Lord Bellamy QC is Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Ministry of Justice.
Today we have introduced a UK-wide Bill of Rights to replace the Human Rights Act.
The Bill will strengthen traditional UK rights such as freedom of speech and recognise the importance of jury trials, rebalance our human rights framework, and restore Parliament’s control of our legislation.
The Human Rights Act was introduced in 1998. It continued the tradition of codifying basic civil liberties that began when King John signed Magna Carta. These rights have been built on through Acts of Parliament ever since.
What this tradition shows is that no Act of Parliament is ever the final word on an issue. So, now is the time to take a fresh look at human rights and create a modern framework that meets the needs of our country today.
This isn’t about rolling back on fundamental freedoms and protections in our country – indeed the UK remains committed to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
The issue lies not with the Convention itself, but with the way some aspects have developed under the Human Rights Act.
Over time, some provisions in the Act have been interpreted as a duty to follow Strasbourg case law closely – leading to rulings that many people in our country invariably would not recognise as part of human rights. This undermines public confidence in the system and tends to give human rights a bad name.
With the Bill of Rights, we are pressing the reset button and restoring a healthy dose of common sense.
First, we are protecting the right to free speech – the cornerstone of our democracy and arguably the liberty that guards all others.
This, in the Government’s view, risks being whittled away, little by little, for example by the development of a privacy law without legislative scrutiny – licensed by the Human Rights Act – ‘cancel culture’, and over-sensitivity to subjects that should reasonably be up for debate.
Our reforms will make sure courts and public authorities give greater weight to freedom of speech when balanced against other competing rights – so we can protect the healthy, rambunctious debate that has characterised our democracy for so long. This includes further protection for journalistic sources.
And we are also recognising jury trials as an element of the right to a fair trial –– to underpin the fairness in our criminal justice system, which is respected the world over.
Further, we are prioritising our law-abiding public over dangerous foreign criminals.
We will provide a framework to help prevent foreign offenders from exploiting certain ECHR rights to avoid being deported in the public interest.
In the last five years alone, some 70 percent of foreign criminals who successfully overturned their deportation on human rights grounds at the first stage did so by relying on Article 8 of the Convention, the right to family life.
Digging into the details of these cases, we found domestic violence and child abuse among other worrying factors – from which any reasonable person would conclude that family was not the first priority of many of these dangerous criminals.
We will also introduce a ‘permission stage’, so that claimants will need to prove that they’ve genuinely suffered harm and judges can weed out trivial human rights claims before they take up court time and waste taxpayers’ money.
We are also overhauling the system for human rights damages to emphasise that with rights come responsibilities. Courts will have to have to consider a claimant’s conduct when awarding damages where that is relevant to the case – including for those whose actions have harmed others.
Second, we’ll make it clear that the UK Supreme Court, not Strasbourg, has the ultimate authority to interpret the law in this country.
This issue came into sharp focus only last week, when Strasbourg blocked a Government flight for asylum seekers to Rwanda – despite the High Court ruling dismissing the claim, upheld by both the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court as a decision properly within the power of the High Court judge. These proceedings are ongoing.
Our legal system and judges are among the best in the world, and we should be confident in their decisions. So, we are reasserting the authority of our courts – amending the Human Rights Act to make it clear that UK judges have the last word on British laws.
Third, we are reinforcing the separation of powers, to limit the expansion of human rights into areas which are clearly the job of Parliament. It’s only right that those who make the law can be democratically held to account by the public.
That our constitution has continued to evolve over the years is one of its great strengths – adapting and changing to meet society’s needs. These bold reforms continue that fine tradition.
Human rights are vital to any civilised society. Far from rolling back on individual freedoms and protections, our Bill of Rights will reinforce the fundamental UK liberties we hold dear and boost public confidence in our human rights laws.
Our Bill will strengthen free speech and reinforce the independence of our world-class judiciary. And it will reset a system more in line with the law-abiding majority of the public.
In the Bill of Rights, we are creating a modern domestic human rights framework that will serve the UK public well, both now, and for generations to come.