Back in 2007 the Conservative party clearly outlined its vision for the future shape of human rights protections in the UK.
It stated that, ‘the Human Rights Act 1998 has not proved to be effective in protecting fundamental rights in Britain…A Conservative Government will repeal the Human Rights Act and replace it with a modern British Bill of Rights.’
After their failure to gain an outright majority in the 2010 election the Conservatives were forced to form a coalition government with a Liberal Democrat party that maintained its support for the Human Rights Act. From these opposing viewpoints the compromise of the ‘Commission on a Bill of Rights’ was born. Perhaps it is unsurprising, with a genesis like this, that there has been a degree of scepticism about the aims and intentions behind the Commission’s work. Recent analysis of submissions to the Commissions first consultation has added to those concerns.
The Commission’s first discussion paper which closed for responses in November 2011 garnered 900 responses. When the Commission launched their second consultation (http://www.justice.gov.uk/about/cbr/second-consultation) in June this year they also released the earlier responses. The second consultation specifically asks whether the Human Rights Act should be replaced. A question which it might be reasonably assumed was based on some level of general support for this concept in the original consultation responses. In an analysis of those submissions, this is very far from what was found.
Just 20 responses out of 900 called for the HRA to be scrapped, this is compared to 520 responses that either wish to see the HRA maintained at it’s current level, or built upon to give greater rights protections. That’s a ratio of 1:26, it seems quite an unambiguous message was sent to the Commission in the first consultation, but they have failed to heed it.
To break these statistics down further:
- 2 group responses and 18 individual responses (20 total) called for the repeal or dismantling of the HRA.
- 41 group responses and 117 individual responses (158 total) felt that any Bill of Rights for the UK should build upon the protections afforded by the HRA.
- 44 group responses and 318 individual responses (362 total) felt that a Bill of Rights for the UK was unnecessary as the HRA was sufficient and should be maintained.
- Thus 20 responses called for the repeal of the HRA while 520 respondents either wanted the HRA maintained, or the protections provided by the HRA built upon.
The Commissions second consultation also asks whether a UK Bill of Rights should include additional rights. They have also been given some fairly clear answers to this question in the first consultation. In our analysis of submissions a second trend that clearly emerged was the strong support for economic, social and cultural rights. 42 group responses were supportive of ESCRs and 132 individual responses, 174 responses in total.
It’s probably fair to say that in light of the negative and limited origins of this debate, firmly rooted in a challenge to the HRA, that there is not a lot of confidence that this process will ever be capable of increasing the level of protections in the UK to include social and economic rights.
Finally, at a local level there is worryingly little recognition in the second consultation document of the existing Northern Ireland Bill of Rights process. The fear being that the UK BoR process, a politically initiated discussion that is rooted in the desires of the Conservative Party to undermine existing protections is in some way adopted as an adequate replacement for a our own ongoing, localised discussion in Northern Ireland. One which is rooted in our peace agreement, is part of the framework of protections designed to address the needs of a deeply divided society and which has massive community involvement and the support of the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland.
There is little acknowledgement of this separate process in the second consultation document. This is despite the disproportionate number of responses received during the first consultation from individuals and groups in Northern Ireland. Out of 900 submissions to the previous consultation, 44 submissions specifically make mention of the Northern Ireland Bill of Rights process. 31 (approximately 75%) of those submissions are supportive of a separate Northern Ireland Bill of Rights as distinct from a UK Bill of Rights. To put this in context, we should remember that the entire UK Bill of Rights conversation began life as a political debate about whether to remove or amend the Human Rights Act, yet more people have responded to the first consultation to argue for a separate Northern Ireland Bill of Rights (31) than those who argued to get rid of the Human Rights Act (20). All in the context of a negative debate in the UK media about the Human Rights Act.
Such general failures to accurately analyse and reflect on existing submissions does little to increase confidence in this process.
While the Human Rights Consortium(a coalition of 196 organisations from across NI that campaigns for a strong and inclusive Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland) takes no position on a UK Bill of Rights it has told the UK Bill of Rights Commission that they need to recognise two important factors in their deliberations: that Northern Ireland has a distinct debate underway on a Bill of Rights and that nothing done at the UK level should be allowed to cut across that initiative or reduce current protections and secondly that the Northern Ireland debate takes as its starting point the existence of the Human Rights Act (since this puts into practical effect the European Convention) and this Act should, if anything, be added to, not amended and certainly not be weakened. Such recommendations appear to be in line with what the Commission has already been told in its first consultation. Let’s just hope they are listening second time around.
If you want to make your own submission to this Consultation which closes on 30 September you can send your submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org . You can also support the Consortium message by signing and sharing the following petition: http://tiny.cc/qzu5jw
 Conservative Party, ‘How a Conservative Government will tackle Britain’s crime crisis’, August 2007, p. 12, available at: http://www.conservatives.com/pdf/britainscrimecrisis.pdf
The Consortium carried out an analysis of the submissions from the first consultation available on the Commissions website (http://www.justice.gov.uk/about/cbr/discussion-paper-responses) between the 30th July and the 3rd September 2012.