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Bill of Rights Including Social Rights

Author: Gavin Barker

The second clause of the Centre's manifesto for Constitutional Reform calls for the establishment of a new Bill of Rights including social rights
. In this article Gavin Barker describes this idea in a little more detail.

The Centre's Manifesto: says

A new, human rights framework must entrench civil and political rights and extend these to include social rights to housing, health and welfare support. Disability Rights, the Rights of the Child, the Rights of the Elderly, and other similar rights, which were struck off with the removal of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, must be restored.

Nothing more starkly highlights the need for a protective firewall over our human rights than the ease with which our rights can be removed and access to justice denied:

  • The withdrawal of the 1998 Human Rights Act was passed in 2016 with by less than 50 percent of MPs votes (not yet implemented)1
  • The removal of EU Charter of Fundamental Rights was pushed through by a margin of just 20 MPs.2
  • The abolition of Legal Aid which effectively removed the right to justice for millions, also had the backing of less only 45 percent of our MPs.3

Countries with a proper, codified constitution insist on a higher order of democratic approval for the removal or amendment of fundamental laws and rights; usually super-majorities of two thirds of the elected chamber and/or referendum.

Human rights are the cornerstone of the Rule of Law. Where there is no Rule of Law, all you have is the rule of the strong. A modern, codified constitution, must throw a protective firewall over a new Bill of Rights which covers the following: 

1. Civil and political rights

The civil and political rights listed under the Human Rights Act must be restored and entrenched with added constitutional protection in the form of legislative super-majorities accompanied by double-decision: legislation passed by one elected parliament cannot be implemented until a newly elected parliament re-affirms the original legislative amendments.4

Our civil and political rights include (but are not limited by): 

  • The right to life
  • Freedom from torture and inhuman or degrading treatment
  • Freedom from slavery and forced labour
  • The right to a fair trial
  • Freedom of assembly and association
  • Freedom of expression5

Civil and political rights face a new challenge in the form of the climate crisis that is likely to exacerbate community discontent, inequality and with it, growing xenophobic and racist responses within and between countries, particularly where large numbers of people are displaced through extreme weather events.6

Enforcement of these rights is not just a national priority but must be a central part of our foreign policy relations with other countries, accompanied by significant funding to assist climate change adaption.

2. Social rights

Social rights are human rights and must be included in any future Bill of Rights. Social Rights include the right to:

  • An adequate standard of living
  • Affordable housing
  • Food
  • Education
  • An equitable health system
  • Social security based on respect, not sanctions7

In a rich, developed economy such as the UK possesses, such rights should be the norm and had they existed, they might have acted as a bulwark against austerity policies imposed for ideological reasons.

A new written constitution must not only make these rights explicit but insist on an operational approach that ensures that human rights shape laws, regulations and policies. This would complement the judicial approach where rights are tested out in the law courts and an operational approach might help reduce stressful and expensive court litigation.8

3. A new right to justice

A reduction in human rights has been accompanied by a diminished capacity to exercise those rights through steep cuts to legal aid.

The government’s Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO), passed in 2013, has precipitated a crisis in our legal system: half of all magistrates’ courts have been closed since 2010 (down from 323 to 161) and the number able to access legal aid has fallen by 80 percent. This means people have to travel long distances for their hearing and until recently, pay steep legal fees.

While the landmark case won by UNISON appeared to reverse this trend by overturning prohibitive tribunal fees, the government has voiced its intention to create a new framework of legal fees.

The Bach Commission Report has stressed the danger posed by the incapacity to exercise our rights due to prohibitive legal fees:

“unless everybody can get some access to the legal system at the time in their lives when they need it, trust in our institutions and in the rule of law breaks down. When that happens, society breaks down”9

The primary recommendation of the Bach report is a new Right to Justice Act. The act will codify and supplement our existing rights and establish a new right for individuals to receive reasonable legal assistance, without costs they cannot afford. Secondly, it will establish a new, independent body to promote, develop and enforce that right.10

You can read the Centre's Manifesto for Constitutional Reform here.

References

  1. Theyworkforyou: https://www.theyworkforyou.com/debates/?id=2016-05-26b.732.2#g799.2
  2. Clause 5 EU Withdrawal Bill see Theyworkforyou: https://www.theyworkforyou.com/divisions/pw-2018-06-13-182-commons/mp/24933
  3. Theyworkforyou: https://www.theyworkforyou.com/divisions/pw-2011-06-29-310-commons/mp/24933
  4. Examples of countries that use double-decision rules include Estonia, Finland, Iceland
  5. The Human Rights Act: https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/en/human-rights/human-rights-act
  6. ‘Climate apartheid’: UN expert says human rights may not survive. The Guardian: 25 June 2019.
  7. Hunt P (2017) Social Rights are Human Rights. Sheffield: Centre for Welfare Reform.
  8. ibid see page 13
  9. Bach Commission (2017) The Right To Justice. London: Fabian Society.
  10. ibid see page 13

The publisher is the Centre for Welfare Reform.

Bill of Rights Including Social Rights © Gavin Barker 2019.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.