Human rights belong to every single person no matter their race, religion or political views. Generally, the UK is seen as a world leader in the standards of human rights. However, UK Prime Minister Theresa May recently regarded some human rights lawyers as “activist left-wing human rights lawyers” at the Conservative Party Conference, and the Government has also failed to meet human rights recommendations from the United Nations. Furthermore, The British Institute of Human Rights (BIHR) has accused the Government of “damaging international standards by threatening to scrap the Human Rights Act”. It is therefore clear to see that the UK’s current perception of human rights is clouded, with many believing that we are not living up to our role as the world leader in human rights standard. For this reason, I will be discussing whether or not the UK is really failing on their Human Rights measures.
Firstly, one of the issued raised by the BIHR was hate crime: astonishingly 82% of hate crimes were motivated by race. The number of hate crimes has only grown (in number and ferocity) since the European Referendum, with everybody being targeted, including British citizens of ethnic minorities, holiday makers, and legal refugees. The BIHR reports argues that the government policy is creating a “hostile environment" for migrants and ethnic minorities, with the increase of stop and search powers of the police, with ethnic minorities being search far more frequently than non-minorities. It is incredibly disappointing that some people are being treated with such disdain as one of Britain’s core values (even before we joined the EU) is equality: “promote the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs”. It’s a great shame that the bigotry and ignorance of some is having such adverse effects on people’s lives. Many members of Parliament have shown their disapproval of these horrific acts. Furthermore, the government has implemented a hate crime action plan, although it is too soon to see if this will have any real affect.
Secondly, prison population has been raised as a Human Rights concern. Currently, the UK has the largest prison population in western Europe. Most prisons are now at least full to capacity if not overflowing. Some of these prison were constructed in the late Victorian era - such as HM Prison Aylesbury (built in 1810) - and are still being used today, despite being obviously outdated. The problem with overcrowded prisons is that it has a negative impact on the inmates. Although some people may say that inmates are imprisoned for a reason and that they should be negatively impacted, we must remember that not every inmate is a murderer or rapist, and all inmates are still human beings and deserve to be treated with some sense of humanity. Overcrowding has proven to cause significant tensions between inmates and prison staff, making the guards’ jobs all that more difficult - the recent prison riot at HMP Bedford would be a perfect example of tension between guards and inmates. In addition, the cramped an stressful conditions have been linked to an increase in self-harming, suicide and assaults between inmates. Our justice system should be focusing more on the rehabilitation of inmates rather than systematic punishment but this is far more difficult in cramped and stressful conditions.
While the Government has announced that even more prison will be built in order to deal with overcrowding, they have not yet set out what will be done to improve the problem of mentally ill inmates being ‘dumped’ in and out of the prison system. As previously mentioned, inmates are also human beings and British citizens: they have legal rights and deserve to be treated fairly, in accordance with their sentences and their crimes. Inmates are going to be released one day, and if they have been treated like animals bunched up in a cage for years, how do we expect them to behave in a civilised manner on the outside world? Our prison system therefore must find a balance between punishment and rehabilitation. In my opinion, rehabilitation needs to be the main focus, showing inmates exactly where they went wrong and providing them with the tools to build a better life through education, whilst also providing justice for the victim.
Thirdly, we must consider access to justice, considered a fundamental right by countless organisations, academics and legal professionals. Lord Neugerber (President of the UK Supreme Court) argues that the recent Legal Aid cuts will have two affects: firstly, if a person does not qualify for Legal Aid (the requirements are now very strict), their case will be dropped, meaning that justice cannot be served. Secondly, the case is pursued but through litigants in person (a party representing themselves). Litigants in person have been proven to slow the court process as judges must spend time explaining the law to parties. This has caused the courts to become slow-moving and even stagnate, allowing for further problems with regards to access to justice.
Legal Aid cuts, combined with the closing of court houses all over the country, are a significant problem regarding the right to justice. Although these cuts were made when the country was facing a financial crisis between 2007-2013 the government has to strike a balance. The amount of organisations that have been set up, like CLOCK and the Free Representation Unit – both of which owe a large amount of their workforce to volunteer law students (I personally work for CLOCK in Kent) - should show the Government that their cuts to the justice department have gone too far.
Lastly, the argument for scrapping the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) has raised significant concerns, especially considering the recent European referendum. If we leave the EU (a whole other debate) and the European Convention of Human Rights (which seems likely, although uncertain) UK citizens will no longer enjoy the protection of the European Courts of Human Rights. Furthermore, leading Conservative figures, including the Prime Minister, have expressed an interest in replacing the HRA with a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities. David Isaac, the chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, argues “any proposed changes to human rights law must not weaken the protections we all enjoy, jeopardise our remarkable record of upholding human rights". Furthermore, as a world leader, if we are to support the creation of democracy, rule of law, equality and justice in nations requiring our support, then our own system of human rights must be beyond reproach.
These are just some of the issues in the current human rights debate in the UK. While there are some areas of the UK’s Human Rights that could definitely be improved, the UK remains fairer and more just than many other nations. The UK was one of the first countries to pass race, gender and sexual equality acts. A Government spokesman said “the UK is a confident, strong and dependable partner internationally – true to the universal values shared by the United Nations. As a nation we continue to fully comply to our international human rights obligations and we continue to take action to tackle any abuse of these rights.” The UK is by no means failing on all Human Rights measures, however concerns of the U.N and the BIHR raise legitimate arguments, and it is very worrying that we cannot predict what a possible Bill of Rights would contain.