The Human Rights Act is like serious injury insurance, or perhaps an action plan for a global pandemic: you hope you never need it.
The problem is that you might do, and it seems this horrific past year has reminded people in the UK that it’s wise to foresee potential trouble ahead. In new polling we at Amnesty commissioned this week, more than two-thirds (68%) of people thought it was important to have a safety net to hold the government to account when things go wrong, while more than half (53%) believed the coronavirus pandemic had illustrated the importance of human rights protections.
The government’s appalling handling of Covid in care homes, including the horror of the blanket imposition of do-not-resuscitate orders without proper process, has really brought home to people that you never know when you might find yourself or your loved ones in an unexpected position of vulnerability. So much of the past year was seemingly unthinkable until it happened, and it has demonstrated the fragility of our way of life without guarantees and protections when we are failed.
The Human Rights Act has been in the crosshairs of successive Conservative governments despite the fact that public polling has routinely shown such a move to be of little interest to voters. Indeed, our polling unsurprisingly saw issues such as proper funding for the NHS (67%), guaranteeing post-lockdown economic recovery (54%), and getting children’s education back on track (53%) to be the most pressing issues for the public. Reviewing human rights legislation was right at the bottom of the list, with just 18% of people thinking it should be a priority over coming years.
So why is this government so fixated on the Human Rights Act? Well, it has shown it is no fan of scrutiny across the board, and has set about dismantling checks on its power – from launching a “review of judicial review” to granting itself unfettered powers in the ‘spy cops’ bill. And now comes this attempt to water down the Human Rights Act. It seems this administration would rather mark its own homework. The problem is the public may not agree. More than half of people we polled (59%) said they thought human rights protections should be considered permanent and not subject to change by politicians.
In addition, it’s clear that many people think tampering with the act presents a real threat to the union of the UK, as well as the fragile peace in Northern Ireland. This, in the end, was what a review of human rights legislation in the UK back in David Cameron’s tenure warned of. It ultimately concluded that the threat was too great. The government of today must decide if it is happy to take those risks now.
We are determined to oppose such a move, and as our poll findings show, it seems that most people in the UK will be standing with us. It should not be up to the government of the day to redraft, recast or remove human rights protections. They are not in the gift of politicians to bestow.
- Kate Allen is the director of Amnesty International UK
People’s Media News
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