The Commission on a Bill of Rights should open up

5 March 2012 by

1689 and all that

Things have been quiet recently on the Commission for a Bill of Rights front, with media attention focussed on the upcoming Brighton Conference on European Court of Human Rights reform and the growing controversy over the Justice and Security Green Paper. But this important Commission only has 10 months left to publish its report, and it should be courting public attention, not avoiding it.

There has been limited action on the Commission’s website, with publication of relatively illuminating minutes from the 15 November and 14 December meetings. The website has also published a list of all responses to the recent consultation. Apparently there were over 900 responses to the somewhat scanty discussion paper which was published last year.

Two suggestions. First, in my view, all of the responses should be published on the Commission’s website, not just a list of the respondees. I asked the Commission by email they would be doing so, and they responded:

We will of course be including analyses of the Discussion Paper responses in our final report. Until that time and given that the Commission has such a small Secretariat, we do not currently have any plans to publish an analysis of the responses ahead of the final report.

I take the point on resources, but this Commission’s task is one of fundamental importance to the UK public and as such should operate in as open and transparent a way as possible. If there is not enough money for it to do so, then it should ask for more. The Justice and Security Green Paper consultation has published its responses online and even linked to other web resources, including this blog. The Guardian report today this comment from the Cabinet Office:

In the interests of ensuring maximum transparency, we are actively seeking consent to publish as many responses as possible. Even in cases where consent is withheld we are proposing to publish a summary that reflects the full range of responses received. Separately, a very small number of responses were submitted in confidence. The government is under a legal duty to respect that.

The same logic should apply to the Commission on a Bill of Rights. If the somewhat airbrushed minutes are anything to go by – there is no mention of who said what, only that a debate was held on an issue – we will have no way of knowing once the report is published how it links to the views expressed in the consultation responses, except in vague terms.

My second suggestion, and again given the importance of its task to the public, is that the Commission should launch a proper public consultation in good time before it has to report. This is hinted at in the December 2011 minutes (“[the Secretary] noted that he had spoken to Ben Page, Chief Executive of Ipsos MORI, to discuss possible options for consulting the public and that he hoped to be able to circulate a proposal from Mr Page to members shortly); it should happen and time is running out for a proper consultation to be held and considered.

900 responses is a poor show for a Commission which could affect the public’s basic rights for a generation and no recommendations should be made without hearing what the general public thinks.

One of the Commission’s tasks is to “consider ways to promote a better understanding of the true scope of these obligations and liberties”. This is especially important in light of the often-heard criticism of the Human Rights Act that the public do not feel they “own” it. Indeed, this was the main justification for the Commission in the first place.

You only need to open up a newspaper to find a fierce and heated debate going on about human rights in the UK. This sometimes generates more heat than light, but the public is clearly engaged at some level. It is bizarre that the Commission on a Bill of Rights, which was set up to resolve that debate, is the only remaining “public” space where there is little evidence any kind of passionate argument over human rights going on.

I suspect that the instinct of the chair – former Permanent Secretary Sir Leigh Lewis – is publicly to paper over disagreements rather than exposing squabbles within the Commission (e.g. the odd “side letter” which was published early on). This must be the wrong approach.

The Commission should not see the lack of public attention as an opportunity to get on with its work in peace. Rather, it should see public apathy as a fundamental threat to its task. It should therefore be seeking out attention in creative ways, including the use of the internet and wide ranging public consultation. Only this will ensure that the Commission’s important work is open, transparent and ultimately successful.

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1 comment;

  1. ObiterJ says:

    Could not agree more. The Commission is working too much behind closed doors. Also, one does not need massive secretarial support to produce detailed minutes including a record of who said what. What has been produced are really little more than working notes as opposed to proper minutes.

    I suspect that the Commission sees itself more in the role of producing a report for government rather than in the role of having to “sell” its ideas to the general public. I would like to think that I am wrong about this but that’s the impression coming out.

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