Rights and proper debate

Geraldine Van Bueren urges the British Academy to extend the discussion about the pros and cons of a UK Bill of Rights

October 11, 2012

No other modern democracy has debated a Bill of Rights with so little public participation as the UK. There have been no prime-time television debates on the subject, but a new British Academy report offers a golden opportunity to raise its profile and extend the scope of the discussion. Up to now, this has been dominated by the Ls and the Ps: lawyers, politicians and political scientists. However, a Bill of Rights is not simply to do with the relationship between law and politics: it is an opportunity to consider what type of country people want to live in and the values that should guide it.

Human Rights and the UK Constitution, issued by the British Academy Policy Centre, was written by Colm O'Cinneide with a distinguished steering committee of five Academy fellows. It is well written and well argued. But the Academy and its policy centre are uniquely placed to bring together scholastic expertise from a wider range of humanities and social sciences. A report on a Bill of Rights ought to involve other disciplines, including psychologists on the UK's love/hate relationship with human rights, economists on harnessing resources to secure rights, and historians to uncover overlooked accounts of the subject. The British Academy is one of the few institutions with the financial and intellectual weight to do this.

The report concludes that the constitutional structure protecting human rights is working well and therefore a Bill of Rights would be unnecessary. It could be subtitled: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it"; but lawyers voting to retain the status quo is hardly a surprising conclusion. This does not mean that the structure could not be improved.

Regrettably, discussion about the bill has so far been dominated by fear. Human rights advocates fear that if they argue for more rights they risk losing the Human Rights Act. Anti-human rights campaigners fear the opposite - the introduction of new rights. So a debate central to the daily lives of Britons is being kicked into the long grass.

A Bill of Rights raises key questions for universities. Of particular importance is whether such a bill should include the right of equal access to tertiary education, "in particular by the progressive introduction of free education". This right already binds the UK under the United Nations' International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and offers great potential for those concerned about social mobility.

Although this is not widely known, the UK is therefore legally obligated to make universities progressively free, but there is currently no domestic legal avenue to challenge the introduction of and increase in tuition fees. Incorporating such a right into a legally enforceable Bill of Rights would make such challenges possible.

The media have focused on issues in society that could be ameliorated by a legally enforceable bill. These include protecting the NHS through a right to the highest attainable standard of health, protecting the rights of older people in social care and making housing stock available to first-time buyers by incorporating a right of access to adequate housing. The question of additional rights was passed over quickly in the report, although it does concede that wider consultation would be needed.

But there has already been wider research by the London School of Economics' Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion on a Bill of Rights and a written constitution. It found that in the Home Office's 2005 Citizenship Survey, 93 per cent of 15,000 respondents wanted the right to free healthcare and 85 per cent wanted the right to be looked after by the state in times of need. In addition, the range of civil society organisations calling for additional rights in the first consultation by the Commission on a Bill of Rights last year ought to have been considered.

The debate will continue, as the commission is obligated to issue its report before the end of December. The British Academy has hosted excellent symposia on the subject, but they have been dominated by the Ls and the Ps. It is not too late for the Academy to adopt an intellectually pragmatic but grander sense of national ambition in this area.

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