Labour’s manifesto 2017 – a human rights scorecard

At the beginning of the month, LCHR put forward our top 15 human rights priorities for the 2017 election manifesto, spanning Brexit and foreign affairs, immigration and asylum, human rights in counter-terrorism, legal protections, workers’ rights, and civil society & trade unions. Now, as the dust begins to settle from the launch of Labour’s keenly awaited official election manifesto, it’s time to comb over the pledges, promises and policies proposed and see how it measures up.

Brexit

In an election decidedly overcast by the heavy clouds of approaching Brexit negotiations, the manifesto understandably wastes no time in promising to alleviate the insecurities felt by individuals whose homes, livelihoods and human rights are left most vulnerable. Specifically addressed is the right of EU nationals to remain in the UK, a promise heavily seasoned with thinly veiled criticism of the prime minister’s attempts to flaunt the human rights of EU nationals over the heads of Brussels officials.

Also emphasised is a commitment to safeguard hard fought employment and equality rights and protections during and after Brexit, and a promise that trade unions, businesses and stakeholders will be closely involved in processes to ensure that there is no rolling back or falling behind the times in terms of the advancements on workers’ rights made in recent years.

Unnamed however is a commitment to avoiding the use of Henry VIII powers, which would allow for largely unscrutinised changes to EU law using delegated or secondary legislation. That said, Labour has made numerous commitments not to use these powers in the past.

Score: 4/5

Foreign policy

Giving human rights parity with strategic and commercial interests in foreign policy is a priority that LCHR has long advanced. Under a Conservative government, relations have been deepened with many human rights abusers notably Bahrain, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, and Turkey.

Labour’s manifesto focuses on advancing peaceful solutions and reinvigorating international institutions. Importantly, it pledges to suspend arms exports to Saudi Arabia until a UN-led investigation has reported on alleged violations of international law.

Score: 5/5

Immigration and asylum

Playing the numbers game with rates of immigration and asylum is wholly unacceptable. Reducing a myriad of individuals, each with complex lives, motivations and traumas, into sound bite statistics which are unlikely to be met is thankfully, a strategy that Labour has refrained from pursuing. Though the specifics of an immigration system under Labour is not fully disclosed within the manifesto, there is a clear acknowledgement that “bogus immigration targets” will not be tolerated. Instead, the party promises the creation of “fair rules and reasonable management of migration”. Though for many, in the wake of assurances from both major parties that freedom of movement will end when we leave the European Union, this lack of clarity surrounding the specific form a new migration system could take, may cause some concern.

Most encouraging of all is the farewell Labour is keen to say to the controversial spousal income threshold of £18,600, a policy instrumentally separating families by stopping thousands of citizens from bringing their foreign partners to the UK.

Finally, the manifesto commits to ending the immoral and draconian practice of indefinite detention of asylum seekers.

Score: 4/5

Refugee protection

In addressing calls for a “humane refugee and asylum system”, the manifesto alludes to the sort of action required to improve the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers in this country. The pledge to “take our fair share of refugees” evokes the comforting image of a good first start. However, with scant reference to the egregious conditions forced upon refugees entering the UK, a sharp eye will need to remain on the evolution of such promises to ensure that aid and compassion for refugees and asylum seeks is not simply ‘left at the door’.

Score: 3/5

Human rights in counter-terrorism

Staunchly advocated by LCHR and therefore warmly welcomed within the manifesto, is a review of the Prevent program, a strategy aimed at thwarting extremism but which has in reality succeeded only in further alienating and excluding minorities from our society.

However, in order to properly strengthen a commitment to end discriminatory security and surveillance measures, more thought must be directed at the extent to which “providing our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe”, as promised in the manifesto, risks surveillance without suspicion which often unfairly penalises ethnic and religious minorities.

Score: 3/5

Legal protections

Nestled in the fray of concerns surrounding the UK’s exit from the European Union was Tory support for abandoning the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights, a move that would reverse a long history of positive evolution in legal protections of human rights. Labour’s manifesto is unhindered in its ardent support of both protective frameworks, a position now suddenly mirrored in the recently published Conservative manifesto, which officially ruled out repealing or replacing the Human Rights Act “while the process of Brexit is under way”.

Furthermore, in many ways, the official Labour manifesto has gone further than its leaked predecessor. In the draft, it was merely stated that the party would “consider recommendations” to reinstate legal aid. However, a change in the language of the final draft states that the party “will consider the reinstatement of other legal aid entitlements after receiving the final recommendations of the Access to Justice Commission led by Lord Bach”, as well as fully reviewing the legal aid means tests, including the capital test for those on income-related benefits.

Score: 5/5

Workers’ rights, civil society and trade unions

There is a strong commitment to workers’ rights present in a myriad of the policies proposed, with promises to “reverse the unfair employment tribunal fees which literally price people out of justice”, also accompanied by a pledge to end the use of zero hours contracts. This is an important step in the direction of properly regulating the growing ‘gig economy’.

Finally, through promises to repeal both the Lobbying Act and Trade Union Act, we can see a strong desire to unpick the problems caused by misguided legislation advanced by the previous government, and sew back together a far more liberated and united civil society.

Score: 5/5

Total: 29/35

Overall, we at the Labour Campaign for Human Rights are very pleased with the manifesto. While the section on security and counter-terrorism didn’t include a commitment to address Britain’s illiberal mass surveillance regime, and while not all will be satisfied with the commitments on immigration and asylum, there’s plenty here for human rights activists to feel good about. We give the manifesto an A-, a big improvement on the C+ we gave to its predecessor in 2015.

Amy Fallon is a volunteer with the Labour Campaign for Human Rights

Our manifesto priorities

Human rights are core Labour values. They are rooted in the guiding traditions of our movement – universality, equality, and solidarity. Universality because everyone, whatever their background or their geographical location, is entitled to them by virtue of their humanity. Equality because their universal nature means they can be used as powerful instruments to challenge inequalities and discrimination against oppressed, vulnerable, or disadvantaged people. And solidarity because they are an expression of our concern for others, including those beyond our borders. In short, they help bring our vision of social justice to life.

Below we have drawn up a list of our top 15 human rights priorities for the 2017 election manifesto, spanning Brexit and foreign affairs, immigration and asylum, human rights in counter-terrorism, legal protections, workers’ rights, and civil society & trade unions.

Brexit and foreign affairs

1. Protect employment and equality rights during and after Brexit

Many of the employment and equality rights we benefit from are derived from EU law. They must be protected both during and after the Brexit process. That means opposing the use of Henry VIII powers and committing to protect all rights derived from the EU, including those established through judgements in EU courts.

2. Put human rights at the heart of trade deals after Brexit

The UK will have to negotiate new trade deals across the world following Brexit. In order to ensure we stay true to our own values, and to encourage reform around the world, all trade deals should respect democratic principles and freedoms, as proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and as defined in the European Convention of Human Rights.

3. Right to remain for EU nationals

Any EU national currently living in the UK should automatically and unilaterally be given permanent residency rights. This will end the anxiety currently being felt by millions of EU nationals living across the UK, many of whom have been here for years or even decades.

4. Give human rights parity with strategic and commercial interests in foreign policy

Strategic and commercial interests will always be part of foreign policy, but must not automatically trump human rights concerns whenever they come into conflict. The UK’s continuing arms transfers to Saudi Arabia are just one example of where human rights are not being given the consideration they deserve.

Immigration and asylum

5. A fair immigration system based on value, not numbers

The net migration target turns people into statistics and is blind to justice or economic potential. Immigration decisions should be based on the value of a migrant and their claim to be here, not on a general policy to reduce numbers. The symptoms of this policy should also be tackled, particularly excessively high visa fees and the rigid, unresponsive immigration service that frequently denies people entry on the basis of counter-intuitive technicalities.

6. End the squeeze on family migration

The spousal income requirement for family visas is breaking up families and ruining lives. The current £18,600 threshold is beyond reach for a large portion of the population. The income requirement should be considerably reduced, and the applicant’s earning potential should be taken into consideration as well as the sponsor’s income. Other methods of proving income should also be explored, such as family guarantees.

7. A humane refugee and asylum system

Britain should take in our fair share of refugees to reflect our longstanding tradition of providing sanctuary to those fleeing persecution and conflict. We must also improve the conditions of asylum seekers and refugees when they are here by ending the practice of indefinite detention of asylum seekers, giving them the right to work, and increasing their subsistence allowances. Refugees should also be given more time to find a home and a job before their allowances are cut off.

Human rights in counter-terrorism

8. End mass surveillance

The Court of Justice of the European Union recently ruled that blanket surveillance of the UK population is incompatible with fundamental standards of privacy. The UK’s surveillance regime should be amended so that there is no surveillance without suspicion.

9. Review the Prevent strategy

The UK’s ‘Prevent’ strategy to tackle extremism is divisive and controversial. Many people feel alienated by it after a catalogue of cases where it has been improperly applied. It has had a chilling effect on freedom of speech, preventing an open debate where extremist ideas can be challenged, and has also interfered with privacy. Labour should commit to a full review of Prevent, including examining alternative strategies for tackling terrorism.

Legal protections

10. Protect the Human Rights Act and commit to staying in the ECHR

The Human Rights Act and the European Convention of Human Rights are the guarantors of human rights in this country. Together they have helped rape victims get justice, protected children and the elderly against abuse, and helped achieve equality for LGBT people. The Human Rights Act must be kept, as must our membership of the ECHR.

11. A fair legal aid system that protects the most vulnerable

The cuts to legal aid have had a damaging impact on people’s ability to achieve justice, leaving vulnerable people unable to challenge abuses against them. Labour should ensure the system is fair and protects the most vulnerable.

Workers’ rights

12. Scrap employment tribunal fees

Employment tribunal fees are unaffordable for many workers, preventing them from challenging unfair decisions or abusive practices. They allow unethical companies to get away with flouting rules protecting workers’ rights. They should be scrapped immediately.

13. Regulate the ‘gig’ economy

The ‘gig’ economy, where employees are forced to work on zero hour contracts and many are not classified as employees at all, must be properly regulated. Zero hour contracts should be scrapped, and companies should be prevented from improperly classifying employees as self-employed.

Civil society and trade unions

14. Scrap the Lobbying Act

The Lobbying Act is one of the most illiberal pieces of legislation passed in recent memory. It heavily restricts legitimate campaigning efforts by charities and other non-profit groups, while doing virtually nothing to tackle corporate lobbying. The Act should be scrapped.

15. Scrap the Trade Union Act

The ability to strike is a crucial source of leverage for workers who are dealing with unfair working conditions or pay, and is also a basic human right under freedom of association. The Trade Union Act interferes with legitimate strike action and makes it extremely difficult for workers to exercise their collective bargaining rights. It should be repealed.

A Guest Blog – Constitutional Hurdles: Proposals Concerning the European Court of Human Rights and the Human Rights Act

From LCHR member Scott Forman

Reports have surfaced that Theresa May plans to propose that Britain leave the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) in her 2020 Manifesto. The Prime Minister has been a vocal critic of the Convention and its enforcement mechanism, the European Court of Human Rights, based in Strasbourg (ECtHR). This proposal is in addition to the already well established Conservative promise to repeal the Human Rights Act (HRA). If successful, these measures would transform Britain’s constitutional landscape. However, such significant change could not be brought about without surpassing Britain’s unique constitutional hurdles, many of which could frustrate the Prime Minister’s route to constitutional reform.

ECHR

 The ECHR was created as a post-war attempt to unify Europe and prevent the atrocities of the Second World War from ever occurring again. Its inception on 3rd September 1953 was a product of significant British influence and aimed to herald a new era in which human rights would preserve and maintain peace. The ECHR was created by the Council of Europe and Britain was among the first eight states to ratify the Convention in 1953. The formation of the Convention’s supporting court occurred in 1959 and it is based in Strasbourg. The court consists of a judge from each member state to the Convention, currently standing at 47.

Britain’s withdrawal from the ECHR would be far from straightforward. The ECHR is an international treaty therefore the current government may argue that withdrawal from the Convention could occur through exercise of an act of royal prerogative by the Executive. However, as was argued in relation to triggering Article 50 to leave the European Union, it could be suggested that Britain’s ratification to the ECHR is of ‘constitutional character’, therefore only amendable through parliamentary approval. If so, navigating withdrawal from the ECHR through parliament could be problematic. The measure would also entail Britain having to leave the Council of Europe as adherence to the Strasbourg Court is a condition of membership. Such a move would rightly be fiercely contested by many MPs.

HRA

 The Human Rights Act is a product of the legacy of the ECHR. It was enacted in 1998 by a Labour government, and became effective in 2000. The main purpose of the Act upon introduction was to ‘bring rights home’. Under the legislation it was proposed that British people should be able to protect their rights in British courts. The provisions of the Act sought to prevent human rights disputes being taken all the way to the Strasbourg court by resolving any breaches of the Convention before the domestic judiciary.

The main constitutional conundrums concerning proposals to repeal the HRA stem from Britain’s carefully constructed devolution settlement. Repealing the HRA would have a significant impact on the devolved nations. This may jeopardise the stability within and between the nations that is essential for a unified Britain.

 Scotland

 The incumbent Scottish Government has made its position clear that they oppose repeal of the HRA. This opposition could pose a significant constitutional hurdle. Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s current First Minister, has suggested that any attempt to repeal the HRA would require the legislative consent of Scottish Parliament. This assertion is based on the constitutional arrangement known as the Sewel Convention which stipulates that Parliament shouldn’t legislate on devolved matters without the express consent of Scottish Parliament. Although only a convention, therefore not binding in law, repealing the HRA bypassing the consent of the Scottish Parliament would be unconstitutional and disastrous for the harmony of the union of nations. Imposition of major constitutional change would undoubtedly reinvigorate nationalist sentiment and strengthen cries for Scottish independence.

Northern Ireland

Repeal of the HRA would also have huge ramifications for the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) with Northern Ireland. The GFA is an International Treaty to which both the UK and Northern Ireland are bound. In signing the GFA both parties agreed to the ECHR as it stands within International Law and any deviation from this agreement including repeal of the HRA, would constitute a breach of the GFA. The GFA was subject of a referendum both in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland therefore a move away from one of its central commitments would require the consent of both nations. The HRA incorporates the rights enshrined in the Convention into domestic law and is essential to maintaining stability in Northern Ireland. The Act’s repeal could set back years of progress within the previously volatile region.

Conclusion 

Mrs May faces considerable constitutional hurdles should she wish to withdraw from the ECHR and repeal the HRA. The seismic constitutional changes that would occur threaten to destabilise Britain’s carefully balanced devolution settlement. Adequate respect for the autonomy of the nations within the union requires that they are consulted and consent to such measures. These proposals should be strongly opposed. The ECHR and HRA are essential safeguards against human rights infringements and form part of the fabric of Britain’s complex constitutional construction. Their removal or replacement could spark a chain of events that results in irreparable damage to British unity. Mrs May should tread more carefully than her predecessor Mr Cameron in this regard, otherwise leaving the European Union will not be the only Conservative legacy.

 

Human rights and workers’ rights after Brexit

brexit pic

On 2nd October 2016, the Prime Minister gave a speech at the Conservative Party Conference in which she set out the timeline for triggering Article 50 and also announced the introduction of the Great Repeal Bill, which will end the application of EU law in the UK.

The Government has produced a white paper for the Great Repeal Bill, which includes so-called ‘Henry VIII’ powers, allowing the Government to alter EU-derived legislation without the normal parliamentary scrutiny. LCHR is therefore concerned that crucial employment and equality rights currently derived from EU law may be restricted or even removed from UK legislation, possibly bypassing the normal legislative process. We have produced this briefing in order to make recommendations for the protection of those rights in the UK.

We are also hosting a Q&A on Human Rights post-Brexit with Keir Starmer MP, Polly Toynbee, Schona Jolly QC and Narmada Thiranagama on April 26th. Please email rachel.finnegan@lchr.org.uk to register for this event. 

Briefing on end-to-end encryption

Following the tragic terrorist attack in Westminster in which the perpetrator is believed to have opened the WhatsApp messaging service just minutes before launching the attack, the home secretary has called for intelligence agencies and police to be given access to end-to-end encrypted messaging services.

The Labour Campaign for Human Rights believes that the home secretary’s plan to persuade internet and social media platforms to voluntarily put back-doors into encrypted services is not practical or proportionate. This briefing covers the reasons why. 

Human rights after Brexit

Wednesday 26th April, 6:00pm

Location: Westminster (Please RSVP for more details)

Q&A on Human Rights post-Brexit with Keir Starmer MP, Polly Toynbee, Schona Jolly and Narmada Thiranagama. Moderated by Stewart Wood.

Contributors:

Keir Starmer MP, Shadow Secretary of State for exiting the European Union
Polly Toynbee, The Guardian
Schona Jolly QC, International law at Cloisters Chambers
Narmada Thiranagama, Unison
Stewart Wood, Labour Peer, former adviser to Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband, and Chair of the United Nations Association – UK.

This is an opportunity to quiz Keir Starmer, who is leading Labour’s response to Brexit, on how the Labour Party will seek to ensure a human rights friendly Brexit deal. Keir and the panel will discuss the anti-immigrant feelings that helped lead to Brexit, how Labour should respond to them in the context of the freedom of movement debate and the status of EU nationals living in the UK, and the threat to employment rights and other human rights currently underwritten by the EU.

You must register to attend this event. Please email rachel.finnegan@lchr.org.uk