What does scrapping the Human Rights Act really mean and will it be as disastrous as it sounds? Clodagh Chapman investigates.
While the media was up in arms about #traingate, the Tories dropped a minor bombshell – the plan to scrap the Human Rights Act is going full steam ahead.
First introduced by David Cameron in the Conservative Party 2015 manifesto, and later taken charge of by Michael Gove, the concept of replacing the Human Rights Act, which is dictated by the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), with a new British Bill of Rights has been on the horizon for months.
After a couple of postponements, it was announced that it was too heavily entwined with the politics of Brexit and would be dealt with at a later date; it was soon forgotten about by the majority of the population. Last week the issue cropped up again, and it seems as though Liz Truss, Justice Secretary, has been tasked with picking up where Gove left off.
What does this mean for feminism? Well, on the surface it’s bad news. Contained in the Human Rights Act are – alongside the rights to life, fair trial and liberty – the articles which feminism and social justice as a whole are massively dependent on. Articles 9 and 10 guarantee us our freedom to thought and expression respectively, which have long been used in legal defense of protests against the government. Perhaps even more concerning, Article 14 is what protects us from discrimination. It has been used in countless legal cases, ensuring – for example – people with additional housing costs as a result of a disability receive sufficient Housing Benefit. In short, The Human Rights Act is what maintains equality and protects our right to protest inequality; it is a fundamental part of our legal system.
There is the point to be made that scrapping the Human Rights Act could pave the way for a new and improved bill which clarifies grey areas, such as when exactly freedom of expression becomes hate speech – and the Tories have assured us that they will be drawing up their own replacement British Bill of Rights which will represent ‘British values’. However, given the surge in xenophobia in the wake of Brexit, what exactly are British values? More to the point, should we really give a government under Theresa May – with her questionable human rights voting record – responsibility for dictating our fundamental rights? Is Liz Truss, who has been absent for almost every major vote on human rights since she became an MP in 2010, the right person to be leading this? Surely for the creation of an alternative bill of rights which is conducive to feminism and equality in general, we need a government who explicitly put an emphasis on social welfare with a justice secretary who is actually engaged in social justice.
As if the issue wasn’t complicated enough already, because the British Bill of Rights would be created by parliament itself, each new parliament could vote on new rights to be added to the Bill. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it essentially means no party can make an irreversible change to our human rights. However, it does also give a huge amount of responsibility to each parliament for the five years they are in power. For decades, protection under the ECHR has provided a safety blanket for oppressed minorities under governments who don’t see their rights as a priority. This isn’t a major issue in the current parliament, where the Tories only have a working majority of 17 seats. But with the Labour party having a kind of existential crisis, and the probability of a Labour majority next election being put at just 9% accordingly, and moreover given the very real probability of a post-Brexit snap election in the near future which would almost inevitably be a landslide win for the Tories, it is completely possible that for the next five years our human rights would be dictated by an increasingly right-wing Conservative Party.
Of course the assumption that the Conservative party would jeopardise our rights in creation of this Bill could be completely proven wrong.We could be pleasantly surprised and find that the new British Bill is everything we hoped and more, and that it is genuinely representative of the massive cross-section of people in modern Britain (not just the privileged few who see themselves adequately represented in parliament). But given our current government’s history of making cuts to the services that social welfare is arguably based upon – education and the NHS – and the current racist and xenophobic climate in the UK as a whole, it’s not foolish to be apprehensive about what could come of this situation.
So what can we, as feminists, do? Well, until we have more information about what exactly this new Bill will entail, not a lot. But in the coming months or years, as the government puts together a draft Bill which goes to a parliamentary vote, we need to not forget about this – we need to stay engaged and, remembering the Conservative’s current small majority, lobby our MPs to vote in line with feminist principles as and when issues arise. And, should the worst happen and we end up with a Bill of Rights which is un-inclusive and unrepresentative, we need to stand in solidarity with those not protected and do all we can in subsequent elections to vote in a government which will make a change.
Illustration by Jess Baxter