The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) is one of the few protections that boat dwellers have against eviction. The vote to leave the European Union (EU) in the referendum on 23rd June makes it more likely that the UK will seek to withdraw from the Convention. It is vitally important that boat dwellers take action to oppose this.
Although the ECHR is separate from the UK’s membership of the EU and pre-dates it by some 20 years, a proposal to replace the Human Rights Act 1998, which incorporates the Convention into UK law, with a British “Bill of Rights” and to reform the UK’s relationship with the European Court of Human Rights was first mooted by Conservative MPs in 2010. The 2015 Tory election manifesto included a commitment to replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights although this policy appeared to have stalled after last year’s election.
Withdrawing from the Convention was raised again by Conservatives and UKIP before the referendum and has been supported by Tory politicians in both the Leave and Remain camps. In April 2016 Home Secretary Theresa May said “…if we want to reform human rights laws in this country, it isn’t the EU we should leave but the ECHR and the jurisdiction of its court.” She had made a similar speech in March 2013. She has recently backtracked from this position following her decision to run for the Tory leadership, but there is no guarantee what would happen if she became prime minister and later won a General Election. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party, Scottish Nationalists and Plaid Cymru all support the ECHR and keeping the Human Rights Act.
Articles 6 and 8 of the Convention taken together are the only protection that boat dwellers have against summary eviction without an appeal mechanism. This applies to both Canal & River Trust and Environment Agency waterways in cases where the route to eviction is through termination of or failure to obtain a licence or registration, under either Sections 8 and 13 of the British Waterways Acts of 1983 and 1971 or under Section 16 of the Environment Agency (Inland Waterways) Order 2010. Without the Convention, this legislation as it is written would enable Canal & River Trust and the Environment Agency to seize and remove boats without any court process whatsoever and with only 28 days’ notice.
Article 6 entitles us to a fair trial and to due process; Article 8 entitles us to respect for our homes. This means that boat dwellers are entitled to have the proportionality of removing our homes evaluated by a court and to put a defence. These rights have been reinforced by case law in both the European Court of Human Rights and in the UK courts, for example Buckley v the United Kingdom ; Kay v the United Kingdom  and Manchester City Council v Pinnock .
It is vitally important that these protections against summary eviction continue to be available to boat dwellers. Please go and see your MP to explain how important it is for boat dwellers that the UK remains a party to the European Convention on Human Rights and keeps the Human Rights Act. If you have been subjected to unlawful or unfair enforcement by a navigation or other authority you can also raise this with the MP and ask them to intervene on your behalf. Experience shows that going to see an MP, rather than writing to them, makes it much more likely that they will listen and take action on the issue.
You don’t have to be registered to vote to see an MP or get help from an MP. If you don’t have a fixed address, or you are nowhere near your postal address, you can see the MP for the area where you are currently cruising. If necessary, just use the postcode of the nearest pub or post office and give your address in the following format: “nb Someboat, Grand Union Canal, Sometown, YZ1 2XX”. All MPs hold surgeries where constituents can make appointments to see them. You can find out who the local MP is and how to book an appointment either in the local library or online here http://www.parliament.uk/mps-lords-and-offices/mps/
Where boaters are evicted from land by a riparian owner there may be more legal protection for the boater. The most frequent mechanism for eviction is a claim in the County Court for possession under Part 55 of the Civil Procedure Rules. However private landowners also have common law eviction powers available to them and they can evict using ‘reasonable force’ without going to court, though most do issue claims under Part 55 of the Civil Procedure Rules. Local authorities and public bodies such as the Environment Agency are not permitted to use common law powers of eviction following guidance issued by the Government in 2004.
On 30th June, Rights Info said that leaving the EU “…could have a significant knock-on effect on our human rights laws. The Council of Europe, which administers the ECHR, may have an increasingly important role in our politics. And although no-one is talking about it now, it is inevitable that the ECHR and the Human Rights Act will be in play again once the debate turns to the details of an agreement to join the Common Market. If the EU does not offer a deal which would allow the UK to control free movement of people, it would not be surprising if ECHR withdrawal was mooted as a means of reducing immigration instead”.
It is vitally important that we act to protect the few rights that our community does have. Please take action now!