After banging on before May 7th about ‘finishing what we started’ with the ‘Long Term Economic Plan’, George Osbourne is suddenly nowhere to be seen. His Tory colleagues instead have immediately set about dismantling our rights by attempting to repeal the Human Rights Act (HRA), and to finally introduce the long-mooted ‘Snoopers Charter’.
Rather than see the repeal of the HRA and the predicted £12bn in welfare cuts as two distinct elements of the Conservative government’s ideology, it’s more instructive to see them as an interlocking suite of polices.
More on that later.
Theresa May almost immediately launched a defence of her plans to see off human rights, which, if successful, will bring us nearer to the kind of state that monitors and punishes citizens for dissent. Whilst details of Tory plans to replace the HRA with a ‘British Bill of Rights’ remain vague, we do know for sure that it won’t be a like-for-like replacement.
Theresa May is framing this debate around curtailing extremism, however, the HRA is used more commonly used for the protection of everyday people who have been failed by the apparatus of the State.
Rape victims with mental health issues, for instance.
The HRA was used against Hampshire police after they failed to investigate properly an allegation of rape, and who then arrested the rape victim. Would this be a ‘frivolous’ case which could be thrown out under the British Bill of Rights?
Another group protected by the HRA are the disproportionately ethnic minority victims of what Liberty calls “extraordinarily broad police power to stop and search anyone without suspicion.” Liberty fought these draconian powers all the way to the European Court of Human Rights which ruled that the power was “arbitrary” and “open to discriminatory use.”
Human rights also provide a safety net for the most vulnerable amongst us.
Those with disabilities have been able to enforce their human rights to, among other things, get a fair hearing following misleading advice from the DWP, as well as to argue that the size criteria in the housing benefits regulations discriminates against disabled people.
It may well be true that replacing the HRA with a British Bill of Rights will suddenly free the police and our courts to better target Islamic extremists and Neo-Nazis as Theresa May argues. Whilst this approach may lead to slightly better statistics around terrorist convictions and/or extraditions, it’s very likely that increased police powers (to ignore what used to be a human right, to track every website you go to and each e-mail you send and receive) will be focused upon existing law-abiding groups.
Peaceful protest groups such as environmental activists, anti-capitalist and anti-racist groups, animal rights campaigners, and even the elected political opponents of the government of the day will almost certainly become targets of police surveillance without being hindered by such frivolities as human rights. The Human Rights Act has already been used to protect the rights and freedoms of such groups.
Perhaps the most recent example of this in action was the startling revelation that the Stephen Lawrence family had fallen victim to a police spy who gathered intelligence in order to give the Metropolitan police an “advantage” over the Lawrence family during an inquiry into how the Met handled the investigation into the death of Stephen Lawrence. I’m no legal expert, but I suspect that perhaps breaches the right to privacy?
Far from simply providing a route to bring trivial cases against the State, as Theresa May would have us believe, the Human Rights Act offers a failsafe level of protection for the most vulnerable and most marginalised people in our country when the government has already failed to execute it’s duty, but fails to recognise or admit so.
Repealing the Human Rights Act would remove very real protections for people we all know.
Victims of police discrimination and mental health stigma. Disabled people dependent upon benefits. Activists who simply disagree with or have different priorities from the government. People who have committed no crime, nor who ever intend to. People struggling simply to survive on benefits, or fighting to bring attention to injustice at home and abroad. It is by no means clear that the freedoms of these people will be guaranteed by a British Bill of Rights.
Meanwhile. George Osbourne is planning deep cuts to social services. The HRA has already proven an obstacle to spending reforms. When the disadvantaged and disabled can use the HRA as their last ditch attempt at defense against spending cuts imposed by central government, and win, is it any wonder that this Tory Government sees repealing the HRA as urgent business?
Consider the repeal of the HRA as a prelude to the carnage to come. Once the rights of the least-privileged people in our communities have been tweaked in the name of anti-terrorism, the government may cut services with impunity.