Rev Steve Chalke MBE is the founder & Global Leader of Oasis, the founder of Stop The Traffik and Special Advisor to UN on Human Trafficking.
Like many – if not most – Church leaders across the UK, I was more than a little concerned when, following the recent General Election, it was reported that the newly elected Government was intending to press ahead, as quickly as possible, with its plans to scrap the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights.
Now, though, it seems that Michael Gove has been charged with taking time to consult widely, rather than attempting to rush the implementation of the Conservative Party’s manifesto pledge. In spite, however, of this welcomed change of pace, I would be lying if I didn’t confess that I am still more than a little apprehensive about the content of the Justice Secretary’s proposals when we finally get to hear them.
For a Government committed to building a compassionate ‘One Nation’, at face value a British Bill of Rights seems a strange priority. And he timing of it also appears exceptionally peculiar. As we commence a national conversation about our relationship with the rest of the continent, why risk turning this particular aspect into a fait accompli? It’s also worth remembering that the Human Rights Act is rightly seen as an exemplar piece of legislation – we should treat any plans to remove it cautiously.
However, all that being said, I believe that when the Justice Secretary presents his final plans – whenever that may be – depending on his tone he will be given a fair hearing from people within the Church, regardless of our instinctive hesitations.
Friends of mine within the Conservative Party tell me that the Church and Christian charities are developing a negative reputation within the Government. There is a feeling that we are ‘reactionary’ and ‘superficial’ in our analysis of social policy such as benefit cuts and sanctions. They judge, I understand, that recent reports from bishops and statements by the Trussell Trust have attacked policy without understanding the fundamental issues that need reforming, focusing only on the symptoms and not the cause.
While I’m not sure I entirely recognise this critique – and certainly believe there have been many important messages from the Church in recent years that policy makers have yet to fully hear and address – I do believe that it is the duty of Christians and other advocates of social justice to be open-minded in their approach to new and innovative ideas about building a fairer world.
And that is why I want to argue that, depending on how the Government presses ahead with its plans to create a British Bill of Rights, there are two main reasons why it has a very real chance of attracting support from the UK Church.
Firstly, the Church is not a pressure group or ‘lobby’ with a fixed agenda – or at least it isn’t when it’s at its best. It is an ancient and broad institution that, in its quest to emulate Jesus Christ, seeks a more socially just society. The Church is not in the pocket of any one political party or ideology. If its members can genuinely be convinced that any policy is in the best interests of humanity, they will give it support.
Thoughtful Christians recognise that no one act, document, piece of paper or convention can serve as the final word on rights or liberties. Do we really think that scrapping an act that was not law before 1998 is going to see people lose their basic freedoms? Magna Carta, which we have celebrated recently, was great, progressive and ground-breaking in its day – but no one would argue that it is the last word that could not be bettered. Furthermore our current act has some very obvious flaws and sometimes fails in fulfilling its objectives. To pick just one issue, it provided very little to help same-sex couples who sought to marry – that, as we all know, has required subsequent and much debated legislation.
How then, can the Government proceed in a way that keeps church-goers on board or prevents their heightened opposition? To this conversation, I offer just two thoughts.
- A new British Bill of Rights must be seen as an upgraded, not a scaled-down, commitment. Too much of the current debate seems to centre around the problems caused by the current act, and how we might ‘get out’ of offering people the protection it accords. Call me a cynic, but when most people hear of the plans, they think of a Government wanting to further cut benefits and restrict immigration. Whether or not this is the reality, it’s certainly the perception. What if, instead of all this, there was a narrative around how the Human Rights Act has failed to go far enough? What if the proposed bill stated loud and clear that Female Genital Mutilation was forbidden on these shores? What if it explicitly outlawed forced marriage? What if it introduced a responsibility on business to ensure that all employees are paid a living wage? What if it made it the responsibility of every company to be truly accountable for ensuring that there was no forced, bonded or trafficked labour in their supply chains for goods on our high streets? Instead of being a miserly attempt to strip everything back to a bare minimum, what if it proved to be a charter designed to protect the most vulnerable in 21st Century Britain?
- A new British Bill of Rights must enshrine a commitment to encourage and defend these same rights around the globe – the term ‘British Rights’ strikes a discordant tone for many Christians. However proud of the UK we might be, we fundamentally believe that every human being – whatever country they were born in or belong to – is made in the image of God and has intrinsic worth. A British Bill of Rights can be interpreted, or misinterpreted, as suggesting that people inhabiting these islands are somehow set apart or even superior to our international counterparts. But there is a way around this. At the heart of the new bill, there must be a commitment to not only celebrate these rights in our own country, but to do everything we can to work towards their adoption in law and implementation in practice in each and every nation of the world. Yes, this will lead to us challenging the human rights records of Iran and Turkey. But, it should also see us calling on American states such as Texas to scrap the death penalty.
I am pleased that Michael Gove isn’t rushing. I’m sure he is under no delusion as to the scale of opposition he will encounter from a number of sections of society. But if he and his colleagues can think generously, positively and globally, there is no reason why the UK Church has to be one of them.