A 'British Bill of Rights'?

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The following is written by Alasdair Henderson, an LCF member and barrister at One Crown Office Row. A longer paper written by the author and Dr David McIlroy is linked at the end of this piece.

"So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them." Genesis 1:27 (NIV)

The State Opening of Parliament took place on Wednesday 18 May 2016. In the Queen's speech, buried in amongst the flurry of announcements of new draft legislation, was the following short statement "Proposals will be brought forward for a British Bill of Rights."

The Conservative Manifesto at the 2015 General Election included a bold promise to scrap the Human Rights Act 1998 and replace it with a 'British Bill of Rights'. It seemed at first that this would be pursued with some urgency as one of the first actions of the new Government, but in fact it is only now, a year later, that the promised consultation appears to be on the horizon.

The precise manner in which human rights are codified and protected in the UK may seem a niche topic, only of interest to lawyers, which is understandably overshadowed by other kinds of news stories such as the impending EU referendum. However, replacing the Human Rights Act 1998 would be a major change with significant constitutional ramifications (indeed this is probably the reason for the long delay in bringing forward proposals).

So Christians, and particularly Christian lawyers, will want to think carefully about how to respond. Could a British Bill of Rights lead to more restrictions on individual freedom in the UK (especially freedom to proclaim the gospel) and fewer safeguards for the poor and vulnerable? Or is it an opportunity which Christians should seek to engage positively with, in an attempt to secure firmer protection for key freedoms and greater justice for the disadvantaged?

Much will depend on the detail of the proposals, which have not yet been announced, but here are some broad principles and general thoughts that might help in reflecting on any forthcoming consultation document.

First, Christians can have a nuanced and careful attitude to this debate as, from a biblical perspective, human rights is both a good and a flawed concept. As the verse set out above reminds us, human beings are all made in the image of God, deserving of respect and dignity, and the Bible exhorts rulers to defend the God-given rights of the poor and needy in particular. However, human rights theory has several problems when it does not have this foundation in Scripture, primarily a tendency towards excessive individualism and the fostering of a selfish, litigious culture. That said, it is still an attempt to protect people against the abuse of power by governments and in particular against actions which treat people as worthless. So in practice human rights can be a very useful tool for protecting unpopular or minority groups (including Christians) and restraining the State.

Second, the Human Rights Act is quite unpopular with the public, but much of this unpopularity is probably due to somewhat misleading media reporting. For instance, in 2012 the Daily Mail claimed that the UK was losing 3 out of 4 cases in the European Court of Human Rights, a figure subsequently repeated by The Telegraph. The Sun claimed in August 2014 that the figure was 3 in 5. What all these newspapers conveniently ignored was the vast number of cases which the European Court of Human Rights rejects at a preliminary stage before they are even considered at a hearing. In reality, only 0.6% of the total number of applications against the UK in 2012 and 2013 were successful. When you get behind the headlines, there are really only two issues that have caused real concern - prisoner voting and deportation of foreign criminals. However, the European Court of Human Rights still left the British Parliament quite a lot of room for manoeuvre on both of these issues and following the passage of the Immigration Act 2014 it is now extremely difficult for a foreign criminal to use his Article 8 right to a private and family life as a basis for resisting deportation. So whilst it may be helpful to reform the Human Rights Act in order to correct the public perception that it is a European imposition and improve the public image of human rights, Christians should aim to speak truthfully about human rights decisions and correct misunderstandings of how the current legislation has been used.

Third, a British Bill of Rights would only be a better alternative to the Human Rights Act if there was a widespread consensus about the rights contained within it. There is no comprehensive set of 'British values' which everyone living in the UK accepts, and such values can become more about the prevailing culture of the government of the day than objective truth. In a sadly post-Christian and ever pluralising British society people place value on different things, and weigh competing values differently. What is important, for freedom of all kinds to flourish, is that there is agreement about the degree of respect which government and others will give to me, and the circumstances in which I can be called upon to respect the demands of government and of others.

The identification of the fundamental expectations of the UK from those who live within its borders would be an important task the Government in drafting a British Bill of Rights. To achieve a lasting settlement there needs to be considered discussion and cross-party support. The British have always (rightly) wrinkled their noses at countries where new constitutions are introduced with the support of just the ruling party. If it is going to have the authority it needs, to command respect, a British Bill of Rights needs to be credible as an expression of common 'British values' to which we are all prepared to be ruled by and follow a full discussion, consultation and consideration of what 'British values' might be. It would be wonderful if Christians were ready to engage constructively with any consultation, and sought opportunities to make the positive case for increasing protections for freedom of expression and freedom of religion and belief in particular.

Fourth and finally, Christians should ask the following questions when considering any proposal:

a. Can cross-party, widespread support be gathered for the proposal?
b. Will the proposed replacement to the Human Rights Act have any benefit compared with the Human Rights Act itself?
c. What 'gloss' will be put on any rights and why?
d. Does the proposal make it easier or harder for unpopular and minority groups to exercise their rights?
e. What will be the impact on the freedom of Christians to proclaim the gospel?

A 'British Bill of Rights' is potentially one of the most important developments of this Parliament. Christians would be wise to watch developments closely and be ready to get involved at an early stage.

A full 27 page paper written by the author and Dr David McIlroy can be viewed on the LCF website by clicking here. As more details emerge the LCF will be providing further analysis for those who wish to engage in the discussion.

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