The 1997 Labour government’s constitutional reform programme: 25 years on

25 years have passed since the Labour election win of 1997, which preceded a plethora of constitutional changes, including partial reform of the House of Lords, devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the Human Rights Act. Tom Leeman summarises the contributions of three expert speakers (Professor Robert Hazell, Baroness (Shami) Chakrabarti and Lord (Charlie) Falconer of Thoroton) at a recent Unit event to mark the anniversary.

This year marked a quarter of a century since the victory of Tony Blair’s New Labour in the 1997 General Election on 1 May. Blair’s first government embarked upon a programme of constitutional reform, many elements of which, such as devolution, the Human Rights Act (HRA), and the status of hereditary peers in the Lords, still spark debate in the UK today.

To mark the anniversary and discuss the Blair government’s constitutional legacy the Unit convened an event with three expert panellists: Professor Robert Hazell, founding Director of the Constitution Unit, who supported the Cook-Maclennan talks on constitutional reform between Labour and the Liberal Democrats in 1996; Lord (Charlie) Falconer of Thoroton, who served as Lord Chancellor in the second and third Blair ministries from 2003 until 2007; and Baroness (Shami) Chakrabarti, who was Director of Liberty from 2003 until 2016. The event was chaired by Professor Meg Russell, Director of the Constitution Unit. The summaries below are presented in order of the speakers’ contributions.

Robert Hazell

Robert Hazell presented slides to summarise New Labour’s constitutional reform programme from their first election victory in 1997 until Gordon Brown’s resignation as prime minister in 2010. The reforms in Blair’s first term (1997-2001) were the biggest package of constitutional reforms in the twentieth century. They included devolution of power to assemblies in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast in 1998; incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law in the Human Rights Act; and the removal of hereditary peers from the House of Lords.

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Constitutional reform: then and now (1995-2020)

In the latest blog celebrating the Constitution Unit’s 25th anniversary, human rights academic and advocate Francesca Klug recounts how aspects of the constitutional agenda of the mid-1990s were realised, and what lessons we can learn about how to entrench its achievements, prevent democratic backsliding and stop erosion of hard-won rights.

When I was at school, I learned nothing about the British constitution, but one thing I did absorb was this: although we do not have a written founding document, our invisible constitution was apparently uniquely successful and therefore inviolable. However, during the 1980s, I gradually became aware that there was something a bit odd about this perfect constitution. In other democracies, many of the controversial or unpopular measures introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s governments – such as the ‘poll tax’ and broadcasting and book bans – could be challenged in the courts. In the UK, however, there was nothing citizens could do to overturn such policies, except take to the streets to protest or wait up to five years for another election. 

This powerlessness and lack of accountability was a major driver behind the founding of Charter 88 in 1988, led by Anthony Barnett and Stewart Weir. I was lucky as a relatively young activist to be asked to join its council. We called for holistic change: a democratic second chamber, electoral reform, devolution, freedom of information and a bill of rights. And we had one major overall objective: we wanted the people of this country to have more power over the decisions which affected them; what in today’s money might be called ‘taking back control’. We sought this not for its own sake, but as a means of making our society fairer. 

It took a little time, but this message started to persuade people at the highest levels of the Labour Party. John Smith succeeded Neil Kinnock as Leader following the Conservatives’ 1992 general election victory and the following year he gave a landmark speech to Charter 88, entitled ‘A Citizens’ Democracy. For the first time, he articulated a clear objective for wholesale constitutional reform. Its purpose, he said, was to ‘restore democracy to our people – for what we have in this country is not real democracy: it is elective dictatorship.’ The use of the term ‘elective dictatorship’ is interesting, as it partly echoed Lord Hailsham, a former Conservative Lord Chancellor, who had coined the phrase two decades earlier. Notably, in this speech Smith committed the Labour Party to the introduction of a human rights act based on the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), which turned 70 years old this month. 

John Smith died unexpectedly the following year, but Tony Blair, despite some scepticism, largely kept faith with his predecessor’s commitment to constitutional reform. The precise objectives articulated by Smith, however, seemed to wither away and the purpose of the proposed policies became more obscure. In particular, there was no unified narrative to link them together and no sense of what might come next. 

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The Human Rights Act 1998: past, present and future

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The UK government intends to replace the Human Rights Act with a new ‘British bill of rights’. However, any change to existing human rights law promises to be a complex and difficult project. On March 7 Dr Jeff King, Senior Lecturer at UCL Faculty of Law, explored the current state of play and considered the past, present and future of the HRA. Laëtitia Nakache reports.

After the 2015 general election David Cameron said that the repeal of Human Rights Act (HRA) would be brought forward rapidly. The Conservative party had pledged in their 2015 manifesto to abolish the HRA and replace it with a British bill of rights, in order to ‘break the formal link between British courts and the European Court of Human Rights, and make our [the UK] Supreme Court the ultimate arbiter of human rights matters in the UK.’ Since then the government’s plan to scrap the HRA has been delayed a number of times, with the consultation on the proposed British bill of rights now not expected to be published until after the EU referendum. In this political climate, Dr Jeff King came to the Constitution Unit on March 7 to discuss the past, present and future of human rights law in the UK.

The past: genesis, aims and impact of the HRA

The United Kingdom acceded to the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) in March 1951. Though it was obliged under Article 46 to give effect to judgments of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), it was not until the 1960s that British citizens were able to bring claims in the Strasbourg court. Since then, the evolution of the UK law has been influenced by the Strasbourg jurisprudence and by 1998 a broad political consensus existed that UK involvement in the Strasbourg system was politically desirable.

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Breaking the link with Strasbourg: Assessing the constitutional implications of a British Bill of Rights

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The Conservative government is considering a British Bill of Rights that would break the formal link between British courts and the European Court of Rights. Roger Masterman argues that this could have unintended and unpredictable consequences, perhaps creating a situation as constitutionally undesirable as the problem the Conservatives are hoping to solve.

The debate surrounding the enactment of a British Bill of Rights is in part premised on the belief that the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights – given effect pursuant to s.2(1) of the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) – exert too great an influence over domestic courts and domestic law. Critics of the Act argue that the courts’ application of s.2(1) has rendered decisions of the Strasbourg court effectively binding in domestic proceedings, while critics of the Strasbourg court argue that its expansionary tendencies have seen the Convention rights reach far deeper into domestic affairs than was intended by its authors.

Following the election of a Conservative majority administration in 2015 the Queen’s Speech contained the promise that the new government would ‘bring forward proposals for a British Bill of Rights.’ This promise is underpinned by an election manifesto commitment to ‘break the formal link between British courts and the European Court of Human Rights’ and entrust human rights decision making to a ‘supreme’ domestic apex court. This short post explores the nature of the link established by the HRA, and the parallel – and more longstanding – link established by the United Kingdom’s membership of the Convention system more broadly, before considering some options for an amended relationship governed by a British Bill of Rights.

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Human rights, the judiciary and the constitution: Past and future challenges

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At the Constitution Unit’s 20th anniversary conference Dawn Oliver, Stephen Sedley and Richard Cornes assessed the Unit’s contribution to debates around human rights and the judges in the UK, and how it can feed into the challenges that lie ahead. Juliet Wells offers an overview of the session.

This is the second of a series of posts based on presentations at the Unit’s 20th anniversary conference, held on 23 June 2015.

Professor Dawn Oliver took the lead in the session reflecting on the Unit’s wide-ranging contribution to political and legal discourses on human rights and the judiciary, while the respondents were Sir Stephen Sedley and Richard Cornes (who was unfortunately unable to attend on the day, but sent a statement read by the session chair James Melton). The panel therefore reflected rich expertise across public law and offered a thoroughly engaging range of perspectives on the Unit’s impact, and on the possible future direction of these vitally important areas.

Human rights figured particularly prominently in the discussion, and much was coloured by the existential threat now posed to the Human Rights Act 1998. Looking back, Dawn Oliver emphasised the prescience of Nicole Smith’s 1996 report, Human Rights Legislation, in anticipating not only that the Human Rights Act would need a ‘champion’ in future years if it was to survive in the long-term, but also that the legal implications of repealing the Act and replacing it with a ‘home-grown’ bill of rights would be profoundly complicated by the effects of having incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law. In particular, it was identified that the long-term consequences of the relationship between Strasbourg and the domestic courts that the Act set up would generate real controversy, even as it would affirm and entrench the importance of Strasbourg jurisprudence in cases before the UK courts. Looking forward, she reflected on the possible consequences of repeal, as well as on the causes of the apparent ‘tidal wave’ of hostility towards the Act. In considering both of these issues, she suggested that a lack of respect for the rule of law, manifested most conspicuously in the shift towards the view that the courts should not be accorded any responsibility for the UK’s compliance with its international treaty obligations, was at work. This, she thought, could be traced back to the 9/11 attacks, which did much to ‘shake people into hostility’ towards the Human Rights Act. Richard Cornes built upon this by suggesting that enacting a British Bill of Rights, which would in many ways be essentially similar to the Human Rights Act, will serve only to refocus the attention of rights-sceptics onto the UK courts, and thus to intensify claims that judges are ‘self-aggrandising’.

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