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.
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.”
It’ll all be over by Christmas: that’s what the coalition promised when it established the Commission on a Bill of Rights to, among other things:
… investigate the creation of a UK Bill of Rights that incorporates and builds on all our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, ensures that these rights continue to be enshrined in UK law, and protects and extends our liberties.
With less than four months to go, it seems a good time to reflect upon its work. My premise is that the process by which a bill of rights is created is as important as the outcome if the bill is to enjoy longevity and democratic legitimacy, in the sense of having been subject to inclusive and informed public deliberation. This lesson has been learned in contexts from Northern Ireland to Australia, where energetic consultation processes were designed using community organising techniques, televised hearings, the internet, social networking and other creative forms of public engagement. These are explored in research I conducted for the Equality and Human Rights Commission ahead of the 2010 general election.
There is a commission on a bill of rights for the UK. It is in the midst of a consultation process, and visited Belfast this week. Have you noticed?
The commission’s establishment and composition provoked adverse comment. The mood of open hostility to existing human rights law merged with the potential for engineered political standoff, as the commission members are split between those who support the Human Rights Act and those who oppose it. A commission born from political compromise looks primed for stalemate. Not the best way to initiate a new constitutional conversation.
Updated | The Commission on a Bill of Rights has published its interim advice to Government on reform of the European Court of Human Rights. It has also published a letter to ministers on reform of the Court.
It is already clear that the Commission has its work cut out because of the strong opposing views of its membership. After the publication of its initial consultation document, one of the Commission’s members, Michael Pinto-Duschinsky instantly said “I strongly regret the terms in which it has been presented.” Now the Commission’s chairman has had to publish a letter alongside its advice so that the views of one member (is it Pinto-Duschinsky again?), that there should be some form of “democratic override” of the court’s decisions, could be incorporated despite them not being agreed to by the other members.
The UK Bill of Rights Commission has launched a public consultation on whether we need a Bill of Rights.
The consultation document is here and reproduced below. You have until 11 November 2011 to respond and you can do so via email or post.
The document provides a useful and fairly noncontroversial summary of rights protections as they currently exist within the UK constitutional structure. It does not, however, provide any information at all about what a “bill of rights” might entail or how such instruments work in other countries: contrast the far more detailed (and very useful) document produced in 2010 by the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
Members of the UK Bill of Rights Commission, an independent body asked by the government to investigate the case for a UK Bill of Rights, has been giving evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee (transcripts here: part 1, part 2). The sessions give an interesting if predictable insight into the likely discussions between the Commission’s members.
The group has made slow progress so far, and little is known about how it will operate, save that any proposed bill must “incorporate.. and build.. on all our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights“. It is under no great time pressure, having been asked to report by the end of 2012. It is comprised of 9 people, mostly Queen’s Counsel and not all of whom are human rights experts. It also has a website, which provides little information beyond the dates of meetings. Given the importance of the process and lack of information so far, the evidence sessions are of interest.