Leading article: Constitutional rights and wrongs

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Eighteen months after we were promised a new "Bill of Rights", the Government has finally delivered a Green Paper on the subject. The delay has been put down to the innate complexities of constitutional reform and the need to consult the Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland assemblies.

But there are some other reasons why a draft Bill has taken so long to emerge which ministers have chosen not to mention. These include a cabinet revolt led last year by the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith.

In December, Ms Smith warned that any legally binding statement of "rights and responsibilities" might lead to legal challenges against the Government. Gordon Brown should have listened to the cabinet rebels and shelved this plan when he had the chance.

Yesterday's Green Paper proposes a Bill which will bring together many existing legal rights in a single document. This might sound like a good idea, but it is largely an exercise in repeating the provisions of the 1998 Human Rights Act. As for the "responsibilities" section, does the Government, for instance, really need to restate our duty to "pay taxes" and "obey the law"?

The Green Paper also suggests we should have new economic and social "rights" such as access to free healthcare and a right to "equality", but these statements are so vague as to be largely meaningless. At the other extreme, they could open the door to undesirable judicial activism.

For all the grand constitutional clothing of this Green Paper, it is essentially a political exercise. The idea of a new Bill of Rights and responsibilities was first proposed by Mr Brown when he was Chancellor, to counter a Tory criticism that the Human Rights Act was impeding Britain's ability to deal with illegal migrants and imposing unacceptable costs on business.

Yet what has emerged from this political calculation looks like a half-baked – and possibly dangerous – attempt to create a legacy by a struggling government. Our freedoms, stated or unwritten, should not be used as party political weapons.