Updated, 19 May 2013 | Last night, lawyers, academics, NGOs and even the President of the Supreme Court gathered in a basement conference room in central London. Their purpose was to discuss the UK “without Convention Rights”, a possible future that some might view as post-apocalyptic, and others as utopia. Either way, given recent political developments, the event could not, in the words of the Chair, Lord Dyson, “be more timely or topical.”
The seminar was hosted by city law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP and presented by the Human Rights Lawyers Association and the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law. Lord Dyson, who is the Master of the Rolls (the second most senior judge in England and Wales), introduced three speakers:
- David Anderson QC, the Government’s Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation since 2011;
- Professor András Sajó, the Hungarian Judge at the European Court of Human Rights; and
- Professor Hugh Corder, Professor of Public Law at the University of Cape Town.
The consequences of Margaret Thatcher’s administration have been long lasting. In many areas of national life Thatcher took the British Bulldog by the scruff of the neck and house-trained it. In the context of the constitution her impact was no less significant.
But Lady Thatcher did not set out to reform the constitution. Although the 1979 Conservative Manifesto raised the possibility of a Bill of Rights nothing came of this proposal during her administration. In reality Margaret Thatcher was a traditional Conservative who believed in a strong state and had an aversion to any constitutional reform that might limit it. Yet her administration has left long lasting changes to the law and constitution. In fact there are too many to comfortably write about in a quick blog though a number of developments are of particular interest.
Rapid expansion of human rights obligations at the European and international levels arguably undermines the system of International Human Rights Law. Countries like the UK, which place strong emphasis on the need to protect individuals from abuses, are faced with ever more obligations stemming from rights inflation. One crucial way in which this occurs is through rights replication.
No-one can legitimately argue that women, children, persons with disabilities, migrant workers, human rights defenders and other vulnerable groups do not need protecting from human rights abuses. Where those groups require additional rights then of course it makes sense for them to be enshrined within treaties. Yet the many treaties, resolutions and declarations about those groups almost always focus on rights that already exist for all individuals. Often these are civil and political rights, which can be found within international and regional treaties. Replicating these rights, rather than creating new additional ones, weakens and undermines the human rights system.
This post by Roger Smith was originally the text of a speech to the Working Men’s College and is reproduced here with permission and thanks.
Human rights will be a politically live issue at the next election. Leading on the issue will by the Conservative Party, urged on by elements in the media such as the Daily Mail with a commercial interest in resistance to any law on privacy deriving from human rights. So, the Working Men’s College has done well to identify this topic for exploration. This evening is a celebration of the college’s stated aim to ‘engage positively with the past, while finding new ways to pursue its founders’ aims into the 21st century.’
The pace on human rights is being forced by Theresa May, seen by some as the Tory leader in waiting. She made it clear at the weekend that both the HRA and the European Convention which it introduces into domestic law are under fire:
Good Friday Agreement
Advice on a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, submitted to the Secretary of State by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission in 2008, was roundly rejected by the UK government in 2009 and there seems to be little appetite within the Northern Ireland Office for revisiting the issue in the foreseeable future.
In London, the coalition government’s Commission on a UK Bill of Rights, set up in 2011, reported in 2012 but could not suggest an agreed way forward on a UK basis. In Scotland, on the other hand, bearing in mind the forthcoming referendum on independence in 2014, there is renewed interest in whether legislation should be passed by the Scottish Parliament to guarantee a range of social and economic rights. The Republic of Ireland, for its part, is currently re-examining its Constitution and has recently voted in a referendum to enhance the protection of children’s rights.
Now that the idea of a new UK Bill of Rights appears to be buried, choices re-emerge. The predicted outcome of the London-based Commission’s work was finally confirmed in December. Where now for human rights?
Thinking beyond the European Convention on Human Rights was never confined to this generation or any one process. The limitations of the Convention are well known, and critical material is not lacking. Talk of next steps circles around ‘going beyond’ and ‘building on’ existing achievements in several senses. The feeling that it is possible to improve; that the world of human rights captures more than the HRA or the ECHR. The more ill-defined talk of ‘ownership’ that resembles constitutional patriotism in desperate defence of a union in transition, and the disguised nationalist/unionist positions that occasionally surface.
The European Court of Human Rights got off lightly in the Prime Minister’s In-Out speech yesterday, with just a single passing mention. No surprises there, as the speech was about the European Union, a separate organisation from the Council of Europe, which runs the Strasbourg court. Withdrawing from the European Union would not mean withdrawing from the European Court of Human Rights.
Yesterday was, however, an exception. Ordinarily, the European Court of Human Rights is a large presence in the in-out Europe debate. And, from the amount of coverage and political argument the court generates, you might be forgiven for thinking it rules against the UK hundreds of times per year. The Court has just released its statistics for 2012, and the figures may surprise you.
In March I complained that the Commission on a Bill of Rights should open up. Well, two weeks after publication of the Commission’s final report(s), two of the Liberal Democrat-appointed commissioners have given their insider perspectives of the Commission in an article in the London Review of Books.
Nothing in Helena Kennedy QC and Philippe Sands QC’s article is particularly surprising. The Commissioners emerge as a dysfunctional group of seasoned advocates on two sides of a case, with no presiding judge to rein them in or decide who was right. The report itself, with its bewildering array of separate papers and minority reports, demonstrated how little common ground there was between the commissioners.
I recommend reading the article in full, but here are a few interesting tidbits. Of course, some caution is necessary as the other members of the Commission (particularly the Conservative ones) may remember things differently.
Don’t be fooled! We have been led to believe there was a two-way split on the government-appointed Bill of Rights Commission, which published its report on Tuesday, but the split was at least three-way. The Commissioners tell us that ‘it [was] not always easy to disentangle in the opinions expressed to [them] what are tactical positions rather than fundamental beliefs’. The same must surely be said of the report’s seven ‘majority’ authors.
The two dissenters who did not sign up to the majority’s conclusions – Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws QC and Philippe Sands QC – are clear: the time is not ripe for a new UK Bill of Rights. This is because (a) the devolution arrangements in the UK, in which the HRA is successfully embedded, are potentially about to undergo significant change (post-Scottish referendum) (b) the majority of respondents to the Commission’s consultation support the HRA as the UK’s Bill of Rights which incorporates the ECHR rights (but not the European Court case law) into domestic law and (c) for some Commissioners, a Bill of Rights would be a means to decoupling the connection between the United Kingdom and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). In sum, “the case for a UK bill of rights has not been made” and the arguments against such a Bill “remain far more persuasive, at least for now.”
Update, 15:15: I originally referred below to there being a majority of six versus two in favour of introducing a bill of rights. This was wrong – in fact there were seven. The Commission chair, Sir Leigh Lewis, should have been included in that number.
The Commission on a Bill of Rights has reported, just in time for its end-of-2012 deadline. The documents are here: News release ; Volume 1 ; Volume 2.
I have read the introduction, which sets out the main proposals. A few things that jumped out:
- As predicted by most people since the beginning, there are areas of agreement but also some significant disagreements. Only seven out of the nine Commissioners believe there should be a bill of rights. Helena Kennedy and Philippe Sands disagree. Even the title is equivocal: “A UK Bill of Rights? The choice before us“.
- This is not a unified document, but rather a running, almost Socratic, dialectic between the nine members. It is difficult to follow who agrees with which bit, even in individual paragraphs which are often qualified by “a majority believes”. Bizarrely, and going beyond even my pessimistic expectations of strife, there are eight (eight!) separate papers written by individuals and groups of individuals included in the report, including one by Lord Faulks and Jonathan Fisher on the European Court and why it is going beyond its original remit, one by Sands and Kennedy on why they don’t think there should be a bill of rights, a personal explanatory note by Lord Lester… it goes on. That is one of the reasons this is such a long document.
As promised on Twitter, in readiness for tomorrow’s Commission on a Bill of Rights report (for more, see my post about grasshoppers), here is BILL OF RIGHTS COMMISSION BINGO!
You can click on the picture below or click here to download the PDF.. Diagonal lines count! And the centre square is a free square so you can cross through that too. Enjoy playing – the rules are in the PDF. Hopefully some serious coverage tomorrow as well. (Update - the Commission report is out, my initial analysis is here).
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The Commission on a Bill of Rights is rumoured to be publishing its report tomorrow, just in time for its end-of-2012 deadline. It is also widely being reported, unsurprisingly, that the Commission may not produce a unified report at all. Unsurprising because the Commission was set an almost impossible task from the start.
Four Conservatives and four Liberal Democrats told to “sort out” UK human rights (the terms of reference were a little less vague, but that’s basically it), whilst also being limited to proposing a Bill of Rights that “incorporates and builds on all our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights“. In other words, the could do very little at all except fiddle with our already existing, and actually quite elegant, Human Rights Act 1998. I have compared any new Bill of Rights arising from the Commission a bit like an updated Ford Fiesta; a new look and a few new features, but essentially the same car.
There will be plenty of analysis once the report is released. I wanted to concentrate here on the likely reaction. Matthew Parris got it right in Saturday’s Times (£) when he quoted Edmund Burke:
Today is Human Rights Day, marking the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Sanchita Hosali, from the British Institute of Human Rights, an independent charity working to bring rights to life beyond the statue books and courtrooms, reflects on our domestic human rights debates and those voices that are often missing from the conversation.
Last week saw 72 MPs vote in favour of a motion to repeal the Human Rights Act. So today, on Human Rights Day, 72 civil society groups have written to the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister urging them to safeguard the Human Rights Act. As we await the report from the Commission on a UK Bill of Rights, what unites these 72 groups is concern and disappointment that “what should be a healthy debate about how best to secure the human rights of each and every one of us has, for far too long, lacked political leadership.” This “jeopardises the progress we have made at home in ensuring that our human rights obligations lead to real change for people in their everyday lives.”
Remember the Commission on a Bill of Rights? You know, the one set up by the Government in the early days of the Coalition to sort out the Human Rights Act? No, not the Leveson Inquiry; that’s about the media (you may have heard that it is reporting tomorrow). CBOR is the one with the eight lawyers, four selected by each of the Coalition partners, a bit like a legal Brady Bunch.
Some accused the Government of kicking the rights issue into the long grass by assigning it to a commission with a far away reporting date – the end of 2012. It seemed so far away, back in the halcyon summer of 2010. Remember David Cameron and Nick Clegg’ romance in the Rose Garden?
Well, the long grass has now grown and CBOR is due to report in just over a month. As I posted in July, the Commission has consulted the public for a second time. The responses have now been published, categorised into Individual responses, Respondent organisations and bodies and Postcard responses. In case you were wondering about the ‘postcard responses’ these resulted from campaigns organised by the British Institute of Human Rights and the Human Rights Consortium.
I watched the BBC’s flagship political debate Question Time last week and saw a panel of senior politicians from the three main parties plus UKIP debate the implications of the Abu Qatada affair with the audience. You can watch it here (starts at 8 mins 27 seconds) and I urge you to do so. I found the debate illuminating and alarming in equal measure; it made me reflect seriously on how precarious Britain’s interwoven system of international and domestic protection for human rights may actually be these days.
It seems a long time ago that we naively thought that repeal of the Human Rights Act was “unthinkable” – now withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) itself must seemingly be taken as a serious possibility, depending on the outcome of the next election. The failure of the HRA to implant itself into our political, still less our popular culture was starkly apparent from the debate: I don’t think anyone even mentioned it. A statute that should surely be an important reference point in any discussion of a contemporary UK human rights issue has become so marginalised and misunderstood that it simply didn’t come up. Can one imagine American – or German – politicians discussing such an issue without mentioning their constitutional Bills of Rights – or Canadians, without mentioning the Charter?