On 18 December 2012, the Commission on a Bill of Rights, established in March 2011 to investigate the creation of a UK Bill of Rights, delivered its report – ‘A UK Bill of Rights? – The Choice Before Us’ – to the Government.
The Equality and Diversity Forum (EDF) and a number of EDF members and other NGOs issued statements in response to the publication of the report.
On the key central issue of a UK Bill of Rights, seven of the Commission’s nine members believe that, on balance, there is a strong argument in favour of a UK Bill of Rights on the basis that such a Bill would incorporate and build on all of the UK’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, and that it would provide no less protection than is contained in the current Human Rights Act and the devolution settlements – although some of the majority believe that it could usefully define more clearly the scope of some rights and adjust the balance between different rights. For the majority as a whole the most powerful arguments for a new constitutional instrument are the lack of ownership by the public of the existing Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights, and the opportunity which a UK Bill of Rights would offer to provide greater protection against possible abuses of power.
The two members opposed to this conclusion – Helena Kennedy and Philippe Sands – believe that the moment is not ripe for the conclusion that a future process should be focussed on a new UK Bill of Rights. They believe that the majority has failed to identify or declare any shortcomings in the Human Rights Act or its application by our courts. While they remain open to the idea of a UK Bill of Rights were they to be satisfied that it carried no risk of decoupling the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights, they fear that one of the principal arguments relied upon by the majority – the issue of public ownership of rights – will be used to promote other aims, including the diminution of rights available to all people in our community, and a decoupling of the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights.
All the members of the Commission believe that any future debate on a UK Bill of Rights must be acutely sensitive to issues of devolution and, in the case of Scotland, to possible independence and that it must involve the devolved administrations in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. In respect of Northern Ireland the Commission is clear that it does not wish its conclusions to be interpreted or used in such a way as to interfere in, or delay, the separate Northern Ireland Bill of Rights process. More generally, all of the Commission’s members are agreed that, to come to pass successfully, a UK Bill of Rights would have to respect the different political and legal traditions of the UK, and to command public confidence beyond party politics and ideology. But the minority are concerned that a premature move to a UK Bill of Rights would be contentious and possibly even dangerous, with unintended consequences.
Beyond this core issue, the Commission has reached a largely agreed set of conclusions on such issues as whether, if there were to be a UK Bill of Rights (or, in the view of the minority other options that would incorporate and build on the rights in the Human Rights Act), it should also include the concept of responsibilities and whether it should include additional rights beyond those contained in the Human Rights Act. The Commission is also agreed that the mechanisms by which any Bill of Rights should operate should be broadly similar to those in the Human Rights Act. And it is united in urging the Government to continue to pursue fundamental reform of the European Court of Human Rights as set out in its earlier interim advice.
Click here for details on the Commission on a Bill of Rights website
Click here for piece by Philippe Sands and Helena Kennedy on the London Review of Books website
Click here for the Equality and Diversity Forum’s statement
Click here for the British Academy’s statement
Click here for the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s statement
Click here for Liberty’s statement
Click here for the Scottish Human Rights Commission’s statement