Page last updated at 13:37 GMT, Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Rights bill is branded 'hot air'

Jack Straw
Mr Straw said there would be no repeal of the Human Rights Act

The government's proposed Bill of Rights has been criticised by civil liberties campaigners as "hot air".

Justice Secretary Jack Straw believes a written statement of "common values" will boost social cohesion in Britain.

But it is not clear if the measures set out in a green paper will be enforceable in the courts.

Unlock Democracy, which campaigns for a written constitution, warned it could become a "list of nice things" which the government would "simply ignore".

The proposed Bill of Rights and Responsibilities does not include the right to a jury trial or limits on detention without charge.


In its green paper, the government argues "the belief in their fundamental nature is already so deeply entrenched, culturally and politically, and there is no fundamental threat to them".

It says it does not want to override safeguards contained in the Human Rights Act - such as free speech and fair trials - or open up "new areas of litigation".

But it says the "selfish and sometimes aggressive assertion of rights" can damage social cohesion and stability, leading to the creation of a "'me' society rather than a 'we' society".

We believe it is important that people know their rights and their responsibilities - that common knowledge helps bind us together as a nation

Jack Straw, Justice Secretary

The government argues there is a need for British citizens' existing rights to be collected in one place along with the social responsibilities expected of them in return.

"Although not necessarily suitable for expression as a series of new legally enforceable duties, it may be desirable to express succinctly, in one place, the key responsibilities we all owe as members of UK society, ensuring a clearer understanding of them in a new, accessible constitutional document and reinforcing the imperative to observe them," the green paper says.

"Key responsibilities" included in a Bill of Rights might include not claiming benefits when able to work, obeying the law, reporting crimes, co-operating with the police, paying taxes, voting and doing jury service.

They could also include parents' duty to look after children, treating public sector workers with respect and living "within our environmental limits".

'Binds us'

Launching a "wide-ranging consultation" on the proposals, Mr Straw said: "We believe it is important that people know their rights and their responsibilities. That common knowledge helps bind us together as a nation."

But campaigners say that without including safeguards to fundamental liberties - and by explicitly linking rights to responsibilities - the new bill will be seen as government "nannying".

Peter Facey, director of Unlock Democracy, said: "Our rights and freedoms should not be treated either as rewards handed out by the government for good behaviour, or as privileges that can be withheld like a child's pocket money."

Isn't it the case that these new rights would mean more money for lawyers, less for patients - the last thing the taxpayer will welcome in a recession?
Dominic Grieve, Conservatives

Instead a Bill of Rights should be a "genuine guarantor" of rights such as jury trial and not being held without charge to "protect" citizens from the state, he argued.

And it should be "entrenched" in law so that it could not be reversed by future governments who do not like its provisions.

"There is no point in having a Bill of Rights that is a paper shield, which says nice things but which the government can simply ignore," said Mr Facey.

But he welcomed the green paper as the "first stage" of a necessary debate.

Ceri Goddard, acting director of the British Institute of Human Rights, also welcomed the green paper, but added: "Instead of setting forth ambitious and imaginative proposals to safeguard a comprehensive set of rights for everyone in these challenging times, what the government is proposing is at best half measures and at worst hot air."

Shadow justice secretary Dominic Grieve, for the Conservatives, dismissed the proposals as "pap".


They had been repeatedly delayed and, as they would not be enacted before the next general election, were "for the birds", he added.

Mr Grieve said: "Isn't it the case that these new rights would mean more money for lawyers, less for patients - the last thing the taxpayer will welcome in a recession?"

The Conservatives have said they would repeal the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights to prevent what they say is the erosion of traditional liberties such as jury trial and strict limits on detention.

Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Chris Huhne attacked the government's proposals as "muddled" and also criticised a recent speech by his Conservative opposite number Chris Grayling, who said he wanted to deal with the "wrongs" of society and not just the rights of criminals.

Writing for the Guardian's Comment is Free site, Mr Huhne said: "Human rights (such as the right to a fair trial) are not and cannot be conditional, because by definition they are the minimum we should enjoy as human beings.

"So the idea that they might be made contingent on responsibilities mixes up the concept of human rights with citizens' rights".

The Lib Dems want a Bill of Rights that would "strengthen and entrench" rights guaranteed by the Human Rights Act.

Does Britain need a Bill of Rights? If so, what should be in it? Here is a selection of your comments.

Britain absolutely needs a Bill of Rights, but it must not at any cost be created by Labour as their constant breaking of human rights through their support of torture (Miliband's supression of Guantanamo treatment documents), their illegal databases (DNA database + the other 12 or so), their creation of thought crimes (making abitrarily defined images illegal), their legislation of what consenting adults can do (anti-BDSM laws), their detention without trial (28day+ terror suspect detention limits), their creation of the biggest surveillance society in the world and their pressuring of police to arrest political opponents (Damian Green) are evidence enough that any Bill of Rights created by Labour would be designed to have the opposite effect to that which any Bill of Rights should actually have.

The fact they are already suggesting "Key responsibilities" in a Bill of Rights is already proof that any Bill of Rights created by Labour is designed to oppress, and not ensure freedom of people.

Labour, please, just stop treating us like idiots and call it what it is - "Bill of Demands of the Labour Government to be carried out by citizens" rather than "Bill of Rights".
Ian, Leeds

Before we start work on a bill of rights we should have the promised referendum on the EU constitution. Which has far more ranging effects and would actually curtail the proposals made.

Its just work for lawyers and surprise suprise most top politicians are just that......
John, workington

A Bill of Rights in the UK is long overdue. The responsibilities of the individual (treating others respectfully etc) is an important component not for nannying people but ideally for the education of our children. To teach them that when they come of age they will have key responsibilities that will guide them well through life. The Bill is a foundation point potentially for a future written constitution which must, in its formation involve the people somehow. I wrote a letter to Jack Straw about the inherit danger of devising a Bill of Rights and not involving the people. It is unwise for MP's to believe that they can form powerful Constitional organs without appearing to exceed thier powers. The Constitution is the highest and most subtle law in the land and for any individual body of Government to reform it at the most fundamental level is ultra vires. The creation of such a Bill ideally needs widespread public support whereas a written Constition need thier invol!

vement, consent and blessing. Disinfranchise the people and any Constitutional Act or form merely becomes another very replaceable Act of Parliament and we dilute the value and necessary safeguards provided by the Constitution in the process. Beware political parties, this is one area of law that must not be kicked to either end of a sports pitch on a whim.
James, , London

I agree with Ian from Leeds - Britain does need such a document, but it needs even more to ensure that it is not written by this Labour government.
James McEnaney, Glasgow, Scotland

The US Constitution was a limitation on the rights of government exercise of power. That's all we need. A limitation on what the government can do.

Imagine what would happen if Muslim voters voted in an Islamic fundamentalist government in the UK (Labour got a majority with only 22% of votes)! But if there is a non-repealable limitation on the rights of the government, such a government would be unable to enact any suppressive legislation and the desire to become a government to overrule the majority would disappear.

And therefore such a threat is removed.

NOTE: Imagine the same for the NF getting voted in. Or Mabion Glyndwr. All it would need is for welsh voters to spread through the right counties and the Sons of Glendower could be ruling England.

Heck, insert any "fringe" that would be persecuting you (cf the Protestant/Catholic problems in England's past, where the "other side" had their people killed and imprisoned for believing in the wrong book...).

Limit the power of government.

Limit the power of individuals.

Limit the power of companies and lobby groups.

Then there will be no need for a Bill Of Rights: nobody could deny your rights because they don't have the power to do so.
Mark, Exeter, UK

Let Labour write up a Bill of Rights! That's the funniest thing I've read all week.

Er. No thanks Jack.
Sarah, Cheltenham

We dont need a new Bill of Rights, everyone knows what their rights are at the moment, thats half the trouble with society today. Kids abuse adults, teachers etc then jump around shouting i know my rights, you cant touch me etc.

Look at the trouble a Bill of Rights causes in America. Who is to say that the rights we have today will be the same as in the future. Look at the 2nd Amendment in the US. The idea everyone should have a gun back in the late 18th Century was a good idea, the US boarders werent secure, they were under threat from us in Canada, Native Indians to the west, however now the idea of giving everyone a gun is mad, however because its in their Bill of Rights it is argued they should be allowed.

Plus what about grammer and the wording of the Bill of Rights. 2nd Amendment is another great example. The whole argument revolves around the use of grammer and commas, who is to say that something similar wouldnt happen in Britian in a few hundred years. Im pretty sure the Founding Fathers would have thouht it all made sense and never indended for it to be a centre of argument. Do you really trust this Labour Government, who is infamous for leaving HUGE LOOPHOLES in most of its legislation because they dont word the laws correctly, to consecrate our rights into a law abiding, codified documents and get the wording completely rigth?

We dont need a Bill of Rights, we already have our uncodified, flexible Bill of Rights along with the EU Human Rights Act, adding another Bill of Rights (especially one, in this case, that only lists things we should do rather than a list of rights to protect us) will just a) waste public money b) confuse most people and c) make a huge pile of cash for the Government and lawyers
Barry Howorth, Ruskington

There is no point in passing any "Bill of Rights" until Law Making is repatriated from Brussels and the Law Lords are the final Court in the process of UK Justice. A good example of this is the EU wide arrest warrants which deprive British Citizens of the protection of British Courts.

If British Courts are not supreme within the British Judicial system then no British Law has any enforceable value, so why bother with this sad fig leaf when Labour has signed our Sovereignty away to Brussels ?

Still, I suppose it makes a change from Straw coming up with yet another of his "Dead Parrots" Reform of the Lords which comes up once a year. It is hard to imagine a more and publicly obvious, ineffective Minister as Mr Straw, he obviously doesn't have enough to do.
John Haynes, Burnham on Sea, Somerset UK

How about the right to belong to a political party opposed to the government and not lose your job as a result?
Mark, London

I can't speak for the rest of "Britain" but England already has a perfectly servicable Bill of Rights which, combined with the other great English constitutional statutes such as Magna Carta and Habea Corpus, give us all the rights we could possibly need without requiring us to conform to whichever ideology the party in power happens to follow.

Rather than creating a new meaningless and unenforcable "Bill of Rights and Responsibilities", Jack Straw should concentrate on getting the British government and the judiciary to protect our existing rights - the right to trial by jury, no unreasonable detention without charge, no summary justice (including on-the-spot fines), etc.
Stuart Parr, Telford, England

A Bill of rights would be useless sticking plaster on a broken system. A written constitution is an essential first step towards democracy where the UK lags far behind the rest of the EU and EEA. Without a constitution granting sovereignty to the British people, no act of parliament can bind its successors, and an unscrupulous executive (like the one we already have?) can repeal any bill it likes if it has a majority in the House of Commons.
David, GB expat

If the UK government wants something that would actually be of use perhaps they could take lessons from their friends across the sea, and no much to the disappointment of the Labour party I'm not talking about the USA. Maybe if the people are to benefit from this so called Bill of Rights they should model it off the Canadian Charter of rights and freedoms that at least could be enforced by law. The again it seems Labour has real problems with many freedoms so I find any effective document very unlikely. For example: freedom of conscience and religion, freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication From what I'm hearing the government doesn't like the majority of people having these, to suggest a bill like they have that would have no real power within the courts is a waste of taxpayer money and taxpayer time. Again not surprising coming from a government who for the last ten years in power have left a country in an appalling state, my suggestion for whoever writes this bill, and indeed who ever tries to get in passed in parliament is this: Make it enforced by law, guarantee the people these rights that cannot be dismissed when the government feels like it, set out what rights come before others (my suggestions being Right to life and freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication at the top of the list) and get a mandatory language in there. While I have no doubt my suggestion will go unheeded it is nice to imagine Labour doing something that isn't a complete waste of time.

Mike, Ponoka, Canada

Right with you, Ian of Leeds. Trouble is that this Labour government has no insight left in it any more. I am convinced that it truly believes that stripping us of our freedoms is (a) what we all really want, and (b) what's best for us; and the pandering to the right (first the Tories, and now, unbelievably, the BNP) is (a) what they have to do to be elected, and (b) the only way to drive them out of electability.

Someone forgot to remind these silly people who truly believe they know best for all of us, even though they admit that they cannot help themselves, that (a) those who become obsessed with their enemies become those enemies, and (b) the greatest evils in the world have been perpetuated by people who managed to persuade themselves that they couldn't help themselves. And if that means the Tories winning the next election by default, so be it; perhaps they have finally learned a kind of humility that we haven't seen in government for three decades... although I'm actively scared of a Tory victory, I find myself no less frightened of New Labour - as has been said before, at least the Tories look into your eyes as they trample on your dreams; at least they believe it's the right thing to do, rather than having to put their fingers in their ears, look to the heavens, and say "look at me, I've always been on your side, how can you doubt my motives now?"

Labour's soul died with John Smith; the only thing that remains to be done is to stake the corpse and hope that its blood fertilises the land.
gwenhwyfaer, Sheffield, UK

A Bill of Rights should also include a Bill of responsibilities. Far too many people go on about the "rights" of criminals who have impinged upon the rights of others. And what about the people who think it their "right" to live on welfare at the expense of the taxpayer when they are perfectly fit and able to work.

Perhpas the old saw no taxation wiothout representation should be reversed to "No represntation without taxation" and only those paying income tax should get to vote.
Chris Stannard, Cowes, Isle of Wight, UK

I'm English not British, so a British Bill of Rights, or a British anything means nothing to me.

Straw and his Anglophobic colleagues have precided over the worst kind of Apartheid perpetrated against the English in this post-devolution farcically named United Kingdom.

The English endure inferior status in everything from education and healthcare, to democracy itself.

The only 'bill' this Scottish cabal with its sycophantic English minions, masquerading as a government, ever want to present to the English is the bill to pay for the benefits our "fellow Brits" enjoy.

Straw has no idea about rights and responsibilities. The nastiest bigots are those prejudiced against their own people, of which he is an exemplar.
Stephen Gash, Carlisle England

I demand the right as a freeborn Englishman to criticise the British Government, Catholicism, Islam, the CofE, the BBC, the Tories and anyone else I want to.

Any bill of rights that does not completely protect my/our right to freedom of speech protects nothing and is a bill of tyranny not freedom.

Does the BBC respect freedom of speech? Years of experience tells me they don't - but I live in hope.
Jason Wyrd, Burntwood, England

WHen I read through the Human Rights Act there is nothing I would change. The problem comes from the way in which the ever amoral Legal profession uses the Act as a 'good little earner'. There seems to be a contradiction between Law and Justice which confounds the man in the street. Add to that the influence on the Home Office of self appointed pressure groups and the whole structure of Law and Order has become undermined, leaving misunderstanding and distrust in the eye of the public.
Barry P, Havant England

While the Government still supports restrictive antiterrorism laws, denies freedom of public gathering, pushes for centralised and yet more centralised government (rather than local governance and localisation taxation) and controls education to the point of even thinbking it's OK to decide which textbooks should be used - then it's all a load of flam and hot air and a deliberate distraction from real issues.
Andrew Cook, Norwich

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