Sunday, 10 August 2008

A Bill of Rights for the UK?

A joint Parliamentary Committee has just published a report proposing a UK Bill of Rights. The report is available here, and the evidence here.

Parts of the report are steps in the right direction, and some good points are made. Sadly, some of the proposals are weak. The need to balance rights, the scope to limit rights to the extent that such limits can be "demonstrably justified in a society based on the values of liberty, democracy, fairness, civic duty and the rule of law", and the scope for express Parliamentary override, would for example give just as much scope for the right of freedom of expression to be cut down as is given by the corresponding Article 10 of the European Convention, available here. We would still be a long way from the plain and noble words of the US First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances".

The inclusion in the proposal of social and economic rights such as the right to housing, education and healthcare is just a muddle-headed example of the positive liberty which Isaiah Berlin rightly identified as a step on the road to tyranny. Such things are important, but they are not a matter of liberty. Astonishingly, Berlin is not mentioned at all in the report, and is only mentioned once in the evidence (on the page numbered Ev 126), and then only in passing. Locke and Mill also get a single mention each, in the same place. I conclude that the authors of the report paid little heed to the history of the idea of liberty, which is unfortunate because a recognition of that history would have stiffened the backbone of the report considerably. One can only hope that lively debate will lead to a plan of action which will be a considerable improvement on the report.