Consultation response from the women's policy group Northern Ireland.

This is an excerpt from the full consultation response.

The WPG are aware that this consultation on the Human Rights Act (HRA) occurs in the wider context of increasing attempts by the UK Government, in recent years, to weaken the systems of checks and balances on executive power and undermine key accountability mechanisms. It also takes place during a time of rapid change, in regards to the relationship between individual and state, with the balance of power being increasingly tipped towards the state.


The WPG considers this consultation to be a failed opportunity to extend and improve the HRA and disagrees with any attempts to erode or reduce the human rights of UK citizens by removing important rights and duties contained in the HRA. The WPG stands in solidarity with civil society across the four nations of the UK who are calling for the Human Rights Act to be upheld in its current form and not be diminished in any way.


The WPG are particularly concerned that the proposals set out in the Human Rights Act consultation would reduce and complicate duties currently placed on public bodies and services to uphold the rights of citizens contained in the Human Rights Act. The value of human rights for UK citizens lies not only in the rights entitlements they have but also the duties attached to these rights in human rights law. These duties allow citizens to claim their rights and actively challenge those who seek to violate them. The proposals set out in this consultation radically erode the duties currently attached to rights in the Human Rights Act. This includes duties on public bodies, the Government, medical professionals, educational staff and the police to uphold and protect the human rights of citizens.


It is clear that those who will be most negatively impacted by the Government’s proposals to reform the Human Rights Act are those who already face significant inequalities and disadvantages in society. For example, these reforms would mean that people from migrant backgrounds living in the UK are at increased risk of being deported to countries where serious human rights violations are widespread.


As the main piece of domestic human rights legislation, eroding the Human Rights Act will create a hierarchy of those who have access to human rights in the UK. By attacking the rights of some groups, all groups are negatively impacted. Human Rights go to the very core of what humans require in order to live safe and fulfilled lives and should be enjoyed by all people by virtue of being human, regardless of nationality, race, gender, religion or sexuality.


The WPG are aware that the Government has already commissioned a large-scale Independent Review of the HRA, which concluded quite clearly that the HRA is working well. Therefore, there seems to be no rationale for the sweeping changes being proposed by the government in this consultation. The Chair of the Review is on record at the Justice Committee saying that this approach by the Government is in no way a response to their Review.


It is important to remind the UK Government of the particular importance of human rights in the context of Northern Ireland, where the legacy of the Troubles continues to impact the lives of citizens and a peace process is still taking place. The incorporation of the Human Rights Act into domestic law has been particularly important in Northern Ireland for several reasons. The Good Friday Agreement, which provides the basis for the ongoing peace process in Northern Ireland, is underpinned by human rights commitments. Any attempt to undermine these commitments threatens to undermine the Agreement itself. The UK Government made commitments in the Northern Ireland Protocol as part of the EU Withdrawal Agreement to a ‘no diminution of rights’ and Northern Ireland civil society expect this commitment to be upheld.


The WPG would like to highlight and endorse the following comments on the Human Rights Act Consultation made by the British Institute for Human Rights:

  • Our Human Rights Act safeguards the rights of every single person in the UK. These rights are about making sure everyone, no matter who they are, is treated with equal dignity and respect.
  • The Government says that it wants to bring human rights closer to home. This is what the Human Rights Act already does every single day. Since 2004, there has been a significant drop in the cases brought against the UK Government to the European Court of Human Rights. This is because the Human Rights Act means that human rights have become embedded into our domestic law here in the UK.
  • The Government’s proposals will restrict the rights of some people in our society, essentially providing the government of the day with the power to decide who deserves rights and who does not. These changes include reducing the scope of some non-absolute rights for “certain categories of individuals” and allowing the courts to consider an individual’s past behaviour when making decisions about their human rights case and if they should be awarded damages.
  • Many of the proposed restrictions of rights are open-ended or vague, starting with certain groups, and no indication of where this would stop. The point of creating human-rights law after World War 2 was to prevent this; we saw too clearly how restricting rights for some people can mean that all our rights are compromised. In particular, we are very concerned about the Government’s proposals to make changes to the scope of right to liberty, the right to a fair trial and the right to respect for private and family life. Limiting the rights of some people can very quickly lead to limiting the rights of us all.
  • Our Human Rights Act focuses on our common humanity, recognising that rather than being dependent on the moral compass of who happens to hold power, in a decent democracy everyone deserves minimum standards. The Bill of Rights proposed in the Consultation focuses on dividing us rather than bringing us together.
  • The Government appears to suggest that our human rights will remain the same, as their new law will contain the same list of rights. This is disingenuous because, crucially, the Government is proposing fundamental changes to the way our rights work and protect us. This means that, on paper, the rights look the same, but in practice we will all be worse off, and the Government less accountable. These changes include limiting the positive obligation on public authorities to protect our human rights. This means families like the loved ones of those killed at Hillsborough will find it much harder to hold public authorities to account and to ask for investigations when something has gone wrong.
  • The Human Rights Act is incorporated into devolution laws. The Government has not evidenced any detailed consideration as to how its proposals would work in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Devolved governments in Wales and Scotland have each issued strongly-worded statements outlining the concerns about the UK Government’s proposals. There are clear concerns that with these proposals the UK Government is seeking to redefine and reduce their responsibilities to us all.
  • Our Human Rights Act means that if the Government or public bodies overstep the mark, each one of us can hold them to account in our everyday discussions with those making decisions affecting our lives. Or if needed, people can seek justice in the courts. Whilst judges cannot change the law, the courts decide if people’s human rights have been breached and say this should stop. It is for Parliament to change the law, as it so often chooses to do, when our rights are being risked. Our Human Rights Act respects the democratic system we have in the UK.
  • Any law Parliament passes, including those that risk people’s human rights, can only be changed by Parliament. Sadly, much of the UK Government’s approach to the law which holds them to account, is to cherry-pick certain examples and points, without the full context and facts, strengthening the “damaging perceptions”(p181) which the IHRAR said need to be tackled. For example, the Justice Secretary Dominic Raab often relies on a single immigration case to justify changes to our right to family life. What is always missing is that this case is a decade old and the legal technicality has been resolved without changing the Human Rights Act. The Human Rights Act is in fact the law which enables survivors of domestic abuse to hold authorities to account when they fail to protect them.
  • Being able to hold our Government and public institutions to account is vital in any democracy, and it is our Human Rights Act that enables ordinary people to do this. Ultimately, the institution which benefits from these proposals is the UK Government, putting more power into their hands.
  • Accountability in the courts is an important part of living in a just society, but that is only one part of how our Human Rights Act works. The Government’s proposals, with the focus on legal complexity, fail to recognise that human rights are about people and power, ensuring those with power are accountable to people, not only the courts but in everyday
  • Importantly, our Human Rights Act is also vital to all the people working in public services: it is this law that helps them transform values into reality, helping them to do better with and for people. Every day, staff are working to safeguard people across the UK, to support their wellbeing, their health, to access safe housing and to get an education. Tampering with our Human Rights Act will only make their jobs harder, taking away the compass to navigate the maze of laws they use daily.

This is an excerpt from the full consultation response.