Joint Committee on Human Rights Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 34-39)



  Q34 Chairman: We are now coming into our second panel, sorry for the disruption during the division, for which we are joined by Roger Smith, who is the director of JUSTICE, Jago Russell, the policy officer from Liberty, and Katie Ghose, who is the Director of the British Institute of Human Rights. Welcome to you all, I am sorry it has been a bit of a curtailed session. Perhaps I could start off by asking Katie whether you think a British Bill of Rights is needed.

  Ms Ghose: It would depend on what kind of Bill of Rights it was. I would like nothing more than to see an all-singing, all-dancing, comprehensive protection of the rights of all people in the UK, a package that would see not just the civil and political rights, which we have protected to some extent in our Human Rights Act, but the things that people actually say they really want, the economic and social rights, the right to housing, to education, to have an adequate standard of living. If we were talking about that sort of Bill of Rights, and it is exciting to see something like that happening in Northern Ireland, where people themselves are being asked the kind of rights they would like, then I would say yes, that would be wonderful, it would be an addition to the foundation we already have in the Human Rights Act. But if you are asking me whether I am in favour of what looks to be on the table, I have to say there has been no indication from the Government that the intention of the Bill of Rights process is to add rights to what we already have in the Human Rights Act.

  Q35 Earl of Onslow: Sorry, can I interrupt you there? In the Human Rights Act, there is no right to a trial by jury. I happen to think it is extremely important that that should be entrenched, or rather put in, so that is a major addition.

  Ms Ghose: That is certainly an example of a civil or political right, yes. I think there are many other examples of rights, what we would call economic or social rights, to use the jargon, but are things, as I have said, that when people are actually given the opportunity to say the kind of rights they care about in their day-to-day lives, as well as the civil and political rights, they do talk about things like housing, education and health. As I was saying, the current process, the process that is coming up, there has not yet been anything put on the table, if you like, other than perhaps the right to trial by jury, that would give an indication that the process was really being driven by a desire to add to the rights that we already have.

  Q36  Chairman: Jago?

  Mr Russell: I think it is probably worth starting by saying that actually, I do not think any of the organisations at this table, and definitely not Liberty, asked for this debate. This is not a debate that we have been calling for. Actually, I have to say, it is a debate which Liberty approaches with a degree of trepidation, rather than something we welcome with open arms in the current political climate. Really, you only have to ask yourselves, why have politicians started talking about a British Bill of Rights? They have not done it because of a progressive desire to incorporate a greater range of rights, or to give greater human rights protection; they have actually made statements about ripping the Human Rights Act up, David Cameron's recent comments, because of things like cases which have established that Article 3 will not allow a person to be deported to torture, and other controversial decisions; those are the kinds of things that have given rise to this debate. In that context, of course we will engage in a debate on the British Bill of Rights, but I am pretty sceptical at the moment about where that debate will take us. I think some of the things you heard from the previous panel actually reiterated the fact that there are lots of people that are engaged in this debate, in all of the political parties, who actually would like it to take us backwards in terms of human rights protection and not forwards, and that is clearly something that Liberty would be very concerned about.

  Mr Smith: Personally, I too am agnostic as to the result. Paradoxically, I think if one could get agreement on a British Bill of Rights, political consensus over the spectrum, I would go for one. Short of that, I think it is difficult. What JUSTICE has been concerned about at this stage in the debate has been to work through the issues and try to put in the debate all the things you have to consider if you want a Bill of Rights. You just have to start opening the Pandora's lid of content to realise what comes out, and if we are going to have a serious discussion about a Bill of Rights, then there are a lot of serious issues, and they are wider than socio-economic cultural rights. I think, yes, jury trial is in there, a whole series of issues come out, and this is not a quick and easy debate. If we are going to have a Bill of Rights of any kind, it is only going to be the result of a long process, and I think, frankly, anything that deserves the title Bill of Rights probably requires a degree of political consensus which in the current circumstances is rather hard to see obtaining.

  Q37  Baroness Stern: You may think you have answered this already, but I do not think you have. Do you think a Bill of Rights should be aspirational, setting out the sort of society that we want to be, or should it have a more modest aim?

  Mr Smith: I went to South Africa relatively recently, and I was really enthused by the way that South Africans of every colour were energised by the aspirational rights in their constitution. So I have seen it, and it is a wonderful thing. Do I think that is in any way transplantable to the United Kingdom that I recognise; is there any hope of any consensus of a right to end child poverty, or even a right to medical care? I do not think so. So as a sceptic, I would like to see it, I would love to see it, I would love to see agreement, I do not think we have a hope of that at this moment.

  Earl of Onslow: Can I come in on that?

  Q38  Baroness Stern: No, you cannot.

  Mr Russell: I think it needs to be a combination of both, I think it should be aspirational and contain real hard-edged legal rights, and I think in terms of the Human Rights Act, which I would actually say is a Bill of Rights in all but name, we have achieved one of those things: we have a very sound collection of enforceable human rights in there, but that actually the aspirational side of the Human Rights Act has been missed out. There was a huge amount of judicial education before the Act came into force, but there were not the same levels or types of education in terms of explaining to the public sector, the kinds of work that BIHR have been doing, about how human rights principles can actually help us to aspire to a better public service and to a better society. So I think the Human Rights Act itself could deliver both the hard-edged legal rights and the aspirational side.

  Ms Ghose: I would endorse that. BIHR works with a very wide range of voluntary community and public sector organisations, and we find that the way we talk to people about the Human Rights Act reflects the aspirations it contains. The right to a private and a family life, that means so much to people working with people with learning disabilities, whose children are routinely taken away and put up for adoption, because the local authority frankly does not want to put the resources into supporting them at home. What an aspiration for that family to have a family life, to be living under the same roof together. So I think human rights in and of themselves are aspirational, and I think there should always be a combination, and there usually is a combination, in law and in wider practice, of wonderful aspirations, but also of concrete legal standards that people can use in and outside the courtroom.

  Q39  Baroness Stern: Thank you. I think we know what Katie thinks, but do you think the Government is right to have effectively ruled out the possibility of a British Bill of Rights including social and economic rights such as health and education? Roger?

  Mr Smith: No, if one takes the view that one could get consensus on those issues. If one takes the view one would not get consensus on those issues, then I think it is a realistic decision to have taken. I would love to see socio-economic rights which everybody agreed, in a formulation which everybody agreed. I do not think that is realistic in our politics as they are at the moment, and I regret that. What I hope is that as part of the debate which is gone through, we inch our way towards more of an acceptance of that, but do I think there is a consensus, enough for a Bill of Rights at this point? I do not think so.

  Mr Russell: I would reiterate the comments that Roger has made. I think in the current climate, it is very unlikely that there will be consensus around that. I personally do think that when you are talking about some socio-economic and cultural rights, although not all, that there could be difficulties with judicial enforcement of some of those rights, and I think that would need to be looked at. So it would not necessarily be that exactly the same model of enforcement of rights should apply to all kinds of rights in the political spectrum or in a British Bill of Rights, but that is not to say that they are not incredibly important in the human rights framework, and that there could not be real advantage in making some of those rights enforceable in the courts, and some of those rights enforceable through other structures, perhaps the democratic structures and through Parliament. Indeed, in the context of many economic, social and cultural rights, there is actually at the moment very little political disagreement about the fact that there should be some form of a welfare state, although exactly what form that takes—so to some extent, actually economic, social and cultural rights are already being delivered quite effectively, although it clearly could be improved in some areas, through the political process and through Parliament.

  Ms Ghose: Can I add to what I said, just very briefly, three words: ask the people. People have not been given an opportunity in the country to learn about existing rights, and to have their say about whether they might even want to see economic, social and cultural rights become part and parcel of our law, over and above how they already are. It is tiring to hear Ministers and other politicians set their face against further rights for people, on the basis that somehow it is not democratic, or judges are stealing power from Parliament. Other countries manage to do it. I think it is going to be a long run thing, and I think politicians should have the decency to actually ask people what they think about this. I think what you will find is there is an appetite and an interest in things like poverty and housing and health, and how can we do better for all our people, and that could be well translated into further human rights.

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