The Conservative Party’s concept of a “British Bill of Rights” has long rankled in Northern Ireland. Seemingly in the interests of alliteration such fundamental proposals were titled in a way that carried with it thinly veiled disregard for sensibilities in what is supposedly a constituent part of the UK. Not a UK Bill of Rights, but one for Britain. British rights, not Irish rights. Beyond putting noses out of joint, it also spoke to a lack of consideration of the legal framework put in place by the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. As the Coalition Government’s Bill of Rights Commission had warned (p.15):
[R]espondents, in particular in Northern Ireland … were also concerned that any attempt to introduce a UK Bill of Rights at this time could have adverse constitutional and political consequences for the UK, particularly if it were undertaken to the exclusion of a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland
Nonetheless, with last week’s General Election victory the Conservative Party stands on the brink of being able to fulfil its manifesto promise:
The next Conservative Government will scrap the Human Rights Act, and introduce a British Bill of Rights. This will break the formal link between British courts and the European Court of Human Rights, and make our own Supreme Court the ultimate arbiter of human rights matters in the UK.
The latest reports suggest a draft Bill is near ready for release. The appointment of Michael Gove as Minister for Justice suggests that David Cameron is positioning a minister who certainly holds himself out as a public intellectual to lead the debate over this reform. But any thought that Gove’s appointment marks a softening of the Tory position on the Human Rights Act seems wide of the mark. The most prominent appointment in Gove’s ministerial team is Dominic Raab, a vocal opponent of the HRA and a minister intended to assure the right-wing of the Conservative Party that there will be no back sliding on this issue. And indeed, how could there be? If Cameron is to hold the Tory party together in support of his “renegotiation” of the UK’s EU membership, even if this results in insubstantial concessions over the UK’s position, and subsequent referendum, this faction will have to have blood, and quick.
So, in this context, are the implications of repeal for devolution (particularly in Northern Ireland) a genuine stumbling block or wishful thinking? Will a British Bill of Rights have to alter the Good Friday Agreement? Much will depend on the extent of the Tories’ intentions. Gove’s team could unveil plans which just involved the replacement of the Human Rights Act in England. This would negate any need to negotiate with hostile devolved administrations in Scotland or Wales or tamper with the wiring of the Good Friday Agreement. This would certainly save political capital, allowing the Conservatives to portray themselves as responsive to the will of devolved legislatures and to concentrate on getting the legislation into place as swiftly as possible (as it would constitute the fulfilment of a manifesto pledge the Salisbury Convention would also prevent opponents of the proposals from fighting a delaying action through the House of Lords). Doing so might well not satisfy the Tory Party’s right wing, as the Human Rights Act would continue to operate in three of the UK’s constituent countries, but in terms of addressing the demands of Conservative voters in England (the vast majority of Conservative voters) David Cameron could argue that he had fulfilled his pledge to scrap the Bill.
But a new measure which applies only in England doesn’t make for much of a British Bill of Rights. So assuming a proposal is introduced to Westminster with the intention that it should apply throughout the UK, what might happen next? The first difficulty that the UK Government would encounter is that human rights are a devolved competence. The Welsh Assembly Government, for example, has gone some way towards incorporating the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into Welsh law, imposing a duty upon Welsh ministers to have due regard to the Convention in their decision-making. This means that the Sewel Convention is triggered, by which the devolved legislatures must consent to Westminster legislation that impacts upon their competences (explained here). Furthermore (as Aileen McHarg explains here) the devolved legislatures in Scotland and Wales would be able to re-enact the Human Rights Act’s terms, and would likely do so to thumb their noses at Westminster. In any event, the ECHR would still be able to apply directly to cover legislation and decisions by Scottish and Welsh ministers because of the terms of the devolution legislation.
Which brings us to Northern Ireland, which, as ever, is even more complicated. Under the Good Friday Agreement the UK Government agreed to the ‘complete incorporation into Northern Ireland law of the European Convention on Human Rights’. The Human Rights Act itself is immune from alteration by the Assembly (s.7(1)(b) Northern Ireland Act 1998). As Aoife O’Donoghue and Ben Warwick argue in a timely article in the Northern Ireland Legal Quarterly (see also here), if the Act was repealed then just as with the other devolved legislatures, ‘Northern Ireland could introduce an order that implements the ECHR for Northern Ireland alone’. The problem is that with the main Assembly parties at loggerheads on rights and equality issues (particularly around the Ashers Bakery case) and with the Unionist parties always ambivalent towards human rights, no such legislation would be forthcoming. Repealing the HRA as it applies to Northern Ireland would therefore undermine a key element of the Agreement. Oddly enough the Human Rights Act was merely intended to fulfil the role of placeholder legislation whilst a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights was drafted, but the inability of the Northern Ireland political parties to reach an agreement over such legislation now means that the Human Rights Act will likely soldier on in this corner of the UK at least.
The smart money would therefore appear to be on some form of compromise by which the Human Rights Act is repealed insofar as England is concerned, but remains in place in the remainder of the UK. Martin Howe QC, a key behind-the-scenes figure involved in drafting the Conservatives’ proposals is quoted in The Guardian as saying that ‘you could have significantly different standards of human rights across the UK’. The problems with attempting to impose a British Bill of Rights across the UK, although not insurmountable, would turn a relatively straightforward “win” for the Tories into a protracted fight. Any effort by the Conservatives to go further, and withdraw from the European Convention altogether, would likely descend into a pitched constitutional battle between the UK’s legislatures.
Written by Colin Murray
Colin Murray is a senior lecturer at Newcastle Law School where he specialises in national security law, legal history and public law. Alongside Roger Masterman (Durham University) he is the author of “Exploring Constitutional and Administrative Law”, a textbook on UK public law. You can contact him at colin.murray [at] ncl.co.uk or (+44) 191 2225805