Human wrongs: Why the government's plan to replace the Human Rights Act might not be such a great idea

A letter from the UK received at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.Reuters

The stunning election victory won by David Cameron's Conservative party last week means that his government is able to implement controversial elements of the Conservative manifesto unfettered by the compromises made necessary by a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. One of these is the repeal of the 1998 Human Rights Act, but what will replace it, and will it be better or worse?

Sorry, are you telling me the Tories don't believe in human rights? 

That is certainly the message that's going out on social media. Listen to some commentators and you would imagine that we are headed for full-scale fascism, with the Government able to do whatever it likes to whomever it likes, with very little to stop it.

So, what's it all about?

The Human Rights Act is made up of a series of sections that effectively bring protections outlined in the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law. These are – and take a deep breath here: the right to life, the right not to be tortured or subjected to inhumane treatment, the right not to be held as a slave, the right to liberty and security of the person, the right to a fair trial, the right not be retrospectively convicted for a crime, the right to a private and family life, the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, the right to freedom of expression the right to freedom of assembly and association, the right to marriage, the right to an effective remedy, the right not to be discriminated against, the right to the peaceful enjoyment of one's property, and the right to an education.

This all sounds fine to me. I like the bit about freedom of religion. And the Tories want to get rid of all these?

No, they're basically OK with them.

So ...?

The problem, as so often with the Conservatives, is Europe – though nothing to do with the European Union. The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) was drawn up after the last war, (by Conservative MP Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe, as it happens) and ratified by Britain in 1951. Though the Human Rights Act integrates the provisions of the ECHR into British law, citizens can still appeal to the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg. All Council of Europe governments, including Britain, have voluntarily agreed to be bound by its judgements. Conservatives don't like the fact that British judges can be overruled by Strasbourg.

OK, I'm beginning to see my way through this. What do the Tories want to do?

Some of them want to withdraw from the ECHR, but David Cameron doesn't. They say they want to replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights that make British law, rather than European law, supreme. People would still be able to appeal to Europe, but it would be much harder.

This all sounds a bit, well, legal. Why is it such a thing?

Partly because Europe is always a thing with some Conservatives. But partly it's because of things that flow from it that don't always sit well with popular opinion. For instance, Article 8 of the Convention speaks of the "right to a family life". This has sometimes been used by judges to decide that convicted criminals, including terrorists, should not be removed from the UK because they have families here and deporting them would deprive them of their right to a family life. The Convention can also stop someone being deported to face trial abroad if evidence against them has been obtained by torture; a famous UK case was that of Abu Qatada, who fought extradition to Jordan for years. Votes for prisoners is another cause celebre: the ECHR has ruled repeatedly since 2005 that a blanket ban on prisoners voting was illegal, though David Cameron said the idea made him feel "physically sick" and that it was a matter for the UK courts to decide. The ECHR has also ruled against whole-life tariffs for prisoners, which it says amounts to torture.

But it must do good things too.

Indeed, lots of them; and some would argue that some of the preceding are among them. But, for instance, you could add: decriminalising homosexuality in Northern Ireland in 1981, enforcing the release of evidence around the thalidomide scandal in 1979, stopping discrimination against homosexuals in the Army in 1999 and using inhuman and degrading interrogation methods on suspected members of the IRA in 1978.

This must irritate some governments enormously.

Yes, though it's worth pointing out that the ECHR hardly ever rules against the UK, in spite of the perceptions engendered by the right-wing press. In 2011, for instance, the court ruled against the UK on eight occasions, compared with 159 against Turkey, 121 against Russia and 105 against Ukraine. It handed down 1,157 judgments in total. It has been very useful in holding oppressive and inefficient governments to account.

So how much of a problem is the ECHR, really?

Many people would argue that it isn't much of a problem at all. However, a strategy paper produced last year by the former Conservative Justice Secretary Chris Grayling – now replaced by former Education Secretary Michael Gove – said that the ECHR had developed "mission creep", expanding the principles of the Convention into areas never considered when it was originally framed. It cites the question of voting rights for prisoners as one example.

It all sounds terribly complicated.

Well, lawyers are paid by the hour, so that's hardly surprising. But there are some unanswered questions. For instance, if the Human Rights Act is replaced by a Bill of Rights, would Britain's Supreme Court be as good at holding the government to account as the ECHR? Could Britain still be a member of the European Convention on Human Rights, and what effect on international human rights would it have if we withdrew? And rather than the nuclear option of attempting to pull out of the whole system, wouldn't it be better to try to reform it where it really needs reform? The chief executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Mark Hammond, appeared to come out against change before the election with a solemn warning, saying: "Our view is that any changes to our current human rights framework should not water down the protections contained in the Human Rights Act.

"In the year we celebrate the birth of our fundamental freedoms through the Magna Carta, it would be a bitter irony to weaken them.

"We are at a crossroads for human rights. One path risks undermining and diminishing our influence and status as a global leader in human rights and civil liberties. The other path will safeguard both our reputation for fairness and moral authority when confronting human rights abuses abroad."

It still all sounds terribly complicated. What can a non-lawyer have to offer to the conversation?

That's actually one of your more interesting questions. Christians with no expertise in a particular area – like economics, defence, and in this case human rights, can still offer something useful because of their expertise in human nature. In this case, they can ask whether something is being proposed because people really think it will make the world better, or if it's because they want to do bad things that someone is stopping them doing, or because they just don't like foreigners telling us what to do. We can test the arguments to a certain extent, but listening to the mood music can tell us quite a lot, too.