Why we'll be hurt if we scrap the Human Rights Act

August 20, 2015
The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg © ALPHA CIT/NEWZULU/PA Images
The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg © ALPHA CIT/NEWZULU/PA Images
Read Dominic Grieve's full piece from this month's Prospect

In this month's Prospect, out today, the Conservative former Attorney General Dominic Grieve writes in protest at his party's plans to scrap the Human Rights Act. The replacement of the Act by a "British Bill of Rights" was one of the Tories' key election promises, and Grieve is one of a small—but influential—group wthin the party who thinks it was misguided. 

Here are the key reasons why he thinks the act should not be scrapped:

In the club?

As Grieve points out, the Tories' original published plans involved the UK seeking a special status within the Council of Europe, an organisation made up of European states who have signed the European Convention on Human Rights. This would allow it to remain a signatory to the convention while treating the judgements of its court, the European Court of Human Rights, as "merely advisory." Grieve, however, fears that this commitment to remaining signed up to the convention is slipping: The government "has now run into the difficult question of how, in practice, any change can be implemented without serious damage to our national interest and our international reputation," writes Grieve.

Global standing down

The Convention's international clout, Grieve points out, relies on "peer pressure:" its adherents being able to persuade others to respect it. Britain has historically been a leader in the global promotion of human rights. But, says Grieve, " the departure of one of its principal creators will damage it severely." He says that governments in Russia and Kenya are already citing the UK's stance to justify dragging their feet on some human rights issues.

Benefits of hindsight

“In a number of key cases involving this country," writes Grieve, "the court has made adverse findings which a vast majority would now conclude are correct.” However "barmy" some of the decisions of these "eurocrats" might seem to the press, they are often vindicated in time. Grieve gives the examples of the court’s 1981 decision that the criminalisation of homosexual acts in private in Northern Ireland was wrong, and its 2008 ruling that UK policy in England and Wales to retain indefinitely the DNA and fingerprint profiles of acquitted individuals was unjustified.

Better together

"Such changes will also seriously disrupt the devolution settlements," argues Grieve. At the moment, these settlements are underpinned by the existing human rights legislation. "Westminster could legislate to change the position," says Grieve, "but the evidence is that this would be against the wishes of the devolved administrations." This could make relations even worse between the UK's four nations, however, at a time when things are hardly rosy. Grieve points out that an alternative would be for each nation to have a separate human rights settlement, but "for a unionist party this seems a very strange thing to do."

What difference does it make?

"It is difficult to see what the new Bill of Rights is supposed to achieve," Grieve says. If the new bill does include the text of the convention, as is suggested, then British courts might just make the same decisions as before anyway.