Hugely important report due imminently… no, not that one

28 November 2012 by

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 responsesRespondent 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 have only skim read some of the responses and will not be undertaking any detailed analysis; we should know more soon enough when CBOR publishes its report. One thing to note is that given this was the only real substantive consultation undertaken by the Commission (the first was vague and didn’t propose any particular reforms), the number of responses is somewhat pathetic.; 109 from individuals and 106 from organisations. As admirable as the postcard campaigns are, much more could have been done by the Commission to make it easy for people to respond.

The paucity of responses is a symptom of how CBOR has failed to  capture the public imagination. Compare the Leveson Inquiry. It has rarely been out of the news. This is understandable partly as it is about the news. But Leveson has also had access to huge resources, took evidence from senior politicians, including the Prime Minister and his two predecessors, as well as other leading lights of society. The entire proceedings were broadcast live on the internet and transcripts and evidence published online the same day.

By contrast, CBOR has been squirreling away in the background with very little public engagement or interest. Who has been discussing CBOR on Twitter, the current barometer of public opinion? Practically nobody. When was the last time you saw it mentioned on the television news? For one, I can’t remember it ever being mentioned (although it must have been at some point back in the ancient history of 2010).

I have no doubt that the talented and knowledgeable commissioners have worked hard and will produce interesting and useful recommendations. But given its remit was in part to “consider ways to promote a better understanding of the true scope of these obligations and liberties”, and also given the obvious public relations problem that the human rights system has, a truly useful Commission would have done more, and had appropriate resources, to engage public opinion.

If the UK really wants to take rights reform seriously, and politicians such as Nick Herbert MP really do want to “reclaim rights” and “redeem” them in the minds of the public (more on his interesting Policy Exchange lecture soon – in the meantime, read Carl Gardner), then the public needs properly to be engaged. It doesn’t need to be a full-scale Leveson-style hoopla, but it has to be more than this. Surely, the issue of fundamental rights protections is as – if not more – important than the proper regulation of the press.

For one, I doubt this or even the next government will launch the kind of public consultation and engagement needed to let people have their say – and feel they have had their say – about human rights. Unfortunately, the issue has become mired in a proxy war about whether we should reclaim our ‘sovereignty’ from continental Europe. The terms of this debate are so unclear and shifting that no politician will feel confident enough to stand behind a rights system with teeth.

The public, consistently misled by politicians and the press (I hope Lord Justice Leveson can devote a paragraph or two to this, is understandably jaundiced about rights. Ironically, this public misunderstanding of the provenance of human rights law – that even our domestic decisions are foisted on us by Europe (the truth is that the vast majority of decisions are made by our own courts) – has made it almost impossible for politicians to stand up for human rights and therefore do anything to fix the problem.

This leaves the field open for MPs such as Nick Herbert and Dominic Raab who veil arguments for international isolationism in the cloth of improving human rights protections. The public, not politicians with their complex personal and political agendas, should be setting the terms of this crucial debate.

As things stand, however useful its recommendations, the Commission on a Bill of Rights is unlikely to do anything to reduce accusations of elitism and public disengagement with human rights. Whatever Lord Justice Leveson tells us tomorrow, at least the public will feel they have been given the opportunity to say what they think.

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  1. Andrew says:

    CBOR mints are a minty bit stronger . . .

    Sorry about that!

  2. Helen says:

    Also worth mentioning maybe that that 1,244 postcards organised by the Human Rights Consortium were from Northern Ireland.

  3. Although those sending postcards may not have engaged with the process in any meaningful way as you say, the BIHR postcards were still a response, and they allowed senders to do more than send just the pro forma postcard, there were over 600 responses and many senders actually included personal statements of their own regarding the process which are reproduced fully on the report you have linked to. He numbers are admittedly disappointing, but such is life with these issues, and I agree that without the media hoopla available to the Levi enquiry, many probably just did not know about the consultations.

    1. Adam Wagner says:

      Mike – perfectly fair. I have amended that bit of the post. It was a good idea and clearly worked.

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