Views sought on UK Bill of Rights

Prisoner in cell
Image caption The commission was set up following a row over the rights of prisoners to vote

An independent commission has started to seek views from the public on the need for a UK Bill of Rights.

The Commission on a UK Bill of Rights was set up by the government in March to explore a range of issues around human rights law.

It came amid a row over a 2005 European Court of Human Rights' ruling that the UK was unlawfully operating a blanket ban preventing prisoners from voting.

MPs voted overwhelmingly to defy the ruling and maintain the ban.

The free vote took place in parliament in February.

Prime Minister David Cameron famously said that the prospect of lifting the ban made him feel "physically ill".

The controversy was one of many in which the application of human rights law infuriated parts of the press and the country.

Four questions

There was a sense that the European Convention on Human Rights, written into UK law in the form of the Human Rights Act, was affording human rights advantages to the undeserving, prisoners, hijackers and the like.

Opponents pointed out that human rights were by definition indivisible and universal.

That meant that they would apply to unpopular groups and individuals as well as the popular and upstanding. It was a price worth paying for a charter of human rights that protected everyone.

However, the idea grew that a fairer state of affairs could be achieved if there was a British Bill of Rights.

The UK is unlike most other democratic states in Europe in not having its own fundamental charter of rights enjoying special constitutional protection.

However, the Commission's terms of reference make it clear that a British Bill of Rights will build on the UK's obligations under the European Convention and ensure that the convention's rights continue to be enshrined in British law.

In other words, it will not replace the European Convention, although it could perhaps, in time, replace the Human Rights Act.

The Commission has published a discussion paper which sets out four questions:

  • Do you think we need a UK Bill of Rights?

If so,

  • What do you think a UK Bill of Rights should contain?
  • How do you think it should apply to the UK as a whole, including its four component countries of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales?
  • Having regard to our terms of reference, are there any other views which you would like to put forward at this stage?

These questions give the public the opportunity to give their views on what a fundamental charter of rights should contain.

Many people would like the right to jury trial to be enshrined in a British charter.

Others believe that a charter should contain "responsibilities" as well as rights. The responsibility to pay tax, perhaps?

Backlog of cases

Image caption The commission is accepting responses to its paper until November

The UK's international obligations mean that a British Bill of Rights is unlikely to put an end to the periodic outrage which blows up when an unpopular individual or group find their human rights being protected by the courts.

However, the creation of a modern charter of protected fundamental rights would be of considerable constitutional significance.

The Commission has also been asked to advise the government on the need to reform the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

The UK, along with all other member states, is obliged to abide by final judgements of the ECHR where the court decides that there has been a breach of the Convention.

However, there has been a good deal of criticism of the quality of the court's judges and its backlog of cases.

The UK will be pressing for significant reform of the EHCR and in particular wants to reinforce the principle that states rather than the ECHR have the primary responsibility for protecting convention rights.

The deadline for responses to the commission's discussion paper is 11 November 2011.

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