Bill of Rights UK: what would it do, what has been the opposition to it, and is it coming back to Parliament?

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A date for the second reading of the proposed Bill of Rights has yet to be fixed

Dominic Raab has insisted the Bill of Rights still has Rishi Sunak’s backing despite delays in its progress. The Justice Secretary was being grilled by the Joint Human Rights Committee on the controversial Bill, which he introduced during his first stint in office. It was then shelved by Liz Truss’s short-lived government and has not yet had its second reading in the House of Commons.

It comes as a host of organisations and individuals called on parliamentarians to keep the Human Rights Act rather than replacing it with the proposed Bill of Rights. Groups such as Rape Crisis England & Wales, the Centre for Women’s Justice, the End Violence Against Women Coalition, Solace Women’s Aid and Scottish Women’s Aid are among those calling for the action.

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Raab has said the proposed bill would bring “common sense” back to the justice system, the plans for the bill has drawn opposition.In November it was said the Bill was expected to return to parliament in the coming weeks.

Speaking at the time Raab confirmed his department is preparing to bring the Bill back to the Common for its second reading “so we can strengthen free speech, deport foreign national offenders and restore some common sense to our justice system”. Raab said he would “confidently predict” the Bill would have the “overwhelming” support of the House during its second reading.

During a previous PMQs Raab rejected a call to include abortion in the Bill of Rights. But what is the Bill of Rights, what will it do, and will it include abortion? Here’s what you need to know.

The Bill of Rights was introduced to Parliament recently, and Dominic Raab has rejected a call to include the right to abortion in it.The Bill of Rights was introduced to Parliament recently, and Dominic Raab has rejected a call to include the right to abortion in it.
The Bill of Rights was introduced to Parliament recently, and Dominic Raab has rejected a call to include the right to abortion in it. | NWLD composite

What is the Bill of Rights?

The proposed Bill of Rights was introduced to parliament on 22 June with the aim of it replacing the Human Rights Act. On its website the government says the aim is to bring “common sense” back to the justice system after “mission creep” saw the Human Rights Act used for purposes other than what it was intended for.

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It states: “This country has a long and proud tradition of freedom which our Bill enhances, for example, in respect of free speech and recognition of the role of jury trial.

“Equally, over the years mission creep has resulted in human rights law being used for more and more purposes, with elastic interpretations that go way beyond anything that the architects of the Convention had in mind.

“Following careful consideration of the responses to the government’s consultation on the Bill of Rights, these reforms reinforce our tradition of liberty whilst curtailing the abuses of human rights, restoring some common sense to our justice system, and ensuring that our human rights framework meets the needs of the society it serves.”

The Bill was first introduced to Parliament on 22 June. A date for a second reading of it has yet to be announced. Asked by the Human Rights committee whether he was embarrassed by the apparent lack of enthusiasm for the Bill from his colleagues, Raab replied: “No, not at all. The reality is both the (former) prime minister (Boris) Johnson and Prime Minister (Rishi) Sunak are committed to the Bill of Rights and I’m delighted to be taking it forward.

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“We’re ready to go, the Bill of Rights is ready to go and we look forward to bringing it forward for second reading,” he added, but said he had “not been given” a date for that yet.”

What will it do?

The legislation asserts that the Supreme Court is the ultimate decision maker on human rights issues in the UK and the country does not always have to follow case law from the European Court of Human Rights.

The Strasbourg court previously disrupted the Government’s flagship policy for asylum seekers who arrive on unauthorised journeys, which would see some sent to Rwanda.

The Government says the proposed Bill of Rights will do a number of things including stengthening the right to freedom of speech, and recognising the right to jury trial.

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It would also limit the courts powers on certain things such as Article 8 - the right to a family life, of the Human Rights Act. In deportation cases, it would look to restrict the circumstances in which those convicted of crimes could try to appeal their removal from the UK under Article 8.

What have critics of the Bill of Rights said?

Among groups and individuals who signed a letter calling for the Human Rights Act to stay in place was the End Violence Against Women Coalition. The group says the Human Rights Act has been an essential tool to protect women and girls facing all forms of gender-based violence.

Director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, Andrea Simon, said: “The so-called Bill of Rights would take away some of the most fundamental legal protections that victims and survivors have long relied on to hold the state to account, to protect them from harm, and to seek justice when authorities fail to keep them safe.

“We are now at the stage where survivors and bereaved family members who have relied on the Human Rights Act feel they have to warn the government of the harms of these plans.

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“Scrapping the Human Rights Act undermines those commitments made by government to victims and survivors of violence, and will drastically impact people’s access to justice, accountability and healing. These plans amount to a Rights Removal Bill which endangers women and girls.”

Scottish Government minister Christina McKelvie was among those who condemned the proposed legislation. “This shocking and unnecessary legislation seeks to put UK ministers above some of the most fundamental checks and balances that underpin our democracy,” she said.

“The fact remains that we do not need a new Bill of Rights. The Human Rights Act is one of the most important laws passed by the UK Parliament.”

Amnesty International has also spoken out against it, with Sacha Deshmukh, Amnesty International UK’s Chief Executive, saying: “This Bill is a giant leap backwards for the rights of ordinary people.

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“Ripping up the Human Rights Act means the public is being stripped of its most powerful tool to challenge wrongdoing by the Government and other public bodies. This is not about tinkering with rights, it’s about removing them.

“From the Hillsborough disaster, to the right to a proper Covid inquiry, to the right to challenge the way police investigate endemic violence against women, the Human Rights Act is the cornerstone of people power in this country. It’s no coincidence that the very politicians it holds to account want to see it fatally weakened.”

What is the current UK law on abortion?

In England, Scotland and Wales the Abortion Act 1967 allows access to a termination if permission is granted by two doctors. They can be legally carried out within the first 24 weeks of pregnancy. Abortion can be carried out beyond this point in certain situations, for example if a woman’s life is at risk.

The 1967 act gives protection from prosecution under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. There have been repeated calls to strengthen abortion rights and fully decriminalise it.

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Any medical professional carrying out terminations outwith the 1967 act faces prosecution, while under the 1861 legislation any woman ending a pregnancy without permission from two doctors would face imprisonment. The 1967 Act did not apply to Northern Ireland, a law was passed in 2019 decriminalising abortion there.

What was said about abortion and the Bill of Rights?

Earlier this year Justice Secretary Dominic Raab was asked if he would support a cross-party amendment to the Bill of Rights to enshrine the right to abortion within it. At the time he said the legality of abortion in the UK is “settled” and said: “The position, as she knows, is settled in UK law in relation to abortion. It’s decided by honourable members across this House. It’s an issue of conscience. I don’t think there is a strong case for change.”

In September responding to an e-petition on the issue the government said: “The government is now looking again at the Bill of Rights to ensure it will deliver the government’s objectives as effectively as possible.”

However, during a debate on the e-petition the Minister of State from the Ministry of Justice, Edward Argar access to abortion in England and Wales was “settled in law” by Parliament, and and there was no intention to change that and the government did not intend to include a right to abortion in the Bill of Rights.

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