What does our new PM mean for the Human Rights Act?
Rishi Sunak became the UKs 3rd prime minister in less than 2 months. As Sunak returns to Downing Street, where he previously held position of Chancellor of the Exchequer, he pledges to deliver on the 2019 Conservative manifesto, which includes implementing a point system for immigration and reforming the Human Rights Act. During the Conservative leadership contest, he commented that “all options are on the table” when asked if the UK will withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Sunak had previously voted to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA), replacing it with a Bill of Rights, over concerns that human rights law was becoming a ‘problem’ and acting as an obstacle to the government.
The Human Rights Act 1998, which came into force in the UK in 2000, sets out and protects our fundamental rights, irrespective of race, nationality, gender, gender identity, religion, sexual orientation, citizenship, or other status. The act ensures that we are free to live in safety, without the interference from the government and other public bodies. They protect equal access to fundamental services and institutions like health care, education, democratic elections, and fair judicial processes.
The HRA is the law that ensures the rights set out in the ECHR are enshrined in UK law. However, the UK, who once played a central role in creating the ECHR, announced in December 2020, that the there would be an independent review of the HRA, and concerningly, the UK government has yet to make a formal commitment to the ECHR post Brexit.
Talks of a Bill of Rights has been circling Westminster for years, but the prospect of it actually becoming a reality has never been more apparent. UK ministers introduced the Bill of Rights in June this year, which means that the UK would not have to always follow case law from the European Court of Human Rights. The proposed bill of rights would make justice less accessible, deflect scrutiny from the government and place less onus on public authorities to safeguard our rights, as well as make deportations easier.
In addition, Sunak has vowed to cap the number of refuges the UK accepts and has previously made it clear that he intends to keep the Rwanda policy, which allows the government to deport people who have migrated to the UK, including asylum seekers.
Many opposition leaders have called the proposed bill harmful. Scotland equality minister Christina McKelvie said: “The Scottish Government has repeatedly said that there must be no changes to the Human Rights Act that undermine or weaken existing human rights protections.’
There are growing concerns from opposition parties, legal experts and civil rights activists that replacing the current HRA with a Bill of Rights, would weaken protections for vulnerable groups, such as asylum seekers and refugees, as well as compromising our individual rights, and the stability of the HRA and ECHR in the wake of our new prime minister, very much remains in question.