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25 January 2023

Scrap the Bill of Rights, parliamentarians tell government

The Joint Committee on Human Rights said the bill “has caused overwhelming and widespread concern”.

By Zoë Grünewald

MPs and peers have warned the government not to proceed with its plans to overhaul human rights legislation and replace it with a Bill of Rights.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights, a cross-party committee made up of both peers and MPs, has today (Wednesday 25 January) released a pre-legislative scrutiny report of the proposed Bill of Rights Bill. It questions the wisdom of proceeding with the legislation, suggesting that to do so would create much uncertainty and interfere with individuals’ ability to enforce their rights. “We believe that some of its provisions are simply unnecessary,” the committee said, “while others are positively damaging to the enforcement and protection of human rights in the UK.”

The committee warned that if the bill were enacted in its current form, it would create more barriers to enforcing human rights, leading to more cases being taken to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), of which the UK is a member, in Strasbourg and more adverse judgements there against the UK. The parliamentarians said that “the Bill of Rights risks carving out groups of people who will have less ability to enforce their rights than others”, as it would mean more people would need to go the ECHR to effectively enforce their rights, which many “will not have the time nor money to access”.  

Joanna Cherry KC, the SNP MP and chairwoman of the committee, said: “A Bill of Rights should reaffirm and reinforce the fundamental rights that protect everyone in the UK, but this bill does nothing of the sort. Instead, it removes and restricts certain human rights protections that the government finds inconvenient and prescribes a restrictive approach to the interpretation and application of the European Convention on Human Rights in the courts of our domestic legal systems.”

The committee raised concerns about how the Bill of Rights would violate the UK’s international obligations, as it would instruct public bodies and courts to ignore situations where inhumane or degrading treatment could place individuals at serious risk. It also warned that the bill could allow the government to evade liability for human rights infringements overseas, because it “paves the way for future legislation” to exclude certain acts committed during overseas operations.

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The committee argued that, rather than creating a strong framework for protecting human rights, the bill seeks to “tip the balance” in favour of the state, meaning courts would have to “give great weight” to protecting specific issues over fundamental rights. In particular the committee called into the question the emphasis placed on freedom of speech, which it said may be neither “necessary or appropriate”.

The parliamentarians said there was widespread disapproval of the bill, citing evidence provided to the government and to the committee, including its own survey, which had over 40,000 responses. It said: “[The Bill of Rights] not only lacks support, but has caused overwhelming and widespread concern … Those who support the bill in its current form appear to us to be limited in number: they certainly represented a tiny minority.” 

Cherry said: “We have called on the government to reconsider the vast majority of the clauses of the bill. However, there is such little appetite for these reforms and the impact is likely to be so damaging to human rights protection in the UK it may be more sensible to scrap the bill in its entirety.”

[See also: If Dominic Raab resigns, will his beloved Bill of Rights go with him?]

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