Protecting human rights in the UK

There will rarely be a time at which the law could not more perfectly protect or enforce the rights and responsibilities of those who are obliged to follow it. The framers of the law are never flawless, nor do they do have complete knowledge. In political systems they have agendas, and the practices within the jurisdiction change. Despite these obvious statements, open-mindedness about upgrading the legislation that protects human rights is in short supply.

Public perception

Reform to the Human Rights Act has been continually delayed. In December, the Secretary of State for Justice, Michael Gove, announced that the plan to replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights had been delayed for a second time. The consultation on the proposed changes is now expected later this year.

This is despite the fact that human rights reform would cost little, could be implemented almost immediately and should lead to a fairer, cheaper legal system. It has been a long time in the works, and has faced opposition ever since David Cameron made plain his concern over the Human Rights Act in 2007 by suggesting that Britain should "abolish the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights, which sets out rights and responsibilities. The fact that the murderer of Philip Lawrence cannot be deported flies in the face of common sense. It is a glaring example of what is going wrong in our country. What about the rights of Mrs Lawrence? The problem for this Government is that the Human Rights Act is their legislation and they appear to be blind to its failings."

There is a long tradition of newspapers, media outlets and politicians damning the results of the Human Rights Act. The cumulative effect of these attacks has been to diminish the perception of the Act in the minds of the public and to raise alarm bells within the Human Rights industry at the Government’s appetite for reform. As Ken Clarke has warned, "It is the duty of politicians to stand up to the tabloids, to turn around and argue, not let them whip up feelings that are inaccurate.” This matters to more than just the public mood. Those looking to reform Human Rights law should begin by recognising the achievements of the Human Rights Act in protecting and advancing the rights of the least fortunate, and sometimes most unpopular.

An ongoing process of review and reform

Today, the Human Rights Act is the best legislation we have for ensuring the rights of individuals. Opponents to a British Bill of Rights have some grounds to be suspicious of change, given the sustained attacks that the Human Rights Act has received. Any good instrument which protects the most vulnerable will produce results which are unpopular. There is no point pretending that a British Bill of Rights will be a solution fit for all time, or one which will not protect those we love and loathe in equal measure. A British Bill of rights will, if it is well designed, lead to some results which are deeply unpopular.

To engage with the Human Rights industry, we must be honest in acknowledging the rights protected by the original Human Right Act, and not seek to pretend that a British Bill of Rights will be any more permanent a solution. Rather than tie ourselves to a document which claims to be perfect, the ambition of those drafting the British Bill of Rights should simply be to produce a better iteration in an ongoing process of review and reform. The British Bill of Rights should be the Human Rights Act 2.0, and as such its designers must appreciate, respect, and celebrate the features of the original where they work well. Only by doing that will we hold a serious debate in which a spirit of cautious optimism can replace entrenched concern from many human rights practitioners.

Rupert Myers is an Associate Fellow at Bright Blue and political correspondent for British GQ