Although barely 20 years old, the Human Rights Act (HRA) is one of the most important pieces of legalisation ever passed in the UK. It enshrines many important human rights into UK law – from the freedom from torture to free speech – and forms part of our unwritten constitution. It has provided vital protections to individuals, families and communities all over the country.
There are so many examples. Hospitals have been required to take active steps to protect patients at risk of suicide. The police have been required to take allegations of rape seriously. Local authorities have been held to account for child abuse. And anyone suspected of a crime has the right to speak to a solicitor at the police station.
But the HRA is under threat. For years the Conservatives have tried to water down or take away these rights. David Cameron and Theresa May both sought to repeal the HRA but never quite managed to, due to fierce resistance both inside and outside of parliament. Boris Johnson has the same agenda but has taken a sneakier approach than his predecessors.
The Conservative manifesto ominously states that they will “update the Human Rights Act and administrative law to ensure that there is a proper balance between the rights of individuals, our vital national security and effective government”. This is intentionally vague but the meaning is clear: the Tories plan to strip away our human rights one way or another.
Human rights are the cornerstone of a free and democratic society. Freedom of speech means that we all have the right to protest and speak out minds. Freedom from torture means that we cannot be abused by police in custody. Freedom of expression and religion mean that the state cannot tell us what we should or shouldn’t believe in. And the right to a private and family life means that the government can’t listen to our phone calls or read our post.
But many Tories don’t see human rights in this way because they don’t themselves need to rely on them. Often it is the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people who need to assert their rights under the HRA. The Conservatives pretend it only protects terrorists and prisoners but that is simply not true. The HRA is there to protect all of us in our greatest hour of need, whenever that might be.
It is usually the most controversial cases that get covered by the press but the HRA is often most effective at protecting our rights in cases which never go to court. This is because the threat of court action is enough to force public authorities to act in accordance with human rights law.
A majority Conservative government would not only threaten the HRA – it will also go after our courts. After the supreme court held that only parliament – not the government – could trigger article 50 and found that Johnson’s sham prorogation of parliament was unlawful, the Tories want to get their revenge by reducing judicial oversight. That could allow the government to prorogue parliament for longer periods in the future or ensure it is side-lined for major changes to UK law. This would damage both Parliament and the courts and seriously undermine the separation of powers in the UK.
By contrast, Labour will always protect the HRA and the independence of the courts. The Labour shadow cabinet has the utmost respect for our rights and liberties, and understands their importance for a fair and free society.
And as well as protecting our existing rights, a Labour government would create new ones, in particular social and economic rights. For example, Labour has committed to putting in place a Fair Food Act that would include a brand-new right to food. Rights like these are needed more than ever – in the last decade food bank use has increased by more than 5000%.
But our human rights are meaningless if we cannot enforce them in the courts. The Tories slashing of legal aid has left millions without access to justice. Labour has committed not only to restore funding for early legal advice, but also to hire hundreds of ‘community lawyers’ and build an expanded network of law centres so that people can get access to justice.
Labour’s work to protect human rights would not stop at our borders. A Labour government would bring back the concept of an ethical foreign policy with human rights at its heart. This includes immediately suspending arms sales to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen and conducting a root-and-branch reform of our arms export regime.
With so much focus on Brexit, it is important to remember what else is at stake in this election. Boris Johnson and the Tories represent a real threat to human rights in the UK. A Johnson government would turn back the clock on human rights progress. Only Labour can be trusted to protect and expand our rights.