What a night. An unexpected, though still quite small, majority for the Conservatives. And that will have some profound consequences for human rights protections in the United Kingdom. Let’s look a few knowns, unknowns and not quite knowns.
What we know
The Conservatives won a small majority. That is likely to mean…
The Conservative manifesto was absolutely clear that they will “scrap the Human Rights Act” and “curtail the role of the European Court of Human Rights, so that foreign criminals can be more easily deported from Britain”.
The Conservatives still need to secure a majority in favour of scrapping the Human Rights Act. This is by no means assured. But if it does, that means goodbye the Human Rights Act, which has been in force since October 2000. Say hello to… a Bill of Rights.
Ok, so what will be in this Bill of Rights?
That’s still a big unknown. The Conservatives said in October 2014, in their more detailed human rights proposal, that the bill would include the rights contained in the European Convention on Human Rights but also “restore common sense”. The proposal said the Conservatives would publish a draft bill of rights “shortly”. But it hasn’t appeared. We do know a bit. This is what the October proposal said:
And we also know what was in the press release which came with the proposals. It spoke about taking rights away from foreigners who commit serious crimes in the UK, travellers claiming the right to family life to breach planning laws, illegal immigrants claiming the right to family life and people claiming against the British Armed Forces for things that happened abroad.
But only foreign criminals were mentioned in the manifesto, so it is all to play for. I went into a bit more detail about that in the Huffington Post on Wednesday.
When will it happen?
David Cameron wrote in the Telegraph last month that “measures in the first Tory Queen’s Speech will pave the way for the Human Rights Act to be scrapped”. What does “pave the way” mean? We don’t know.
But what is clear is that scrapping the Human Rights Act and replacing it with a Bill of Rights is small part of a much bigger constitutional reform picture. There will be a referendum on whether to leave the European Union by 2017, and many of our employment and free movement rights will be affected if we leave. There will also be more devolution for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – . There will be a very good argument to taking a joined up approach to all of that, rather than rushing into a bill of rights.
And it looks like there is still quite a bit of internal disagreement within the Conservative party about how much should change. So don’t expect this to happen quickly.
What we don’t know
The big unknown, even bigger than what will be in the bill of rights, is what happens to the UK’s membership of the European Convention on Human Rights, a treaty we largely drafted, signed up to in 1953 and which allows people in the UK to go to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg if their rights have been breached by the state. On this, the Conservative manifesto was vague. This is what it said:
What does “break the formal link between British courts and the European Court of Human Rights” mean? That’s not at all clear. Cambridge’s Dr Mark Elliott is great on this issue. He thinks withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights “remains firmly in contemplation” but there are also major potential stumbling blocks.
1/3 Are the Conservatives still contemplating withdrawal from ECHR? | This post suddenly seems much more relevant http://t.co/Z6SDMyq2tJ
— Mark Elliott (@ProfMarkElliott) May 8, 2015
And whilst we’re on Mark Elliott, this recent one is good too.
The fight begins now
This is going to be an interesting, difficult and transformative period for human rights in the UK. Here’s what I think we need to do about it. And when I say “we”, I mean people who care about human rights and think they have done a great deal of good for people in the UK.
We need to be positive. And start from the beginning. We need to address the legitimate questions which many people have. What are human rights? Where do they come from? Why do they matter? What have they done for us and not just to the nasty people you read about in the newspapers? What have been the big wins for human rights in the UK? What about prisoner votes, Abu Qatada, and that cat? We need to tell the good stories about human rights and be honest about the bad ones.
That’s what RightsInfo is about. Not assuming that people like or even want human rights protections. And also not approaching human rights as a party political issue. They are more important than that.
And maybe, just maybe, there is an opportunity here. A Bill of Rights, done properly with real public involvement might help convince people that human rights are for all of us, not just those who support one political party or other. We have a lot to do before we get there though.