The Joint Committee on Human Rights delivered its 29th report at the weekend on the vexed question of whether the UK should adopt a “Bill of Rights”, and if so, how. Make yourselves comfortable - it's a long one.
It is said that the Ten Commandments could be expressed in a mere 300 words - the American Declaration of Independence took 1,300, while the EU regulations on the export of duck eggs apparently required nearly 27,000 (sadly, this may yet turn out to be urban myth). No word count is available for this latest opus, as the diligence of El Reg researchers was repeatedly thwarted by the soporific effects of the verbiage - nonetheless, we can confirm that there is a great deal of it, and that the English language was seriously abused and tortured before being locked up in the present document.
To business. The problem with the issue at hand is that very many of the great and the good think a Bill of Rights would be a good thing to have - a bit like Lords reform. Gordon Brown wants one as does David Cameron; the Lib Dems like the idea too. A variety of political campaigning groups also believe the time is ripe for an overhaul. And, just like Lords reform, there is scarcely a smidgeon of agreement between them as to what shape this Bill would take.
Give me liberty...
There are those whose focus is on the traditional view that Freedom should be defined as absence of restraint, and there are those who see Freedom as being also about the absence of want and fear. There are those – particularly in Government – who see the whole point of such an exercise as being to perform a balancing act: to set out the freedoms we plebs are entitled to just so long as we exercise certain responsibilities in return.
According to Government, a Bill of Rights “could provide explicit recognition that human rights come with responsibilities and must be exercised in a way that respects the human rights of others”. While this is very politically correct, and probably reflects the spirit of the age very well, it is questionable as to whether such conditional rights are “rights” at all.
Besides which, there are the dissenters. These clocked up a number of criticisms but, as the report summarises: “A surprising number of witnesses in our inquiry were opposed to a Bill of Rights on this ground alone: they were concerned that the real motivation behind the proposal was to dilute the protections for human rights already contained in the HRA.”
New Labour seeking to reduce the rights of individual citizens, while pretending to do the exact opposite? Surely not.
If the debate is fuzzy, the language is beyond fluffiness. As one would expect, the report recalled such fundamental historic events as Magna Carta in 1215 and the English Bill of Rights 1689. The first of those is perhaps not quite the model of Liberal humanism that is claimed to be, usually by those who have not read it. Quite apart from the fact that it was never formally enacted by Parliament (that honour belongs to the 1297 version of Magna Carta), it is a ragbag of unconnected declarations and afterthoughts, some good, some bad, and some unbelievably flakey.
There’s the bit about standard measures of wine and ale – an issue that still vexes visitors to many an olde Englishe pubbe. There’s the clauses about how Jews may not enforce debts, and the one about how “no one shall be arrested or imprisoned upon the appeal of a woman, for the death of any other than her husband”.
And give me a big screen TV
Then there is the list of undesirables – principally relatives of a certain Gerard d’Athée – who shall henceforth not be allowed to have a bailiwick in England. Check your family tree very carefully.
But beyond the dross, there are certain principles that shine out: “To no one will we refuse or delay, right or justice.” Or “it shall be lawful in future for anyone... to leave our kingdom and to return, safe and secure by land and water”. Compare that with the present government’s plans to use ID checks to prevent individuals leaving if they have unpaid fines.
Or even: “No freemen shall be taken or imprisoned... except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.”
Now look at some of the proposed new “rights” set out in the annex to the parliamentary report:
Everyone has the right to have access to appropriate health care services, free at the point of use and within a reasonable time...
Everyone has the right to have access to further education and to vocational and continuing training...
Everyone has the right to adequate accommodation appropriate to their needs...
These really aren’t Rights at all - rather, they are an expression of the conviction that the current model of the British welfare state is somehow inevitable and proper. In linguistic terms – note the liberal use of words such as “appropriate” and “reasonable” – they are a bureaucrat’s wet dream, setting out in no uncertain terms not the scope of our aspirations, but the limit to our freedoms. ®