Another chapter in Coalition rows over Constitutional reform ended today with the conclusion of its 18-month commission on a British Bill of Rights. The final report exposed deep divisions. Labour Peer and leading civil liberties lawyer Baroness Helena Kennedy of the Shaws QC and Lib Dem International Law Professor Philippe Sands QC produced a minority dissent defending the Human Rights Act and European Convention on Human Rights.
In March 2011, the Prime Minister set up a Bill of Rights Commission to explore the idea of a Bill of Rights that “incorporates and builds on Britain’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights”. The announcement and the accompanying terms of reference made no reference to the Human Rights Act 1998.
The final report, published in December 2012 exposed deep divisions. Labour Peer and leading civil liberties lawyer Baroness Helena Kennedy of the Shaws QC and Lib Dem International Law Professor Philippe Sands QC produced a minority dissent defending the Human Rights Act and European Convention on Human Rights.
Even the remaining commissioners are divided on the fundamental issue of whether the UK should pull out of the Convention and nothing in the Report sheds any light on the proposed contents of a mythical British Bill of Rights or how this could be imposed upon the devolved countries of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland without jeopardising the current constitutional settlement.
The Commission conducted a public consultation in 2011.
Six reasons why Liberty believes we do not need a replacement bill of rights:
1. We already have a modern day Bill of Rights
We already have a modern day Bill of Rights in this country - the Human Rights Act. The HRA incorporates the post-WW2 Convention on Human Rights into UK law. It is universal; simultaneously English, Welsh, Scottish, Irish, European and so on. And it preserves parliamentary sovereignty while protecting the rights of every human being in this country or under UK control.
2. What’s really on offer? Less protection for the vulnerable
Given the commitment in the 2010 Conservative Manifesto to scrap the HRA we must not be fooled into thinking this is some kind of great opportunity. Those out to replace the HRA - including a number of members on the Commission - have been clear that they want to dilute the vital protections this legislation currently offers. This would mean less protection for the vulnerable against rich and powerful interests – political, media, corporate and so on.
3. Which rights would you take away?
As the late Rt Hon Lord Bingham of Cornhill, former Master of the Rolls, Lord Chief Justice and Senior Law Lord, said in 2008, who would seek to remove or weaken such fundamental rights as the right not to be subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, the right to liberty, the right to a fair trial? “Which of these rights, I ask, would we wish to discard? Are any of them trivial, superfluous, unnecessary? Are any of them un-British? There may be those who would like to live in a country where these rights are not protected, but I am not of their number.”
4. Foreigners somewhere or human beings everywhere
Some say that we need to make rights more ‘British’. Sadly we’ve all seen how weak rights contingent on citizenship can be. They are all too easily taken away, as the experience of British detainees at Guantanamo Bay shows. We have to choose between being foreigners somewhere or human beings everywhere.
5. Mass support for rights contained in HRA
In Septmber 2011 a Liberty/ComRes poll showed mass support (93%) for a law that protects rights and freedoms in Britain. 96% of respondents believed the right to a fair trial is vital or important, 90% believed the right not to be tortured or degraded is vital or important and 95% believed that respect for privacy and family life is vital or important. Yet less than a tenth of respondents (9%) remember ever having received or seen information from the Government explaining the Human Rights Act.
6. No public education on HRA
As our polling suggests, there has been very little public education about the rights and freedoms contained in the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights and how they protect us. As a result, many myths and misunderstandings have sprung up about human rights law, including who it does and doesn’t protect and what values it contains. Visit our Human Rights Act myths to find out some of the myths surrounding human rights law.
 Taken from the late Rt Hon Lord Bingham of Cornhill’s keynote speech at Liberty’s 75th Anniversary Conference.
There has been very little public education about the rights and freedoms in the Human Rights Act and how it works. As a result, many myths and misunderstandings have sprung up about the HRA – including who it does and doesn’t protect and what values it contains.
Back in March, the Prime Minister set up a Bill of Rights Commission to investigate the possibility of creating a 'UK Bill of Rights'. Today the Commission embarked upon its first step of public consultation, launching a discussion paper asking people “Do we need a UK Bill of Rights?”