Human Rights Act needs strengthening, not weakening

Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell was a keynote speaker at Salford University’s human rights conference on 4 and 5 June 2010, held to mark the first decade of the Human Rights Act.

Other keynote speakers included Supreme Court Justice, Lady Hale; openly gay former High Court judge of Australia, Michael Kirby; and the University of Salford’s Chancellor and former Amnesty International Secretary General, Irene Khan.

Peter Tatchell, who is the human rights spokesperson for the Green Party of England and Wales, is urging opposition to Conservative proposals to water-down the Human Rights Act:

“Despite its flaws and limitations, the Human Rights Act is probably the single most important piece of legislation passed by parliament in the last 30 years. It protects the individual against state intrusion and authoritarianism; asserting fundamental freedoms and liberties that a government cannot lawfully suppress,” said Mr Tatchell.

“Thanks to the Human Rights Act, many government excesses have been overturned, including the detention of terrorist suspects without charge or trial and infringements on the right to protest and freedom of expression.

“The Human Rights Act has also helped extend LGBT equal rights, such as securing ‘nearest relative’ status for cohabiting same-sex partners (2002) and giving the surviving partner of a same-sex couple the right to inherit their deceased partner’s tenancy (2004).

“The Conservatives have previously criticised the Human Rights Act and suggested that they want to replace it with a watered-down version in the form of a ‘British’ Bill of Rights.

“Any diminution of fundamental freedoms would be a retrograde step. It would strengthen the power of the state and undermine the rights of the citizen. Far from weakening the protections enshrined in the Human Rights Act, we need to expand and improve them.

“One of the flaws the Human Rights Act is that it embodies all the limitations of the European Convention on Human Rights, which it copies and incorporates into UK law.

“The ECHR was first agreed in 1950, at a time when concepts of human rights were much narrower than now. As a result the ECHR and Human Rights Act include no explicit protection against discrimination on the grounds of disability, age, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity, medical condition or genetic inheritance.

“Moreover, the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the ECHR do not include economic and social rights, such as the right to a reasonable standard of living, to adequate health-care and education, and to a healthy environment. There is no specific, direct protection against discrimination in employment, housing, education, medical treatment and in the provision of other public services. These deficiencies need remedying in an expanded and strengthened version.

“The Human Rights Act is vulnerable to being overturned. It could be repealed by a simple majority vote in parliament. This is why transforming it into a constitutional protection, which could be abolished or diminished less easily, would provide better safeguards.

“It is time Britain had a written Constitution with a Bill of Rights that includes an extended and strengthened version of the Human Rights Act. If it was part of a new British Constitution, the Human Rights Act could only be amended or repealed by a constitutional amendment. In most countries constitutional amendments require a referendum or agreement by at least two-thirds of MPs. Incorporating the Human Rights Act into a new Constitution and Bill of Rights would therefore be a significant safeguard against tampering and subversion by an authoritarian or populist government,” said Mr Tatchell.

Commenting on the conference, Salford University Vice-Chancellor, Professor Martin Hall, said:

“The University has an established reputation for the study of human rights, social justice and security issues which is demonstrated by the extremely prominent speakers we have at this conference.

“Now, more than ever, issues of social justice and human rights are at the forefront of public interest. In an ever-more cosmopolitan world, challenged by unprecedented issues of security, we need time to reflect on the consequences of legislation and its implementation. This conference is an opportunity to reflect on these questions, on the anniversary of path-breaking legislation,” said Professor Hall.


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