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Are the Tories trying to disregard the Human Rights Act, again?

Brexit is becoming a hatchet job by sawing and sewing different parts back together and then seeing what type of creature will emerge.

Frankenstein’s monster might come to mind, however, in this instance it might not be fair to use Mary Shelley’s poor and misunderstood monster as an analogy to this process. Because as fearful and confused as the monster was, he at least tried to make friends and care for others. By contrast it would seem that the deal that the Tories are creating from this Brexit debacle would be devoid of human understanding.

It emerged this week that the Tories are trying to scrap of the Human Rights Act (HRA) after a discrepancy with the wording in the 26-page political declaration document which laid out the future relationship between the EU and the UK.

The summary draft of this document published on 14 November 2018 stated that in respect of law and enforcement and criminal co-operation there would be “continued adherence to the ECHR and its system of enforcement”. Yet, a later version published that same year stated that to “respect the framework of the European Convention on Human Rights”.

The wording in this political declaration, which includes the legally binding divorce deal, agreed with the EU is in incredibly important. So, what exactly does “respect” something mean, especially in the context of such an important document where the word has replaced a strong and definitive sentence denoting commitment such as “continued adherence to”?

This wording caused concern for the House of Lords EU Justice Sub-Committee and in December they wrote a letter asking whether the government would “bring forward plans to break the formal link” between the UK the HRA and the ECHR as it had not provided assurance. It was met with an unexpected response.

The reply came from Edward Argar MP, Undersecretary of State at the Ministry of Justice, who while again guaranteeing a commitment to these fundamental freedoms and human rights responded that “The difference in wording does not represent a change in the UK’s position on the ECHR.”

And that “A central tenet of our future relationship with the EU is our mutual belief in the importance of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

Up until when the government values this “future relationship” based on “human rights and fundamental freedoms” it remains to be seen. As Agar continued.

“Our manifesto committed to not repealing or replacing the Human Rights Act while the process of EU exit is underway,”

Adding that, “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.”

This blasé response of possibly abandoning the HRA post-Brexit was not taken lying down. The EU Justice Sub-Committee remarked that the words were “troubling” and that “the Human Rights Act is not safe after Brexit”. This concern was shared across all party lines with even some Conservative MPs confronting Theresa May on the subject.

A very terse worded response came from Chairman of the House of Lords EU Justice Sub-Committee Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws who said: “We have repeatedly asked the Government for assurances regarding citizens’ rights post-Brexit, deal or no deal. Again, and again we are told that the Government is committed to the European Convention on Human Rights, but without a concrete commitment, and with messaging that is changing and becoming diluted.”

She continued: “Is the Government sincere in its commitment to the ECHR?  If so, why has it failed to give assurances that it will not repeal or reform the Human Rights Act, which in essence incorporates the rights set out in the ECHR into domestic British law?”

The extremely important Human Rights Act, which came into force in the UK in 2000, preserves all of our fundamental human rights. It gives us the rights to fight against discrimination and injustice and allows citizens to protect these rights in UK courts. The Act is based upon the rights enshrined by the ECHR incorporating them into domestic British Law. However, the way the Brexit debate is going and some of the feelings in the government towards Europe the HRA might still be seen as a European ideal that dominates UK sovereignty.

This aspect becomes even more apparent when you find that this is not the first time that the HRA has been in dispute with the Conservative’s and proposals of other alternatives regarding human rights bills. Under David Cameron in the 2015 Conservative Party Manifesto it stated that, “The next Conservative Government will scrap the Human Rights Act and introduce a British Bill of Rights. This will 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,” In article for the Sun Newspaper at the time Cameron argued that a British Bill of Rights would “restore common sense to our legal system”.

Even as far back as Margaret Thatcher’s government the 1979 Conservative Party Manifesto promised all-party talks on “a possible Bill of Rights.” However, this idea for a British Bill of Rights in both cases never materialised. Cameron’s ideas came under massive scrutiny and in 2016 the Justice Committee said that the reforms for it were not extensive enough and questioned why this British Bill of Rights was really necessary at all.

Human beings’ rights cannot be toyed with and it would seem that this government is very unsuccessfully trying to amend things by a little slit here and then quickly stitching up the area before no one notices. But like Doctor Frankenstein who thought that he could defy all the rules and make a creation that he alone would give life to he spent the rest of his life in an icy wilderness alone, having lost everything. It would seem that the ending of the story is the part that is very fitting to this government’s future as they embark down the road to Brexit.

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