Rishi Sunak’s Cabinet: Does ‘Compassion’ Extend to Human Rights?

By Ella Hopkins, Journalist 27 Oct 2022
Institutions, Justice
Credit: Number 10/Flickr

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Rishi Sunak was quick to appoint his cabinet on Tuesday after being asked by the King to form a new government. In his first speech as prime minister, he promised to bring “compassion” to the government. 

But members of Sunak’s new cabinet, a mix of new and familiar faces, have been criticised for their approach to human rights. We take a look at the records of some of the key players.

Dominic Raab MP, deputy prime minister and justice secretary

Raab is back in his former role as justice secretary, as well as being deputy prime minister and lord chancellor. The MP for Esher and Walton, who served as justice secretary during the Boris Johnson premiership, was sacked by former prime minister Liz Truss last month. 

Raab, a key ally of Sunak, is best known for his determination to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) and replace it with a Bill of Rights. Civil liberties and human rights charities have dubbed it the ‘rights removal bill’ because if it passes it will restrict certain rights enshrined in the HRA. 

The Bill included plans to introduce a ‘permission stage’ for people claiming that their human rights have been violated in court. It would mean that people would have to prove they had suffered “significant disadvantage” from a human rights violation before their claim is heard in court. It adds another barrier to people seeking justice for human rights violations. The British Institute of Human Rights said it will make it “harder for ordinary people to access justice and hold the state to account”.

Raab has also said that one of his aims in the Bill is to make it easier to deport people from overseas by weakening their claims to stay together under the right to a family life (Article 8 of the HRA). Under the Bill, a person facing separation from their family because of deportation, would have to prove that a family member would come to extreme, exceptional, overwhelming and irreversible harm if they were removed from the country, in order to remain. 

In July, the Home Office ruled that a baby born in Jamaica, whose mother Tiffany Ellis is a British citizen, could not return to the UK with its mother because it would not have “unjustifiably harsh consequences” on the baby – the criteria for breaching Article 8. After the Guardian raised the case, the Home Office reversed the decision. The Bill would place additional restrictions on people claiming their right to a family life. 

Another controversial aspect of the Bill is that it would mean that courts in the UK no longer have to take into account rulings from the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), the body tasked with ensuring that European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) obligations are realised. It would give the UK parliament primacy over the ECtHR, which means it could overturn the court’s decisions, such as its intervention to halt the Rwanda deportation flights. Rights groups have also warned that it could have implications for the constitutional arrangements between the UK and devolved nations. 

Raab also rebuffed a cross-party amendment to enshrine the right to abortion in the Bill of Rights, saying that there was no “strong case for change” as the matter is “settled” in UK law. There is no right to choose to have an abortion enshrined in UK law. The practice is partially decriminalised under legislation passed in 1967, but can be criminalised under Victorian laws that are still in place today. In the last five years, 34 people have been reported to the police for procuring criminalised abortion in England and Wales. 

The Bill of Rights, which was due to have its second reading in Parliament on 12 September, was shelved by former prime minister Liz Truss. Whitehall sources said the Bill was a “complete mess”, which was “unlikely to progress in its current form”. But under the new Sunak government it could be back on the table. 

Suella Braverman MP, home secretary

Braverman is another familiar face in Sunak’s cabinet. The former home secretary was forced to resign from her role in Truss’s cabinet last week over a security breach. As home secretary, her responsibilities will include overseeing UK borders, policing and counter-terrorism. During prime minister’s questions yesterday, Sunak said he had appointed Braverman to “defend our borders”. 

In a piece she wrote for the Telegraph outlining her support for Sunak last week, Braverman said: “We will only stop the boats crossing the Channel if we can actually pass vital legislation to limit the impact of Modern Slavery laws, the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights.”

In her role as home secretary, Braverman made headlines with her pledge to ban all small migrant boats from crossing the Channel, a route many asylum seekers take after fleeing war and persecution. She has shown strong support for offshoring refugees and asylum seekers to Rwanda in a scheme set up by her predecessor Priti Patel. During the Conservative party conference at the start of this month, she said it was her “obsession” and “dream” to see a flight take off to Rwanda. 

The UN Refugee Agency said the scheme undermines the 1951 Refugee Convention, which the UK helped to draft in the aftermath of the second world war. Earlier this year, the government admitted that immigration plans, including the Rwanda migration partnership, have not provided safe government-backed routes for asylum seekers.

Braverman departed from official government policy under Truss when she said she wanted the UK to “ultimately” leave the ECHR, which is enshrined in UK law through the Human Rights Act. The UK was the first signatory to the ECHR, which Winston Churchill described as a “Charter of Human Rights, guarded by freedom and sustained by law”.

Kemi Badenoch MP, secretary of state for international trade and minister for women and equalities

Badenoch remains secretary of state for international trade in Sunak’s cabinet, a role to which she was appointed under Liz Truss, and was appointed women and equalities minister on Tuesday. She held various ministerial roles in Boris Johnson’s government. Yesterday, she responded to allegations from PinkNews chief executive Benjamin Cohen, who said on Twitter that “many LGBTQ+ campaigners feared” Badenoch’s appointment. 

Badenoch, the MP for Saffron Walden, said in parliament: “The Equality Act is a shield not a sword. It is there to protect people of all characteristics, whether they’re young or old, male or female, black or white, gay or straight.”

Last year, Vice News accused Badenoch of mocking trans people in a leaked audio recording.

James Cleverly MP, foreign secretary

Cleverly has remained in his role as secretary of state for foreign, commonwealth and development affairs, to which he was appointed by former prime minister Liz Truss. In the role, he oversees foreign affairs and international development policy.

When asked yesterday about LGBT football fans travelling to Qatar, a country that criminalises homosexuality, for the World Cup next month, Cleverly said: ‘”I think with a little bit of flex and compromise at both ends, it can be a safe and secure World Cup.” 

Shadow foreign secretary Lucy Powell said his remarks were “tone deaf”, adding that the government should not defend “discriminatory values”. 

In February, Human Rights Watch said that Cleverly had made an “erroneous” statement on behalf of the government, which appeared to imply that the detention of six children in Bahrain complied with international child rights law. 

Ben Wallace, defence secretary

Wallace has served as secretary of state for defence since 2019. The MP for Wyre and Preston North was criticised by human rights charity Reprieve when he appeared to condone the use of mock executions for prisoners of war. He was also accused of apologising to Saudi Arabia after imposing sanctions on the regime following human rights abuses. 

He has been criticised for several stances on LGBT rights, such as voting against the introduction of same-sex marriage in England and Wales in 2013.

About The Author

Ella Hopkins Journalist

Ella Hopkins has a background reporting on human rights and social affairs issues for a range of media outlets. She has focused her writing on housing, women’s rights and economic policy. Ella is passionate about working with marginalised people to tell their stories and writing about human rights issues that impact people’s everyday lives.

Ella Hopkins has a background reporting on human rights and social affairs issues for a range of media outlets. She has focused her writing on housing, women’s rights and economic policy. Ella is passionate about working with marginalised people to tell their stories and writing about human rights issues that impact people’s everyday lives.

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