In June 2022, Justice Secretary Dominic Raab introduced a new suggested piece of legislation to Parliament known as the Bill of Rights. It is proposed that this new bill would replace the existing Human Rights Act. The government said at the time that the bill aims to bring “common sense” back to the country’s justice system.
Since then, the bill has been on and off the table on a number of occasions. When Liz Truss replaced Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, she shelved the plans entirely. However, when her short stint as the leader of the country came to an end, Rishi Sunak reignited the bill.
The second reading of the bill in parliament has been postponed, with some analysts speculating that Sunak might be about to u-turn on the bill and shelve it himself. With mystery and controversy surrounding the bill, Aubrey Allegretti, the Guardian’s Political Correspondent, sat down with Conservative MP, Sir Robert Buckland, and former Attorney General, Dominic Grieve to discuss the bill in greater detail.
To start the discussion, Aubrey asked both men for their opinions on the Bill of Rights in its current form. Despite being a Conservative MP, Sir Robert was quite scathing, stating that the bill in its current format is “dramatically different” to the proposals he had envisaged when he was Lord Chancellor. The Member of Parliament for South Swindon said:
“The work I started in relation to reforming the human rights act (which was a Conservative manifesto commitment) was done alongside an expert review panel. They produced a report at the end of 2021 which recommended some changes to the human rights act. These recommendations have been ignored by Raab.
On one level this new Bill of Rights doesn’t seem to do much at all but I think secondly, it has the potential to cause confusion at best, but real legal problems at worst.”
“The government should be focusing on the cost of living crisis and the situation in Ukraine but here they are bringing forward a new bill which will take up hours of parliamentary time and does very little to change the existing law.”Rt Hon Sir Robert Buckland KBE KC, Former Lord Chancellor
Dominic is equally as bemused by the bill, labelling it “incomprehensible”. As someone who assumed the role of Attorney General between 2010-2014, he is arguably in a better position than most to pass judgement on issues relating to the law and the judicial system. He added:
“The bill is going to make it harder for UK courts to apply the accepted legal decision-making process that has been built up over time to the human rights act. I don’t understand why we are suddenly deciding to do something that was first discussed back in 2009/10 when the circumstances have now changed.”
The impact on the UK’s relationship with the European Court of Human Rights
Although Raab’s new bill doesn’t indicate that the United Kingdom would leave the Convention of Human Rights, it would naturally cause tension between the courts here and The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
Considering the good relationship between the UK courts and the court in Strasbourg, Sir Robert doesn’t understand why Raab is trying to hamper that. He said:
“In recent years, there has been a difference in the way the courts in Strasbourg and our domestic courts have operated, however, there has always been understanding and respect. Britain is one of the top countries in Europe with the fewest cases before the European Court – we aren’t in a position of conflict.”
This court is nothing like The Court of Justice in the EU which has a duty to safeguard the provisions of EU law. In Strasbourg, they look at things differently and allow member states a margin to take action domestically.”
Dominic echoed these thoughts, stating that during his time as Attorney General, there were a number of occasions where UK courts disagreed with Strasbourg. Removing the flexibility to modify and interpret human rights laws differently can only be a bad thing, argues Dominic.
“Once we start telling our courts that they have to decide a case in a very specific way, you are going to have problems. You will get more appeals to Strasbourg and they will just turn around and say “sorry, but the way in which the UK is interpreting these laws is against the accepted practice. So, it’s going to create tension and we are at risk of isolating ourselves from other member states, whereas now we are seen as a positive contributor to the development of human rights.”Dominic Grieve KC PC, former Attorney General for England and Wales
As mentioned earlier, Rishi Sunak is responsible for bringing this bill back to the table after Liz Truss had parked it during her short time as Prime Minister. Dominic believes that the reason for Sunak bringing it back could be to do with trying to keep his party as united as possible.
“The Prime Minister face san unenviable task of taking over a party that some serious division in it. He wants to keep the party together and this is a topic that has been pushed by a section of the party and seems to resonate with party members.
There is this underlying pressure on him and Raab has been a key supporter of getting Sunak into Downing Street in the first place and Raab has a real obsession with this piece of work. When he was my chief of staff, he was talking to me about similar projects in 2008 and I had to tell him it wasn’t a direction I wanted to go in.”
The date for the second reading of the bill has been consistently postponed over the past couple of months as the government seek to prioritise other areas of work. There is a recognition this bill will be particularly hefty to get through parliament with Sir Robert labelling it a “monster”.
In terms of possible reforms to the bill, Sir Robert’s number one resolution is for it to be “withdrawn and recast”. Failing that, he hopes that parliamentarians can “cut out the meaningless and focus on the meaningful”.
The Bill of Rights has been shrouded in mystery and controversy since its inception. Many groups have signed a letter calling for the Human Rights Act to stay in place instead, including the End Violence Against Women Coalition.
The fact its second reading has been postponed on a number of occasions suggests that Rishi Sunak may well be taking these thoughts on board and having second thoughts about his decision to bring it back in the first place. What this means for Dominic Raab and his supporters within the party is another issue altogether.