David Cameron promises a “British Bill of Rights”. And what, exactly, does that mean?

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In his speech to the Conservative Party conference today, David Cameron spoke — albeit in very general terms — about human-rights reform. Here is the entirely of what he said on this subject:

Of course, it’s not just the European Union that needs sorting out – it’s the European Court of Human Rights. When that charter was written, in the aftermath of the Second World War, it set out the basic rights we should respect. But since then, interpretations of that charter have led to a whole lot of things that are frankly wrong. Rulings to stop us deporting suspected terrorists. The suggestion that you’ve got to apply the human rights convention even on the battle-fields of Helmand. And now – they want to give prisoners the vote.

I’m sorry, I just don’t agree. Our Parliament – the British Parliament – decided they shouldn’t have that right. This is the country that wrote Magna Carta … the country that time and again has stood up for human rights …  whether liberating Europe from fascism or leading the charge today against sexual violence in war.

Let me put this very clearly: We do not require instruction on this from judges in Strasbourg. So at long last, with a Conservative Government after the next election, this country will have a new British Bill of Rights to be passed in our Parliament, rooted in our values … and as for Labour’s Human Rights Act? We will scrap it, once and for all.

This is all pretty vague, and does not amount to the big announcement that many expected. What, then, can we glean what Cameron said today? Three things stand out.

  • First, there is no indication that the Conservatives will promise to pull the UK out of the European Convention on Human Rights (or even embark upon the sort of strategy proposed in connection with EU, involving an attempt to renegotiate treaty obligations).
  • Second, the Human Rights Act 1998 will be repealed.
  • Third, that Act will be replaced with a “British Bill of Rights”.

But what exactly does this amount to? Until the draft text of the proposed Bill of Rights is published, it is impossible to answer that question — but it is worth being clear at this point about the parameters of any proposed reform. In particular, it is important to be clear about the limits of what can be achieved by making changes at the domestic level. As a signatory to the ECHR, the UK is bound by it as a matter of international law. Among other things, all states parties to the Convention have promised (as Article 1 of the Convention puts it) to

secure to everyone within their jurisdiction the rights and freedoms defined in Section I of this Convention.

Moreover, signatories to the Convention, including the UK, have undertaken (as Article 46(1) put it) to

abide by the final judgment of the [European] Court [of Human Rights] in any case to which they are parties.

Cameron implies that a British Bill of Rights would cure the problem (as he sees it) of the UK being bound by judgments of the European Court of Human Rights. But that straightforwardly wrong. For as long as the UK is a party to the ECHR, it will — unless the terms of the Convention are amended — be bound by the Convention and by the Court’s judgments rendered under it. Of course, Parliament could repeal the Human Rights Act, replacing it with legislation giving UK judges weaker — or no — powers to uphold Convention rights. That would not, however, deprive people of those rights as a technical matter of law: it would simply reinstate the “long road” to Strasbourg which, in many instances, need not be traversed thanks to the Human Rights Act.

One possibility, therefore, is that a British Bill of Rights would simply make it more difficult to enforce rights conferred by the Convention, by diluting domestic courts’ powers and thereby increasing the frequency with which cases would have to be litigated in Strasbourg. The upshot — given the difficulties, including financial ones, of taking cases to the European Court — is that for many people, Convention rights would become theoretical entitlements that would be practically impossible to enforce. If that is the sort of “bill of rights” that people really want, then so be it; but if that is what turns out to be on offer, it is imperative that everyone is clear about that.

For more detailed discussion of these matters, see the following posts and articles:

1 comments on “David Cameron promises a “British Bill of Rights”. And what, exactly, does that mean?”

  1. Selecta. The implementation of the HRA is part of the Good Friday Agreement: a legally binding treaty between the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland. Cameron cannot, therefore, repeal the HRA’s effect in Northern Ireland without ripping up the GFA.

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