Assess the impact of the Human Rights Act 1998, incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights, on UK citizens
The Human Rights Act gives every citizen a clear statement of rights and responsibilities. And it requires all of us in public services to respect human rights in everything we do” (Blair 1999: 1). This was a statement made by the Prime Minister just a year before the introduction of the Human Rights Act 1998. This came into force on the 2nd of October 2000, incorporating the rights and freedoms protected by the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR). This is an international treaty that was drafted on the 4th of November 1950 by the Council of Europe, a regional body that now comprises 46 member states. The body principally responsible for the interpretation and application of the Convention is the European Court of Human Rights, which sits in Strasbourg.
The Convention’s first Article obliges all signatory countries to secure the rights included in its clauses for everyone in their jurisdiction. Therefore, apart from effective laws, member states need to establish procedures that provide effective remedies in case a right protected in the ECHR is breached. However, for the UK, the Act was meant to become something more than a piece of primary legislation. In the absence of a written Constitution, the government hoped that the Act will become the first Bill of Rights for both UK citizens and all peoples living in Britain. It was also anticipated that it will give to UK citizens a new symbol that would unite them under one common vision; that of human rights.
Rights Brought Home
The White Paper which preceded the Act, ‘Rights Brought Home’, proclaimed a new era in the protection of the rights of everyone living in the country. In particular, it stated: “In this country it was long believed that the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Convention could be delivered under our common law. In the last two decades, however, there has been a growing awareness that it is not sufficient to rely on the common law and that incorporation is necessary” (Home Office 1997).
In consequence, one of the principal objectives of the Act was to give national courts as much space as possible to protect human rights, short of powers to set aside Acts of parliament. The Act did not take away or restrict any existing human rights recognised in the country. On the contrary, it introduced the minimum standards protected by the ECHR, leaving room for their development and expansion according to citizens’ particular circumstances. It also introduced a number of new rights such as the ones relating to privacy, gay and transgender rights .
More importantly, it imposed direct negative and positive obligations on public authorities to behave within a human rights framework. In the words of the then Home Secretary Jack Straw: “Over time, the Bill will bring about the creation of a human rights culture in Britain. In future years historians may regard the Bill as one of the most important measures of this Parliament” (Straw 21 October 1998). This meant that the Act was going to reform public services so that both their quality and delivery is improved for UK citizens.
In addition, the Act was intended to reinforce the feeling of British citizenship by bringing UK citizens closer, binding them under a common belief. Historian Linda Colley said in her speech to the Prime Minister: “…we badly need more inspiring and more accessible definitions of citizenship…What is indispensable it seems to me is a new millennium charter or contract of citizen’s rights” (Colley 12 December 1999).
The Home Office, the Department that was then responsible for the application of the Act said as a response: “The Human Rights Act is a cornerstone of our work to modernize the Constitution. It is one of the most important pieces of constitutional legislation the UK has seen” (Straw 18 May 1999).
There can be no doubt that the Human Rights Act has so far been successful in protecting most of the rights protected in the European Convention of Human Rights. Of course, this is not to suggest that a number of practical problems have not occasionally arisen. The UK, for instance, is one of the few member states that has still not incorporated all the articles included in the ECHR, while several reservations remain in place.
More importantly, despite the potentials of the Act in becoming the country’s first Bill of Rights, it is still not treated as such. The values underlying it are mostly seen as legal guarantees rather than a code of behaviour leading to a human rights culture. Public services including the NHS, social services, council services, public transport and schools are becoming more vigilant for human rights abuses. However this is done more because of fears from past litigation.
The Parliamentary Joint Committee of Human Rights recently criticised the government for not delivering what they promised in using the Act to improve public services for all UK citizens. In particular, the Committee said: “We have not found evidence of the rapid development of awareness of a culture of respect for human rights and its implications throughout society, and what awareness there is often appears partial or ill-informed. We fear that the high water mark has been passed, and that awareness of human rights is ebbing, both within public authorities and within the public at large”. (Joint Committee of Human Rights 2002-3: Summary). In short, although improvement has been made – especially in the area of criminal justice and immigration – front line services are still behind in creating and maintaining a human rights culture based on the Act.
Finally, the Act promotes and protects the concept of a more inclusive democracy, which gains its meaning not from domestic notions but of European understandings and values. For example, the European Court of Human Rights when deciding on Kjeldsen Busk Madson and Peterson v Belgium and Handyside v UK said that the values underlying the ECHR should be seen, treated and applied as the necessary elements constituting the democratic societies of Europe. Therefore, “Pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness” should characterise all governmental actions including those of public services. In Young, James and Webster v UK (1982) 11 EHRR 439 it was stressed that: “democracy does not simply mean that the views of a majority must always prevail; a balance must be achieved which ensures the fair and proper treatment of minorities and avoids any abuse of a dominant position”. Consequently, UK citizens are reminded that democracy and human rights are not necessarily attached to the concept of majority and that minorities as well as asylum groups and immigrants can also be decisive actors in their definition and application.
The Human Rights Act 1998 has all the potentials of a Bill of Rights. It can fundamentally transform the lives of UK citizens as well as of everyone living in the country. If used properly it can help build a human rights culture that can improve public services and hence the lives of everybody that uses them. Furthermore, it can strengthen the feeling of citizenship and can become the country’s new unifying symbol. The principles underlying the Act can be used to teach individuals how to treat each other, creating a human rights friendly behaviour that is adopted not because of fears for litigation but because it is consciously chosen as the best and most enjoyable approach.
Although there have been improvements in this area particularly with the introduction of new rights , the reform of a number of public services and the establishment of a strong human rights jurisprudence, there is still a long way before the Act fully delivers what it promised to do. Particularly in relation to its impact on UK citizens, the Act is still seen as a lawyer’s text and is not used as a code of behaviour that can enhance the quality of living. Case law is indeed important particularly where the Act introduced rights that could not be previously protected, however it is not the only way in spreading a human rights culture. Finally, changes have been made towards creating a more inclusive society and democracy, but the UK’s anti-discrimination legislation of the 1970s has not yet been fully reformed.
- Blair, T. 1999 Conventional Behaviour: Questions about the Human Rights Act, an Introduction for Public Authorities, London: Home Office.
- Colley, L. 12 December 1999 ‘Blueprint for Britain’, Observer.
- Home Office 1997 Rights brought home : the Human Rights Bill, London: The Stationery Office.
- Joint Committee of Human Rights 2002-3 The Case for a Human Rights Commission: Sixth Report, London.
- Straw, J. 18 May 1999 ‘Press Release’, House of Commons – 21 October 1998 ‘Hansard’, House of Commons Vol 317, col 1358.
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