Joint Committee on Human Rights Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 280-285)


4 MARCH 2008

  Q280  Chairman: It sounds a bit like a Royal Commission.

  Mr Clarke: Yes, you could have a Royal Commission.

  Q281  Chairman: Mr Porter's idea sounds like a Royal Commission.

  Mr Porter: It is.

  Q282  Earl of Onslow: Would it be possible to sum up what you three have said that, yes, there is a problem but you do not agree on how to solve it? Is that fair?

  Mr Clarke: Yes, a giant executive, surveillance society, we are not quite sure where we are going. I would agree with that. That almost puts Henry Porter and myself together and although Vernon has not covered that so much today I think it covers him as well. Then we disagree about methodology.

  Professor Bogdanor: Our problem is that because we do not have a constitution when we introduced the Human Rights Act many people were not aware of what precisely we were doing. We were not aware of the nature of human rights, the status of human rights and so on, and therefore part of the purpose of having a British Bill of Rights is an educative one, to provide an answer to Mr Sharma's earlier question problem that people may not understand what the basis of our human rights actually is. I think this is particularly important in the kind of society we have become. It is a very different society from that of the 1950s, it's a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-denominational society, where we face the fundamental problem of how we are all to live together. The law can only make a comparatively small contribution to answering that problem but it is nevertheless basic, it is a framework for everything else. It seems to me very important for our country that we understand those issues. But we do not, because we do not have any formal constitutional processes by which we—

  Q283  Chairman: But going back to your earlier answer, could the glue which holds all that lot together be the aspirational nature of social and economic rights, something we could all agree on as to where our society should go?

  Professor Bogdanor: That might certainly be the case. As I said earlier, there would be a minimum of social and economic rights be in the Bill of Rights, but there is also a large area of aspiration on which we certainly might all agree. I accept that would make a contribution to making us a more cohesive society. As I also said earlier, this is a very large and fundamental problem, perhaps one of the most serious we face as a country, and I think that the law can only make a comparatively small contribution to resolving it.

  Q284  Mr Sharma: You have suggested that a constitution should be ratified by a referendum. Would you also advocate a referendum for the adoption of a British Bill of Rights?

  Professor Bogdanor: That is an interesting question. I think it would be a good idea, probably, because if supported in a referendum the British people would certainly feel that they owned it. I believe however that most countries have not had a referendum to ratify Bills of Rights though they do have referendums to ratify constitutions, or at least many countries do. But I accept your suggestion that there is a very strong case for a referendum to ratify a British Bill of Rights if we were to have one.

  Mr Clarke: I personally am opposed to referendums because I think the only purpose of a referendum is to endorse something despite having a parliamentary majority in the other direction possibly. It is a replacement for Parliament and is usually advocated, and has been throughout history, by people who are very worried they do not have a parliamentary majority for their particular point of view. It drives me back to my belief that Parliament does have to be reformed because the growing demand for referendums is in part a reflection of people's growing lack of confidence in their Parliament and whether it does its business. Leaving aside the very controversial issues which we will be debating in two days' time on the floor about a referendum on the current topic, my fear has always been that once you have one or two referendums people will start saying, "These are part of the British constitution" and demanding them on every subject under the sun. I actually do not think that is a way which one can sensibly govern a modern democratic state in an increasingly complicated world.

  Mr Porter: I pretty much agree with that actually.

  Q285  Chairman: Thank you all very much for coming, we have gone way over time. Is there anything which you would like to say which you think we have not covered?

  Mr Clarke: We will read your report!

  Chairman: If we can reach agreement amongst ourselves! Thank you all very much.

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