HRC Submission to Human Rights Act Reform – A Modern Bill of Rights Consultation

March 9, 2022

The Human Rights Consortium is deeply concerned about the existence, content, and possible impact of this consultation exercise. Coming after a decade of attempts to undermine the Human Rights Act (HRA) and launched on the same day the report from the Independent Review of the Human Rights Act outlined little support for changing the HRA, we believe that this consultation is an attempt to weaken hard-won and essential human rights protections both for Northern Ireland (NI) and the rest of the United Kingdom (UK).

If the proposals in the HRA consultation document are fully progressed as outlined they will result in a clear regression in the access and enjoyment of Convention rights as we currently know them. The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement (B/GFA) made provision for Convention (ECHR) rights being incorporated into the law of Northern Ireland. If the proposed changes are implemented locally it will fundamentally alter the way in which we currently access and experience the protection of those rights. We believe that this violates both the intention behind the B/GFA commitment and the practical protection and enjoyment of those rights commitments as we have enjoyed them over the past 22 years.

The proposals by the UK Government are presented as replacing the HRA with a Bill of Rights. Given the historic process to develop a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, the Consortium’s role in campaigning for that Bill of Rights, and our belief that a Bill of Rights should be a positive articulation of progressive rights, we refuse to characterise the UK Govt proposals as creating a Bill of Rights.

The framing of many of the concerns and questions set out in the Governments consultation document are deeply misleading, ill-informed, and not based on available evidence. Many of the claims the UK Govt makes about the operation of the HRA and the case for its reform are deeply flawed ideological points of opposition to the concept of progressive rights and not based on substantive evidence.

The consultation attempts to establish a number of false notions such as framing human rights as being in opposition to the wider public interest. From our perspective, the wider public interest includes and is served by respect and protection of human rights. It is also clear from ongoing work by our members and colleagues both in Northern Ireland and across the UK that there is widespread public support for the protection of human rights and the Human Rights Act.

The consultation also clearly fails to offer appropriate response options for those that seek to retain the HRA as it currently exists. Perhaps most concerning is the Government’s distinct failure to take account of the range of problems and concerns that these proposals will create for those in devolved areas of the UK. Our own devolved government in Northern Ireland was based on the commitments to human rights and equality in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement such as the Human Rights Act. To undermine or remove those commitments is to tamper with a finely balanced set of relationships that could destabilise the institutions and safeguards that underpin our peace process.

We believe that this consultation exercise is unwarranted and any change to the Human Rights Act is unnecessary. We encourage the Government to abandon its plans to reform the HRA and instead direct its attention towards promoting the understanding and utilisation of existing rights protections and fulfilling its duties to deliver additional protections such as the undelivered Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.

Read our full response here.

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