The government’s proposed Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission: what, why and how?

meg_russell_2000x2500.jpgalan.jfif (1)The Conservative Party manifesto promised a ‘Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission’, but as yet little is known about the government’s plans. Meg Russell and Alan Renwick reflect on what such a Commission might look at, and how it might go about its work. They conclude that a long-term perspective is important, so that the Commission is not just ‘fighting the last war’ over Brexit. Given the fundamental nature of the questions that may be asked, citizens should be fully involved.

Page 48 of the Conservative Party manifesto committed the government to establishing a ‘Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission’ within its first year. This could have a far-reaching remit, covering ‘the relationship between the Government, Parliament and the courts; the functioning of the Royal Prerogative; the role of the House of Lords; and access to justice for ordinary people’, plus the operation of the Human Rights Act. Creation of such a body is clearly an ambitious enterprise, with potentially long-lasting effects – but, as yet, very little is known about the government’s plans for the Commission. This post first explores the ‘what and why’ of the Commission: which issues might it need to address, and what is the motivation behind it? Second, we consider the ‘how’: specifically, in terms of how the public could and should be involved.

What will the Commission review, and why?

The list of topics potentially ascribed to the new Commission is long, and covers some absolute fundamentals of the constitution. While the UK has seen much constitutional change in recent decades – most obviously Labour’s post-1997 programme, which included devolution and Lords reform, and the subsequent Constitutional Reform Act 2005 which established the Supreme Court – these developments involved no formal review of the core relationships between different constitutional branches. Indeed, Labour’s programme was often criticised as piecemeal, and for failing to go back to first principles. In some ways, a review of these fundamentals is therefore refreshing. But questions such as the proper balance of power between government, parliament and courts, and the role of the monarchy are also extremely big, complex and delicate.

So why are such challenging questions being asked now? This is where the Commission’s potential role gets more troubling. The UK has recently witnessed an exceptionally turbulent period in constitutional terms, with the referendum vote for Brexit followed by a significant struggle over its implementation. Particularly during 2019, tensions ran very high between government and parliament, with the Supreme Court becoming involved via the prorogation case. That these tensions helped motivate the proposed Commission seems clear from other words in this section of the manifesto, which suggest that ‘The failure of Parliament to deliver Brexit… has opened up a destabilising and potentially extremely damaging rift between politicians and people’. Leaving aside the question of which parliamentarians exactly were responsible for blocking Brexit, this statement highlights how concerns about the most recent period (including the Supreme Court’s role) have driven some on the Conservative side to seek reform.  Continue reading

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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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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Imagining a British Bill of Rights

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On 30 June 2015, Martin Howe QC gave a talk at the Constitution Unit on what human rights protection in the UK might look like in the event that the Human Rights Act 1998 is repealed. It was a topic that sought to stand apart from mainstream discussions on human rights reform, by engaging directly with the possible content of a British Bill of Rights rather than concentrating on the intellectual and political legitimacy of the case for repeal. Begum Icelliler and Juliet Wells report on the event.

Much of the debate over the future of human rights legislation in the UK has been preoccupied with the merits of the cases for and against repeal – hardly surprising, given the political, constitutional and legal significance of the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA). Nevertheless, the subject of Martin Howe’s lecture represented a welcome reorientation of that debate: by focusing on the possible content of a British Bill of Rights, it provided an opportunity to begin to examine and question the coherency of the government’s proposals.

The focal point of Howe’s proposals consisted in recasting the relationship between the UK courts and the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg. He suggested that the UK courts show ‘excessive deference’ towards the judgements of the Strasbourg court, and that this is to be attributed to Section 2 of the HRA, which requires UK courts to ‘take into account’ the judgements of the Strasbourg court. In his view, this produces a situation in which, de facto, UK case law is ‘overwhelmed’ by an incoming tide of European jurisprudence. This is problematic because it is not sufficiently attuned to domestic concerns. As such, his contention was that a British Bill of Rights must aim, first and foremost, to ‘sever the links’ between the UK courts and Strasbourg, by removing the Section 2 requirement.

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Will plans for a British bill of rights be reduced to a bill for England only?

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Opposition from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales could pose a serious challenge to Conservative plans to scrap the Human Rights Act. Robert Hazell and Bob Morris write that if the new government tries to push ahead regardless, it may only be able to create an English bill of rights, with potentially negative consequences for the UK as a whole. 

This is the first in a series of posts based on the Unit’s latest report, Devolution and the Future of the Union, published here.

The Conservative manifesto, building on pledges in previous manifestos, contained these statements about replacing the Human Rights Act with a British bill of rights:

  • We will scrap Labour’s Human Rights Act and 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 (p.73)
  • The next Conservative Government will scrap the Human Rights Act, and introduce a British Bill of Rights. This will break the formal link between British courts and the European Court of Human Rights, and make our own Supreme Court the ultimate arbiter of human rights matters in the UK (p.60).

We have not yet seen the detail, and the draft bill which the Conservatives promised to publish before the election never materialised. The plans are likely to raise a whole series of difficulties, with the judiciary, with the House of Lords (where the bill will have a very difficult passage – see here and here), and with the Council of Europe, if the UK tries to remain in the ECHR but somehow leave the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights. But this blog concentrates on a further difficulty closer to home, which is opposition from the devolved governments and assemblies.

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The new government’s constitutional reform agenda – and its challenges

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Following the surprise election of a Conservative government with a small majority, Meg Russell and Robert Hazell offer an overview of the constitutional reforms which are likely to be prioritised and the associated difficulties that may arise.

Now that the election result is clear, it’s possible to start thinking through the likely constitutional reforms on the new Conservative government’s agenda. Some of these items are obvious, and others less so. Many of them are very challenging, as we explain below – and will expand in more detail on this blog in the coming days and weeks.

Scottish and Welsh devolution

The biggest story in this election, including as the results came in, has been Scotland. The challenge for Prime Minister Cameron is to hold the UK together, at the very moment when the SNP has almost swept the board in terms of Scottish seats. The Conservative manifesto, like those of the other UK-wide parties, committed to implementing the recommendations of the Smith Commission to devolve further fiscal and welfare powers to Scotland. The Scottish people have been led to believe that will happen easily and early in the new parliament. But this may be difficult. The Smith proposals were strongly criticised by two parliamentary committees – in both Commons and Lords. The SNP will press for more, in pursuit of full fiscal autonomy; while devo-sceptic Conservative backbenchers may argue for less. The sensible thing may be to introduce proposals via a draft bill, to see whether middle ground can be found.

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Student protests in Venezuela: how is the government manipulating the Constitution for political ends?

The Venezuelan Constitution is ranked fifth in the world in terms of the number of rights it guarantees. Yet the use of the constitution as a political crutch only underlines the government’s failure to uphold and respect these rights, writes Annabelle Huet.

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In February 2014 student protests against the democratic legitimacy of the Venezuelan government and high crime rates erupted in Caracas. Two months on over 40 people have died, more than 70 have reported being abused and the opposition leader has been jailed. The Venezuelan President, Nicolás Maduro, accused the international community of conspiring to overthrow his government in an op-ed in the New York Times and qualified the actions of those inciting violence in Venezuela as “unconstitutional”. Yet it is interesting to note how the government has consistently referred to the constitution not only when denouncing the actions of the opposition but also when seeking to justify its own actions. Examining the constitution might therefore help us gain a better understanding of the dynamics of the conflict.

1. Comparative perspective

According to data collected by the Comparative Constitutions Project (CCP), the Venezuelan Constitution is ranked fifth in the world in terms of the number of rights it guarantees. In total, it protects 81 of the 116 rights coded by the CCP, which is consistent with the Latin American tradition of constitutionalising rights. It also contains some features which are unusual even for a Latin American constitution, such as gender inclusive pronouns and nouns for job titles and the recognition of the right to social security for homeworkers. However, in order for rights to be fully protected, the country needs a strong and independent judiciary willing to enforce them. Unfortunately, Venezuela scores very poorly on the CCP scale for judicial independence (1 out of 6), especially when compared to other Latin American countries such as Peru (6 out of 6), Bolivia and Chile (4 out of 6).

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