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Parliamentary Committee condemns plans to reform Human Rights Act

The UK Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR), in a report published today, has condemned plans to reform the Human Rights Act 1998. It has stated that ‘the proposals and their consequences run counter to three central principles of human rights law.’ These are that human rights are universal, fundamental and require special protection within the domestic and international legal order, and must be able to adapt to stand the test of time. Humanists UK leads a coalition of over 250 organisations to defend the Human Rights Act and submitted evidence to the Joint Committee on these reforms. Today it has welcomed this report.

Harriet Harman MP, the chair of the JCHR, said:

‘The Government’s case that human rights legislation is in serious need of reform is not proven. There is nothing in their consultation that would serve to strengthen the protections we currently have and much that would weaken them.

‘In many cases what is described as the strengthening of rights is simply tweaking what is already protected, while at the same time making it harder for people to actually enforce their rights.’

Humanists UK is concerned that the planned reforms would be counterproductive and seriously risk undermining human rights protections for non-religious people. 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.

The JCHR report condemned these plans to stop courts being able to read additional words into legislation and policy. It found:

‘no real evidence to suggest that the UK courts are misusing [this power]. By only adopting interpretations that are consistent with the scheme of the legislation, the courts are balancing respect for Parliamentary sovereignty with effective protection for human rights. Repealing [this power] would create uncertainty in the law and substantially weaken the protection of human rights in the UK, both in the courts and through the wider culture of rights. Replacing [this power] with lesser interpretive obligations would have the advantage of greater certainty, but otherwise would be likely to result in similar damage to the protection of human rights in the UK.’

Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson commented:

‘We welcome this important report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which complements the findings of the Government-commissioned Independent Review of the Human Rights Act. Both concluded that the Human Rights Act is functioning well and is not in need of major reform. It is therefore very hard to see on what basis the Government can justify pursuing its plans to reform the Act and replace it with a Bill of Rights. It runs counter to the overwhelming legal and expert opinion.

‘We urge the Government to drop plans for a new Bill of Rights and only introduce those reforms that are in line with the recommendations of the JCHR.’

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 the JCHR’s report.

Read Humanists UK’s submission to the JCHR.

Read our submission to the Independent Review of Human Right Act.

Read the Government’s plan for reform.

Read more about our coalition.

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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