The Conservative party’s manifesto promise to ‘scrap the Human Rights Act’ will not be carried forward immediately into legislation, today’s Queen’s speech has revealed.
In a move widely seen as a climb-down in the face of concern among lawyers and members of the House of Lords, the speech announced that the government will ‘bring forward proposals for a British bill of rights’. This is likely to include a further consultation.
According to briefing notes published with the speech, the aim is to ‘reform and modernise our human rights legal framework and restore common sense to the application of human rights laws. It would also protect existing rights, which are an essential part of a modern, democratic society, and better protect against abuse of the system and misuse of human rights laws’.
Law Society president Andrew Caplen said: 'We have always supported the retention of the Human Rights Act. We look forward to working with the government to ensure that these fundamental principles are protected as it consults on any proposals for change.'
Shami Chakrabarti, director of pressure group Liberty, welcomed the decision to hold back on reform: ‘It is heartening that a Conservative government committed to scrapping the HRA has at least paused for thought in its first Queen’s speech. There is a long struggle ahead but time is the friend of freedom.
‘The more this new parliament understands the value of the HRA for all of us in this United Kingdom and our reputation in the world, the more it is likely to understand how dangerous it would be to replace human rights with mere citizens’ privileges.’
Elsewhere the legislative programme contains few surprises. Measures of specific relevance to lawyers include:
- A policing and criminal justice bill to limit pre-charge bail to 28 days with an extension of up to three months authorised by a senior police officer. In ‘exceptional circumstances’ this may be extended by the courts, introducing judicial oversight to the pre-charge bail process;
- A psychoactive substances bill to create a blanket ban on the production, distribution, sale and supply of new ‘legal highs’;
- An investigatory powers bill to address ‘ongoing capability gaps’ which the government says degrade the ability of law enforcement and intelligence agencies’ ability to combat terrorism and other serious crime. Law enforcement and intelligence agencies will be ‘better equipped’ to build intelligence and evidence where subjects of interest, suspects and vulnerable people have communicated online. Intelligence agencies will also be able to target the online communications of terrorists ‘and other relevant capabilities’. The Law Society called for the legislation to give explicit protection to communication between a lawyer and their client. Caplen said: ‘We are concerned that the bill could include measures that would allow surveillance of data communications. We expressed a number of serious reservations about the original draft Communications Data Bill in 2012. The last government failed to make a convincing case for the original bill which was overly intrusive and lacked sufficient safeguards.’;
- An immigration bill to introduce an offence of illegal working, to make it clear to migrants that working illegally in the UK is a crime, ‘with consequences for their earnings’;
- An enterprise bill creating a small-business conciliation service to help resolve business-to-business disputes, especially over late payment. This will also extend the government's target for cutting red tape ‘to cover the activities of more regulators’. It will also ‘require regulators to be more transparent by reporting against their compliance with existing statutory better regulation requirements. This will ensure that regulators design and deliver services and policies to best suits the needs of business.’;
- A European Union referendum bill. Caplen said: ‘Now that a referendum on Europe is firmly on the government’s agenda, it is important for the profession to look at the implications for the legal sector of any decision by the UK to remain in or withdraw from the EU. We will be publishing a report on the implications for the legal sector this summer as an initial contribution to the national debate. We will be seeking the views of our members about the implications for them and their clients as that debate develops.’