Justice Secretary Jack Straw made a statement yesterday on a Green Paper entitled: "Rights and Responsibilities: developing our constitutional framework".
The Green Paper presents arguments for a written constitution. Mr Straw said:
"Duties and responsibilities are to be found in the convention, in statute, in common law and woven deeply into our social and moral fabric. We have a latent understanding and acceptance of our duties to one another and to the state. That said, responsibilities have been a poor cousin to rights. The Green Paper proposes that responsibilities are given greater prominence in our constitutional arrangements, better to articulate what we owe, as much as what we expect. That is how we can move away from a “rights culture” to a “rights and responsibilities culture”.
Some responsibilities are obvious, such as obeying the law, paying taxes and undertaking jury service. Others are less obviously recalled at the moment they should be exercised, such as a responsibility towards future generations to live within environmental limits, the duty we have to protect the well-being of children in our care, a civic duty to vote, responsibilities towards our neighbours, respect for those public sector workers who care for us and a responsibility towards the taxpayer—for example, not claiming benefits if one is able to work.
A key question set out in the Green Paper is whether any Bill should have, directly or indirectly, the force of law. Bills of Rights from around the world are a combination of symbolism, aspiration and law across a spectrum of legal effect. There need not be a binary choice between the justiciable and the declaratory. As the Green Paper points out, the Government do not necessarily consider a model of directly legally enforceable rights or responsibilities to be the most appropriate."
Shadow Justice Secretary Dominic Grieve responded for the Conservatives.
"I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. It was not in fact needed, as it was all in The Sunday Times. Yet again, even on serious matters of constitutional reform, this Government demonstrate their disdain for this House by first announcing policy to the media.
We have had a decade of botched constitutional reform from this Government. The Justice Secretary was there from the start, and now he has been instructed by the Prime Minister to clear up the mess. In truth, there can be only two reasons for this Green Paper, which he says sets the framework of debate. Has he come to the House because he accepts that the Human Rights Act, which has been in force for less than nine years, has proved badly flawed, and that new thought is needed? Or is the statement just the latest exercise in pure spin, designed to make absolutely no difference in practice?
The Human Rights Act has fuelled a rights inflation; it requires UK judges to take a maximalist approach to the interpretation of convention rights that is not, in fact, required by membership of the European convention on human rights, and that has created confusion and uncertainty in practice.
Will he take responsibility for the Act’s role in undermining social responsibility, as the Government oversell human rights as all things to all people? If so, how exactly will his proposals make a difference to all that?
The Justice Secretary could not put off coming to the House for ever. We have waited more than 14 months for this announcement, which has been put back time and again, scuppered each time, we are told, by his colleagues. In a vain effort to say something—anything—on how to reform the Human Rights Act, he has produced a Green Paper that can only make matters worse. May I suggest to him that on the evidence of the Green Paper, he really would be well advised to heed colleagues’ warnings? That would be better than trying to create more confusion, and undermining yet again the democratic prerogatives of this House and, above all, the clarity of the law. The Green Paper has just one saving grace: it will not result in any legislation this side of a general election—in other words, it is for the birds."