On 3 May a debate on human rights took place in the Senedd. The debate highlighted concerns over the UK Government’s direction of travel on the issue, which some Members argued could lead to the erosion of the rights of people living in Wales.
This article sets out the UK Government’s plans to replace the Human Rights Act 1998 and responses to those plans. It summarises the key issues from the Senedd debate and considers the impact some stakeholders and Senedd Members say these plans could have on the Welsh Government’s ambition to strengthen and advance human rights.
Repealing the Human Rights Act
In December 2020, an Independent review of the Human Rights Act (IHRAR) 1998 was established to look at two key themes which includes:
- the relationship between domestic courts in the UK and the European Court of Human Rights; and
- the impact the Human Rights Act 1998 has had on the relationships between the Judiciary, the Government, and the UK Parliament.
170 organisations and individuals submitted detailed evidence to the review., whose report acknowledges that the majority of submissions expressed strong support for the Human Rights Act 1998.
Overall the report concluded that the Human Rights Act "has been a success, and does not advocate for radical change".
Despite these findings, in December 2021 the UK Government launched a consultation on proposals to replace the Human Rights Act 1998 with a Bill of Rights. The consultation ended in April 2022 and the UK Government is currently analysing responses on key proposals on:
- strengthening the role of the UK Supreme Court;
- protecting fundamental rights;
- preventing incremental expansion of rights;
- introducing responsibilities within the human rights framework; and
- facilitating dialogue with Strasbourg (home of the Court of Human Rights) while guaranteeing the UK Parliament and the devolved legislatures their proper roles.
Campaign organisations have expressed concerns about the proposals.
Liberty described the plans as “a blatant, unashamed power grab”. Amnesty believes that “any significant change to the Human Rights Act is also likely to add greater strain to the UK’s devolution settlement.”
In response to the Consultation, the Welsh Government said it opposed the proposals on the basis that they represent a “concerted effort to dilute the rights of the people of Wales and the UK.”
The Senedd debate
The Counsel General and Minister for the Constitution, Mick Antoniw MS opened the debate by expressing support for the Human Rights Act in its current form, describing it as a “fundamental” part of Welsh Democracy and stating that:
Legislation passed in this Senedd must be compatible with the Act … The UK Government's proposals almost entirely overlook the potential impact on our devolved constitutional, legal and policy framework.
In her role as chair of the Senedd's cross-party group on human rights, Sioned Williams MS said the group had reached a consensus that reforms are “unnecessary” and:
are likely to lead to regression in the protection and fulfilment of human rights in Wales, and with a potential to hamper progress on equality and social justice in Wales.
Conservative Member Altaf Hussain MS responded to the debate by stressing that:
any Government doing its job properly would review the effectiveness of the current legislative framework to ensure that it works and is fit for purpose.
At the beginning of the debate, Lesley Griffiths MS highlighted two key pieces of UK legislation as examples of regression on human rights by the UK Government These are:
- the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act – with concerns this undermines the rights of minority communities and jeopardises the right of lawful and peaceful protests; and
- the Nationality and Borders Bill – with concerns that this seriously undermines the protection of human rights and will lead to serious human rights violations.
Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022
The objective of this Act is to make the country safer by empowering the police and courts to take more effective action against crime and lead a fair justice system by introducing “tougher sentencing for the worst offenders and [ending] automatic halfway release from prison for serious crimes.”
In reviewing the Bill, the Welsh Government was supportive of many elements but is particularly concerned about provisions that impact upon the right to lawful and peaceful protests which “could make it difficult for people’s voices to be heard.”
It was argued that proposals on the management of Unauthorised Encampments would “undermine Gypsy and Traveller rights and potentially criminalise families unfairly” which is at odds with the approach taken by the Welsh Government set out in the draft Race Equality Action Plan.
Nationality and Borders Act 2022
The Nationality and Borders Act has three key objectives, to:
- Increase the fairness of the system to better protect and support those in need of asylum;
- Deter illegal entry into the UK, thereby breaking the business model of people smuggling networks and protecting the lives of those they endanger; and
- Remove those with no right to be in the UK more easily.
The Welsh Government has expressed its concerns about the Act fearing it will "severely undermine" its vision of Wales as a Nation of Sanctuary. In a Legislative Consent Memorandum laid by Welsh Government in 2021, the Minister for Social Justice, Jane Hutt MS said she "cannot recommend the Senedd gives its consent" to the Bill.
Huw Irranca-Davies MS said the UNHCR itself, has said that this Act undermines the refugee convention. Joyce Watson MS said the Act threatens the ‘Nation of Sanctuary’ policy which is in place in Wales.
In response to the debate the Minister for Social Justice said the Act:
would seriously undermine the protection of the human rights of trafficked persons, including children, increase risks of exploitation faced by all migrants and asylum seekers, and lead to serious human rights violations.
The future of human rights in Wales?
Taken together, the Counsel General described the UK Government’s approach as a “signal to the world that the UK is regressing on human rights.”
The Welsh Government has yet to respond to the report it commissioned last year on strengthening and advancing human rights in Wales. But the Counsel General said that preparatory work will be undertaken to consider options for further incorporating the United Nations conventions into Welsh law in line with the Programme for Government commitments and the recommendations in the report. He said:
The purpose of such a Bill would be to strengthen the rights of all Welsh citizens, and mitigate as far as possible the negative impacts of actions by the UK Government.
Article by Claire Thomas, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament