Political parties debate the future of human rights legislation

UK should not reduce human rights protection, warns Commission

01 March 2010

Watering down the UK’s human rights legislation would seriously damage the country’s credibility on the international stage and undermine rather than enhance our security, the Commission warned today.

The warning coincides with a debate hosted by the Commission with the three main political parties on the future of human rights legislation in Britain. The Rt Hon Jack Straw MP, Secretary of State for Justice, Dominic Grieve MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Justice and David Howarth MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Justice will set out their parties’ position and answer questions from human rights experts.

At the debate the Commission will outline serious concerns that – with a general election just weeks away – the parties’ proposals on reforming legislation could lead to human rights safeguards being weakened rather than strengthened. 

New research for the Commission suggests that Britain’s major political parties have yet to make a convincing case for the introduction of a UK bill of rights. The research indicates that the current circumstances may be unfavourable as there is little enthusiasm from the public for the changes.

The research, which looks at how other countries have successfully developed bills of rights, found that no other democracy has used a bill of rights to dilute existing human rights protection. No modern bill of rights includes the provision that human rights should be dependent on a display of “good behaviour”.

The Commission is also publishing its response to the Government’s consultation on a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities. The Commission opposes the abolition of the Human Rights Act and will only support reform in the form of a Bill of Rights if it amounts to strengthening the existing law.

The Commission wants any debate on the future of our fundamental rights and freedoms to be open, honest and inclusive, involving all sections of British society.  Without wide public support for a UK bill of rights it may well not succeed in what it sets out to do.

Trevor Philips, chair of the Commission, said:

“Britain’s capacity to promote democracy and freedom throughout the world is inextricably linked to our own reputation on human rights.  We cannot expect to influence countries like Zimbabwe and Iran unless we maintain the highest standards ourselves. 

“Recent allegations of complicity in torture already risk our credibility.  To be the first Western democracy to weaken its own domestic human rights laws would send completely the wrong signal, ultimately undermining rather than enhancing our own security.

“Human rights matter to us all, from the dignity of our older citizens living in residential care homes, to the safety of our troops on the front-line in Afghanistan.

“We oppose the abolition of the Human Rights Act.  If there is to be reform it must be ‘Human Rights Act plus’ and it must be the product of open, honest and inclusive public debate.  Our human rights are not for politicians to give or to take away – they are ours to own.” 

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Notes to editors

The debate will be broadcast live on the Commission’s website.

A copy of the research report “Developing a Bill of Rights for the UK” can be downloaded from this link.

The Commission’s formal response to the Government’s consultation on its Bill of Rights Green Paper can be downloaded from this link. 

The Commission’s guide to human rights in the UK, “Ours to Own”, full details of our Inquiry into Human Rights, and general information about human rights in Britain, can all be found in the the Human Rights section of the site.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission is a statutory body established under the Equality Act 2006, which took over the responsibilities of Commission for Racial Equality, Disability Rights Commission and Equal Opportunities Commission.  It is the independent advocate for equality and human rights in Britain.  It aims to reduce inequality, eliminate discrimination, strengthen good relations between people, and promote and protect human rights.  The Commission enforces equality legislation on age, disability, gender, race, religion or belief, sexual orientation or transgender status, and encourages compliance with the Human Rights Act.  It also gives advice and guidance to businesses, the voluntary and public sectors, and to individuals. 

The research “Developing a Bill of Rights for the UK” was conducted by the Human Rights & Social Justice Research Institute at London Metropolitan University, headed by Professor Philip Leach and by Andrew Puddephatt and Alice Donald from Global Partners and Associates. The principal author of the research report is Alice Donald.