Failure to reach agreement on British Bill of Rights

British Bill of Rights commission fails to reach agreement

One commission member resigned after alleging it paid insufficient attention to the role of Parliament

18 December 2012 Last updated at 15:57

A commission set up to resolve political rows over the future of human rights in the UK has failed to reach unanimous conclusions.

A majority of the Commission on a Bill of Rights, set up as part of the coalition agreement, says the UK should have new legislation on rights.

They warn of a “lack of ownership” of the current Human Rights Act and the European system related to it.

Two of the nine members said nothing was wrong with the current regime.

They accuse other members of the commission of proposing a bill of rights as an attempt to start “decoupling” the UK from Europe.

The 1950 European Convention on Human Rights is a treaty to protect human rights and freedoms in Europe, overseen by European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

The UK’s 1998 Human Rights Act brought into UK law the convention, so anyone taking a case out could have them heard in UK courts without a lengthy wait to get a Strasbourg hearing.

The commission was chaired by retired civil servant Sir Leigh Lewis and included four legal experts appointed by David Cameron, whose Conservatives back replacing the Human Rights Act with a bill of rights, and four by Nick Clegg, whose Lib Dems insist the act must stay.

Its terms of reference made clear that any new bill would have to “incorporate and build on all our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights”.

Sir Leigh said the the majority believed a British Bill of Rights would come to be seen as “owned by this country, by the people of this country, by the Parliament of this country”.

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling told the Commons he would give careful consideration to the findings on the “creation of a British Bill of Rights that incorporates and builds on all our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, ensures these rights continue to be enshrined in British law, and protects and extends British liberties”.

One of the two dissenters, Professor Philippe Sands, told BBC Radio 4’s the World at One that one of their concerns had been that the majority “couldn’t agree on what should be in a Bill of Rights and they couldn’t even agree on whether or not it should be based on the European Convention”.

Prof Sands added: “We were told in no uncertain terms Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland do not want to have a United Kingdom Bill of Rights. There were no ifs and buts, it was across the political spectrum.”

But Anthony Speaight, a Conservative Party member of the commission, said: “Seven of the nine members of the commission are in principle in favour of a UK Bill of Rights written in language which reflects the distinctive history and heritage of the countries within the UK, and is different from the Human Rights Act.

“They consider that, whilst the mechanisms of any such Bill of Rights should be broadly similar to those in the Human Rights Act, there may be scope for some specific changes.

“Some of us believe it could usefully define more clearly the scope of some rights and adjust the balance between different rights.”

For Labour, shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan described the commission, which cost £700,000, as a waste of money and said it was a “classic political fudge, designed to paper over the cracks within the Tory-led government”.

He said: “The Human Rights Act is our Bill of Rights, and already provides legal protection against torture and slavery, and enshrines in law the right to liberty, to open and fair justice and to protest. It upholds freedom of speech, the right to a private life and to religious freedoms.

“The Human Rights Act was always intended to be a living bill of rights and it’s important that it continues to reflect changing society.”

One of its members, Dr Michael Pinto-Duschinsky, quit in March after deciding it was a waste of time.

He described the commission’s conclusions as a “very vague report, because people couldn’t agree on anything specific”.

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