There is significant concern across government and civil society in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, that UK Government proposals to replace the Human Rights Act will have a serious impact upon devolution, devolved law and people living in devolved parts of the UK.
At a webinar on 2nd March, organised by the Human Rights Consortia in Scotland and Northern Ireland, Wales Council for Voluntary Action and the Wales Governance Centre, Government Ministers from the three devolved administrations highlighted their concerns about the proposals.
There was also a panel of civil society experts who share many of these concerns.
Civil society speakers stated that despite significant ambition in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to strengthen human rights, the UK Government HRA reform consultation seeks to weaken access to justice and provides no information how the proposals would work in a devolved context. Only a single question is asked on this, yet implications for devolution are to be found throughout the document.
Human rights are foundational in all three devolved settlements, and have shaped devolved law and policy from the outset. Rewriting UK level human rights law, and changing fundamental and widely understood human rights principles and norms, will destabilise that foundation and make law and policy more difficult in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.
The proposals also ignore the higher level of public support for human rights, the plans to enhance devolved human rights law, and the legal uncertainty and complexity that these proposals would bring for people seeking justice, in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. They ignore the fact that observing the ECHR is a devolved matter, and replacing the HRA will directly affect devolved matters.
They also have big implications for big implications for everyone, no matter where they are in the UK . From imposing a new test before you can take a case, to limiting your access to justice depending on your past behaviour; from distancing our law from the European Court of Human Rights, to stopping courts from asking public authorities to proactively do something to uphold an individual’s human rights – all of these, and more, raise big concerns for people’s access to justice and government accountability.
Kevin Hanratty of the Human Rights Consortium (Northern Ireland) said,
‘The Human Rights Act (HRA) has played a fundamental role in protecting human rights in Northern Ireland for over twenty years. A core commitment of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement it has been essential in creating greater access to Convention (ECHR) rights for people locally. The UK Government proposals, if implemented, will substantively undermine how the HRA works and limit the protection of rights for people individually. The HRA clearly works and does not need changed. Instead of trying to undermine hard won rights, the Government should support devolved regions in advancing human rights protections. As it stands the proposals would represent a violation of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and would seriously undermine one of the cornerstones of our peace process.’
Mhairi Snowden of the Human Rights Consortium Scotland said,
‘There is little-to-no appetite across Scottish civil society to see any change to the Human Rights Act. It is the baseline protection of our fundamental human rights. Watering the HRA down so that access to justice is harder and it protects some people more than others, is not the right thing to do. Changing the HRA will also create huge legal uncertainty in Scotland that is entirely avoidable. This is no small matter – we need our human rights law to properly protect people, and these proposals to replace the HRA will leave you and I more unable to question government decisions, even where they affect our fundamental human rights.’
Rhian Davies of Disability Wales and Charles Whitmore of Wales Council for Voluntary Action and the Wales Governance Centre said:
‘Lockdown during the pandemic demonstrated that those who need to have their rights protected the most, are also those who are most likely to see them disregarded and face the biggest hurdles to enforcing them. More than ever, stakeholders in Wales want to see rights and protections enhanced – yet these proposals would significantly weaken access to justice and make public authorities less accountable for breaches of human rights.
The Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights are a fundamental part of Welsh devolution, and ongoing policy work in Wales is actively seeking to strengthen and enhance human rights. So any attempt at regression through substantive and procedural changes at the UK level is concerning, especially as there is significant evidence that the Human Rights Act works well and does not need replacing.’
- Proposals for Human Rights Act Reform: Responses form Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland was being held from 11.30am -1pm on 2nd March, online.
- The webinar was chaired by Nicole Busby, Professor of Human Rights, Equality and Justice at University of Glasgow.
- The Government Ministers speaking at the webinar were: The Welsh Minister for Social Justice Jane Hutt MS, the Northern Ireland Minister for Justice Naomi Long MLA and the Scottish Minister for Equalities and Older People Christina McKelvie MSP
- The civil society panel was Kevin Hanratty, Human Rights Consortium (Northern Ireland), Mhairi Snowden, Human Rights Consortium Scotland, and Rhian Davies Disability Wales.
- The UK Government consultation on HRA reform closed on 8th March, and can be found here: Human Rights Act Reform: a Modern Bill of Rights – Ministry of Justice – Citizen Space