These are interesting, and challenging, times for human rights law in the UK. There has been a remarkable growth in awareness of human rights as offering protections to those throughout society, and on an international scale. It is an issue that is now firmly on the agenda in boardrooms, and in the media. But there are also signs of popular disillusionment, reflected in the political mood.

Despite or perhaps because of its growth, the future of human rights law again looks uncertain, following announcements by the new Justice Secretary that repeal of the Human Rights Act is firmly on the table once more.

Against this changing landscape, Hogan Lovells, together with the Human Rights Lawyers Association, invited Martha Spurrier, the newly appointed director of civil liberties association Liberty, to share her thoughts on the future of human rights in the UK and her priorities for her new role. In conversation with Baroness Helena Kennedy, and in response to some thought-provoking questions from the audience, Ms Spurrier shared some of the key action points on her “five year plan”, top of the list being resisting the repeal of the Human Rights Act.

In this blog, we share some of the key points to emerge from the discussion between Ms Spurrier and Baroness Kennedy.

The ‘Europe’ issues: repealing the Human Rights Act and Brexit

Repeal of the Human Rights Act 1998 (the “HRA“) remained a Conservative manifesto pledge in 2015, as it was in 2010. When Theresa May took over as Prime Minister, she had indicated that she would scrap plans to repeal the HRA. However, recent comments from Justice Secretary, Liz Truss, suggest that repeal of the HRA remains a manifesto commitment that the Conservatives are still looking to deliver with the intention to introduce a British Bill of Rights in its place.

Ms Spurrier made it very clear: saving the HRA is a major priority for Liberty and she described those who argue that a British Bill of Rights can provide the same level of protection as “naïve”. Such a Bill, she believes, would be a “poor cousin” of the HRA – and has the potential significantly to weaken human rights protection in Britain.

Ms Spurrier and Baroness Kennedy discussed how the UK’s decision to leave the European Union might impact the proposal to repeal the HRA. Ms Spurrier said that while the Government is busy “consciously uncoupling” the UK from the EU, the issue of repealing the HRA is likely to be put on hold. Her view was that the Government would be likely to remain quiet about the HRA, so as to avoid spending time and resources on another controversial ‘Europe’ issue. However, Ms Spurrier warned that, if the UK Government were to seek to remain in the single market (and therefore to accept freedom of movement), then the HRA might once again be on the table as a bargaining chip to placate Eurosceptics within the Conservative party. For that reason, Liberty was not going to be complacent about the future of the HRA.

Baroness Kennedy highlighted that Brexit might raise greater awareness about acquired rights, with an increasing number of people fighting to keep the protection afforded by the HRA in light of the potential threat to their existing rights, particularly workers’ rights, which are largely based on European Union law.

Ms Spurrier explained that, as a cross-party, non-political organisation, Liberty remains neutral on whether the Leave vote was “right”, and instead is focusing on ensuring that there is no weakening of the rights and protection of UK citizens and migrants alike as a result of Brexit.

Who watches the watchmen? Surveillance and the need to police the police

Despite a certain level of opposition from civil society, the Investigatory Powers Bill is now in its final stages, and is expected to come into force in its current form. The Bill, which is currently in the House of Lords, would introduce what Ms Spurrier called “the most intrusive and invasive [legalised] surveillance regime in the world“. In particular, Ms Spurrier highlighted the “bulk hacking” powers contained in the Bill which essentially enable those wielding those powers to amend third party data without the knowledge or consent of those individuals. That could amount to, for example, changing data on a person’s smartphone so that it looked like they had sent a text or email that they had, in fact, never sent. Ms Spurrier highlighted the Hillsborough disaster and subsequent cover-up by the authorities as an example of how those powers could be abused – particularly in circumstances where those authorities were attempting to deflect criticism of their actions.

Secret courts and mission creep

Ms Spurrier also highlighted her concerns around the growing use of secret courts. First introduced for terrorism cases, mission creep has resulted in their use becoming increasingly widespread, which is a significant cause of concern for civil liberties advocates. Ms Spurrier noted with concern how secret hearings were now even being held in the Information Tribunal.

Human rights: what can businesses do?

Private companies are being increasingly scrutinised for their human rights conductas a result of a growing body of standards, from the Modern Slavery Act 2015 to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

A growing number of businesses are embedding these standards into the fabric of their operations.

Ms Spurrier and Baroness Kennedy agreed that the role of businesses in human rights compliance is likely to increase over the next decade. They discussed what private businesses can do to stay ahead of the curve. For Ms Spurrier, the answer was clear: they can lead by example. The current Government is keen to attract business to the UK and to maintain the global influence of the City. Maintaining good standards of citizenship and diversity is a good way for the business world to send a strong signal to the Government, and to fully embrace its potential “norm-setting role”.

The event at which Ms Spurrier was speaking was hosted at Hogan Lovells on 13 September 2016. A full video of the discussion is available here