The outcome of the government's 18-month commission on a British Bill of Rights has exposed deep divisions within and beyond the coalition.
Civil rights group Liberty described the outcome as a "shambles". Labour Peer and leading civil liberties lawyer Baroness Helena Kennedy QC and Lib Dem International Law Professor Philippe Sands QC produced a minority dissent to the report, robustly defending the Human Rights Act and European Convention on Human Rights.
The remaining commissioners are divided on the fundamental issue of whether the UK should pull out of the Convention and nothing in the Report sheds any light on the proposed contents of a mythical British Bill of Rights or how this could be imposed upon the devolved countries of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland without jeopardising the current constitutional settlement, says Liberty.
The Kennedy-Sands dissent declares: "In short, the fault lines amongst us are real and deep. They relate to the failure to grapple with the content of such a Bill and its purpose, the underlying desire by some to decouple the UK from the European Convention and the jurisprudence of its Court, and the inability to recognise that the days when Westminster can impose its will on these matters across the whole of the United Kingdom are long gone. We see no benefit in creating a superficial consensus."
“It is impossible to speak of principle when the true purport is not being addressed explicitly and would include, for some at least, a reduction of rights……… We note in this regard that our colleagues in majority have, in our view, failed to identify or declare any shortcomings in the Human Rights Act, or in its application by our courts,” they said.
Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty, commented: "This 18 month-long shambles wasn't an attempt at papering over cracks of consensus on rights and freedoms but at bridging the Grand Canyon. The majority includes people who would replace human rights with citizens’ privileges that can be stripped away by Government – they ignored their consultation responses and own terms of reference which were supposed to be about building on Convention rights, not destroying them. Whatever your view of human rights you have to respect the courage and clarity of Kennedy and Sands for exposing the nonsense."
However, Unlock Democracy took a different view. Deputy Director Alexandra Runswick said: “We welcome the Commission’s overall support for the cautious development of a UK Bill of Rights, which should build and expand on those rights established in the European Convention on Human Rights. Such a Bill of Rights should be developed as part of a codified UK constitution and be developed as part of an inclusive, responsive, and meaningful process involving the public. As the Commission has identified, one of the weaknesses of the Human Rights Act is that it suffers from a lack of public ownership. We need to give people a sense that these are their rights if we are to challenge the misleading portrayal of it being a ‘criminals’ charter’.
“The Commission has clearly highlighted the challenges with attempting to develop a UK Bill of Rights without sensitivity towards the various legal and political traditions in the UK. Without first establishing a constitutional framework, especially in light of the current debate about Scotland’s future, further progress on such an enterprise will be doomed to failure.
“We disagree with the minority report that public engagement in such a debate would inevitably focus on weakening protection of minority groups. This was not the experience in Northern Ireland where public involvement lead to the establishment of a far more robust Bill of Rights than one which politicians and judges alone would ever have devised,” said Ms Strudwick.
Other civil rights and legal commentators have expressed "surprise and disappointment" at Unlock Democracy's position, which they regard as naive.
A leader in the Guardian newspaper this morning said: "The commission has splintered along many different lines. But the big picture, underscored by the minority report by Helena Kennedy and Philippe Sands, is this. The British bill of rights craved by the anti-European Tory right is an English nationalistic fantasy. It cannot exist in the constitutional framework of the existing UK without destroying other established principles. It would cut the UK adrift from internationally justiciable human rights on the one hand, as three commission members openly advocate; and it would force a confrontation with the devolution settlement in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on the other."
"Mr Cameron would be irresponsible to push ahead into such a political and constitutional minefield. His British bill of rights has no future, at least on this side of the 2015 general election. But the English moods of hostility towards Europe and indifference towards the rest of the UK remain very much alive. The commission process has underscored what the defeat of the AV referendum and House of Lords reform also showed – that piecemeal constitutional change in the United Kingdom in the 21st century raises as many questions as it answers. The failure of the bill of rights commission makes the case for a larger, all-encompassing constitutional convention – which will have to look at the place of constitutional monarchy as well as everything else – much stronger."
* Liberty: http://www.liberty-human-rights.org.uk/
* Unlock Democracy: http://unlockdemocracy.org.uk/