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Protecting Britain’s human rights

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Baroness Kishwer Falkner, Chairwoman

Baroness Kishwer Falkner, Chairwoman | Equality and Human Rights Commission

5 min read Partner content

Britain’s rights watchdog is concerned about the potential for our human rights protections to be weakened by legislation currently going through Parliament.

The 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights will be celebrated internationally at the end of this year, on 10 December: Human Rights Day.

This landmark document was adopted around the world in 1948 by members of the United Nations General Assembly. In the wake of the atrocities of the Second World War, it confirmed the need for human rights to be universally protected and set out the fundamental principle that all humans have inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights.

Those rights help to protect us all from abuse and harm, safeguard our freedom of expression and freedom to form relationships as we choose, and enable equal access to education and work opportunities.

In the UK our rights are ensured by both domestic and international law. The Human Rights Act 1998 incorporates the rights set out in the European Convention on Human Rights into our domestic statutes. At present anyone who is in the UK is protected by the Human Rights Act, regardless of citizenship or immigration status.

As Britain’s rights watchdog, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) works to make our country fairer by safeguarding and enforcing these laws.

Since its enactment in 1998, the Human Rights Act has significantly improved human rights and access to justice for people across the UK. That’s why our starting point for engaging with any proposals for reform is the principle that there should be no weakening of our existing substantive rights or access to remedy for breaches. 

The human rights we enjoy today are hard won and cannot be taken for granted.

At the EHRC we have a duty to safeguard them both today and for future generations, so that governments and other public bodies continue to fulfil their obligations to uphold the rights of everyone.

That means we carefully review and provide advice wherever proposed legislation risks undermining Britain’s human rights framework. Our accreditation as an ‘A-status’ National Human Rights Institution is proof that we do this without fear or favour.

Already this year we have seen stark illustrations of how changes made to our laws can have an impact on the observance of our day-to-day rights in practice.

Take the right to peaceful protest, which is fundamental to a democratic society. In the UK it is guaranteed by the Human Rights Act 1998 and by Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention of Human Rights (which protect Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Assembly respectively).

Recent changes to the law – including new thresholds for ‘serious disruption’ introduced by secondary legislation – will change the way in which peaceful protests are policed and risk reducing protest rights.

We have written to the Home Secretary in light of these new measures, to ask that the UK Government take steps to ensure that the police do not unduly limit freedom of expression, nor infringe the right to peaceful protest. Like all public servants, police officers should understand their legal duty to act in a way that is compatible with the human rights of everyone involved.

The human rights we enjoy today are hard won and cannot be taken for granted.

Across justice, health and social care, education and employment, more must be done to enhance people’s rights and ensure that everybody is treated fairly by our laws and institutions.

So we are pleased that the UK Government has abandoned plans to proceed with the Bill of Rights Bill, which would have repealed the Human Rights Act and replaced it with legislation offering fewer protections. 

The EHRC made clear our view that the Bill of Rights Bill risked weakening the UK’s human rights legal protections, reducing access to redress and having significant constitutional implications for the devolution settlements and the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement.

We have also welcomed the UK Government’s commitment to continue to adhere to the European Convention on Human Rights, as the Secretary of State for Justice confirmed to the House of Commons on 27 June.

However, we will always be concerned about the potential for our existing human rights protections to be weakened by legislation going through Parliament.

For example, the Illegal Migration Act passed this week, as well as the Victims and Prisoners Bill, may both place the UK at risk of breaching its international legal obligations if they undermine the universality of human rights by removing the protections of section 3 of the Human Rights Act from certain groups of people. Section 3 requires our courts, tribunals and public authorities to interpret legislation in way that is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.

During the progress of the Illegal Migration Act, we set out these concerns.

Changes agreed by Government to limit how long unaccompanied children and pregnant women are detained for are therefore welcome, though we remain concerned that the legislation fails to uphold an earlier ban on the immigration detention of children (in most circumstances). We hope that the Government will bear these concerns in mind as they implement the new law.

As these and other pieces of legislation are scrutinised by Parliament, we will continue to raise our voice on serious threats to our human rights protections, and seek to engage with Government and Parliament on ways to protect and strengthen human rights across Britain.

To achieve the fairer Britain we all want to see, everyone’s human rights must be respected.

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Read the most recent article written by Baroness Kishwer Falkner, Chairwoman - Measuring progress in Britain’s pursuit of equality and human rights protections


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