Is It Time To Scrap Plans For A British Bill Of Rights?

By Adam Wagner, Founder and Chair 1 Mar 2016

It is being reported this morning that the plans to water down Freedom of Information laws are not going to happen. This follows a hard fought campaign by newspapers such as the Daily Mail. Will the Bill of Rights go the same way?

The Freedom of Information Act was born in the early years of the New Labour government as part of a raft of constitutional reforms including the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA).

Both RIPA and the Human Rights Act are also being reviewed by the current government. RIPA is likely to be replaced by the Investigatory Powers Bill. We will hear more about the government’s plans later today (watch this space) – a Parliamentary committee recently said there was “a significant amount of further work to do before Parliament can be confident that the provisions have been fully thought through”.

So that leaves the “British Bill of Rights”. Much has been said about the Conservative Party’s manifesto commitment – our explainer is here. The plans have been promised repeatedly since the May 2015 election, but still have not appeared. If I had a pound for every time I have heard a credible rumour that something was being published “next Thursday”, I would be a rich man.

What’s going on?

Why no plans yet? For the first few months after the election, it appears the new Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, was carefully attempting to untangle the the extreme, and likely unworkable, plan which his predecessor, Chris Grayling, had left behind. Indeed, Gove has spent a significant amount of time dismantling various Grayling policies. Gove has gone to great lengths to reassure people that his “bill of rights” would actually be a fairly modest change to the Human Rights Act, and still protect our rights under the European Convention.

The European Union referendum appears to be the latest block in the road. A few months ago, Gove revealed that the Prime Minister had asked him to incorporate plans to turn our Supreme Court into a “constitutional court” (see our explainer). It now appears that this plan was more about the European Union than the European Court of Human Rights. The two are entirely separate entities – if we let the EU, we would still be signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights.

It gets even messier. The constitutional court plan appears to have been really about the Prime Minister getting Michael Gove and Boris Johnson on side for the EU referendum debate. If it was, the plan failed as both are now supporting the campaign to “Brexit”. Which leaves the Bill of Rights in limbo. Or perhaps purgatory.

The Daily Mail reports that Michael Gove has now “sent his British Bill of Rights work to Downing Street” but that it will not be published until after the EU vote. This makes sense – it is difficult to see how Michael Gove could realistically argue the case for a British Bill of Rights which would supposedly claw powers back from Europe whilst also campaigning to leave the EU. Gove’s junior Minister, the outspoken Dominic Raab, is also campaigning to leave the EU.

So where are we now? The Daily Mail says “July at the earliest” for the plans. But will that just be another missed deadline? With everything now subsumed under the EU referendum, all bets are off.

A useful pause

With the benefit of a few months’ pause, now a good to consider our options. If the changes are to be “minimal” (and it is not clear that they will really be minimal – we just don’t know), why expend all the political energy in bringing them in at all? When Gove appeared to the EU Justice subcommittee he said that “human rights have a bad name in the public square” and “have become associated with unmeritorious individuals pursuing claims through the courts that don’t command public sympathy”.

In other words, the changes were necessary to to give the public the perception that something was being done. Indeed, it appears the perception is more important than the “something” itself. “Some of the purpose” of the Bill of Rights, said Mr. Gove, would be “to affirm” that the Convention rights are “fundamental British rights”. This seems a lot of effort simply for affirmation. And it isn’t clear that he is actually right about public attitudes – Amnesty’s recent polling suggests that most people don’t think human rights are very important at all.

Most importantly, if Michael Gove is really concerned about public attitudes to human rights, and only wants to tweak the Human Rights Act (again, we will see if thats true), he would be better focussing his energy on educating the public about the Human Rights Act, rather than attempting to square the circle created by the unrealistic promises made by the Conservative Manifesto, and resulting from the messy, unworkable Grayling human rights policy. Even minimal changes would be almost impossible to get past the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish legislatures, to name but one potentially insurmountable difficulty.

If Gove keeps his job after the EU Referendum, he should be seriously considering parking the British Bill of Rights plans indefinitely, and focussing his attention on improving public perceptions of human rights in other ways. We at RightsInfo would be very happy to help.

This opinion piece represents the views of the author, not RightsInfo 

About The Author

Adam Wagner Founder and Chair

Adam is the founder and Chair of EachOther. In his day job, he is a barrister specialising in human rights law and is well known for his human rights communications work on social and mainstream media. In 2010, he set up the hugely successful UK Human Rights Blog.

Adam is the founder and Chair of EachOther. In his day job, he is a barrister specialising in human rights law and is well known for his human rights communications work on social and mainstream media. In 2010, he set up the hugely successful UK Human Rights Blog.