Downing Street will tomorrow set out sweeping plans to override the power of Europe’s human rights court just days after a judge in Strasbourg blocked the deportation of asylum seekers from Britain to Rwanda.
The abolition of the Human Rights Act (HRA), including reducing the influence of the European court of human rights (ECHR), will be introduced before parliament in what the government described as a restatement of Britain’s sovereignty.
But campaigners and leading lawyers decried the historic move, saying the government was systematically eroding people’s rights in an attempt to make itself “untouchable” by the courts.
The new British bill of rights will not have the same protections, they fear.
Sacha Deshmukh, Amnesty International UK’s chief executive, said: “The [Strasbourg] court’s intervention in the Rwanda deportation last week was an example of it enacting its fundamental role in ensuring basic human rights aren’t violated, stating nothing more than that the UK should pause removals to Rwanda pending the outcome of our own domestic judicial review process.
“It’s very troubling that the UK government is prepared to damage respect for the authority of the European court of human rights because of a single decision that it doesn’t like.
“This is not about tinkering with rights, it’s about removing them.
“From the Hillsborough disaster, to the right to a proper Covid inquiry, to the right to challenge the way police investigate endemic violence against women, the Human Rights Act is the cornerstone of people power in this country. It’s no coincidence that the very politicians it holds to account want to see it fatally weakened.”
A senior government source admitted last week’s Rwanda ruling, which humiliated ministers, had been a factor.
“Some of the problems or the challenges we’ve had (with respect to Rwanda) reinforced and strengthened the case for what we’re doing,” the source said.
The government said the bill will make explicit that interim measures from the ECHR such as the one issued last week which prevented the removal flight to Rwanda are not binding on UK courts.
The source said that “sovereignty has been fragmented and called into question over many years by a combination of the EU and other supranational bodies, including the Strasbourg court”.
However, UK courts are not obliged to follow decisions by the ECHR and critics say other changes will have more meaningful, negative impacts.
Stephanie Boyce, president of the Law Society of England and Wales, said: “The erosion of accountability trumpeted by the justice secretary signals a deepening of the government’s disregard for the checks and balances that underpin the rule of law.
“The bill will create an acceptable class of human rights abuses in the United Kingdom – by introducing [under a new permission stage] a bar on claims deemed not to cause ‘significant disadvantage’.
“It is a lurch backwards for British justice. Authorities may begin to consider some rights violations as acceptable, because these could no longer be challenged under the bill of rights despite being against the law.
“Overall, the bill would grant the state greater unfettered power over the people, power which would then belong to all future governments, whatever their ideologies.”
Jun Pang, policy and campaigns officer at Liberty, said: “Time and time again the government has been trying to change the rules in order to make itself untouchable, and the Rwanda scheme is a really good example of that.
“This is the latest example, but there’s countless examples of the government clamping down on people’s rights, whether on the streets, in the courts, at the ballot box or in parliament.
“The bill of rights will result in everyone’s rights being eroded and everyone’s protections being reduced but obviously with the most disproportionate effects on already marginalised communities.”
The government said the bill will ensure courts consider a claimant’s relevant conduct, like a prisoner’s violent or criminal behaviour, when awarding damages, and make it easier to deport foreign criminals by enabling future immigration laws which would force them to prove that a child or dependent would come to overwhelming, unavoidable harm if they were removed from the country.
It also said it would boost press freedom by elevating the right to freedom of expression over that of right to privacy, which has restricted reporting in recent years, and introducing a stronger test for courts to consider before they can order journalists to disclose their sources.
The UK will remain a signatory to the European convention on human rights, which the HRA incorporated into domestic law, but the government said that the act had led to courts “whittling away, reinterpreting or diluting the effects of primary legislation”.
The justice secretary, Dominic Raab, said: “The bill of rights will strengthen our UK tradition of freedom whilst injecting a healthy dose of common sense into the system.
“These reforms will reinforce freedom of speech, enable us to deport more foreign offenders and better protect the public from dangerous criminals.”
Prof Philippe Sands QC, who sat on the 2013 commission on a bill of rights, said: “Mr Raab embraces a nationalistic and xenophobic spin on the idea of human rights, eviscerating one of its most fundamental tenets: basis human rights exist for all, and must be enforceable at the instance of all. The government wants to wind the clock back to a pre-1945 era, a time when, as writer Joseph Roth put it, ‘the tombs of world history are yawning open … and all the corpses one thought interred are stepping out.’”