Governing with no holds barred and fewer rights

By Savi Hensman
October 3, 2014

If the Conservative Party wins the next election, it will scrap the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights with “a whole range of caveats”, stated Justice Secretary Chris Grayling.

UK courts would “no longer need to take account of” European Court of Human Rights decisions, he warned. Indeed the UK might “invoke our treaty rights to withdraw” from the European Convention on Human Rights altogether.

Such moves would leave UK residents with little protection from state abuses of power. As Grayling made clear, whenever future governments want, “Parliament will be able to introduce additional limitations on where and how human rights can be applied through our British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities.”

The abandonment of human rights protection, beyond whatever the government of the day feels like allowing, would also encourage overseas regimes which wish to override justice and liberty.

Some European Court of Human Rights decisions have been controversial. But arguing that, as a result, its influence should be done away with is like calling for an end to trial by jury, if you disagree with the occasional verdict.

If the powers-that-be can do what they like, to whoever they like, it is not just criminals and minorities who will be at risk: anyone can be a target. History has chillingly shown what can happen when human rights are set aside.

The main architect of the 1950 European Convention was David Maxwell Fyfe, who was a prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials at the end of World War Two. He also served as a Conservative Attorney General and Home Secretary.

The UK today is very different from Germany under Nazi rule but, sadly, the slide towards tyranny can be rapid, even in modern Europe. The withdrawal of legal aid from many UK citizens harmed by state abuses, and a recent law limiting free speech by voluntary organisations in the run-up to elections, are worrying.

In response to Grayling’s pledge, Conservative MP Dominic Grieve – until recently Attorney General – told the BBC that in many cases there is a "mass misunderstanding" of what the European Court of Human Rights does.

He pointed out that "on a daily basis the court is producing decisions of great importance in improving human rights in Europe” and that plans for change contain "a number of howlers" and "factual inaccuracies" about recent judgements.

Labour MP Sadiq Khan, shadow Justice Secretary, made the point that “our courts have been free to interpret rulings by the European Convention on Human Rights for 50 years – the Human Rights Act did nothing to change that fact."

MP Simon Hughes, a Liberal Democrat and minister in the current coalition government, argued that "hard-won" rights should not be sacrificed for short-term political reasons.

For the most vulnerable, from care home residents to hospital inpatients, detainees to those fleeing violence at home or abroad, such a withdrawal could be immediately damaging.

However, in the longer term, anyone who is not especially rich or influential could find rights which they took for granted eroded.

Rights such as prohibition of torture and degrading treatment, right to liberty and security and freedom of thought, conscience and religion should not lightly be discarded.

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© Savitri Hensman is a widely published Christian commentator on politics, welfare, religion and more. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the equalities and care sector.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.