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Friday 3 October 2014, Rob Lyons

Do we need a British Bill of Rights?

What's really behind the debate about human rights today?

On Wednesday, the UK prime minister, David Cameron, announced in his speech to the Conservative Party Conference that Britain would consider leaving the European Convention on Human Rights and create a British Bill of Rights instead. An announcement today from Chris Grayling, the justice secretary, puts some flesh on the bones of the idea and has provoked considerable fury from legal commentators who see it as ‘a confused and dangerous jumble’ which could threaten the very existence of human rights protection in the UK.

A draft bill will be published before Christmas, the aim of which would be to repeal the 1998 Human Rights Act, which brought the European Convention into British law, and break the formal link between British courts and the European Court of Human Rights. European Court rulings would then be advisory rather than mandatory and would have to be approved by Parliament. Moreover, the proposed British Bill of Rights would define how human rights law would apply, in order to prevent the courts using human rights as justification for rulings that go far beyond the original intent of the European Convention - with a particular eye to rulings over votes for prisoners, the imposition of ‘whole life’ sentences, and the ability to deport foreign nationals deemed to be a threat to security.

The problem of judges interpreting human rights too broadly - so-called judicial activism - has been widely discussed. But as barrister Jon Holbrook rightly notes in a comment piece today, there is little disagreement in principle between Labour and Conservatives on the importance of human rights. The rise of the courts in law-making is a product of the inability of governments to persuade the electorate about new policies and ideas - so responsibility has been passed increasingly to unelected figures and institutions, most notably the judiciary. But no issue should be regarded as ‘above discussion’. This is an insult to democracy.

These issues and more will be debated at the next Battle of Ideas Satellite debate, From Magna Carta to ECHR: do we need a British Bill of Rights?, at Foyles Bookshop in central London on Monday 8 October from 6.30pm. Jon Holbrook will be part of a heavyweight panel of barristers who will debate not just the merits of a British Bill of Rights but where the demand for one has come from. Ultimately, the central question is: who should make our laws? Come join the debate: and check out the other sessions in the Legal Challenges strand at the Battle on 18 October.

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