Joint Committee on Human Rights Written Evidence

26.  Memorandum from the Royal National Institute of Blind People


  The Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) welcomed the Prime Minister's July 2007 commitment to strengthen our democracy. In particular we were pleased that in his statement on constitutional reform the Prime Minister agreed to involve the public in a "sustained debate" about whether there is a case for the United Kingdom to develop a full British Bill of Rights and Duties.

1.   RNIB supports a British Bill of Rights

  The RNIB believes there is a strong case for establishing a British Bill of Rights or a Statement of British Values. As a member of the Equality and Diversity Forum, the RNIB shares a deep commitment to ensuring that all members of our society are able to participate properly, including via political processes. An unwritten constitution that lacks a codified set of rights and responsibilities can serve disabled individuals poorly.

  The achievements of recent years, with greater disability equality and discrimination in many areas of public life outlawed, represents the outcome of many years of hard work. The progress achieved over the last few decades has been the result of many different interventions, with the executive, the legislature and the judiciary all acting as levers for positive change.

  Under the current arrangements, disabled individuals looking to protect or further advance their rights must either hope that elected politicians will the necessary changes in legislation or in some cases they will need to directly challenge the law themselves. For all its benefits, the current constitutional framework doesn't entrench people's rights in a single or binding document. Disabled individuals can of course call on and refer to numerous pieces of statute and common law, including European Union law, to help them determine and exercise their rights. What they cannot do, and of course this is true for the entire population, is refer to an accessible Bill that enshrines these fundamental rights.

  Although there is merit in arguing that an unwritten constitution serves minority or disadvantaged groups well, the RNIB believes the Government needs to take this opportunity to reinvigorate our democracy by affirming its commitment to introducing a Bill of Rights. It needs to lead the process for establishing a consensus about what it should contain and it should confidently set out what it believes to be the purpose of a Bill of Rights.

2.   The purpose of a British Bill of Rights

  The RNIB understands that producing a Bill of Rights (or a Statement of British Values) isn't a panacea. We also understand the unique nature of Britain's constitution, and how one of its strengths is the ability to evolve over time. It has been able to endure because it has proved so flexible. However, it is in that flexible, amorphous set of arrangements that we detect some areas for improvement. A Bill of Rights or a Statement of British Values would serve as a coherent proclamation of the rights the state confers to its citizens.

    —  Although the adoption and incorporation of European law into our own statutory law means certain "negative" rights have now been codified, the rights covered by statute are fairly limited in scope. A Bill of Rights could positively add to these by entrenching core social and economic rights, such as the right for disabled people to access education and health.

    —  Being derived from a range of sources means the British Constitution is complex and difficult to understand. A Bill of Rights would positively set out the rights and duties the state confers to its population and it would attain the permanence that statute and common law all too easily lose.

    —  A Bill of Rights or Statement of British Values would ingrain fundamental principles that otherwise might remain implied or implicit. The RNIB believes the purpose of the Bill of Rights should be to support the rights and freedoms currently contained in international treaties, such as the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. In fact the UK Government has not yet ratified this Convention and we are calling for them to do so as a matter of priority. Ratification and subsequent incorporation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities into UK law is a necessary first step. Only then can a Bill of Rights support the rights contained in that Convention. RNIB is arguing that ratification of the Convention needs to take place without reservations, as these would surely undermine this vital human rights treaty.

    —  Establishing a Bill of Rights would help reaffirm the universality and indivisibility of all human rights and freedoms, but it should also confirm the interdependence of these rights and freedoms for disabled individuals. The RNIB would like to see a Bill of Rights that clearly spells out that disabled people are to be guaranteed the enjoyment of all human rights and freedoms without discrimination.

3.   The Debate Ahead

  As a member of the Equality and Diversity Forum the RNIB strongly believes that reforms designed to promote meaningful participation must be shaped by those who are supposed to benefit. For this reason, along with other disabled people's led organisations we have begun to discuss the processes surrounding proposals for a British Statement of Values and a British Bill of Rights, both of which will touch directly on matters of relevance to our members including equality, diversity and human rights.

  RNIB believes that any attempt to produce a Bill of Rights should complement the Human Rights Act 1998. It should not be used as an exercise to re-interpret or supersede that landmark piece of legislation. The incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into British law has been of great benefit to disabled individuals. RNIB is concerned by a number of recent attempts to question its efficacy. We would therefore urge the Committee to speak out against proposals for a Bill of Rights to replace the Human Rights Act.

  In conclusion, one particular principle which we hope will be used by the Government to inform its consultation processes is that the process for discussing a Bill of Rights should be clearly premised on the fact that the rights protected by the Human Rights Act 1998 represent a non-negotiable baseline.

January 2008

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