The inclusion of a British Bill of Rights’ in the Queen’s speech has become something of a running joke among many lawyers who are hostile towards the Government. Each year it’s mentioned, and each year little seems to happen to bring a bill into fruition. How, then, can we be optimistic that this year is different?
For one thing, by the end of the summer the European question will have been settled. It’s fashionable to say that there’s no link between the European Union and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), but of course being a signatory to the convention is a prerequisite for membership of the Council of Europe, so like most things it isn’t as simple as it seems. If we remain in the European Union, there is little to no prospect that the Government will have any appetite for upsetting the consensus that ECHR membership is a requirement.
Bright Blue hopes that the British Bill of Rights better enshrines and enforces the Convention than the Human Rights Act, while bringing human rights into the 21st century. A British Bill of Rights should be an opportunity to toughen up human rights, and reset public attitudes towards them. If there has ever been an over-conflation of the European Union and the ECHR then the British Bill of Rights will resolve that.
Constitutional tinkering does not seem like David Cameron’s style, despite what feel like the constant referenda on constitutional issues, so hopefully the British Bill of Rights can do more than reinforce the status of Strasbourg jurisprudence as non-binding. The British Bill of Rights offers the opportunity to reaffirm Britain’s commitment to human rights, a renewal of vows after a rocky time in the public’s marriage to the principles behind them.
Right now there is a hot dispute about privacy and press freedom in the UK, and the invention by the courts of something like a right to privacy is ripe for assessment by our legislators. The boundaries of personal religious freedom and the provision of services are another hot-button issue. Enshrining a right to individual privacy would be a smart response to the technological changes of the 21st century.
Ideally, the British Bill of Rights will achieve cross-party support and agreement from the devolved assemblies. Only with full cooperation and consent can it become a truly British Bill, and one which avoids the constitutional perils of the devolved administrations. For this to happen, lawyers need to set aside their personal political gripes with the Government and contribute to the proposals. A British Bill Of Rights which reaffirms and renationalises rights should not be a controversial topic, but a source of enthusiasm. The question shouldn’t be “why scrap the Human Rights Act?” but “how do we improve upon the Human Rights Act?”.
Rupert Myers is an Associate Fellow at Bright Blue and political correspondent for British GQ