The Commission delivered its Report – A UK Bill of Rights? – The Choice Before Us – to the Government in December 2012. It is an odd document, dominated by the lack of agreement in the Commission as to the role that any human rights’ instrument in Britain should play. That was unsurprising since at the inception of the Commission the Coalition partners appeared to want it to play two different roles – defending or attacking the HRA. From the very outset the Commission and the idea of a Bill of Rights (BoR) was relied upon by Cameron and other senior Conservatives to allay anger in the Conservative party, and among some voters, directed at decisions made under the Human Rights Act. David Cameron announced the Commission’s inception in March 2011 at Prime Ministers’ Questions as a reaction to criticism of the decision of the Supreme Court that sex offenders should be able to challenge their inclusion on the Sex Offenders’ register. He indicated that a BoR would address the concerns expressed (17.3.11; see the Telegraph in relation to R and Thompson v SSHD). The idea that a BoR could right the wrongs of the HRA – would provide a panacea for the HRA’s ills – had apparently been embedded in the Conservative party psyche for some years: David Cameron in a speech to the Centre for Policy Studies in 2006 Balancing freedom and security – A modern British Bill of Rights said that the HRA should be repealed: “….The Human Rights Act has a damaging impact on our ability to protect our society against terrorism…. . I am today committing my Party to work towards the production of a Modern Bill of Rights”. In contrast, the 2010 Liberal Democrat election manifesto promised to “Ensure that everyone has the same protections under the law by protecting the Human Rights Act.”
This piece will suggest that the ‘panacea’ notion was always an illusion. It will argue that the polarised nature of the Commission in political terms, and its remit, inevitably meant that Cameron’s apparent expectations of the goods its Report would deliver were always likely to be disappointed, but that its key proposal – that there should be a new BoR – might prove advantageous in future for the Conservative party.
The majority proposal of a new Bill of Rights
The Commission was obviously constrained by its terms of reference, which most significantly included the following: to “investigate the creation of a UK Bill of Rights that incorporates and builds on all our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, ensures that these rights continue to be enshrined in UK law, and protects and extend our liberties” (see Ministry of Justice18.3.11). If some senior Conservatives considered that the BoR could be used to restrict rights, that remit meant that it was obviously unlikely to deliver that result.
The Commission found that the strongest argument, and the one advanced by the largest number of their respondents, was that the UK already has a bill of rights in the shape of the HRA (A UK Bill of Rights? – The Choice Before Us, Overview, para 68). But, in a decision criticised by the minority (Prof Philippe Sands QC and Baroness Helena Kennedy) the majority in the Commission did not accept that therefore enactment of a new Bill of Rights was unnecessary since: ‘there is a lack of public understanding and ‘ownership’ of the Human Rights Act’ (Report, para 80) which they found was ‘equally, if not even more, evident in relation to the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights’. In other words, the majority did not accept that the HRA was already playing the role of a BoR and could just continue to do so.
The majority in the Commission did not think that a public education programme about the HRA (para 7.36) or ECHR was the answer because public perceptions were not likely to change (para 12.8); so they found that there was a strong argument for a fresh beginning in the form of a new BoR (para 12.7), but without recommending repeal of the HRA. Seven out of the nine Commissioners therefore recommended introduction of a Bill of Rights: “a majority of members believe that the present position is unlikely to be a stable one. Some of the voices both for and against the current structures are now so strident, and public debate so polarised, that there is a strong argument for a fresh beginning.” (para 84) Two of the Liberal-Democrat nominees in the minority, Helena Kennedy and Philippe Sands, in their separate paper in Vol 1, disagreed with the proposal for a new BoR; they also disagreed with the majority on the issue of support for the HRA and pointed out that the current arrangements were more strongly supported in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland than in England. But although the majority of the Commission gave support to the introduction of a new BoR (para 12.7), the role it should play in terms of creating a ‘fresh beginning’ remained unclear, as discussed below.
A polarised Report
The uneasy compromise reached between the two parties in setting up the Commission was reflected in its membership – split between nominees from each party – and in the fragmented nature of the Report itself, which contains no less than eight separate papers by Commission members or groups of members, dwarfing the sections of the Report that the majority managed to agree on. Indeed, it would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that seeking to discover any majority proposals in the Chapters in Volume 1 among the mass of descriptive material, discussion of the views of respondents, and the separate papers, is a strangely onerous task. There are two volumes running to 514 pages combined, but aside from the short ‘over view’ section at the beginning of Volume 1, it is hard to find more than about 15 pages in the body of the Report dealing with the proposals, and even those pages are largely concerned with the views of the respondents. Clearly, lack of unanimity meant that the Commission had to rely on majority views from respondents. However, the majority departed from those views in relation to the key proposal that there should be a new BoR rather than relying on the HRA as a BoR.
The separate papers reveal that the ideas of the Commission members as to the role a Bill of Rights should play are, overall, not reconcilable with each other. As Helena Kennedy and Philippe Sands put it in their separate paper: “the fault lines amongst us are real and deep”. On the one hand, a number of the Conservative nominees, reflecting views expressed at various times by Cameron, Grieve and May, appear to consider that it should be utilised to enhance Parliamentary autonomy and escape from the ‘absolutism’ of the ECHR, or from the ECHR altogether; on the other, the view of the Liberal Democrat nominees could be characterised as being that rights’ protection should be enhanced or maintained, either by means of a new BoR or via the HRA.
Baroness Kennedy and Philippe Sands’ minority paper entitled “In Defence of Rights” opposed the idea of a new BoR, but said: “We remain open to the idea of a UK Bill of Right were we to be satisfied that it carried no risk of decoupling the UK from the Convention”, a proposition they were not prepared to be associated with. They did not support a new BoR because their work on the Commission had “alerted [them] to what they believe is the real possibility that some people support a UK Bill of Rights as a path towards withdrawal from the European Convention” – a view expressed by a number of their colleagues on the Commission (ie certain of the Conservative nominees) (para 12.5). Lord Faulks QC and Jonathan Fisher QC in a paper entitled ‘Unfinished Business’ found: “In the period since our appointment as members of the Commission on a Bill of Rights it has become increasingly clear that a key issue, if not the key issue, has not been adequately considered by the Commission and reflected in the terms of its report. The issue concerns how the UK should respond to the judicially activist approach taken by the European Court of Human Rights to the ECHR over the last 30 years”. They concluded that “there are strong arguments that the cause of human rights, both in the UK and internationally, would be better served by withdrawal from the Convention and the enactment of a domestic Bill of Rights.”
Given such polarisation of ideas in the Commission as to the role of the HRA, ECHR and any new BoR, it is unsurprising that the ideas put forward for the content of any BoR were highly tentative and cautious, and that proposals for a BoR, as opposed to the HRA, put forward at various points in pursuit of the ‘BoR as panacea’ notion in particular by Dominic Grieve, did not find their way into the Commission’s proposals.
Would the ‘proposals’ if realised in a BoR create a difference from the HRA?
While the majority on the Commission agreed that there should be a new BoR, they were clearly unable to agree on its content. So the discussion below struggles to identify any clear recommendations from the majority that would differentiate such a BoR from the HRA. In general there are no ‘proposals’ in the sense of firm recommendations – the majority would only go so far as to identify matters worthy of consideration if a BoR was ever in contemplation.
Enforcement mechanisms and the impact of the Strasbourg jurisprudence
The problem, from the anti-HRA viewpoint espoused by a number of senior Conservatives, is partly that the interpretations of the Convention rights at Strasbourg on a number of contentious issues – in particular prisoners’ voting rights, aspects of counter-terrorism law and deportation of non-citizens – are ones that are not assented to by the Westminster Parliament, or in some instances by judges in the House of Lords/Supreme Court, (SSHD v AF (no 3) (2009)) but which may have effect in UK law (see eg Theresa May’s speech to the conservative party conference in Oct 2011) or in effect constrain Parliament (eg compare PM Qs 24th Oct 2012 cols 922-3 with the Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Draft Bill Nov 2012, Cm 8499).
From this viewpoint the effects of ss2 and 3 HRA combined, or of ss2 and 6, are part of the problem. S2 HRA can operate in conjunction with ss3 or 6 to allow a Strasbourg decision, that happens to bear on a matter currently in front of a domestic court, to have legal effect in domestic law (as occurred in AF no3), before the executive has a chance to react to the decision. While the government is bound under Article 46 ECHR by final Strasbourg decisions, the executive might well prefer to delay and procrastinate, or to bring forward legislation to Parliament which might represent a more minimal response to the Strasbourg decision than court-based findings would or might.
Senior Conservatives have proposed changes to s2 HRA to create greater leeway for courts to depart from Strasbourg, presumably partly with a view to creating more ‘wriggle-room’ in relation to the Article 46 duty. In 2009 Dominic Grieve said that the equivalent of s2 HRA in a BoR should allow or require the domestic courts to take a different stance from Strasbourg in a wider range of circumstances than those currently accepted. Grieve has argued that the HRA had been “interpreted as requiring a degree of deference to Strasbourg that I believe was and should be neither required nor intended”. Instead, he said, a new bill of rights, which would replace the Human Rights Act, would make it clear that British courts could allow for UK common law to take precedence over decisions by the Strasbourg Court: “We would want to reword it to emphasise the leeway of our national courts to have regard to our own national jurisprudence and traditions and to other common law precedents while still acknowledging the relevance of Strasbourg court decisions” (Grieve Middle Temple Lecture, 2009). He has also said: ‘there is no duty in the ECHR to follow Strasbourg case-law’ (Conservativehome blog 2009). Commission member Anthony Speaight said on this in evidence to the Constitutional Reform Select Committee in 2011: ‘the court…makes decisions that something or other is a human right that would not by the average Briton be regarded as a human right….’. Grieve’s key speech on the ECHR in 2011 targeted s2 HRA as a failing section on the basis that it allows Strasbourg interpretations of the ECHR too much purchase in domestic law. He has also said on s3 that it is wrong that courts should ‘have power to stand a statute on its head’ (Conservativehome blog 2009).
Unsurprisingly, the Commission’s proposals did not meet these concerns. In seeking to interpret the Convention rights under the Human Rights Act, the domestic judiciary must merely ‘take into account’ any relevant Strasbourg jurisprudence, under s2; it was clearly the intention underlying s2 that the jurisprudence would not be viewed as, in effect, binding (see Klug and Wilbore ‘Follow or Lead?’ (2010) 6 EHRLR 621). But the stance taken towards s2 in the jurisprudence overall bears little relation to the wording it employs. It was found in Ullah in the House of Lords that the judges should follow any clear and constant jurisprudence of the Strasbourg court, a finding generally referred to as ‘the mirror principle’, (eg Lewis ‘The European Ceiling on Human Rights’  PL 720) which until recently remained the dominant approach (Manchester CC v Pinnock (2010)). On the other hand, in R v Horncastle (2010) the Supreme Court considered that departure even from clear jurisprudence was exceptionally acceptable under s2 HRA, as Parliament originally intended. The Commission noted that there was a substantial body of opinion that wanted to enable it to be made clearer that courts were free to depart from Strasbourg (at paras 56 and 57). The Commission noted that JUSTICE had reflected this position: “there has been a longstanding debate on whether section 2 [of the Human Rights Act] requires our judges to be bound by the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights. Although there is a clear line of case law which suggests our judges consider themselves so bound, there is nothing in the Human Rights Act 1998 which requires this approach…The judges themselves appear to be moving away from this unduly restrictive approach…Rightly we consider that the language in the Human Rights Act 1998 strikes an appropriate balance between respect for the boundaries of the Convention and encouragement of the development of independent domestic rights jurisprudence.” (para 56)
But although, as JUSTICE noted, it cannot be said that the judges have confined themselves only to ‘taking account’ of the Strasbourg jurisprudence, the Commission did not propose a change to the position under s2: ‘There was also a clear majority in favour of maintaining the requirement in the Human Rights Act on UK courts to ‘take into account’ relevant judgments of the European Court of Human Rights with three quarters of those responding on this issue wanting to maintain the current formulation. However, a number of those taking this view did so on the basis that our courts were now correctly interpreting the Act’s wording in this respect having failed on some occasions to do so in the past’ (para 58).
The Commission proposals were somewhat equivocal as to the key current domestic ECHR enforcement mechanism in s6 HRA, recommending in its ‘over-view’ that consideration should be given to broadening the definition of ‘public authority’ so that private sector organisations providing public services would count as ‘public authorities’ (para 97) although in the Conclusions chapter it merely stated that “the current definition of a public authority within the Human Rights Act should be looked at again if a UK Bill of Rights were to be taken forward” (para 12.26).
Grieve had proposed that the s10 HRA fast-track procedure for responding to a s4 declaration should be abolished (British Academy Forum (2010)) which would be one means of limiting the impact of s4, which has come to be viewed as creating a de facto obligation upon the executive to act, even though as a matter of law a s4 declaration can be disregarded. But the Commission proposed no change to ss4 or 10, finding that s4 had performed successfully (para 12.25).
Overall, no ideas for significant changes to the interpretation and implementation of the rights in the UK were put forward by the majority to warrant consideration in relation to any BoR. The Commission concluded that the mechanisms in any UK Bill of Rights should be broadly similar to those in the Human Rights Act (para 95).
Changes to the listed rights?
Any aim of senior Conservatives of seeking to weaken the ties to Strasbourg via a BoR would not be realised via changes to the listed rights, as far as this Report is concerned, which was no doubt inevitable, given the Commission’s remit. The Commission said that it did not oppose the concept of additional rights in a BoR in principle (para 12.18). When listed rights were referred to in the Commission’s proposals, the reference was, it appears, to the list of ECHR rights in Sched 1 HRA (para 12.11) possibly with some additions. The Commission considered the inclusion of a right to jury trial, but the Report found that there were problems regarding the forms that a right to trial by jury could take (paras 8.41, 8.44). It also looked at the possible inclusion of rights to administrative justice and the creation of limits on the power of the state to impose administrative sanctions without due process of law, such as fines for speeding (British Academy Forum (2010)). The Commission merely concluded that consideration should be given to inclusion of such rights (para 8.44), if there was to be a BoR.
The free-standing anti-discrimination Protocol, Protocol 12 ECHR has not been ratified by the UK and there are no indications at present that the current government intends to ratify it. None of the speeches of Conservative spokespersons before or after the 2010 Election made mention of the possibility of protecting the further rights under Protocol 12. The Commission found that if a BoR was under consideration in future “the most obvious candidate for inclusion” was Protocol 12 and the “right to equality and non-discrimination currently enshrined in the Equality Act 2010″ (paras 8.15, 8.23 and 91).
Various groups put forward arguments to the Commission for specific additions to the current HRA Sched 1 rights, such as the inclusion of certain socio-economic rights (eg Children’s Rights Alliance advocating the inclusion of children’s rights). But the Commission did not recommend that particular “socio-economic” or environmental rights should be added to a bill of rights: “All other things being equal a majority of members believe that such choices are better made by Parliaments rather than judges.” (paras 91and 8.21) Similarly the Report noted that “Approaching 100 respondents to our consultations were in favour of the incorporation into any UK Bill of Rights of rights contained in international instruments which the UK has already signed but not fully incorporated into our domestic law” (para 8.45), but did not make a proposal that such rights should be included.
So in terms of the list of rights covered, any Bill of Rights based on these proposals could look something like an ‘HRA plus’ (term used by JCHR), but not plus much. Chapter 8 of Vol 1, which considered these rights, was concerned more with the views of respondents to the Commission, than with clear proposals.
The question whether a BoR should give greater guidance to judges on balancing competing rights was answered in the negative: ‘On balance our conclusion, in line with that of the majority of respondents on this issue, is that if there were to be a UK Bill of Rights the balancing of competing rights within such a Bill, where such occurred, would be better left to the courts not least because of their ability to weigh the competing considerations against the facts of the particular case before them.’ (para 8.51)
The Commission considered that changes to the wording used to express the rights could be employed to create a distinctively ‘British feel’ to the instrument in order to address the public’s lack of allegiance to the HRA. It was not proposed that the wording of the rights themselves should see any radical change but the Commission considered that if a BoR was under consideration it would be “desirable in principle” that its wording should reflect “the distinctive history and heritage of the countries within the United Kingdom.” (para 86 and 8.8)
Relationship between the ‘proposals’ and the concerns about the HRA identified by the majority
One of the firmer conclusions of the majority was that “the key argument is the need to create greater public ownership of a UK Bill of Rights than currently attaches to the Human Rights Act” (para 12.11). However, the proposals that emerged would be unlikely, if realised in practice, to address that need, taking account of the context – the apparently deep public dissatisfaction with the HRA. They are so modest and cautious (even leaving aside the devolution context which clearly provided a problematic back-drop to the Commission’s work) (Chap 12, 12.3, 12.4 and Chap 9) that they might be said to amount in effect to a proposal to re-badge the HRA in a BoR, despite the Commission’s acceptance that it has become discredited in the eyes of the public. A key question, unexplored in the Report, is – why is there dissatisfaction with the HRA? Of course there was no public information campaign prior to its introduction, leaving a vacuum which created room for a narrative hostile to the HRA to take hold. Lord Lester, speaking as a member of the Commission, has attributed the nature of that narrative to a prolonged media attack on the HRA which has at bottom the purpose of protecting their own commercial interests; he said on this issue to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in 2011: “some sections of the media—self-interested, God bless them—have campaigned vigorously against the Human Rights Act, totally unscrupulously, completely unfairly, mischaracterising everything as being a result of the Human Rights Act…” (Answer to Q 59). He indicated that the hostility might spring from restrictions “on their right to invade personal privacy” created by the HRA (Answer to Q 65).
For example, the idea – part of the media campaign against the HRA – that human rights’ concerns stand in the way of Britain’s ability to combat terrorism, has found a particular focus in relation to Abu Qatada (see eg The Sun 15.4.12). David Cameron’s speech to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in 2012, during the UK’s six month chairmanship of the Council, reiterated the theme of seeking enhanced subsidiarity as a key reform. He referenced counter-terrorism and prisoners’ voting rights as examples of issues on which the Court should be very slow to intervene, once democratic debate on the issue and full scrutiny in national courts, taking the Convention into account, had occurred. Referencing the Qatada case as illustrating the need for reform, he said ‘we have gone through all reasonable national processes…yet we are still unable to deport [or detain him]’. Thus, parts of the media and senior members of the Conservative party have taken the stance – possibly coincidentally – that the Human Rights Act makes dealing with suspected terrorists harder, putting lives and national security at risk; and the lines between the actual impact of the HRA in this respect in legal terms, and what would occur in any event under the ECHR at the international level, have become blurred, perhaps intentionally.
Thus if a BoR was to be introduced, based on these proposals, which would play a role very similar to that of the HRA, it would appear probable that parts of the media might attack it as a merely re-badged HRA, leading again to public dissatisfaction with the new BoR. But conversely and unpalatably it might appear to follow that if a new BoR was introduced post-2015 under a Conservative government, not based on these proposals, and disassociated from the ECHR, it would be welcomed by parts of the media, meaning that it might be more likely to command public acceptance, at least in England.
It is concluded that there was never any real basis for considering that the Commission might propose a BoR which would answer to the expectations of a BoR expressed by Cameron in 2011. Clearly, the split in nominees, on party lines, and the Commission’s remit, always suggested that the proposals for a BoR that eventually emerged were not likely to do so. It would appear that the role a number of Conservatives apparently wanted the BoR to play, and the proposals likely to emerge from that Commission, were never likely to cohere with each other. It seems unlikely that there was ever any real expectation from the point of view of the Conservative leadership that the proposals would lead to a new BoR that might cure the ills of the HRA. Thus, deployment of the notion of a BoR for the last few years as a panacea for the ills of the HRA has arguably always been an illusion, designed to calm right-wing concerns about non-repeal of the HRA, since repeal was almost certainly impossible in the context of the Coalition. In a much-reported speech Theresa May recently made it clear in relation to the Qatada saga that repeal of the HRA and withdrawal from the ECHR would be on the table if the Conservatives gained a majority in 2015. “When Strasbourg constantly moves the goalposts and prevents the deportation of dangerous men like Abu Qatada, we have to ask ourselves, to what end are we signatories to the Convention?” she said. No mention was made of the Commission’s Report on the BoR: the role Cameron had previously outlined for it appears to have been quietly forgotten. In other words, senior Conservatives seem to be distancing themselves from this Report, unsurprisingly, and the debate appears to be shifting from the ills of the HRA to those of the ECHR at Strasbourg.
This piece has argued that the Commission did fulfil the role of simultaneously preventing conflict between the Coalition partners over the HRA for a time and calming Conservative concerns regarding decisions under the HRA. But in so far as there were real expectations that a BoR would provide an answer to the ‘problem’ of the HRA, the Report might appear to be disappointment to the Conservative leadership since if its proposals (or ideas it put forward that could warrant consideration) were realised in practice it clearly would not provide the panacea apparently hoped for. But on the other hand, the majority of the Commission did propose a new Bill of Rights, creating a momentum behind the BoR idea which might be advantageous post-2015 to a Conservative government if one is returned and pushes forward with the proposals recently floated by Theresa May regarding the HRA and ECHR. The proposal of a BoR could help to pave the way to repeal of the HRA; it might allay concerns that Britain would become ‘a pariah state’ (Dominic Grieve) if it withdrew from the ECHR, and the BoR itself could act as a Trojan horse in terms of restriction of rights (Michael Fordam QC Report, para 7.32).
Helen Fenwick is Professor of Law at The University of Durham.
Suggested citation: H. Fenwick, ‘The Report of the Bill of Rights Commission: disappointing Conservative expectations or fulfilling them?’ UK Const. L. Blog (21st March 2013) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org