Rights and wrong: Why we don’t want a new bill of rights

Peter Apps argues that replacing the Human Rights Act with a Tory ‘British bill of rights’ would be a bad idea

March 20, 2012
4 min read

On 17 November 2000, two adults with learning difficulties were at home in their council flat. For 15 months, they had been victimised by a gang of teenagers. The council had visited their home, concluding that they were unsafe. But nothing was done; they were left unprotected. And on that night, the gang broke into their house and held them prisoner for three days. They were both physically and sexually abused.

Their compensation claims were rejected by the English courts. But this summer, they forced the council into a settlement. It was only because of the European Court of Human Rights that they were able to do so.

To many people in Britain, this would come as a surprise. After a sustained campaign in the right-wing media, ‘human rights’ has become almost a dirty term. Portrayed as arcane, illogical and bureaucratic, they are seen as the enemy of common sense and friend only of illegal immigrants and paedophiles.

Attacking the Human Rights Act has been a personal priority for David Cameron, who has repeatedly pledged to replace it with a ‘British bill of rights’. An independent commission was set up by the government in March with the aim of investigating how this might work in practice.

Before we embrace Cameron’s proposal, it might do good to consider how our human rights law actually works in practice.

Legal revolution

The Human Rights Act 1998 was nothing short of a legal revolution. It incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) directly into British law. For the first time, you could argue human rights cases in British courts; public bodies could be taken to court for breaches of human rights; and if a law was passed in violation of the ECHR, judges could issue a ‘declaration of incompatibility’.

Since then, the limits of the Act have been most consistently tested by the ‘war on terror’ – control orders, evidence gained through torture, detention without charge, trials where the case against the suspect is not fully declared. In many of these cases the outcome has been a messy compromise that satisfies neither supporters of the government’s security measures nor campaigners against them. But the only way to challenge such increasingly authoritarian government measures was the Human Rights Act.

Its impact doesn’t stop with terrorism cases. The effect of the ECHR stretches way beyond what you might consider their original remit. For example, it is Article 2, guaranteeing the right to life, that means family members must be involved in an inquest when someone dies in the state’s custody. Article 5 (the right to liberty) forces police to explain the reason for an arrest in a language a suspect can understand. And Article 3 (freedom from inhuman and degrading treatment) means a council must pay out compensation when it fails to protect vulnerable adults from a gang.

Since 2000, when the act came into force, our domestic law has developed in accordance with human rights principles. In housing law, they hold up evictions. In employment law, they have greatly expanded protection from discrimination. Even the freedom of the press to report on matters of public interest is based in human rights law.

Years of progress

These same rights might be protected by a British bill of rights. But the ECHR represents a document that has been unpacked by years of legal argument and judicial scrutiny, so that the full implications of each article can be enforced. And many of these implications are highly inconvenient for those in power. It is not unusual for Britain to be found in violation of the convention.

Wipe the slate clean with a new bill of rights, and you start all over again. Years of progress would be lost.

Perhaps more importantly, the Human Rights Act handed power to the courts. Backed up by the judges in Strasbourg, for the first time in English history they have had the authority to question parliament and the government of the day. And over the past decade, with the government progressively hacking away at civil liberties, this authority has been more important than ever.

In many ways the Human Rights Act is a British bill of rights. And unlike the one Cameron proposes, it gives someone independent of government the power to enforce it.

This is the real reason the Human Rights Act angers him: it places limits on what he can do. A new bill of rights would give him a free hand to redefine these limits. And that’s not the sort of freedom we need the law to be defending.


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill

Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility

Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports

From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices

How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed

In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design

Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform

Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out

Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant

Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’

Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue

A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank

News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions

Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release

Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts

‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette

The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.

How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op

Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU

Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity

Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson

Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release

University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.

Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.

Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History


13