Following terrorist attacks in London and Manchester, Theresa May has announced she will rip up human rights law to fight terrorism. The Conservative manifesto had already indicated where the Party stands on human rights: the phrase “human rights” is almost entirely absent. The decision to avoid the language of rights is perhaps unsurprising given that, according to a 2014 YouGov poll, “only half of Conservatives and four in ten UKIP voters believe human rights exist”.
The Conservatives’ sweeping attack on human rights is significant. It encourages sections of the electorate to dismiss the idea of human rights and reinforces the (mistaken) belief that “human rights” are a foreign-imposed concept, a “madness” and a “farce”. It also suggests that Theresa May still stands by her words that the Human Rights Act “has to go”.
Yet human rights are central to key election issues. Every party claims it will promote and protect the right to education, the right to healthcare, the right to a clean environment, the rights of the elderly and workers’ rights. They all propose policies on immigration and housing. Too often voters forget that these are all pressing human rights issues.
In addition to debates around healthcare, education, immigration and housing, some of the most controversial human rights issues at stake in this election include:
- Whether the Human Rights Act 1998 should be repealed: In contrast to their 2015 manifesto, and despite ongoing calls from within the party, the Conservatives state they will not repeal the Human Rights Act but will keep it “while the process of Brexit is underway”. UKIP is now the only party committed to immediately scrapping the Act and leaving the European Convention on Human Rights.
- Brexit and EU rights: Many of the human rights protections in the UK, including employment and equality rights, derive from EU law. The Conservatives say they will enact a Great Repeal Bill to “convert EU law into UK law” with “the necessary powers to correct the [EU] laws that do not operate appropriately”. Labour says it will introduce an “EU Rights and Protections Bill” rather than the Great Reform Bill. Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats pledge unilaterally to guarantee the existing rights of EU nationals.
- Counter-terrorism: The Conservatives say in their manifesto that they might introduce new criminal offences related to extremism. In the day before the election, Theresa May has said she is determined to “rip up human rights laws” to introduce new terror legislation. Labour and the Liberal Democrats have both affirmed their commitment to human rights in the fight against terrorism. Labour states in its manifesto that it will “review the Prevent programme”; the Liberal Democrats pledge to scrap Prevent. They say they will implement effective security policies that do not “weaken our individual rights or civil liberties” (Labour) or “unduly restrict personal liberty” (Liberal Democrats).
- State surveillance: At the end of 2016 the Investigatory Powers Act came into force, giving sweeping surveillance powers to UK intelligence agencies and police. It has been widely criticised by campaign groups. The Liberal Democrats state they will “roll back state surveillance powers”, suggesting they will repeal or revise the 2016 Act. Labour is more vague. It states that “the exercise of investigatory powers must always be both proportionate and necessary” but does not suggest it would revise the 2016 Act.
The human rights issues at stake in the election are complex and pressing – from the best ways to protect our healthcare and education systems to the question of how much our rights should be compromised in the interests of security. The result of the election will have a fundamental impact on how these rights are protected and promoted. Voters should not be encouraged to regard human rights as something for “other people” or, even worse, as non-existent. They are fundamentally British and make our country more fair, equal and just.