proposals would provide "an injection of common sense" - in fact, they would end the universality of rights protection, limit the use of human rights law to cases politicians consider "most serious" and diminish the fundamental freedoms of every person in our country. This new Parliament must understand the value of the HRA for all of us and for our reputation on the world stage.

Amidst the packed agenda of 26 bills in the Queen's Speech, there were also a number of policies that raise serious concerns for Liberty - and for anyone with a belief in dignity, equal treatment and fairness as the foundations of a democratic society.

An Investigatory Powers Bill will revive plans for the hated Snoopers' Charter, giving State bodies wide-ranging new tools to collect and process all of our communications data. The Government has been hungry for powers to retain additional data for some time, so this comes as no surprise. Liberty has roused parliamentarians to defeat similar proposals over the years and we will do all we can to oppose this new bill.

An Extremism Bill - which the Prime Minister announced in a speech to the National Security Council in mid-May - will create new civil banning orders, extremism disruption orders and closure orders. These executive powers aren't about terrorists or terrorism-supporting groups, who are already subject to broad-ranging proscription powers and a host of criminal offences. Rather they're aimed at people with views the Home Secretary considers extreme.

The Government claims this is a Bill to curb radicalisation and reassert British values. The reality is that it will stifle debate in institutions like universities, where free speech must exist if our democratic tradition is to thrive. No doubt some of those it seeks to silence will have deeply offensive views - but we must win the argument, not shut it down. Extreme views will not go away if we drive them out of sight - they will grow up, unopposed, in the shadows.

Also on the agenda is an Immigration Bill including plans to criminalise undocumented migrants working in the UK and confiscate the earnings of a group already subject to widespread exploitation and abuse in the labour market. It will also extend 'deport first, appeal later' provisions, risking huge injustice, and introduce a national roll-out of requirements to outsource immigration powers to private landlords, creating obvious potential for discrimination.

And a much-touted Trade Unions Bill would clamp down on strike action. Implications for workers' rights protected by Article 11 of the Human Rights Act - freedom of association and assembly - are obvious.

Thankfully there is some good news on the legislative front. A Policing and Criminal Justice Bill will include much-needed restrictions on police bail and reform of the IPCC which has conspicuously failed to hold police to account in recent years. We'll be working with politicians from across the political spectrum to ensure far-reaching and effective reform.

When Liberty was established in the 1930s, founding member E.M. Forster described our work as "the fight that is never done". He was right. In 2015 the fight to defend our rights and freedoms will be a tough one, but with the support of our members it's one we can win.

Rachel Robinson is policy officer at Liberty