A UK Bill of Rights?
The UK does not have a written constitution. That is not the same as saying that the UK does not have a constitution at all. Instead, the UK’s constitution is derived from the laws covering human rights, freedoms and civil liberties which come from a number of different sources including case law and statute. However, some people believe that an unwritten constitution does not offer adequate protection.
In the last 10 years a number of changes have been made to the laws of the UK in response to the perceived increase in the threat to national security. This has led to growing concerns about the apparent infringement of the many rights and freedoms considered to be fundamental to the UK’s constitution. Compliance with the laws set out in the Human Rights Act – based on the European Convention on Human Rights – is largely unavoidable. However, not all British fundamental rights are included in the Act. For example, the right to a trial by jury is not included in the Human Rights Act and consequently new legislation has overturned that right in some circumstances.
Some have argued that a written constitution, or bill of rights, would make it much harder for new laws to take away our fundamental human rights.
Different Views about a British Bill of RightsThose who support the idea of a British Bill of Rights represent the full range of political views and their reasons for supporting a written constitution may differ. Some may see it as escaping the bonds of a legal framework imposed by the European Union. Others see it as a way of creating a stronger but more relevant legal framework.
All three of the UK’s main political parties have their own ideas about introducing a single piece of legislation to encode the rights of UK citizens. The Labour Party has drawn up a Green Paper and invited comments on a proposed Bill of Rights. The Liberal Democrats have drawn up a Freedom Bill to correct or repeal earlier laws which it believes have taken away fundamental rights. The Conservative Party has suggested replacing the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights.
A New Bill of Rights....and ResponsibilitiesA potential new bill of rights is currently being considered by the government. This consultation process recognises that the UK has been going through a time of economic and social upheaval, and that it is at times of upheaval when people most need reassurance that their rights and freedoms will be protected. Crucially, the proposed legislation would not only set out the basic rights of all people in the UK, it would also set out the reciprocal responsibilities expected of the people.
The government recognises that human rights, for example as set out in the Human Rights Act, cannot be made conditional upon people observing certain legal responsibilities. However, they state that a greater emphasis on an individual’s responsibilities – and a clear statement of what those responsibilities are – is fundamental in a fair and civilised society. The proposal is not necessarily to create a binding piece of legislation. It could simply amount to a declaration of those rights and responsibilities which are considered to be inherent to the UK.
Does the UK Need a Bill of RightsMany of the laws which set out our human rights may be amended or repealed. As the law stands, it can be very difficult to get a clear view of what our fundamental rights are. Perhaps, almost as importantly, without a written constitution it may be difficult for citizens and residents to see why these are the UK’s fundamental rights – rather than simply laws imposed on the UK by the European Union. Some proponents of a British Bill of Rights argue that it could help people take pride in the many rights and civil liberties which were recognised in the UK, long before they were set down in European law.
Countries throughout the world have found a written constitution or bill of rights to be invaluable in strengthening and galvanizing a sense of national identity. A country’s bill of rights can go beyond the idea of the universal human rights common to all people, to consider those rights and values which define a country and unite its citizens. For example, social and economic rights such as healthcare and welfare could be included in the UK’s Bill of Rights.
At a time when many communities feel divided and disenfranchised a Bill of Rights could be a unifying force for the UK. A written constitution could remind all British citizens what they have in common – and what they have to be proud of.