Govt launches British bill of rights commission

By Hannah Brenton

A commission has been launched today to investigate a British bill of rights, with a final report due by the end of 2012.

The announcement fulfils a pledge in the coalition agreement and a major policy goal for the Liberal Democrats.

There have also been growing calls for a British bill of rights from the Tory backbenches after objections to a number of rulings from the European court of human rights, such as granting prisoners the right to vote.

Sir Leigh Lewis, former permanent secretary for the Department of Work and Pensions, will head the commission, along with eight other human rights experts tasked with examining the prospects for a bill.

He is assigned with creating a bill of rights that “incorporates and builds on all our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, ensures that these rights continue to be enshrined in UK law, and protects and extend our liberties.”

The commission will advise ministers on reforms of the European court of human rights ahead of its full report.

It will report to deputy prime minister Nick Clegg and justice secretary Ken Clarke.

Mr Clegg said the commission would help expand the UK’s human rights framework.

“Human rights are fundamental to our democracy. They act as a safeguard: protecting individual citizens from the state abusing its power,” he said.

“The commission’s work will help us maintain, and build upon, an enduring framework of fundamental rights that will prevent the abuse and erosion of these freedoms for generations to come.”

But human rights campaigners dismissed the move, arguing the Human Rights Act already protects British rights.

Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, said she hoped the commission would support the Act.

“Liberty hopes these fine minds will conclude that the Human Rights Act already provides a uniquely British bill of rights,” she said.

“It balances parliamentary sovereignty with the rule of law to protect every man, woman and child in this country.

“Liberty polling shows huge public support for a law protecting our rights and freedoms – but it also shows how little the public has been told by successive governments about the legislation that protects them.”

Labour dismissed the commission as an attempt to soothe Tory backbenchers’ grievances with Europe.

Sadiq Khan, shadow justice secretary, argued the proposals were an attempt to “paper over” friction in the coalition.

“After a long delay Cameron and Clegg have announced a commission that won’t even report until the end of next year. Those hoping for reform of the European court of human rights or repeal of existing legislation shouldn’t hold their breath,” he said.

“The prime minister seems to have raised expectations that this commission would placate his backbenches and create the impression he is taking a tough stance on Europe. It will do nothing of the sort as the commission explicitly states that any bill of rights will incorporate the European Convention.

“It just looks like a way to paper over the cracks in a divided government, rather than a genuine attempt at constitutional reform.”