TUC Motion on Human Rights
No to the Fraudulent “British Bill of Rights”
The fight for a modern conception of rights must be taken to its conclusion
The Human Rights Act, which came into force on October 2, 2000, incorporates articles of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into the law of Wales and England (having already been incorporated into Scottish law after devolution).
The Queen’s Speech in May this year announced that proposals will be brought forward for a British Bill of Rights, intended as a replacement for the Human Rights Act, reiterating a similar announcement made the previous year. This remains at the proposal stage due to broad opposition in society and divisions within the Conservative Party. Nevertheless, the abolition of the Act is on the agenda.
In this context, the financial service workers’ union Accord has tabled a motion on human rights to this year’s TUC Congress, which “notes with regret and alarm proposals by the UK government to introduce a British Bill of Rights which is intended to replace the HRA [Human Rights Act] and which appears likely to water down the protections of the ECHR rights at home,” and calls on Congress to defend the ECHR and the Human Rights Act.
The ECHR is a post-war arrangement that, though tainted by the context of the Cold War, came out of the defeat of fascism and the subsequent developments of the time such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The aim is to replace this arrangement with one that favours the private interests of the monopolies, which assume the right to act at will for their own ends. The aim is to redefine “rights and responsibilities” to fit with the logic of the Trade Union Act, Immigration Act, Investigatory Powers Bill, and so on, which severely restrict and suppress the rights of the people. The issue is framed in a chauvinist manner as “British sovereignty” being impinged upon by the European Court of Human Rights (which, it should be noted, is not an institution of the European Union).
The defence of rights is at the centre of the struggles of the people, and the future and dignity of the working class and people depends on the defence of the rights of all. It is key to the vision for the alternative, for the future of society, and as such the working class has to take the lead. In particular, the very notion of rights is constantly obscured by being replaced by one of privilege. The right to university education is a case in point, which was attacked some twenty years ago on this very basis. It is to the credit of the student movement that it has become organised around the principled stand that education is a right, not a privilege.
European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg
It is therefore necessary to take things further. The government’s proposal for a Bill of Rights is a fraud, but Britain’s lack of a modern written constitution is a real issue. The Human Rights Act is merely an Act of parliament. As such, in Britain’s constitutional arrangements, it carries constitutional force, no more and no less than any other Act. It does not constitute a fundamental law. The lack of a supreme constitutional law against which legislation may be judged, a fundamental law that embodies the rights and duties of citizens and spells out where political power lies, is a crucial issue for workers to discuss. There is an issue of sovereignty here, but not that promoted by the government. Sovereign power currently lies in the archaic so-called Monarch-in-Parliament, and it is through this arrangement that all Acts of parliament carry full constitutional force. The issue for the working class is to become an independent organised force in its own right and vest sovereignty in the people.
Furthermore, the very conception of rights implicit in the Human Rights Act and ECHR is itself out of step with the times. It does not start from the principle that people have inviolable rights by virtue of being human, as well as particular rights, also inviolable, by virtue of being part of various collectives, such as being women, workers or national minorities. These are rights that exist objectively; a modern definition of rights stresses that society must recognise their existence and guarantee them.
These questions are increasingly coming to the fore in the working class and progressive movements. As the movement for the alternative develops, the movement for a change in the direction of the economy in opposition to austerity, it is crucial that the working class recognises its own rights, particularly its right to have a say on direction of the economy. The need for public services, for investment in social programmes, stems from the duty on society to provide for all its citizens; it stems from the right to education, health care, and so on. The battle between monopoly right on the one hand versus public right on the other is getting ever more fierce at present. For the working class and people to prevail means that the fight for a modern conception of rights must be taken to its conclusion.