A new British Bill of Rights: young people should have a say

Tuesday 29 September 2015

During the summer holiday, the Financial Times newspaper reported that the prime minister has asked the justice secretary, Michael Gove, to publish a consultation on replacing the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights. The journalists say that a new law will be introduced in May or June 2016.

A consultation means that the Ministry of Justice will ask people to give their views on what should be in a new British Bill of Rights. This is a great opportunity for schools, through their citizenship lessons, to explore the issues of guarantees for the rights of everyone living in the UK. Students will certainly be affected by the legislation, so they should have a chance to have a say and contribute to the consultation.

Following the May 2015 election, the discussion is no longer on whether a Bill of Rights is a good thing, but rather ‘what should a British Bill of Rights contain?’ Teachers of citizenship can help students to understand the importance and implications of this proposed legislation. This is a chance for students to discuss the importance of human rights to them and express their views. The Ministry of Justice should hear the opinions of young citizens.

Over the past few years there have been other consultations on this issue. In 2009 the Labour government published a Green Paper on Rights and Responsibilities. The aim was to ‘launch a national discussion on a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities’. The campaigning group Liberty feared that this government actually wanted to limit people’s rights rather than increase guarantees.

The Coalition Government set up a Commission on a Bill of Rights that consulted people in 2011 and 2012. The Commission could not reach a unanimous conclusion about whether a Bill of Rights would benefit citizens. It produced an illustrated and easy to read summary of the work of the Commission on a Bill of Rights that would be a useful resource for citizenship classes. More formally the Commission produced a Discussion Paper.

The Conservative manifesto for the 2015 election stated explicitly that a Conservative government will ‘scrap the Human Rights Act and curtail the role of the European Court of Human Rights’. In its place the Government will ‘introduce a British Bill of Rights which will restore common sense to the application of human rights in the UK. The Bill will remain faithful to the basic principles of human rights, which we signed up to in the original European Convention on Human Rights. It will protect basic rights, like the right to a fair trial, and the right to life, which are an essential part of a modern democratic society. But it will reverse the mission creep that has meant human rights law being used for more and more purposes, and often with little regard for the rights of wider society’.

In its main report, the Commission on a Bill of Rights explained that: “Nowadays, the expression ‘Bill of Rights’ is used to refer to a document, sometimes called a ‘charter of rights’, which has some degree of constitutional status, and which declares the fundamental rights of all people by virtue of their common humanity, or of particular categories of people, such as citizens or nationals of the country concerned. These rights are variously described as basic, fundamental, inalienable, imprescriptible, inherent or natural rights; the rights of man; or, in a more limited context, constitutional rights. The expression ‘human rights’ came into general use after the Second World War” (p53). The report provides examples of Bills of Rights from other countries.

In preparing a lesson or sequence of lessons where students make their input into what they hope a British Bill of Rights would include, teachers may wish to raise the question of who should be covered by a British Bill of Rights. Would it just be British nationals? Or anyone living in Britain? Would it just be for adults, or would young people be covered? Would it specify who is entitled to vote?

Resources for teachers include the materials developed by the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law and the British Library’s resources on Magna Carta and Women’s Rights.

The organisation Liberty has a campaign to save the Human Rights Act, which is relevant. The British Institute of Human Rights has a briefing on the future of human rights in the UK. Examples of human rights issues in practice in the UK are provided on the Rights Info site, founded by Adam Wagner.

Hugh Starkey is Professor of Citizenship and Human Rights Education at UCL Institute of Education, London.

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