What Does The New Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt Think About Rights?

By Benjamin Lowrie, Digital Producer 10 Jul 2018

Following Boris Johnson’s surprise resignation, Theresa May has drafted in Jeremy Hunt as the new foreign secretary. So what does the divisive former health secretary think about human rights?

As the new foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt will be charged with shaping Britain’s international relationships. He’ll play a key role in the government’s drive to create a sense of a ‘Global Britain‘ after Brexit.

It’s a challenging position and one where the outgoing foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, often faced criticism. Controversies during his time in office ranged from his comments on Donald Trump to his handling of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case. Zaghari-Ratcliffe is a UK citizen who was imprisoned in Iran on suspicion of training journalists to spread anti-state propaganda. She was said to be ‘in tears’ after an inaccurate public statement by Johnson worsened her situation, potentially adding five years to her sentence.

So how will the new foreign secretary put his mark on Britain’s global relationships and will human rights play a role?

Jeremy Hunt on Rights

Image via. Flickr / NHS Confederation

Unlike the new Brexit secretary Dominic Raab, Jeremy Hunt, hasn’t vocally campaigned for the repeal of the Human Rights Act. However, he has criticised the Act’s implementation in the UK. As culture secretary, Hunt told journalists that rights were being upheld in a way which was “inconsistent with what parliament decided when we implemented the Human Rights Act.”

He has also argued that the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights should be scrapped after Brexit, as it will be ‘irrelevant’ outside of the EU. The EU Charter of Rights is not the same as the Human Rights Convention –  which is incorporated into UK law by the Human Rights Act and won’t be affected by Brexit. The Charter sets out civil, political, economic and social rights which are protected by various EU institutions (such as the Parliament and Court of Justice).

However, Hunt advocates remaining a signatory to the Human Rights Convention, “because this is entirely separate from the EU.”

What About as Health Minister?

Image via Flickr / Roger Blackwell

The right to health is contained in both the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (which the UK is a signatory to). The right to health follows the principle of ‘progressive realisation.’ This means that while the aim is to reach the highest attainable standard of health, it’s recognised that resource limitations may prevent a government from realising this goal immediately.

However, the law still requires signatory countries to improve services as soon as it becomes economically possible. As a wealthy developed nation, it would also be difficult for the UK to make a credible argument that it cannot provide basic healthcare to its citizens.

As health secretary, Jeremy Hunt was fiercely criticised for insufficient NHS investment and an unprecedented strain on services. Earlier this year, a report was released which heavily criticised the NHS’s mental health services, stating that their shortcomings were “violating basic human rights.”

Another controversy from Hunt’s time as health secretary was the junior doctors’ strike following a contract dispute over hours and working conditions. Hunt admitted that the junior doctors “had a point” about the potential impact of overworked doctors on patient safety.

An increase in anti-social working hours for doctors was also claimed to have a disproportionately negative effect on women. The Department of Health defended its position, arguing “any indirect adverse effect on women is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.”

However, Hunt was rebuked by the British Medical Association and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (the UK’s equality watchdog) in relation to the increased anti-social hours. The EHRC stated that “[the Department of Health] does not appear to have explicitly considered the impact of the contract on the right to just and favourable working conditions under Article 7 [of the UN’s] International Covenant on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights.”

How Does it All Stack Up?

Jeremy Hunt has consistently voted for:

  • Equal gay rights
  • Raising tuition fees to £9,000
  • Reducing Housing Benefit for social tenants with excess bedrooms (‘Bedroom Tax’)

While consistently voting against:

  • Right to remain for EU nationals already living in the UK following Brexit
  • EU nationals living in the UK retaining their rights, including the right to live and work here, following Brexit
  • Allowing terminally ill people a right to assisted dying

So what can this voting record tell us about Jeremy Hunt’s future as foreign secretary? With his sometimes complicated record on rights, it’s difficult to predict what exactly will happen next. However, one thing is certain – in a post-Brexit Britain, the role of foreign secretary is more important than ever.