Five human rights issues to look out for following the Queen’s Speech
1. Human rights in the UK
Much has been said about the Human Rights Act in the past couple of weeks – and today we could have faced a direct commitment to scrapping it imminently. Instead the government ‘will bring forward proposals for a British Bill of Rights’; if the Bill becomes law, it will replace the Act.
So while the Human Rights Act wasn't mentioned in the Queen’s Speech directly, it was there by implication, and the Prime Minister has since stated in the House of Commons today that his government will press ahead to repeal the HRA. So while the plans have clearly been delayed - because they are unnecessary and unworkable? - they have not been dropped.
We will of course continue defend the HRA publicly and in Westminster, wherever possible. You can help now: ask your MP to speak up in favour of the Human Rights Act at tomorrow’s Home Affairs debate
Karla McLaren, Government and Political Relations Manager
2. Counter-terrorism and security measures
The Queen’s speech outlined a new Extremism Bill which could have a significant human rights impact – we’ll need to see more before we can say more. But what we do know is their track record isn’t great – the previous government rushed through two pieces of hefty legislation in this area in the past year with major negative human rights implications and woefully inadequate time for parliament to consider them. Considered in the wake of both the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 and the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers (DRIP) Act 2014, the worry is for this new Bill that the trend towards ever more rights-restrictive (and in our view counterproductive) security legislation continues.
We don’t really know what’s at stake with the Extremism Bill – from the little that has been said, we could be looking at potentially sweeping restrictions on freedom of expression and yet more administrative civil Orders imposed on vague, overbroad grounds to curtail the rights of those whose behaviour is not criminal.
It’s important to remember that there is not some kind of essential fight between security and human rights – the balance between the interests of national security and the interference with the right of the individual to their privacy, for example, is built into the right itself, as it is with all but the tiny number of absolute rights like freedom from torture. That means if it’s lawful and genuinely necessary (proportionate) for the state to interfere with your privacy for that legitimate aim, the right won’t have been violated!
Amnesty believes that effective laws designed to tackle threats on security and protect lives and liberties don’t have to violate human rights - and we'll be doing our best to make sure they don't.
Rachel Logan, Law and Human Rights Programme Director
3. Refugee and migrants’ rights
Immediate prospects for refugee and migrants rights look bleak given what was included in and what was omitted from the Queen’s speech.
Although stating the government ‘will continue to play a leading role in global affairs’, amid references to Syria and the Middle East, the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War was not mentioned. That omission was entirely consistent with the UK’s meagre contribution to date in resettling only 187 Syrian refugees from the region; and Ministers repeatedly emphasising the UK will not participate in plans to share responsibility for supporting and hosting refugees arriving in Europe more fairly.
An Immigration Bill was announced. It is expected to include more extensive provisions to prevent people appealing before being removed from the UK. This will separate partners from one another, and parents from children, on the absurd ground that no serious lasting damage will be done if an appeal is successful. In practice, however, appeals are highly unlikely to succeed – appellants will have no legal aid and will be unable to effectively prepare or participate in their appeal from thousands of miles away.
Other provisions are expected to further exclude those who are or are thought to be here unlawfully from accommodation, banking and earnings. This will drive those most vulnerable to exploitation further underground where they will be at even greater risk.
Steve Symonds, Refugee and Migrant Rights Programme Director
4. Mass surveillance and data retention
Government surveillance of communications in any form must be lawful, necessary and proportionate in order to avoid infringing citizens’ rights – including the rights to privacy and freedom of expression. Current UK law and practice on surveillance simply fails to meet these obligations and respect our human rights: surveillance is conducted on a mass scale (as Edward Snowden revealed) and under an outdated, inadequate legal framework that doesn’t stand up to the most basic scrutiny.
Similarly, UK law and policy on communications data retention also flies in the face of a European Court of Justice ruling that says blanket indiscriminate data retention of the kind the UK demands is obviously a disproportionate interference with basic rights.
The Queen’s Speech announced a new Investigatory Powers Bill that appears to reveal plans for wholesale reform of our surveillance and data retention laws – ‘modernising’ the existing framework ‘and ensuring it is fit for purpose’. This could be a very good thing - an opportunity for the government to make sure current UK law and practice meets international human rights standards, and passes the test of lawfulness, necessity and proportionality – writing clear, accessible law with proper oversight and safeguards against arbitrary government activity, and introducing a proper reasonable suspicion standard for interception would be a good start.
Yet there are hints that yet again, rights could roll back further under these new investigatory powers laws. The indication that it will bring the return of the Data Communications Bill (the ‘Snoopers’ Charter) is not something I’m pleased to see, nor are ominous references to increasing instead of curtailing ‘bulk collection’ (a fancy and frankly deliberately obfuscating way of describing mass surveillance).
Security and human rights aren’t at odds with each other – as long as these kind of investigatory powers are designed and used appropriately. At the minute they aren’t and haven’t been, as Amnesty’s successful litigation against the spy agencies has shown. Our government needs to address this first and foremost, and bring our legal framework and activity in line with international human rights law.
Rachel Logan, Law and Human Rights Programme Director
5. International affairs
Whilst the speech didn’t have any specific Bills relating to foreign policy there were a number of references that indicate where the government’s priorities will lie. It was clear that security is going to continue as a key priority, with Syria, Iraq, and the Middle East more broadly mentioned.
Security is rightly a legitimate concern for the government, however, this must be balanced with human rights. We’ve witnessed the abuses that happen on the ground in these countries and see how people fleeing conflict and terror are forced to risk their lives in pursuit of safety. Whilst the government mentions the humanitarian aid it has given in the wake of the Syrian conflict, it fails to mention the shamefully few vulnerable Syrian refugees it has resettled in the UK.
We’ll be keeping a close eye on the ‘enhanced partnership’ with India and China, mentioned in the speech. What exactly does this mean: more trade? That’s all well and good as long as this doesn’t come at the cost of turning a blind eye to human rights abuses for the sake of trade. I suspect we’ll see how this develops in October when the President of China visits the UK.
Allan Hogarth, Head of Advocacy and Programmes
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.