The Tories are planning a bonfire of our rights after Brexit, with the top priority being to scrap our Human Rights Act and replace it with a watered down ‘Bill of Rights’.
That’s been the long-term goal of the Tories, but they can’t do it whilst we are in the European Union.
That’s because, although our Human Rights Act, and the European Convention on Human Rights, are not part of the EU, a commitment to human rights is a strict EU membership requirement.
But it’s not only our human rights legislation that Tories openly hope to jettison or water down after Brexit.
That became clear when, back in November 2017, the Tories voted down a Labour amendment to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill that would have protected our EU rights and protections after Brexit.
The Labour front bench sought to amend that Bill to ensure that after Brexit, EU derived employment rights, environmental protection, health and safety standards and consumer standards can only be amended by primary legislation.
Ken Clarke was the only Tory to vote for the amendment. The former Chancellor and pro-European asked why, if the Government did not intend to water down these rights after Brexit, ministers were not prepared to enshrine this in the Bill by backing the amendment?
The defeat of the amendment means that after Brexit, government ministers will be free to keep, amend or scrap EU rights and protections at their will without the usual scrutiny of Parliament – i.e. by the use of ‘secondary legislation.’
Despite voting with the Government, the former Conservative attorney general Dominic Grieve – a strong Remain supporter – warned that laws protecting such rights will be brought to the “lowest possible status” in Parliament after Brexit.
The true sentiments of leading Tories against our many rights currently enshrined in EU and human rights laws are not a secret.
Former Foreign Secretary, and wannabe Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has asserted that we need “to root out the nonsense of the social chapter -the working time directive and the atypical work directive and other job-destroying regulations.”
During the EU referendum, the then Minister for Employment, Priti Patel, called for the UK to “halve the burdens of EU social and employment legislation”.
Lord Callanan, Minister of State for Exiting the European Union, openly called for the scrapping of the working time directive, the temporary agency work directive, the pregnant workers directive and “all the other barriers to actually employing people.”
But the number one goal for the Tories after Brexit is to scrap our Human Rights Act (HRA) and to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, upon which the HRA is based.
It was Winston Churchill who, in 1948, advocated a European ‘Charter of Human Rights’ in direct response to the abject horrors of the Nazi regime and the Second World War. British lawyers drafted what was later to become the European Convention, which came into force in 1953.
The UK was the first country to sign up to the Convention, and leaving it would end almost 70 years of being legally bound by this first international treaty on human rights.
Including Britain, there are 47 countries that have agreed to the Convention, which provides civil and political rights for all citizens.
Under the Convention, individuals, or groups of people, or one or more countries, can appeal to the international ‘European Court of Human Rights’ in Strasbourg, France, to give judgments or advisory opinions on alleged breaches of civic and political rights by nation states.
From 2000, the Labour government brought into law the Human Rights Act. This allows alleged breaches of the Convention to be heard more speedily in UK courts, but still retaining the right to appeal to the higher international court in Strasbourg.
Although the European Convention on Human Rights is completely separate to the European Union, signing up to the Convention and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights is one of the EU membership requirements.
In their 2010 and 2015 manifestos, the Conservative Party pledged to replace the Human Rights Act with a ‘British Bill of Rights’.
This would, “break the formal link between British courts and the European Court of Human Rights and make our own Supreme Court the ultimate arbiter of human rights matters in the UK.”
The Conservatives argue their reforms will ensure the European Court of Human Rights will no longer be able to overrule judgments made in British courts and will make “the Supreme Court supreme”.
Former Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti said the proposal “is the gravest threat to freedom in Britain since the Second World War”.
During the coalition years, however, the LibDems refused to allow the scrapping of the Human Rights Act.
The Conservatives 2017 manifesto pledged to retain the Human Rights Act “while the process of Brexit is underway”.
But now that Brexit is on the horizon, the Tories have reaffirmed their plan to scrap the Human Rights Act.
Justice Minister Sir Oliver Heald confirmed after the referendum:
“We are committed to reforming our domestic human rights framework and we will return to our proposals once we know the arrangements for our exit from the European Union.”
In a letter to a parliamentary inquiry in January, Edward Argar, a junior justice minister, wrote:
“It is right that we wait until the process of leaving the EU concludes before considering the matter further in the full knowledge of the new constitutional landscape.”
Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, responded:
“This new Conservative threat to repeal the Human Rights Act and withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights is a scandal.”
During her tenure as Home Secretary, Theresa May took every opportunity to demean the value of human rights and turn the public against them – a sentiment and goal echoed by leading right-wing, pro-Brexit newspapers.
Back in 2011, Mrs May wrongly – and ridiculously – claimed that an ‘illegal immigrant’ had won the right under the Human Rights Act to stay in the UK because he had a pet cat.
At the time, fellow Tory, Ken Clarke, then UK Justice Secretary, felt the need to speak out against the claim, which he called “laughable and childlike”. An official from the Royal Courts of Justice confirmed that a cat had nothing to do with the case.
Even though the story wasn’t true, it seemed to suit Ms May’s agenda to belittle human rights legislation.
The case most cited by Theresa May as a reason to scrap our Human Rights Act and leave the European Convention on Human Rights is that of the radical Islamic cleric, Abu Qatada.
I should say at the outset that I am no fan of Qatada, who spread hate with his preaching. However, what happened in his case is not a reason to scrap or water down our human rights protections.
The story of Abu Qatada is probably one of the most poorly reported in some of our media and by some of our politicians. So, it’s important to understand the facts.
Qatada had been given asylum in the UK after being tortured in his native Jordan. Whilst in the UK, he was sentenced in Jordan to life in prison for alleged involvement in terrorist activities.
Theresa May tried to have him deported back to Jordan, but the Court of Human Rights blocked this, because the evidence against Qatada had been obtained by torture, and there was also a serious risk of him being tortured himself if he returned.
The vast majority of appeals by foreign criminals to avoid deportation from the UK under human rights legislation fail.
However, Qatada kept appealing against deportation under the Human Rights Act, and he kept winning, costing the UK government almost £2 million in legal fees and huge frustration.
The fury shared with the nation about the government’s inability to ‘get rid of him’ put the issue of ‘Human Rights’ into a bad light.
It wasn’t the government’s fault that they couldn’t dispatch Qatada from the country, argued Theresa May, no; it was all the fault of ‘Human Rights’.
If only we didn’t have those dreadful ‘Human Rights’, we could have sent Qatada – and loads of other disliked people – packing from the country in an instant.
But under the Human Rights Act, every one, every human, has the right to a fair trial, without the use of discriminating evidence that has been obtained through torture.
Article 3 of the Human Rights Act contains an absolute prohibition of torture. Article 6 of the Human Rights Act guarantees the right to a fair trial.
Aren’t these basic rights that all of us should have? If these rights can be taken away from one human, why wouldn’t you worry that they could also be taken away from you?
The only way for all of us to feel fully protected under human rights laws is to know that they equally apply to all humans, without any exceptions.
Eventually, a treaty was signed between the UK and Jordan to guarantee that evidence obtained from torture would not be used against Qatada.
As soon as the treaty was agreed, Qatada volunteered to fly back to Jordan, without the need to deport him. And then, his subsequent trial was dismissed for lack of evidence.
But at the Tory Party annual conference of 2013 (see video), Mrs May cited the case of Abu Qatada as a prime reason to get rid of our Human Rights Act and to leave the European Convention on Human Rights.
In her speech, she said that she was “crazy with the European Court of Human Rights” and she promised that the Tories would “scrap the Human Rights Act”.
And she added:
“The Conservative position is clear – if leaving the European Convention (on Human Rights) is what it takes to fix our human rights laws, that is what we should do”.
Many wrongly believe that human rights are only for foreigners – and anyone could be forgiven for thinking that after listening to Theresa May and reading the right-wing newspapers that support her.
But in the main, our Human Rights Act has protected British people from the excesses of the state. For example:
- Thanks to the Human Rights Act, UK law was changed to prevent rape victims from being cross-examined by their attacker.
- It’s because of the Human Rights Act that the right was established in the UK for an independent investigation to take place following a death in prison.
- Human rights laws have also helped patients to gain access to life-saving drugs and held hospitals to account when failures in mental-health care has directly led to suicide.
- In the Mid Staffordshire hospital scandal, 100 claims were made invoking the Human Rights Act claiming that gross or degrading treatment of patients, mostly elderly, had caused or hastened their deaths.
- Human Rights laws have also helped to establish that failing to properly equip British soldiers when on active duty abroad was a breach of their human rights.
So, now we know what Brexit really means. It means fewer rights.
After Brexit, the Tories will be able to water down our human rights protections, and a host of other precious rights that represent the cornerstone safeguards of EU membership.
Is that what you really want? If not, it’s time to speak up louder and stronger than ever.
‘Brexit day’ is in just two weeks, unless something happens to obtain an interim deal, delay it, or stop it altogether.
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