Learning Disability Wales has grave concerns about the UK Government’s plans to reform the Human Rights Act. We have concerns both about the reasons the government is giving for having the Act reformed as well as the specific changes proposed and how they might affect people with a learning disability in Wales.
The human rights of people with a learning disability in Wales
The UK Government says that the purpose of the reform is to “restore common sense” and to halt the “the growth of a ‘rights culture’ that has displaced due focus on personal responsibility and the public interest”. We do not think that these are good reasons to change the law and make the protection of our human rights weaker. It is very unclear what the government means by the term “common sense”, but it seems common sense to us that protecting everyone’s human rights is what human rights legislation is supposed to do. We also disagree both that there is a growing ‘rights culture’ or that it would be a bad thing if there was.
While there have been some remarkable advances for the rights of disabled people in Wales over the last decades, there have also been devastating regressions and human rights violations, especially in relation to the coronavirus pandemic as shown in the Locked Out report and the study Living through the pandemic: The Impact of Covid 19 on People with a Learning Disability in Wales. These human rights violations have occurred on top of an already grim situation for many disabled people across the UK, as highlighted in a UN report describing “systematic violations” of disabled people’s human rights due to austerity measures in 2016.
Including disabled people’s voices
To now read that the UK Government believes human rights protection should be further reduced is a devastating betrayal of its obligations towards people with a learning disability. The disrespect towards the learning disability community is also evident in the way that the consultation is being conducted. There are no easy read versions of the documents available. The UK Government released a document they call an easy read version on 24 February, just 12 days before the deadline. An open letter by Disabled People’s Groups (DPOs) across the UK to the Joint Committee on Human Rights in the UK Parliament pointed out that this version is not in fact easy read and has been described as “insufficient to the point of being insulting” in an open letter by Liberty. The language used is still too complicated and the document does not include any images to support the text. More importantly, the content of the ”easy read” version does not include all the important information from the original document. It does not faithfully describe the changes proposed in the Reform. Pembrokeshire People First and other learning disability groups have argued that the consultation is unlawful because no reasonable adjustments have been made to support disabled people to take part in this process. Between the extremely short turn around on the “easy read” document and the poor quality of the document itself, it would appear that the UK Government does not have any interest in including the views of disabled people in this consultation.*
Who deserves to have their rights protected?
When it comes to the content of the consultation, many others have pointed out that the changes proposed are bad ones and that the reasons that the government gives for wanting to replace the Human Rights Act with a Bill of Rights do not reflect reality. An overview of responses can be found here. We are particularly concerned about the idea that access to human rights could be withdrawn from some people. In the consultation document, the UK Government writes that “The increasing reliance on human rights claims over the years has, however, led to a culture of rights decoupled from our responsibilities as citizens, and a displacement of due consideration of the wider public interest.” The phrasing here is misleading. There are already responsibilities connected to the rights laid out in the Human Rights Act. These responsibilities are those of the state and state institutions to respect people’s human rights. It is simply not the role of this legislation to create “responsibilities” for the people who these laws are made to protect. This focus on “responsibility” and the public interest appears to suggest that the UK Government wants to deny some people their human rights. At the moment, this change is specifically targeting immigrants who commit a crime and people trying to be compensated for a human rights violation they have experienced. We disagree that anyone should have their human rights taken away because of something they have done. Human rights are universal and we do not get to only apply them to people we think deserve them. There are already laws and institutions that will punish someone who has committed a crime. That does not mean that they should no longer have their human rights protected.
We believe that the suggestion that some people are more or less deserving of human rights protection is a very dangerous one. Nobody should be deciding who should or should not have human rights – they must be universal by definition. We are concerned that if the decision is made by the UK Government to withdraw human rights protection for certain people then this could lead to the withdrawal of rights from other groups in the future. If we only deserve to have our human rights protected if we fulfil specific responsibilities, then what happens to people who may not fully understand these responsibilities? What other reasons might there be to justify limiting other people’s human rights in the future? People with a learning disability have a long and dark history of having their rights violated because of their impairments and/or differences. The willingness to stop respecting some people’s rights because of who they are makes us scared about this happening again in the future.
Making it harder to access human rights courts
In these reforms, the UK Government also wants to implement a “permission stage” to make sure that only people who have “genuinely suffered from human rights breaches” get to go to court. They write that human rights cases are costing the courts too much money because people are filing “frivolous or spurious” cases. In the permission stage, a person would have to demonstrate that they have experienced “significant disadvantage” as a result of having their rights violated.
We believe that everyone who has had their human rights violated deserves to bring a case to court, and that claiming that some human rights violations are “insignificant” is hugely damaging in itself. This permission stage will also not do anything to prevent cases where someone is lying or has not really suffered a human rights violation. Rather than preventing cases that have no substance getting to court, this will simply make it harder for people from marginalised groups, for example people with a learning disability, to fight for their rights.
The Human Rights Act Reform proposed by the UK Government has as its expressed purpose to make it harder for people to fight to have their human rights protected. The government claims that there is a “rights culture” in which people are bringing too many cases against the UK Government and local authorities for human rights violations. We believe that rather than making it harder for people in the UK to fight for their rights, the UK Government should instead concentrate its efforts on trying to reduce the number of human rights violations in the UK by working closely with the third sector and organisations that work to protect people’s human rights.
Welsh Government and Scottish Government have released a joint statement calling the Human Rights Act Reform an “ideologically motivated attack on freedoms and liberties” and have called on the UK Government to reverse the proposal. We second this call and urge the UK Government to scrap the Human Rights Act Reform completely.
*Since this was written, the Ministry of Justice has published an easy read version (on the 8 March 2022) and have allowed some people to apply for an extension. We are still concerned that the content of the easy read documents does not cover all the important content of the consultation.