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.

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally

Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

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


13