What is extraordinary about the government’s new “Bill of Rights Bill” is how far short the legislation falls of its bold name. The original Bill of Rights was adopted at the end of the Glorious Revolution of 1688. It set limits on the power of the monarchy and laid down the principle of free speech in parliament which persists to this day.
By choosing that name for his bill to replace the Human Rights Act, the prime minister is saying that this is the defining legislation of his career. It will remain on the statute book for decades to come.
So, you will be thinking, the bill must reflect the great controversies of our time. Green issues and animal rights are, we are told, dear to the hearts of the prime minister and his family. Any legislator who took the rights of nature seriously could write them into law. There is no shortage of models: the Constitution of Ecuador obliges private businesses to restore nature after finite resources are withdrawn. The Indian Constitution gives rights to forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife. Have we copied them? Not at all.
Or you could imagine the Conservatives going back to Thatcherite fundamentals and copying the rights asserted under the Chilean constitution of 1980 to establish a business, to own property, and to pass wealth down the generations. No, the government ignored that model too.
Or, maybe (although this credits the government’s “levelling up” agenda with a coherence it rarely shows) they could have looked to the gold standard of rights treaties and taken ideas from the UN Declaration of Human Rights. There are ideas in that document which have not yet made their way into our law: to social security, to leisure, to join a union. But no, they skipped that one too.
So what additional rights does the bill protect that we do not have already? None. Yes, you’ve read that right, not one. There is not one single right contained in the government’s Bill of Rights which is not already a right in UK law. All the bill does is take our existing human rights law and say, in a series of clauses, that those should still exist as they do already, but with less protection than they have now.
This is so even for the best protected rights in the new bill, the ones especially picked out for heightened status. The Human Rights Act currently protects freedom of speech. So will the Bill of Rights, unless you are a refugee asking to settle because your freedom to speak was removed at home. Then, the principle of free speech no longer applies: the deprivation of speech cannot be used to found an asylum claim (clause 4). A fair trial is currently a human right. Now the right can be taken away if the government doubles—as it did in January—the sentencing power of magistrates, and therefore deprives defendants of the choice of a jury trial (clause 9). If the bill passes, each of these rights will have less protection than they do now.
As for everything else: public bodies will no longer have a positive duty to protect the rights of citizens (clause 5). If legislation contradicts basic rights, it will be harder for the courts to find that it is unlawful (clause 7). Military operations causing harm to foreign victims or indeed British soldiers will no longer be subject to human rights law—even where they lead to torture (clause 14). Rights claims will only be capable of being brought before a judge if they pass a new permission stage (clause 15). In all these cases, the government is taking rights away from people—from defendants, from families at an inquest, from the old, from the young, from people like you.
In the UK, our entitlement to basic rights was codified for the first time when we passed the Human Rights Act, making the European Convention on Human Rights enforceable in domestic law. We want to remain co-signatories alongside France and Germany, Armenia and Lithuania. Yet ministers pretend to voters that we are entitled to disregard the rules of the agreements we sign. The European Court of Human Rights can at present make any interim measure to forestall what seems otherwise likely to be a breach of rights (the grounding of the Rwanda flight came about as a result of this power). Not in Britain, the bill insists (clause 24).
What is really striking about this legislation is its vacuity. It is intended to replace the Human Rights Act 1998. It has been Conservative policy to repeal that legislation since 2006. They have had 16 years to show what rights the law could better protect than what we have now, and failed to come up with a single improvement. What the Bill of Rights says to British voters is that we will have a knock-off copy of the European Convention—a cheap plastic model of a Rolex watch. We will have not one right different to anyone else under the Convention, except that the citizens of those other countries will have a right to sue to insist upon those rights when their government breaches them and we in Britain shall have to overcome obstacles which no one else must endure.