Human rights

‘Gotcha!’ The Conservatives’ Plans to Reform Britain’s Human Rights Laws

The following article is written by Ian Turner, Senior Lecturer in Law at UCLan.

In a previous Lancashire Law School blog, in July 2014, I questioned the Conservative Party’s intention to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) and/or the rights of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) which this statute incorporates into UK law. Today (at the time of writing) the Conservatives have published their proposals for reform, if they win a majority of Parliamentary seats at the next general election.[1] Justifying their plans, the Conservatives argue that “the recent practice of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) and the HRA has damaged the credibility of human rights at home”.

In reference to the ECtHR, the Conservatives believe it has expanded the ECHR “into new areas, and certainly beyond what the framers of [it] had in mind when they signed up to it”. The Conservatives also say that the current dispute between the ECtHR and the UK over voting rights for prisoners is “one clear example”. And they believe that the HRA “undermines the role of UK courts in deciding on human rights issues in this country”. As all First Year Public Law students know, s.2 of the HRA requires UK courts to take into account rulings of the ECtHR when they are interpreting ECHR rights in domestic law. “This means problematic [ECtHR] jurisprudence is often being applied in UK law,” the Conservatives further argue. So the “present position under the [ECtHR] and the [HRA] is not acceptable” and the next Conservative Government “will make fundamental changes to the way human rights laws work in the United Kingdom, to restore common sense and put Britain first”. To this end the Conservatives propose to eg. repeal the HRA and introduce a British Bill of Rights. This will still incorporate the ECHR into UK law but will not oblige our courts to follow the rulings of the ECtHR.

It is not for this blog to critique today’s Conservative proposals as established legal bloggers such as Mark Elliott,[2] Carl Gardner[3] and Adam Wagner[4] have already done so. But today’s proposals tie in well with a blog I was intending to write about my recent attendance at a conference on human rights at the University of Liverpool last month. The title of this conference was ‘Human Rights in the UK Media: Representation and Reality. (Indeed, Adam Wagner, who is a barrister at One Crown Office Row in London and the Editor of the well respected ‘UK Human Rights Blog’, was one of the conference participants.[5]) The media has seemingly been at the forefront of human rights misinformation ever since, say, the enactment of the HRA in 2000, thus inevitably fuelling today’s Conservative plans for the reform of human rights in the UK.

Because of word constraints I am unable to report on every paper that was presented at the conference, so will concentrate on only one, the keynote speech by David Mead, Professor of UK Human Rights at the University of East Anglia: ‘They offer you a feature on stockings and suspenders next to a call for stiffer penalties for sex offenders: do we learn more about the media than about human rights from tabloid coverage of human rights?’ Mead had trawled through dozens of internet sites of various national newspapers such as The Sun, The Star, The Mail and The Telegraph, looking for references to human rights. He found many human rights stories that were: ‘just plain wrong’; ‘distortions of the truth’; ‘giving undue prominence to the human rights of unfavourable victims’ eg. foreign criminals challenging their deportation; ‘giving little mention of the human rights of favourable victims’, ‘trivialising human rights’ eg. Theresa May’s reference to the human rights of a deportee separated from his cat[6] and ‘sins of commission’ eg. the media reporting spurious human rights claims such as the rights of prisoners to have access to hardcore pornography,[7] which are rejected outright by the courts, but not then reported as such by their original media sources. In conclusion Mead found that the majority of the press tended to portray human rights as undemocratic and benefitting only the ‘undeserving’. Today’s proposals to reform the HRA and our relationship with the ECtHR are surely grounded in this long-running misrepresentation of human rights by the media.

[1] The Conservative Party, ‘The Conservatives’ Proposals for Changing Britain’s Human Rights Laws’ 3 October 2014 <https://www.politicshome.com/uk/article/105764/the_conservatives_proposals_for_changing_britains_human_rights_laws.html> accessed 3 October 2014.

[2] Mark Elliott, ‘My Analysis of the Conservative Party’s Proposals for a British Bill of Rights’ 3 October 2014 <http://publiclawforeveryone.com/2014/10/03/my-analysis-of-the-conservative-partys-proposals-for-a-british-bill-of-rights/ > accessed 3 October 2014.

[3] Carl Gardner, ‘”Protecting Human Rights in the UK”: the Tory Human Rights Plan’ 3 October 2014 <http://www.headoflegal.com/2014/10/03/protecting-human-rights-in-the-uk-the-tory-human-rights-plan/> accessed 3 October 2014.

[4] Adam Wagner, ‘Apocalypse Soon: The Conservatives Reveal Their Real Plans for Human Rights’ 3 October 2014 <http://ukhumanrightsblog.com/2014/10/03/apocalypse-soon-the-conservatives-reveal-their-real-plans-for-human-rights/> accessed 3 October 2014.

[5] Other esteemed human rights lawyers in attendance included: Eric Heinze, Professor of Law at Queen Mary College, London; Colin Murray, Senior Lecturer at the University of Newcastle; Colm O’Cinneide, Reader in Law at University College, London; and Jacob Rowbottom, Associate Professor in Law at the University of Oxford. Other participants included Owen Bowcott, the Legal Affairs Correspondent for The Guardian.

[6] Alan Travis, ‘Tory Conference Cat-Fight: Clarke and May Clash Over Human Rights Act’ The Guardian 4 October 2011 <http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2011/oct/04/theresa-may-clashes-judges-cat> accessed 18 October 2012.

[7] Amnesty TV, ‘Theresa May and the Human Rights Act – Video’ The Guardian 2 November 2011 <http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/video/2011/nov/02/amnesty-international-human-rights-video> accessed 18 October 2011.

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