The Bill of Rights & Our Bone of Contention

by Alice Evans

The internet has been talking a lot about reproduction rights after the changes made by the US Supreme Court relating to access to abortions and contraceptive measures. However, there has been little conversation about the UK government’s intention to replace the Human Rights Act with a new Bill of Rights that, like the restriction of reproductive rights in the US, will have a dangerous impact on some of the most vulnerable people in our society. As Alice mentioned the bill in our recent episode with Maysoon, we thought we’d outline how the new bill could impact disabled people.

The UK government intend to replace the Human Rights Act with a bill that makes it more difficult for people to challenge human rights violations in court. The new bill removes an organisation’s duty to take specific steps to actively protect, fulfil or facilitate a person’s human rights and also limits courts and judges’ abilities to interpret the rights laid out in the European Convention on Human Rights. Although the changes do not remove our fundamental human rights under the European Convention on Human Rights, they will impact how courts in the UK handle human rights cases.

The removal of public bodies and the government’s “positive obligation” (duty to protect, fulfil or facilitate our human rights) means that organisations will no longer have to actively ensure that the rights of the people they work with are upheld. Disabled people, children and those with low incomes are far more likely to turn to public bodies such as local authorities and government-funded services, for those with multiple and complex disabilities, in particular, rely on such services to survive. By removing the duty for positive obligation, the bill will make it easier for such organisations to get away with poor service provision, exclusions and poor standards, as well as making it harder for courts to hold them to account for such failings.

If passed into law, just getting your claim to court would become more complex.

The bill proposes a “permissions stage”, meaning people who feel their rights have been violated must demonstrate to the court that they have been significantly disadvantaged.

There are proposed limitations to how legislation is interpreted as well as a new requirement for courts to give greater weight to the views of parliament when deciding the outcome of a possible human rights violation.

This means not only will someone in government decide whether you experienced sufficient distress or disadvantage to allow your claim to go to court, but once it’s there, the judge is required to give more weight to the views of the government than to your experience as a result of the violation you experienced.

This shift away from the personal and lived experiences of people who experience human rights violations will likely result in challenges being interpreted through the eyes of those least likely to experience discrimination – affluent, educated, white, non-disabled, straight, cis-gendered men. This is incredibly concerning as it will mean that the value of the emotions, experiences and lives of disabled and disadvantaged people will be decided by those without a fundamental understanding of their reality.

The failure of the bill to recognise the necessity of these protections for disabled people will come as no surprise to many of our readers, and their loss to properly include disabled people in the consultation process for the bill is entirely indicative of the ongoing and entrenched exclusion and invalidation of the disabled community.

A coalition of disability advocates and human rights groups have condemned the government for failing to make accessible versions of the 123-page consultation document to ensure disabled people could participate in the 12-week review process.

Although the entire document was made available online earlier this year, it was not until 12 days before the end of the 12-week consultation period that an easy-read version of the document was released; even then, this document has been described as “insufficient” for many neurodiverse individuals. As a result, the government failed to release an audio version of the document, leaving many people with visual impairment and processing difficulties excluded entirely.

There are many concerns about repealing the Human Rights Act outside of the proposed changes outlined in the Bill of Rights. Those raised by SEND rights activists about how the Human Rights Act underpins the right to access education and risks to the Good Friday peace agreement in Northern Ireland, whilst Amnesty International has called it a “giant leap backwards” for the rights of ordinary people.

On the other hand, officials who back the changes say that the changes will reduce trivial court cases, reduce the cost to taxpayers, increase public safety by making it easier to deport foreign criminals and improve freedom of the press by reducing limitations around the right to privacy.

The bill is a largely Conservative Party-led initiative, and both the Labour Party and the Green Party have raised concerns about the proposed legislation.

The lABLEd team know that many people are highly apprehensive about these changes, and we are too. To understand more about your human rights and the Bill of Rights, you can visit the British Institute of Human Rights: Rights Removal Bill & Human Rights Act Reform (bihr.org.uk). You can also write to your local MP about your concerns:  Contact your MP – UK Parliament.

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