The Bill of Rights Commission’s final report misses the point

It’s been a long wait, but the much anticipated report by the Bill of Rights Commission has finally seen the light of the day.

The strength of feeling of support for preserving existing levels of human rights protection is something that the Commission will have heard loud and clear, at least if one is to judge by the responses to its consultation exercises. There has been an unequivocal call from disabled people as well as many other groups not to erode the crucial safety net provided by the Human Rights Act (HRA).

It can only be welcomed then that the Commission’s report – though otherwise largely mired in differences of positions between the various members on the Commission – stresses that there should be “no less protection” than is currently contained in the HRA. However, the prospects of a different language being used in a future Bill of Rights does raise at least some doubts of how this will be achieved in practice.

UK Bill of Rights

More important is, however, what the report identifies as being the need for change. This would appear to mostly come from the need for a rebranding exercise insomuch as a UK Bill of Rights is seen to provide a way to bring about a greater sense of ownership among the public. The majority of the Commission appears to believe that given the polarised nature of the debate, it is unlikely that “public perceptions are likely to change in any substantial way” through public education.

If we were to go down this route, repackaging the Human Rights Act as a UK Bill of Rights would not only be potentially dangerous as it would risk diluting current protection, but also amount to a missed opportunity. Disabled people have been clear that consideration of a Bill of Rights need a discussion about how best to progress protection further and how to afford greater recognition to the rights contained in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

On that count, the Commission’s report fails to deliver. Both the Government’s disability strategy and disabled people agree that the UN Convention needs to be at the heart of reforms moving forwards. In considering the future of our human rights laws, the Government should recognise that rather than an exercise about mere cosmetic re-branding, the prospects of developing a Bill of Rights should be driven by a need to look where additional protections could be brought in, and set a path towards incorporation of internationally recognised standards into domestic law.