Making it safe to be gay. Providing support for victims of domestic violence. Being free to express yourself and your beliefs. Providing access to education for every child. Ensuring injustices don’t go unheard in the courts. The right to protest. Protection and security for all human life. Helping families seeking asylum. Supporting people with disabilities whose dignity has been violated. These are just some examples of the things that the UK's 1998 Human Rights Act protects. 

But on June 22, Dominic Raab, the Secretary of State for Justice announced plans to replace the UK’s Human Rights Act with a new Bill of Rights.

He said at the time that the new bill would “curb abuses of the system and reinject a healthy dose of common sense [into it]” by “strengthen[ing] traditional UK rights such as freedom of speech — under attack, from expanding privacy law to stifling political correctness — and recognis[ing] the importance of jury trials in the UK.” 

Human rights organisations and lawyers alike, however, have argued that rather than further safeguarding human rights, this new bill will actually diminish them.

The Law Society, an independent body which represents solicitors in England and Wales, said this bill represents a “lurch backwards” for the British justice system, while Sacha Deshmukh, Amnesty International UK’s Chief Executive, has described the bill as “a giant leap backwards for the rights of ordinary people.” Liberty, the UK’s largest civil liberties organisation, has even gone so far as to dub it the "Rights Removal Bill.

Here’s what you need to know, and how you can help take action to ensure our human rights in the UK are protected and not abused. 

Why Does the Government Want to Scrap the Human Rights Act?

Remember a few weeks ago when a plane full of refugees and asylum-seekers narrowly escaped deportation to Rwanda?

The 11th hour decision to keep the plane grounded on June 14 was made because of a last-minute ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).

In a nutshell, the UK Supreme Court was overruled by the European court.

You might be thinking? “I thought Brexit meant we’d opted out of all that?” The ECtHR (despite having the word “European” in its name) is not a European Union institution and so Brexit did not affect the UK’s relationship with it. We’re still part of Europe after all.

The Conservative Party has long wanted to reform the Human Rights Act. Their plans to scrap it were in their 2010 and 2015 party manifestos. But the issue was catapulted into the foreground by the ruling in June because of the government’s attempt to remove asylum-seekers to Rwanda for processing and claiming asylum.

Why? Because getting rid of the Human Rights Act is a one-way ticket to get the ECtHR off the UK government’s back. In short, it would mean the UK government would have the final say on human rights issues, not the ECtHR.

Dominic Raab has described the change as “affirming the supremacy of the Supreme Court, [and] being explicit that the UK courts are under no obligation to follow the Strasbourg case law.”

This would prevent, for example, a similar intervention from the ECtHR if the government were to attempt to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda again.

4 Controversial Changes the New ‘Bill of Rights’ Would Make

Change 1: UK law will have the last word.

Why the change?

The UK government says they want British courts to have supremacy over the ECtHR in order to, for example, deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda.

Who will be most affected?

Refugees, asylum seekers and migrants because the new Bill of Rights will allow them to be deported more easily.

What are human rights organisations saying about this?

Charlie Whelton, policy and campaigns officers at Liberty, has said: “Refugees and migrants, already disadvantaged, will find it harder to defend their basic rights and challenge deportation.”

He added that this bill will mean that the European Court of Human Rights “can’t act in emergencies to protect us from situations that put us at risk of serious and irreparable harm.”

Change 2: People will have to prove their case is 'serious' enough to go to court.

Why the change?

Currently, the Human Rights Act empowers ordinary people to challenge abuses of their rights in British courts.

But the government wants to introduce a “permission stage” that will require people to prove they’ve suffered “significant disadvantage” before they even get to court.

They say this is to ensure that “spurious” and “trivial” cases that don’t merit court time or public resources “do not undermine public confidence in human rights.

Who will be most affected?

People with learning disabilities and their families are often dependent on a range of public bodies to uphold their human rights and  the new changes introduced could weaken their protections.

This change would also make it much harder for children to access justice, according to the Children Rights Alliance for England, as they are more reliant on their parents or carers to help them make such decisions. In particular, this change would negatively impact ​​society’s most vulnerable children such as children in care, child witnesses, children in custody, and refugee children.

What are human rights organisations saying about this?

Writer, lawyer and activist, Talina Hürzeler argues that “there’s no such thing as trivial human rights” and that this change “opens the floodgates to more disastrous violations”.

Liberty says that requiring people to prove their case before they’ve even got to court is “incredibly difficult when you’re up against the power of the State” and will ultimately mean that “justice may only be available to people who can afford it.”

Even the British Institute of Human Rights (BIHR) argues that “introducing additional criteria for bringing a human rights claim will make it harder for ordinary people to access justice and hold the state to account.”

Mary Woodhall, a self advocate and member of Learning Disability England, has said that this change “is making some people with learning disabilities feel isolated, scared and left out.”

Change 3: Free speech will be given a higher status in the pecking order of human rights.

Why the change?

Dominc Raab claims that democratic debate in this country has been "whittled away by wokery" and space needs to be created for more “rambunctious debate.

Who will be most impacted?

The most interesting part of this change is who won’t be impacted: the UK government. That’s right, there are clauses in the new bill that would specifically exempt the government itself from having to comply with its new free speech rules, so if the government were to pose a threat to free speech, people wouldn't be protected.

This means, for example, that people challenging deportation are not protected by these freedom of speech protections.

What are human rights organisations saying?

Prof Phillipson, a visiting fellow at the University of Oxford and an authority in free speech law, writes: “The notion that this clause is aimed at combating ‘wokery’ doesn‘t make sense to me and suggests that it‘s more rhetoric aimed at pleasing their supporters and [...] the right-wing press.”

Free speech supporters have also condemned the UK government’s humble-brag that the Bill of Rights will boost freedom of expression. In fact, they say it will actually undermine it and have accused the government of peddling a “false narrative.

What’s more, anti-censorship campaigners have pointed out the hypocrisy of ministers talking about placing more weight on the importance of free speech while they have literally just passed a bill that curbs the right to protest with the intent to “create a hostile environment” for peaceful demonstrations.

Change 4: It will make it easier to deport people.

Why the change?

The UK government believes that the Human Rights Act has been “abused” by convicted foreign nationals and says the changes will “make it harder for foreign criminals to frustrate the deportation process.”

What impact would the change have?

In the UK, if a foreign national (someone who is not a British citizen) is convicted of a crime that results in prison time of more than a year, they are automatically deported at the end of their sentence. Over a 10-year period, almost 50,000 foreign national offenders were deported from the UK.

However, convicted foreign nationals are able to invoke the “right to a family life,” currently protected under the Human Rights Act. This might be because they have been here since they were children or they have a family in this country. Their argument is that if they are deported it’s a breach of their human rights.

The Bill of Rights will narrow the scope of those appeals, making them almost impossible. Cases will only be accepted in the rarest of occasions, for example, when someone’s life is actually in danger.

What are human rights organisations saying?

Andy Hull, chief executive of human rights charity EachOther, said that the bill “puts new and higher hurdles in the way of ordinary people who turn to the law to uphold their rights. In particular, it will make it much more difficult for the loved ones of someone who committed a crime but has served [their] time to invoke rights to fair trial or to family life to prevent [their] removal from the country.”

Another criticism of this particular change is that it does not properly recognise nuance. The amendments in the bill take no account of the circumstances of the offence, nor of whether the individual continues to pose a risk to the public.

How Can You Take Action to Help Protect Human Rights?

Ultimately, this new bill will affect us all but some more than others. Some have argued that the government wants to scrap the Human Rights Act because it sees certain people as less deserving of rights than others. Often, these people are the people who are already marginalised and need human rights protections the most.

If you’re based in the UK, join Global Citizens in taking urgent action to stop the government’s plan to replace the Human Rights Act by emailing your MP now to make sure our human rights are protected and not abused.

Global Citizen Explains

Demand Equity

The UK Government Wants to Scrap the Human Rights Act. Here’s What to Know.

By Fadeke Banjo