Shaun Woodward’s paper on Human Rights Bill is little better than Monica’s

Thanks to Gonzo for posting the long overdue consultation paper on a Northern Ireland Bill of Human Rights. It’s clear that Monica’s list is damned with typically oily faint praise from Shaun Woodward. However, I believe the consultation is getting off on the wrong foot. There is a strong case for creating a NI Bill which would be, as near as we can make it, basic and fundamental to Northern Ireland rather than supplementary to a British Bill. This is because (1) ideas for a British Bill are in ferment. It would be unwise to share the assumption in Woodwards’ paper that Labour’s ideas will prevail. And (2), a quiet power struggle is developing between parliament and the courts in which the judges headed by the new Supreme Court are likely to win gains, and see the emergence in time of quasi-federal constitutional arrangements for the UK. Many Scots want these too. Under these arrangements, Parliament’s right to alter any predeccessor’s law is likely to be modified in favour of entrenchment and codification of fundamental law. So now’s the time for Northern Ireland to go for its own basic law rather than fiddle round the edges of a British Bill over which it has little say or control, although both Bills would have to be mutually compatible. With a new government at Westminster, a new era begins. I look forward to the law departments of the universities contributing to an informed sensible debate. Excessive localism should be avoided, in spite of the temptation to get bogged down in counter balancing sectarianism. It would be a mistake the reconsider a NI Bill without the closest liasion with what’s happening at Westminster over the next couple of years.
To explain in a bit more detail. First, a basic law for NI would be preferable to nationalists, while remaining under sovereign UK jurisdiction. Second, is it appropriate to leave it to the main UK parties to frame the basic freedoms in a one-size- fit all statute whose form and purpose is new to all of us? It’s not as if the three parties are at one over all this. There’s little sign too that they’re paying much account to the different needs of the devolved areas. Labour and the Conservatives would both like to rein in the power of judges over sentencing in criminal cases and anti-terrorism measures. Labour is more cautious in its approach, but the Conservatives are pledging to replace the Human Rights Act to make rulings of the Strasbourg Human Rights Court (and probably the EU’s court on opt-outs) subordinate to the new Supreme Court.

A big difference is over Labour’s support for some ” eclaratory” economic and social rights for instance health, housing and education which even though unenforceable, are not so far apart from some of Monica’s list. They could be used to create benchmarks for standards of delivery. As health is devolved, why should we not put our own NHS Charter into our Bill of Rights?

Now here’s a complication. A right of equal delivery of say health and education standards throughout the UK could compel best practice throughout all four jurisdictions. On the face if it, that would seems like a real boon ; but it might cut across local discretions and so be unpopular with the politicians whose instincts are the gather as much power as possible to themselves. It’s worth trying though, as devolution become more federal. So don’t let’s be bound by Monica’s list or Shaun’s consultation. He’ll be gone in five months. Now is the time to think outside the box.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London

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