The Justice Secretary has insisted human rights laws reforms will “strengthen” freedoms and “curtail” abuses of the system, amid claims the move threatens how “ordinary people” challenge those in power.
Dominic Raab said the plans will allow the Government to deport more foreign criminals, prevent “spurious or unmeritorious claims”, reinforce the “quintessentially British right” of freedom of speech and ensure Parliament has the “last word on the laws of this land”.
Unveiling proposals for a new Bill of Rights in the Commons on Tuesday, Mr Raab said this would “revise and replace the framework provided under the Human Rights Act”.
Mr Raab told MPs: “Our proposals for a UK-wide Bill of rights will strengthen our freedoms, reflect our legal traditions, curtail those abuses of the system, reinforce the separation of powers between the judicial and legislative branches, and respect the democratic authority of this House, which, as so often in our history, has been a bulwark and a protector of our freedoms.”
But the move has prompted a backlash from campaigners who say they are a “blatant, unashamed power grab from a Government that wants to put themselves above the law”, a “threat to how and when we can challenge those in power” while warning the rights of “ordinary people” could be “fatally weakened” by the changes.
Setting out how the Government will address concerns that the Act has been “subject to abuse”, Mr Raab said the plans will prevent criminals relying on Article 8 – the right to family life – to “frustrate their deportation from this country.”
Such claims make up “around 70%” of all successful human rights challenges by foreign national offenders against deportation orders, he said, adding: “Our proposals would enable us to legislate to curtail that abuse of the system.”
Discussing how the proposals will reinforce the weight given to freedom of speech, he said this was a “quintessentially British right”, adding: “But one which we have seen eroded of late by a combination of case law introducing continental-style privacy rules and the incremental narrowing of the scope for respectful but rambunctious debate in politically-sensitive areas, something we in this House should resist, both on principle but also in the interests of effective decision-making that only comes from a full airing of contrary views.
“Freedom of speech does sometimes mean the freedom to say things which others may not wish to hear.”
Labour’s shadow justice secretary Steve Reed branded the reforms a “dead cat distraction tactic” and “all mouth and no trousers”, adding that they offered “nothing new”.
He told MPs: “Every time the Government’s in trouble politically they wheel out reforming the Human Rights Act.
“It’s a dead cat distraction tactic by a Government that doesn’t know how to fix the criminal justice system that they’ve broken and is desperate to divert attention away from the corruption scandals they started.
“This is little more than an attempt to wage culture wars because they’ve surrendered from waging war on crime and corruption.”
Mr Raab’s plan to rewrite the Act is the latest attempt by Tory ministers to tackle the legislation, which enshrined the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into domestic law.
While he confirmed the UK will remain a party to the ECHR, Mr Raab said the reforms would “sharpen” the separation of powers and make the UK Supreme Court, not the Strasbourg court, the “ultimate judicial arbiter when it comes to interpreting the ECHR in this country”.
The Government wants to “prevent the misuse and the distortion” of the ECHR and the plans will make it “crystal clear that the UK courts are under no duty to follow Strasbourg caselaw”, he said, adding that his “critique” is levelled at the way the Act is operating and not at the UK judiciary “who have quite properly sought to implement legislation passed in this House”.
The findings of a review of the Act have also been published alongside the launch of a three-month consultation asking for views on the plans.
The review said although the law has been a success, “there is clear room for a coherent package of reforms carrying both domestic and international benefits.”
Chairman Sir Peter Gross said separate reforms recommended by the panel “are designed to improve how the HRA operates, both domestically across the UK, and, in the UK Courts’ relationship with the European Court of Human Rights. Otherwise, it is our view that the Human Rights Act works well and has benefited many.”
Baroness Kishwer Falkner, chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said the Act plays a “vital role in protecting everyone in the UK” and its benefits are “unquestionable”, adding: “We will analyse these proposals carefully. We will welcome any changes which would strengthen protections and oppose any that might reduce or weaken them.”