Dominic Raab’s controversial plans to overhaul the Human Rights Act to strengthen the “quintessentially British right” of freedom of speech and add a “healthy dose of common sense” have been slammed as a “blatant, unashamed power grab” by critics.
The justice secretary unveiled four new proposals – first published in The Times – which a senior justice official said will work to counter “wokery and political correctness.”
Firstly, the new Bill of Rights will “strengthen” free speech and replace “court-innovated” privacy law to make space for more “rambunctious” debate.
The bill will also draw a “clearer demarcation” between the separation of powers between the courts and parliament by ending the need for the UK’s courts to consider the Strasbourg Court's case law.
Thirdly, the UK’s courts will no longer be allowed to alter new legislation. Instead, the “elected lawmakers” in parliament will be responsible, ensuring Parliament has the “last word on the laws of this land”.
Finally, a human rights “permissions stage” will be introduced, where applicants will be required to prove they have suffered “significant disadvantage” against their human rights before claiming compensation.
The court will then consider the “wider public interest” before paying out.
While Raab plans to prevent “abuses of the system”, critics have warned that the proposals could fatally weaken the rights of ordinary people.
Martha Spurrier, director at human rights group Liberty, said they are “rewriting the rules in their favour, so they become untouchable.”
Spurrier accused the government of “systematically shutting down all avenues of accountability through a succession of rushed and oppressive Bills,”
“The Human Rights Act protects all of us,” she added. “We lose it at our peril.
“It is an essential law that allows us to challenge public authorities when they get it wrong and has helped secure justice on everything from the right to life to the right to free speech.”
Chief executive of Amnesty International, Sacha Deshmukh, also criticised the government for “watering down” the Human Rights Act, saying the rights aren’t just “sweets” ministers can “pick and choose from.”
“If ministers move ahead with plans to water down the Human Rights Act and override judgments with which they disagree, they risk aligning themselves with authoritarian regimes around the world,” he said.
Law Society of England and Wales president Stephanie Boyce said: “People from all walks of life rely on the Human Rights Act to uphold and protect their rights.
“Any reform of this subtle and carefully crafted legal instrument should be led by evidence – not driven by political rhetoric… We trust that Government’s final proposals will preserve the UK’s deserved reputation as a global leader in upholding human rights both domestically and on the international stage.”
Human rights barrister Adam Wagner highlighted that this government “may be the first in the history of liberal democracies which enacts a bill of rights which has the effect of reducing rather than increasing rights protections.”
“This is not some culture war debate,” he added. “It’s messing with people’s lives, their fundamental rights, their ability to seek redress from the state when it breaches them.”
The move was slammed as the government’s “latest move towards authoritarianism” by Zack Polanski, the Green Party’s democracy spokesman. “This is yet another attempt by a draconian Government to whip away rights that help people achieve justice,” he added.
Raab, however, has insisted the reforms will “strengthen” freedoms and “curtail” abuses of the system.
Unveiling the proposals in the Commons on Tuesday, Raab said this would “revise and replace the framework provided under the Human Rights Act”. He added that the plans will allow the government to deport more foreign criminals and prevent “spurious or unmeritorious claims”.
He told MPs: “Our proposals for a UK-wide Bill of rights will strengthen our freedoms, reflect our legal traditions, curtail those abuses of the system, reinforce the separation of powers between the judicial and legislative branches, and respect the democratic authority of this House, which, as so often in our history, has been a bulwark and a protector of our freedoms.”
Labour’s shadow justice secretary Steve Reed responded by branding the reforms a “dead cat distraction tactic” and “all mouth and no trousers”, adding that they offered “nothing new”.
He told MPs: “Every time the Government’s in trouble politically they wheel out reforming the Human Rights Act.
“It’s a dead cat distraction tactic by a Government that doesn’t know how to fix the criminal justice system that they’ve broken and is desperate to divert attention away from the corruption scandals they started.
“This is little more than an attempt to wage culture wars because they’ve surrendered from waging war on crime and corruption.”
The plans will face a three-month consultation to garner views on the changes to the Human Rights Act, which enshrined the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into domestic law.