What exactly will this new bill of rights mean for privacy laws within the UK?

The Justice Secretary has announced in a radio interview that the government will go ahead with the abolition of the UK's Human Rights Act, only for it to be replaced with a British 'bill of rights'.

Theresa May, the current prime minister, is not a fan of the Human Rights Act
Theresa May, the current prime minister, is not a fan of the Human Rights Act

The Human Rights Act (HRA) is to be scrapped, and replaced with a ‘British bill of rights'.

Liz Truss, the Justice Secretary, said as much in an interview on BBC Radio 4, adding, “I'm looking very closely at the details but we have a manifesto commitment to deliver that.”

Truss did not give a time frame for the new bill of rights to be implemented, nor any detail of what might be in the bill.

The bill of rights was promised in a 2015 Conservative election manifesto and according to Truss, the government has every intention of using it as a replacement for  the HRA.

The HRA was passed in 1998, with the aim of incorporating the rights detailed in the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law.

The HRA was loudly taken up by the Conservative Party, then in opposition, as an infringement on UK sovereignty as well as a piece of legislation that hamstrung law enforcement.

One of it's more controversial provisions is Article 8, the right to privacy, which states “Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.”

The right is qualified, and can be disregarded, contingent on it being in the“interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”

Many critics of the current legislation say that it prevents UK law enforcement from properly ensuring public safety and dealing with the threat of international terrorism. Theresa May, in her then role as Home Secretary, took the issue up at the 2011 Tory conference, saying that Article 8 prevents the deportation “of people who should not be here”.

Current estimations of what might be contained within the HRA's replacement remain vague at best. Prime Minister Theresa May, has been quite clear about her desire to bring in legislation, such asthe controversial Investigatory Powers Bill, which grants law enforcement powers which many consider invasive.

“We have no information on what the British Bill of Rights will look like, nor what effects it may have on everyone's privacy”, Tomaso Falchetta, legal officer at Privacy International told SCMagazineUK.com.

However, he adds, “we have already seen how this government is seeking to expand its surveillance powers beyond what is necessary and proportionate in the Investigatory Powers Bill (the brainchild of the current Prime Minister), and we share the concerns of other leading human rights organisations that a British Bill of Rights risks lowering the current standards of protection, including on privacy.”

Mark James, security specialist at ESET told SC that the HRA is often nebulous:”The biggest problem of course is that same act can enable criminals to hide behind privacy for nefarious purposes and thus it's often down to wording and courts to decide the outcome. Obviously some of the concerns we have today were not a factor in 1998 when the bill was passed so a re-write specific for us in this modern age of digital identities may not be so bad.”

Norman Shaw, CEO of ExactTrak said that the current fault of HRA “is that it is so broad that it can be twisted to suit almost any purpose.”

However, a new British bill of rights, added Shaw, could be a precarious thing: “The so called Snoopers charter is a whole different issue. Bringing this under the British Bill of Rights is very dangerous. It is not difficult to see how anyone could lose more than they gain in terms of rights to privacy.”

“The Snoopers Charter needs to stand clear of any Human Rights changes and be targeted to addressing actual crime in all its various forms.  It is all very well keeping data for 12 months but with the immediacy of communications anything that is communicated will be actioned very quickly. The only reason for holding data for that long is for the slow wheels of investigation prosecution to grind their merry way.”

Shaw concluded, if the UK is going to have a Snoopers Charter it has to be designed to complete investigations and prosecutions quickly: “In the current situation, I can't see that happening any time soon.”

Given the UK's historic role in championing human rights, there is also some concern that abandoning the Human Rights Act for a national version provides a template for abandonment by more authoritarian regimes currently signed up to the HRA.