‘No justification’ for changing Human Rights Act, government told

Labour accuses government of trying to ‘water down’ fundamental rights

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Thursday 08 July 2021 03:09
<p>Critics accuse the government of instigating the review for political reasons </p>

Critics accuse the government of instigating the review for political reasons

There is “absolutely no justification” for the government to change the Human Rights Act, a parliamentary inquiry has found.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights said the law should be protected after the government instigated an independent review that could “water down” the adherence to fundamental rights under UK law.

Harriet Harman, chair of the committee, said: “Based on the evidence we have heard, we have come to the conclusion that there is absolutely no justification for any changes along the lines mooted.

“The act both respects parliament and makes our courts powerful in enforcing human rights.”

The review is considering changing the duty on UK courts to “take into account” judgments from the European Court of Human Rights, and their ability to declare British laws “incompatible” with human rights.

Critics say the review is politically motivated, following the government’s loss of numerous judicial reviews and immigration cases on human rights grounds.

David Lammy, Labour’s shadow justice secretary, accused Boris Johnson of trying to “dilute, attack and water down” human rights and the ability to seek redress through judicial review, which is subject to a separate probe.

“We need to strengthen, not water down, human rights,” he said in a speech on Wednesday.

“The Human Rights Act is not enough to protect all of our rights on its own, but it does provide the foundations that help us live together freely and fairly.”

The Human Rights Act 1998 was created to bring the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into British law, meaning cases could be decided in the UK rather than going to Strasbourg.

The government has committed to remaining a signatory of the ECHR following Brexit, and its compliance is a condition for maintaining a security deal and other agreements with the EU.

It said it had launched a review of the Human Rights Act to question whether courts are being “unduly drawn into questions of policy”.

It will also consider if the act “strikes the correct balance between the roles of the courts, the government and parliament”, and if reforms should be made.

What is the Human Rights Act?

Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights said it had “not been provided with any evidence to suggest that the courts are wrongly applying their power or that it undermines or usurps the role of parliament”.

The report said courts were not using the Human Rights Act “to trespass on to the territory of the legislature”.

The committee found that parliamentary sovereignty had been maintained because the courts cannot overturn primary legislation, even if it is declared incompatible with the act.

The report said that although courts can strike down secondary legislation, which is created by ministers rather than parliament, that is “an appropriate check on the power of the executive”.

“Whilst the courts may challenge the government, they do so in a way which is consistent with the wishes of parliament,” it added.

“It seems to us to strike the right balance in ensuring respect for parliamentary sovereignty, whilst also ensuring that acts of the executive that unlawfully violate a person’s human rights are quashed.”

The committee also found that the act had resulted in legal cases being heard faster, more cheaply and in the UK rather than in Strasbourg.

Dominic Grieve, a former Conservative MP who served as attorney general between 2010 and 2014, said David Cameron asked him to review the operation of the Human Rights Act 15 years ago.

He told the committee the commission he formed concluded that few changes could be made without derogating from the ECHR, and his report was “put in a bottom drawer and never published”.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “After 20 years of operation, it is right to consider whether the Human Rights Act is still working effectively and we look forward to the independent review’s findings when it reports back later this year.”

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