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Ministers must clarify that there is no intention to repeal the Human Rights Act after Brexit

4 min read

Those of us who fear Brexit may lead to a weakening of the legal protection of citizens and repeal of the existing law need to be vigilant, says Tommy Sheppard MP.

Just when we thought the Human Rights Act (HRA) was safe it seems there is again a question mark over the continuation of the protection it offers our citizens after Brexit. The doubt has arisen because of the ambiguous wording in the draft political agreement which the government says will define our future relationship with the rest of the EU once we leave. Gone is a straightforward commitment to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) which the HRA enshrines. Instead there is talk of “a commitment to respect the framework”. To many eyes this language leaves open the prospect of a review of the UK legislation by the Tory government. And whenever Tories start reviewing human rights it’s unlikely to be with an intention to strengthen them.

Those of us who fear Brexit may lead to a weakening of the legal protection of citizens and repeal of the existing law need to be vigilant. Of course, the government could simply put our minds at ease by clarifying that the wording of the statement agreed with the EU means no such thing and there is no intention to repeal the HRA. That’s the central demand I’ll be making of Ministers today.

Often I fear debates about human rights go over the head of most people. Debates are conducted by the political elite who mean well but whose discourse does not connect with the man and woman in the street. Most people have never had to go to court to uphold their human rights, nor are they likely to know anyone who has. But that’s exactly the point. The whole point of human rights legislation is to give protection to people to prevent bad things happening to them. By the time someone needs to go to court it means the system has failed. Redress is the compensation, it’s the secondary function of the law. The first is protection.

Human rights are what defines civilisation – rules of respect which underpin how each of us are to be treated by each other and by society and its institutions.

It might be useful to divide human rights into three categories. Firstly, there are civil and political rights. These are the principal concern of the ECHR and the HRA. The right to live, to express oneself, to vote, to not be discriminated against – establishing a series of norms all about protecting the individual in relation to society.

Then there are social and economic rights – the right to work, to shelter, to health care, etc. These rights define how society’s resources are shared amongst its members. They cannot be upheld except by public policy and government action. Crucially they require regulation to fairly share wealth, and as the recent Equality and Human Rights Commission report demonstrates there is a very long way to go. In our current debates perhaps the most urgent thing we need to do is to not only establish such rights in the abstract but to align them with government action. This is precisely the direction that is being tentatively suggested in Scotland.

Thirdly there are collective rights which establish protection of culture and those aspects of the environment essential for human health and survival.

The Scottish government has recently set up an advisory group on how to give more weight to the implementation of human rights in Scotland. The group adopted three guiding principles. One, ensuring that there should be no regression from the current rights enjoyed in the EU. Two, exploring how to keep pace with further progressive developments as we leave the EU. Three, exploring how to give leadership on human rights. The group’s recent recommendations look at how rights can be built into the programmes of government at all levels in Scotland. The UK would do well to look at what is happening in Scotland, where rather than considering weakening protection, the debate is about how to extend it.


Tommy Sheppard is SNP MP for Edinburgh East.

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