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A British Bill of Rights: guarantee or threat to freedom?

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CIEE London Global Institute

46-47 Russell Square

London

WC1B 4JP

United Kingdom

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A Battle of Ideas satellite event, in association with Living Freedom

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The Supreme Court ruling that the government’s proroguing of parliament was unlawful has reignited debate over the boundaries between law and politics. In recent years, many have welcomed an activist legal sector that often utilises human-rights law to protect rights and freedoms. By contrast, the historian and former Supreme Court justice, Lord Sumption, warned in his 2019 Reith Lectures that ‘law’s expanding empire’ is taking over the space once occupied by politics.

With Britain’s attempt to leave the EU raising a host of constitutional and rights questions, some say that a British Bill of Rights could help clarify our rights and protect our liberties.

Take the high-profile case of Harry Miller, the Humberside docker told by police that ‘we need to check your thinking’ after he retweeted a transgender-sceptical limerick. While Miller’s retweet did not constitute a crime, it was recorded as a ‘non-crime hate incident’ - which College of Policing guidelines state ‘is any incident that a police officer or another member of the public considers to be motivated by hate’. Under the guidelines, what constitutes a hate incident is subjective and police officers ‘should not directly challenge this perception’. With ‘non-crime hate incidents’ rocketing to 100,000 per annum, could a British Bill of Rights help provide clarity in such situations and protect individual freedoms?

One question is how effectively existing rights legislation protects freedoms. The 1998 Human Rights Act - which gives legal effect in the UK to the European Convention on Human Rights – aims to defend rights to life, liberty, security, a fair trial and freedom of expression for all UK citizens. Yet liberties such as detention without trial seem to have been eroded in recent years, while controversies over smacking bans, medical consent and consumer rights, like those raised by the ‘gay cakes’ case, suggest new constraints on choices and freedom. Indeed, some say recent extensions of ‘human rights’, for example around hate speech or data regulation, end up undermining vital civil liberties such as free speech and privacy. Would a British Bill of Rights add to such problematic conflicts, or bring clarity and a defence of freedom? Is such a defence necessary or are concerns overblown?

Some worry that decoupling our national legal system from an EU-inspired framework and institutions poses a threat to important safeguards such as migrant and labour rights and environmental protections. The risk, they say, is of diluting existing hard-won rights at the expense of priorities determined by UK politicians or powerful lobby groups with little interest in liberty. The absence of the British public in the process of deciding to revoke Shamima Begum’s UK citizenship is a case in point, raising questions as to the extent to which any new British Bill of Rights would be democratically inspired and determined, and if it would in fact deny the very freedoms that is supposed to restore.

Historically, Magna Carta, the English Bill of Rights of 1689 and the Constitution of the United States and Bill of Rights of the United States of America have been considered progressive moments in furthering the cause of liberty. Could a new British Bill of Rights provide a similar leap forward? Or is there a danger in tearing up existing human rights and legal frameworks? What would a British Bill of Rights look like and who would - and should - get to define British rights? Is this a moment for brave new ambitions, or for protecting rights that we already have?

SPEAKERS

Samantha Davies

barrister; writer; commentator; president, Business and Human Rights Commission, Union Internationale des Avocats

Jack Dickens

writer; early modern history graduate; intern journalist, Reaction

Rik Ganly

history graduate; acting student

Luke Gittos

criminal lawyer; director, Freedom Law Clinic; legal editor, spiked; author, Human Rights – Illusory Freedom

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CIEE London Global Institute

46-47 Russell Square

London

WC1B 4JP

United Kingdom

View Map

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Eventbrite's fee is nonrefundable.

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