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UK Government publishes ‘Bill of Rights’ to replace Human Rights Act

These legislative proposals will roll back human rights rather than uphold them

The UK Government has published its ‘Bill of Rights’, which has received its First Reading in the House of Commons.

The Bill is designed to replace the Human Rights Act and is extraordinarily complex. It is not user-friendly and therefore it's more difficult for people not working in law-related professions to understand how it changes the way in which claims of human rights breaches will be dealt with by the courts. 

The complexity of the Bill may make the legislation seem to be only of minority interest, but its effects will be far-reaching. 

The current Human Rights Act (HRA) protects those at greatest risk - but the new Bill of Rights, which will replace the HRA if passed, waters down some of these protections. For example, the Bill removes ‘positive obligations’ on the state to proactively ensure human rights are upheld. 

Families have used these positive obligations to seek truth and justice for their loved ones who may have died or been treated badly when in the care or custody of the state. The Bill prevents new positive obligations and weakens existing ones moving forward.

The Government has described the proposals as ‘common sense’ and has given the example of gangs to illustrate changes made in the Bill, which would remove the requirement for police forces having to notify gang members of threats towards them from other gangs. 

Social work and human rights

The social work profession is built on upholding individual and collective human rights. Social workers have specific legal duties - enshrined in a variety of laws both UK-wide and nation-specific - which address a range of responsibilities relating to specific groups.

In relation to adults, social workers have responsibilities concerning mental capacity; those with severe mental health problems; the safeguarding of adults and those with a disability, including those with a learning disability. 

Children and families social workers have responsibilities in relation to the safeguarding of children; the care of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children; children who are ‘looked after’; and adoption. 

Many of these statutory responses intersect with key elements of the Human Rights Act (HRA) - for example, social work responsibilities to adults relate to Article 5 and responsibilities to children relate to Article 8

The British Association of Social Workers will be focusing on the aspects of the Bill relating to social work practice.

The new ‘Bill of Rights’

The Bill was published on 22 June which means we are still working our way through the contents, but it is clear that these legislative proposals will roll back human rights rather than uphold them. 

The Bill contains measures to increase barriers to ordinary citizens who wish to bring human rights cases forward. Applicants would have go through a ‘permission stage’ which would require them to show that they have suffered a ‘significant disadvantage’ before the claim can go ahead. One person's perspective of ‘significant disadvantage’ is different from another person, and how this would play out in a court remains to be seen. 

The Bill also says that the UK Supreme Court is the ultimate judicial decision-maker on human rights issues and that the case law of the European Court of Human Rights does not always need to be followed by UK courts. This is problematic in the eyes of international law, as being a member of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) means that the UK is bound by it. The UK Government maintains its commitment to the ECHR, but it simply cannot have it both ways, 

For example, last week the ECHR ruled that the Rwanda flights could not go ahead. If the UK is to remain a member of ECHR, we are bound by that ruling – no matter what our domestic legislation says. 

Another part of the Bill that may be of concern to social workers is the planned prevention of courts placing “new costly obligations on public authorities to actively protect someone’s human rights”. There is surely a public duty to ensure that needs of the most vulnerable are actively protected.