A string of user-led organisations have warned that the government’s “horrifying” plans to scrap the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British bill of rights will lead to a loss of vital legal protection for disabled people.
Proposals to bring forward a “British bill of rights” were announced by the government in yesterday’s Queen’s speech, but had been widely predicted after being included in last year’s Conservative general election manifesto and last year’s Queen’s speech.
The bill appears in the “strengthening our national security” section of the Queen’s speech background notes, which say that its main benefits will be to “continue protecting fundamental human rights”.
But – in wording likely to alarm disability rights campaigners distrustful of the government’s motives – the notes also say that the bill of rights would “better protect against abuse of the system and misuse of human rights laws” and would “restore common sense to their application”.
An MoJ spokesman declined to say when the bill was expected to be published, but said: “Make no mistake, the Human Rights Act will be repealed and replaced by a bill which will protect our fundamental human rights, but also prevent their abuse and restore common sense to the system.”
The Human Rights Act incorporates the rights set out in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into domestic British law.
Professor Anna Lawson (pictured), the disabled law expert who heads the new Disability Law Hub at the University of Leeds, said that a British bill of rights would detach the UK from a joint European commitment to human rights and would “weaken the machinery for holding governments to account for what happens to disabled people in the UK and also to the millions of other disabled people in Europe”.
She added: “If only the time, energy and money spent on discussing this bill could instead be spent on tackling the root causes of human rights violations.”
Linda Burnip, co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), said: “The Human Rights Act enshrines fundamental freedoms into UK law and allows disabled people and others to challenge abuse, neglect or mistreatment.
“Its introduction in 2000 led to positive changes in legislation and public policy UK-wide.
“All government plans published to date suggest the ‘British Bill of Rights’ would not only water down but potentially remove rights protections for everyone in the UK and some groups in particular.
“Having already witnessed the ways in which disabled people’s rights are being systematically abolished, the thought of losing the protection within the Human Rights Act is horrifying.”
Another DPAC co-founder, Debbie Jolly, added: “The full title of this is ‘The British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities’, which is scary enough alone.
“But remember that this is the same Tory set that destroyed legal aid in 2013, tried to prevent judicial review in 2014 and attempted to charge for and limit freedom of information requests.
“It doesn’t take any imagination to predict that rights will be further diluted and responsibilities will have little to do with holding governments to account.”
Tracey Lazard, chief executive of Inclusion London, said: “It is totally unacceptable that the government plans to repeal the Human Rights Act and replace it with what will be a weakened version.
“That is why Inclusion London has signed up alongside the British Institute of Human Rights (BIHR), Liberty, Amnesty International and other organisations to fight the proposals.
“At a time when things are getting worse for disabled people, when even Iain Duncan Smith describes us as being unfairly targeted with ‘indefensible’ and ideologically-driven cuts, we need every right at our disposal to challenge injustice.”
Eleanor Lisney, founder of the disabled women’s organisation Sisters of Frida, said: “The Human Rights Act is fundamental to us living in the UK right now.
“It’s part of our protection to be able to function as citizens in a democratic country.”
She said the move to a bill of rights was “worrying”, given the government’s “disregard” of the impact of cuts on disadvantaged people and groups such as young people, unemployed people, single mothers, older people and those from black and minority ethnic communities.
Andrew Lee, director of policy and campaigns at People First Self-Advocacy, said he feared the government was “trying to take 40 years-plus off progress on human rights in one bill”.
More than 135 UK organisations – including DPAC and the National Survivor User Network (NSUN) – have joined Inclusion London in opposing any attempt to scrap the Human Rights Act.
The groups include charities supporting children, older people, carers, victims of trafficking and slavery, and asylum-seekers and refugees, as well as national groups representing psychiatrists, teachers, football supporters and students.
Their pledge states: “We believe in fundamental human rights and freedoms – shared values that protect every member of the human family and the society we seek to build together.
“Human rights underpin our democracy, hold governments to account and require that everyone’s dignity is equally respected.
“We pledge to oppose any government plans to repeal our Human Rights Act – in so doing we stand firm on guaranteeing universal human rights protections for generations to come.”
Stephen Bowen, BIHR’s director, urged the government to “scrap these miserable plans”.
He said that those who signed the pledge “recognise that the hallmark of a genuine bill of rights is its ability to protect everyone when the government doesn’t play by the rules, which the Human Rights Act does very well”.