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.