A Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland: an interim statement - Northern Ireland Affairs Committee Contents

Written evidence from Paul Watterson

  1.  Three fundaments of our democracy are the sovereignty of Westminster, the separation of the judiciary and the legislature and the inability of a current parliament to bind those which follow it. I believe the Bill under discussion, if ever adopted, would greatly weaken all three and I have chosen five specific areas within the report to illustrate this belief (relevant page numbers are listed).

2.  Discrimination: pg 33

    "2.  No one shall be unfairly discriminated against by any public authority on any ground such as:

    race, membership of the Irish Traveller community, colour, ethnicity, descent, sex, pregnancy, maternity, civil, family or carer status, language, religion or belief, political or other opinion, birth, national or social origin, nationality, economic status, association with a national minority, sexual orientation, gender, identity, age, disability, health status, genetic or other predisposition toward illness, irrelevant criminal record, property or a combination of any of these grounds, on the basis of characteristics associated with any of these grounds, or any other status." 

  This clause, and in particular the last "or any other status" (apart from being completely impractical), would force individual judges to be the final arbiters of what is and what is not "discrimination" within the widest of parameters delivered by the wording. For example, if I am below the approved height and strength for the Fire Service, under that last clause I would still have the right under the bill to take my case to court. It would be up to the judge, not the legislature of either the UK or the EU, to first of all define what discrimination, if any, had taken place.

  3.  Standard of living: pg 47

    "A provision should be drafted to ensure that—

1.Everyone has the right to an adequate standard of living sufficient for that person and their dependents."

  Everyone is guaranteed an "adequate" standard of living. What is an "adequate" standard of living? Neither this bill nor our legislature is capable of defining that for each separate case independently. The judiciary will not be interpreting the law in this, are but will be actually making it when compelled to give decisions on individual cases.

  4.  Right to work: pg 122

    "A provision should be drafted to ensure that—

1.Everyone has the right to work, which includes the right to the opportunity to gain their living by work which they freely choose or accept."

  What does this mean for present and any future proposed welfare reform? In reality, what this proposal is doing is guaranteeing any citizen the right to turn down work which they may not find suitable and still simultaneously continue to rely on the state for the "adequate" standard of living already mentioned above. If this Bill becomes law, therefore, future parliaments will be bound by legislation passed by a prior one.

  5.  Social Security: pg 128

    "A provision should be drafted to ensure that—

1.Everyone has the right to social security, including social assistance, social insurance and pension."

  Connected with the two previous points, this measure will, of necessity, entail the judiciary deciding on the balance that needs to be struck in this area. Furthermore, future parliaments will be unable to adapt to changing social or economic circumstances, thus greatly weakening the principle of accountable and democratic governance.

  6.  Proportional Representation: pg 35

    "A provision should be drafted to ensure that—

4.A Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland recognises the safeguards contained in the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement 1998 for inclusive, proportionate and equitable participation in regional government and recommends, by means to be determined in legislation, equivalent safeguards for local government."

  Owen Paterson MP and Shadow Spokesman for Northern Ireland has argued that this clause contravenes the requirement in the Belfast Agreement to review the current voting system regularly. Again, this is the case of the present legislature bounding in perpetuity those that may follow it.

  7.  I have limited myself here to five examples as evidence for the assertion I made at the beginning of this submission. Members of the committee will, having read the report, undoubtedly have encountered others- in my opinion, this report, if it were ever to become law, would have serious implications for our democratic system of governance.

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Prepared 24 March 2010