Humanists respond to proposed Government rollback of human rights

The UK Government has today announced, via an article in The Times, proposed changes to the operation of the Human Rights Act (HRA). These proposals will have far reaching consequences for humanists, who depend upon the courts having the power to interpret legislation in line with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) to establish equal treatment to religious groups across a range of legislation including  access to healthcare, marriage, and education. Humanists UK has reacted with alarm to these proposals, which will weaken the ability of ordinary people to challenge the Government when their rights have been violated. The Government has launched a consultation on these proposals.

Humanists UK leads a coalition of over 230 charities, trades unions, and human rights organisations calling for protection of the Human Rights Act and judicial review.  It is believed to be the largest ever UK coalition of groups to campaign on human rights. These proposals came alongside the publication of the Independent Human Rights Act Review Panel’s report into reform of the HRA and runs counter to many of the panel’s recommendations.

Under these proposals the UK would remain a party to the ECHR. However, the UK would no longer be required to take account of judgments from the European Court of Human Rights, which oversees the ECHR, in how they are applied in this country. This could lead to different standards applying in the UK than in other countries also party to the ECHR. That would leave UK victims of human rights abuses with less access to justice and fewer courses of redress.

The Government also announced a plan to ‘re-assert democratic control over the expansion of human rights.’ This would end the ability of courts to address human rights abuses by making human rights compliant interpretations of existing legislation. In the last twenty years, this has included the understanding that references to ‘religion’ must be understood as including references to non-religious worldviews such as humanism. Without courts having this power, humanists would not have been able to campaign for legal recognition of humanist marriage, for inclusion in the Religious Education curriculum, for representation on the bodies that oversee Religious Education syllabuses, for equal access to pastoral support in prisons and hospitals, and for equal protection against hate crimes.

The Government has also proposed to introduce an additional permission stage into human rights cases, where claimants would have to demonstrate that they have experienced ‘significant disadvantage’ before a case could proceed. Humanists UK has condemned this proposal as an unnecessary barrier to accessing justice, as there is already a permission stage before a case can be heard at the High Court which screens out unmeritorious cases and claimants should be able to seek to resolve an injustice through the courts without such a test applying.

Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented, 

‘We are seriously concerned about the impact that these proposals will have upon humanists and their ability to seek redress through the courts in cases where their rights have been violated and will be seeking to persuade the Government that they are not necessary and that they will undermine the human rights of UK citizens.

‘The allegation that the Human Rights Act has harmed UK citizens by shifting power away from our elected representatives to our courts is unfounded. Courts exist as a necessary condition for the protection of our freedoms: if they lacked the power to enforce and uphold standards, the Human Rights Act would risk becoming a mere chimaera and fundamental freedoms could be undermined at the whim and behest of government – an undesirable situation in any free society.’