Rights Removal Bill looks set to scrap protections for the non-religious

Tomorrow (Wednesday 22 June) the UK Government will introduce a new Bill to Parliament that will undermine the Human Rights Act 1998. Amongst other things, the Bill looks set to remove vital protections for non-religious people. The so-called ‘Bill of Rights’ – dubbed by its critics as, in fact, a Rights Removal Bill – will roll back a number of provisions within the Act that enable ordinary citizens to challenge the state when their freedoms have been violated.

Humanists UK leads a coalition of over 250 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.

Humanists UK’s Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented, 

‘The introduction of this damaging Bill is a huge disappointment. It runs against the advice of Parliament’s Human Rights Committee, the clear consensus of civil society, and the recommendations of the Government’s own review. It will result in ordinary people being hamstrung when rightly challenging unlawful government decisions.

‘For the non-religious these changes look set to be particularly damaging. Nearly all of the advances made towards equality for non-religious people in the past two decades have relied upon the ability of courts and public bodies to interpret references to “religion” as equally applying to the non-religious. Without these powers it would be very difficult for non-religious people to challenge discriminatory policies in education, family life, or public service provision.

‘We will work closely with humanists in Parliament throughout the passage of this Bill to make sure its most damaging provisions do not make it onto the statute books.’

The impact on the non-religious
The Government has stated that the Bill will ‘ensure courts cannot interpret laws in ways that were never intended by Parliament’. If this means what Humanists UK thinks it will, then it will be a very significant rollback on protections for the non-religious. That’s because 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. This Bill looks set to take 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 in prisons and hospitals.

Removal of other key human rights protections
The Bill will also weaken the links between UK courts and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. This change is likely to result in a lower standard of protection for UK citizens, and, therefore, more claimants seeking redress in the Strasbourg court rather than their own national courts. The additional costs and delays involved in taking a case to Strasbourg is prohibitive for most claimants resulting in a reduction in the power of UK citizens to hold the Government to account.

The Bill introduces ‘a permission stage in court…requiring people to show they have suffered a significant disadvantage before their claim can go ahead.’ This is despite courts already having an admissibility process, where claimants have to demonstrate that their claim has a ‘reasonable prospect’ of success. This admissibility stage already provides adequate safeguards against frivolous litigation. It makes sure that only cases where there is an arguable breach of human rights are heard. If the case is arguable and has a reasonable prospect of success then a sense of natural justice would dictate, regardless of other considerations, that it should be heard. Again, this Bill will place additional barriers in the way of ordinary citizens being able to bring cases.