The new Tory government plans to scrap the Human Rights Act - but civil society has vowed to resist them
Tory plans to scrap human rights legislation are dangerous and must be resisted, civil society groups have said.
The UK Human Rights Act has found itself in the spotlight following the Conservatives’ surprise Westminster election victory last week.
It is understood that Prime Minister David Cameron has given the green light for new justice secretary Michael Gove to abolish the legislation and replace it with a “British Bill of Rights”.
However, campaigners say any such moves would represent a massive slide backwards for the UK as a fair and enlightened country.
For civil society, it would remove a significant shield and a weapon which continues to be used in battles against social injusticies, such as the bedroom tax and child abuse.
Our human rights should not become a political football. Instead the focus should be on ensuring that existing rules are followed
There has been speculation that the Tories’ plans would not apply to Scotland as human rights provisions are supposedly enshrined in the Scotland Act, which created the Scottish Parliament and allowed for the devolution settlement.
However,legal experts have warned that while the situation is complicated, human rights remain essentially the preserve of the Westminster parliament, and Scotland is as much at threat as the rest of the UK.
Professor Alan Miller, chair of the Scottish Human Rights Commission, said: “Changes to the UK’s human rights laws would have a direct impact on the lives of people in Scotland, particularly in areas like immigration, defence and some aspects of welfare.
“Moreover, any regressive changes would send a damaging message across Europe and beyond.
“The commission has long been clear that proposals to repeal the Human Rights Act should be resisted. The proposals that have been mooted to date for a replacement British Bill of Rights would limit accountability for the exercise of power, undermine the principle of the rule of law, go against the spirit of democratic renewal and set a dangerous precedent to other states."
The Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights enshrine internationally agreed standards that all governments are expected to respect. The Human Rights Act provides a direct route to justice in domestic courts, rather than the European Court of Human Rights, for individuals whose human rights have been breached. It also requires all public bodies to abide by these human rights.
“They provide a safety net that has been used to challenge the unfair impact of the bedroom tax, uphold the principle of human dignity in care services and protect children from assault," added Miller.
“The Commission would welcome a progressive approach from government to building on the foundations offered by the Human Rights Act, for example by delivering Scotland’s National Action Plan for Human Rights.”
The Scottish Human Rights Consortium (HRCS) – a civil society network comprising 180 groups and individuals – called on the Tories to drop their plans.
Carole Ewart, HRCS co-ordinator, said there was no appetite for such moves in Scotland: “The act has still to reach its potential in everyday places and situations across the UK. Our human rights should not become a political football. Instead the focus should be on ensuring that existing rules are followed, and they matter especially if you feel vulnerable, such as people living in a care home.
“The act places obligations on government and all our public authorities to respect human rights in the design, delivery and funding of public services within the UK so that the outcomes are better for people in everyday situations and places.
“Such obligations uphold UK values of fairness, respect and dignity. They certainly do not undermine our traditions.”
Amnesty International has also condemned plans to scrap the act.
Pauline Kelly, acting programme director, said: "The Human Rights Act is too often quoted in sensationalist headlines as an unfair advantage for criminals or an abstract concept but the truth is the act belongs to all of us. It protects our fundamental freedoms: the right to a fair trial, freedom of expression, the right to marry and have a family life are just a few of the advantages we have as people living in this country.
"Now, our basic freedoms are under threat; the Conservative Party has clearly stated its intention to scrap the act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights, while also diluting the UK's adherence to the European Convention on Human Rights. We cannot assume that Scotland would be exempt from such measures and it is worth remembering that our human rights are not a gift from politicians and we must take action to safeguard them."
Amnesty has started its own campaign to save the act.