The commission that has spent 21 months and £700,000 investigating the creation of a UK bill of rights has come out in favour of a bill that would ‘incorporate and build on all of the UK’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)’.
However, the commission failed to reach a consensus. While seven members believe that ‘on balance, there is a strong argument in favour of a UK bill of rights’, two members dissented, saying the commission has failed to identify or declare any shortcomings in the Human Rights Act or its application by our courts.
In a statement, the commission chair, the former permanent secretary Sir Leigh Lewis, put a brave face on the split.
‘We are united in believing that there needs to be respect for the existence of different intellectually coherent viewpoints in relation to the human rights debate, and in believing that the debate needs to be well informed and not distorted by the stereotypes and caricatures that have all too often characterised it in recent years,’ Lewis said.
‘We hope that all of those interested in these vitally important issues will read our report.’
The government reacted coolly. The justice secretary, Chris Grayling, thanked the commission for the 'diligent manner' in which it discharged its task. In a written ministerial statement he said: 'We will now give the report careful consideration.'
The report says it would be wrong to reach firm conclusions around additional rights in any bill, not least because it has failed to reach agreement that there is a case for a bill. Should a bill of rights be passed, consideration should be given to including ‘additional rights to those currently in the ECHR’.
Additional rights are likely to include the right to equality and non-discrimination, and a ‘set of rights relating to our civil and criminal justice system’, such as the right to trial by jury.
The commission’s report says that future debate must be sensitive to issues of devolution and, in the case of Scotland, possible independence. Members agreed that the ‘concept of responsibilities’ should be debated and that the government should continue to press for reform of the European Court of Human Rights.
The commission’s conclusions, the report says, are put forward as a contribution to a ‘continuing national debate’ and should not be regarded as a ‘final judgment on the issues (that it has) been asked to examine’.
The report, ‘A UK bill of rights? – the choice before us’, can be read at the Justice website.