‘False narrative’: campaigners say British bill of rights could undermine free speech

Organisations including Index on Censorship condemn government’s claim a bill would boost freedom of expression

Free speech campaigners have condemned the UK government’s boast that the planned British bill of rights will boost freedom of expression, claiming that it will actually undermine it.

The bill, published on Wednesday, says in clause 4 that on matters of free speech “a court must give great weight to the importance of protecting the right”.

However, whereas the Human Rights Act, which the bill of rights is intended to replace, obliged courts to interpret UK legislation in line with the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) – including article 10 on freedom of expression – the bill of rights dispenses with that obligation.

Index on Censorship and other free speech campaigners accused the government of peddling a “false narrative”.

They said: “The Human Rights Act has bolstered free expression in the UK in a number of areas: strengthened defamation law; enhanced protection of journalistic sources and material; strengthened protection of the right to protest; and restricted perception-based recording of non-crime incidents, among other things.

“Article 19, Index on Censorship and English Pen believe that if the government is serious about its purported goal to strengthen freedom of expression in the UK, it should instead focus its attention on reforming a number of problematic laws and legislative proposals it has brought forward, including the national security bill, the online safety bill, the higher education (freedom of speech) bill, the public order bill, and the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act.”

The government has said the bill of rights will boost press freedom as it contains a section limiting the court’s power to require disclosure of journalistic sources. It has also briefed that by elevating the right to freedom of expression it would alter the balance with the right to privacy, which has restricted reporting by media organisations, including on individuals subject to criminal investigations.

Introducing the bill to parliament, the justice secretary, Dominic Raab, said: “Our key objectives … are to reinforce those quintessentially UK wide rights like freedom of speech, the liberty that guards all of the others.”

But Labour’s shadow justice minister, Ellie Reeves, launched a withering attack on the bill, calling it “a very dark day for victims of crime, for women, for people in care for everyone in this country who rely on the state to protect them from harm”.

She criticised clause 5 of the bill, which prevents UK courts from adopting new interpretations of ECHR rights that that would require a public authority to comply with a positive obligation. It also limits their ability to enforce existing positive obligations. An example of a positive obligation is that which the Met police was found to have to effectively investigate reported crimes, cited in a successful case brought against the force by two victims of the serial rapist John Worboys.

Referencing that decision, Reeves said the bill was “an attack on women. Women have used the Human Rights Act to challenge the police when they’ve either failed or refused to investigate rape and sexual assault cases.”

Legal experts warned that by staying in the ECHR while restricting the ability of individuals in the UK to bring human rights claims when their rights under the convention had been breached the government was likely to be found in breach of the ECHR more frequently.

The bill also sets the UK government on a collision course with the Welsh and Scottish governments as convention dictates that it obtains consent from the devolved legislatures, which is unlikely to be forthcoming.


Haroon Siddique Legal affairs correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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