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Humanists UK sounds alarm over Human Rights Act reforms’ impact on the non-religious

Humanists UK has told the UK Government that proposals to reform the Human Rights Act 1998 ‘would be counterproductive and seriously risk undermining human rights protections for non-religious people’. It has done so in response to a consultation led by the Ministry of Justice.

At present, the Act means that public bodies and the courts are able to read additional words into laws and policies, where this is required in order to uphold human rights. In particular, where a law or policy just refers to religion, this can be understood to include non-religious beliefs, even though those words are not written in the law or policy itself. Therefore the Act makes this possible to stop such laws and policies discriminating against the non-religious without anyone having to go to court. And if someone does have to go to court, the court can then fix the problem without the public authority having to change the policy, or Parliament having to amend the law. The proposals will take this power away, making it harder for non-religious people to use the Act to challenge discrimination wherever they face it.

Many important advances in the human rights of non-religious people have relied upon this interpretative power in the Act. Two examples are the legal recognition of humanist marriages in Scotland in 2005 and in Northern Ireland in 2017. Similarly, in 2018 the Welsh Government concluded that non-religious worldviews such as humanism had to be equally included in Religious Education (RE) for this reason. Humanists UK has also successfully used the Act to challenge local authorities that have refused humanists membership of local statutory bodies. And the Act has led prisons and NHS Trusts to employ like-minded pastoral carers for non-religious prisoners and patients, alongside religious chaplains.

Humanists UK leads a coalition of over 250 charities, trades unions, and human rights organisations calling for protection of the Human Rights Act and judicial review. It is believed to be the largest ever UK coalition of groups to campaign on human rights.

Humanists UK’s Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson commented,

‘The Government wants to remove from the Act the power to read additional words into other legislation and policies. It wants to do this because it claims it leads to legislation being reinterpreted without Parliament’s say so. This is simply not the case. It was Parliament who passed the Act with this power included. So it is an expression of Parliament’s will that it is used by public bodies and courts to easily remedy areas of discrimination. Removing this power would make the Act a less effective legal remedy, undermining the wider social effects it has upon local decision-makers, and scaling back rights protections. The consequence is that there will be more court cases, more of which will likely end up in Strasbourg. Furthermore, it is not clear that the Government has considered the implications of this reform upon non-religious people.

‘We have urged the Government to not remove this power, and will be doing whatever we can to make sure current protections for the non-religious are maintained.’

Notes:

For further comment or information, media should contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at press@humanists.uk or phone 020 7324 3072 or 07534 248 596.

Read our response.

Read the consultation.

Read more about our comments on reform of the Human Rights Act.

Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by 100,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.

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