Bill to weaken the Human Rights Act announced in Queen’s Speech
The UK Government has confirmed its intention to bring forward a new ‘Bill of Rights’ in today’s Queen’s Speech. The Bill will reform the Human Rights Act 1998 by making it harder for ordinary people to bring legal challenges when their rights have been violated. And it may have a specifically bad impact on freedom of belief for the non-religious.
For these reasons, Humanists UK has been arguing that such a Bill is not needed. It leads a coalition of over 250 charities, trades unions, and human rights organisations in calling for the protection of the Human Rights Act.
At present, the Act means that public bodies and the courts are able to read additional words into laws and policies, where this is required in order to uphold human rights. In particular, where a law or policy just refers to religion, this must be understood to include non-religious beliefs, even though those words are not written in the law or policy itself. Therefore the Act makes it possible to stop such laws and policies discriminating against the non-religious without anyone having to go to court. And if someone does have to go to court, the court can then fix the problem without the public authority having to change the policy, or Parliament having to amend the law. Earlier this year the Government consulted on taking this power away, making it harder for non-religious people to use the Act to secure their freedom of belief.
In 2005, humanist marriages became legally recognised in Scotland after the registrar general decided he had to make just such a reading in. In 2018, legally recognised humanist marriages in Northern Ireland were brought about after a judge reached the same conclusion. Similarly, in 2018 the Welsh Government concluded that humanism had to be equally included in RE. The same education law also applies in England, and dozens of local authorities have made exactly the same reading in to their RE. There have also been countless instances where individual humanists have won equality for the non-religious without having to go to court. This includes challenging the exclusion of humanists from the bodies that set RE syllabuses and securing the provision of humanist and non-religious pastoral care for the nonreligious in prisons and hospitals.
Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson commented:
‘We are disappointed that the Government is pushing ahead with this Bill despite overwhelming evidence these measures are unnecessary and have the potential to severely undermine our human rights framework. The Bill seems likely to result in more citizens having no choice but to take their cases to the European Court of Human Rights rather than our own courts – the precise opposite of its intent. It looks set to run counter to the recommendations of the Government’s own Independent Review of the Human Rights Act, Parliament’s Committee on Human Rights, and the overwhelming view of the UK’s leading human rights and legal organisations. It is unclear on what evidence the Government is arguing it is needed.
‘The specific impact on the non-religious of the Bill may be particularly bad. We will be lobbying the Government and working with humanists in Parliament to try to ensure that citizens’ rights in general, and freedom of belief in particular, are not diminished by this legislation.’