Today the UK Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights has published its report into the so-called Bill of Rights Bill. In the report, it has urged the UK Government to abandon the Bill entirely. In its response to the Committee’s call for evidence last year, Humanists UK made the same call, and highlighted the impact the Rights Removal Bill – as it has been dubbed by many human rights charities – would have on the non-religious. Humanists UK is pleased to see the Committee shares its concerns.
The Rights Removal Bill threatens to repeal and replace the Human Rights Act and Humanists UK opposes the Bill in its entirety. In its submission to the Committee’s call for evidence, Humanists UK focused on the removal of the ‘reading in’ power that is enabled by the Human Rights Act. This power compels public bodies – such as schools, prisons and local authorities – to read extra words into existing policy and legislation to make it human rights-compliant. This is how any mention of ‘religion’ can be understood to mean that beliefs that are analogous to religions, such as humanism, must be included on equal footing.
This is how humanist marriages became legally recognised in Scotland in 2005, when the registrar general made such a reading in. Similarly in 2017, humanist marriages became legally recognised in Northern Ireland when a judge read into the existing marriage law an interpretation that humanist marriages should be understood to be included. In 2018, the Welsh Government concluded that Religious Education (RE) must be inclusive of humanism for this reason, and dozens of local authorities have also made this same ‘reading in’ in their RE provision. Crucially, many of these ‘readings in’ can be made before a case is escalated to the courtroom.
The Rights Removal Bill not only removes this ‘reading in’ power from public bodies, it threatens to overturn all the ‘readings in’ that had been made under the Human Rights Act. Even though a clause in the Rights Removal Bill gives the Secretary of State the power to ‘preserve or restore’ judgments made in court that relied on this ‘reading in’ power, this doesn’t mean they will be preserved, and it doesn’t allow for the restoration of readings-in made by other public bodies.
In its report, the Committee draws attention to Humanists UK’s evidence:
‘[This clause in the Bill] only gives the Secretary of State the power to preserve [reading in] interpretations made by the courts. Humanists UK reminded us that [the reading in power] applies beyond the courts, but the Bill provides no mechanism for non-judicial interpretations to be preserved.’
Humanists UK’s submission is quoted in the Committee’s report:
‘[This clause] is silent on the impact of ‘readings in’ readily made through non-judicial public bodies … Over 60 local authorities in England have incorporated humanists as full members [of Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education] through such an interpretation of ‘religion’ without the need for litigation. By relying solely on case law, [this clause] appears to only grant the Secretary of State the power to preserve the most contested readings-in that have required litigation to resolve, while remaining silent on those readings in which are better established—a patently ridiculous outcome.’
Responding to the report, Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson commented:
‘We welcome the Joint Committee’s report and support its recommendation that the Rights Removal Bill proceeds no further.
‘All the hard-won positive developments for the freedom of belief and equal treatment of humanists and the non-religious in the last twenty years have relied on the Human Rights Act, and many of those have more specifically relied upon the obligation on public authorities to read us into relevant laws and policy that historically only reference “religion”.
‘The Human Rights Act works. We will continue to campaign for it to be retained, and for a rights-respecting culture for all to flourish across the UK.’
For further comment or information, media should contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 020 7324 3072 or 07534 248 596.
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