Ministers accused of launching attack on human rights in middle of pandemic

Timing described as ‘bonkers’

Kate Devlin
Whitehall Editor
Monday 07 December 2020 18:53
What is the Human Rights Act?

Ministers have been accused of launching an “attack” on human rights in the middle of a pandemic as campaigners reacted angrily to the announcement of a new review.  

The Law Society, the professional body for solicitors in England and Wales, warned that fundamental rights and freedoms enshrined in the Human Rights Act should not be “rolled back or compromised”.  

Others said that tearing up the laws would be a “giant leap backwards", while Labour MP David Lammy said it was “bonkers that the government is prioritising launching an attack on human rights in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic”.

Ministers have announced that former Court of Appeal judge Sir Peter Gross will lead a panel to review the Human Rights Act, two decades after it was brought into force.

The Act, which enshrines the European Convention on Human Rights in law, is unpopular with some Conservative MPs.  

The Conservative manifesto at last year’s general election pledged to protect human rights but also to ensure the law “continues to meet the needs of the society it serves".

The review will consider its impact on the relationship between judges, ministers and parliament, as well as whether “domestic courts are being unduly drawn into areas of policy".  

It will also look at how rulings from the European Court of Human Rights are taken into account in UK courts.

Human rights campaigners criticised the announcement of the review.

Sam Grant, head of policy and campaigns at Liberty, said the laws “must be protected for the good of our democracy", adding: "For years, our laws and legal processes have made sure that governments and public bodies can be challenged when they make bad decisions.

“The plans announced today … are focused on limiting our ability to do this."

Amnesty warned that tearing up the Human Rights Act would be a “giant leap backwards".

The campaign group's director Kate Allen said: “From Hillsborough to Grenfell to the appalling mishandling of the recent Covid crisis in care homes, we have never so badly needed a means to hold the government to account, and we know that the Human Rights Act does that extremely effectively.

“It took ordinary people a very long time to win these rights and we mustn't let politicians take them away with the stroke of a pen.”

She said the move looked “worryingly like the latest power-grabbing move from a government that doesn't like limits on its powers or judges who tell them when they break the law."

The Ministry of Justice insisted ministers remained “committed to the European Convention on Human Rights".  

It said the review was limited and would consider the “structural framework” of the Human Rights Act, rather than the rights themselves.

Justice Secretary Robert Buckland said the UK had a proud tradition of upholding and promoting human rights but that after 20 years of operation the time was right “to consider whether the Human Rights Act is still working effectively".  

But president of the Law Society of England and Wales David Greene said: “The Human Rights Act codifies and protects fundamental rights and freedoms and ensures everyone, no matter their wealth or status, can uphold those rights in UK courts.  

“The rights enshrined in the Act are core to the UK’s identity as a democratic, fair and just nation. These core values will be front and centre for the panel whose job will be to ensure that they are not rolled back or compromised.”

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