UK Liberty

Oral evidence from Jack Straw and Michael Wills on British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities

Posted in Bill of Rights (and Responsibilities), politicians on liberty by ukliberty on June 3, 2008

Uncorrected Oral Evidence given by The Rt Hon Jack Straw MP, Secretary of State and Lord Chancellor and Mr Michael Wills MP, Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (video while it lasts) on Privileges and Obligations Rights and Responsibilities.

Straw and Wills continue to fail to tell us what responsibilities we have or will have.

Some highlights:

Jack Straw: To say what everybody knows intellectually, or if they think about it they appreciate that with rights go responsibilities, with privileges go duties, but it is not necessarily obvious to people because that fact is reflected in parts, although not all explicitly, of the European Convention. Therefore it has certainly been my judgment for a long time, and it is shared now across government, that we should have what amounts to a single text which says yes, these are your rights, but along with rights goes responsibilities. I was asked this question earlier today: how would I explain that in my constituency? I would actually find it very easy

But sadly even though it is “very easy” Jack Straw still hasn’t explained what our responsibilities and duties are.

Also I get the impression that we are going to end up with a non-justiciable bill in terms of rights. Responsibilities on the other hand…

Q423 Chairman: … perhaps on that point you make about Germany having rights that go beyond the Convention, what will the Bill of Rights do that the Human Rights Act does not do? Will it give people additional rights beyond as the general constitution?

Mr Straw: It does two things: one is it brings out that with rights go responsibilities. I could go into this.

I wish he would, rather than rambling on and on.

The Earl of Onslow gives it a shot:

Q425 Earl of Onslow: Secretary of State, those of us who come to the Bill of Rights from what can best be classed as an old-fashioned libertarian state, it seems to me there are two points here: one is the only responsibility the subject has is to obey the law and nothing else, so you cannot legislate for any other responsibility.

Straw doesn’t really understand Paine at all (see older article):

(in his intro) Although the balance between rights and responsibilities is not symmetrical, rights of the Convention kind are those which we have against the otherwise over-weaning power of the state. Responsibilities tend to be more horizontal to your neighbour in the biblical sense as well as to the community which sits above the state. …

Well no, our rights do apply to interactions between individual members of public and there is an obligation on the Government to ensure that we can enjoy them. Also the Government (and community) has responsibilities to us (see later for example).

(so in response to Earl of Onslow)

My Lord, I am not sure where you are putting Tom Paine, but funnily enough I quoted Tom Paine in a lecture I gave in October where he was making the point that it is important that rights and obligations are reciprocal. He said: “A declaration of rights is, by reciprocity, a declaration of duties also. Where there is my right as a man is also the right of another and it becomes my duty to guarantee as well as to possess.”

Well yes, that’s what Paine said – but he didn’t say there was a whole set of additional responsibilities. What he said, contrary to Straw, that rights and duties are symmetrical – they are reciprocal. If you enjoy freedom of speech, for example, it is your duty to ensure others their freedom of speech.

After a while Straw gives us an example of a responsibility:

In the law children and parents have various rights of education. What is also in the law, and we have tightened this, is responsibilities on parents not only to make sure their children go to school, but all sorts of more explicit responsibilities. All parents do not realise this. There is text used in other countries that there is a case – I put it no higher because this is a developing process – for saying to parents yes, you have rights and so have your children but you have also got responsibilities and this is what it says and this is what through representatives and debate has been agreed by the British people.

Dr Harris gives him a hand:

Q436 Dr Harris: On this question of responsibilities – I am not going to go far because I think Lord Morris has some specific questions on this – the state has some responsibilities within the system, for example, to remedy and implement judgments of the Strasbourg Court in good time. The Connors case, the Hurst case, which is actually about citizens who the European Court of Human Rights thinks have a right to vote – some prisoners – and then some of these Northern Ireland cases – Jordan, McKerr, Finucane – they have been sitting around for a long time. In my view the Government has abrogated its responsibilities, its part of the deal, by not sorting these out. Would you accept without taking personal responsibility perhaps that there is a responsibility to do your side of the deal?

Mr Straw: I accept that in general terms, of course, that Parliament has all sorts of responsibilities and, self-evidently, the Executive has responsibilities to meet its obligations in international instruments that we have signed. Our record in terms of compliance with Strasbourg judgments is pretty good and better than some Members of the Council of Europe. We are running a second consultation on prisoners’ voting rights, which is a tricky issue.

Straw is more concerned, I think, with our responsibilities to the state, not the state’s responsibilities to us!

Next Dr Harris asks how he “can possibly claim my rights in a non-selfish way” in relation to the use of this word by Straw & co.

Mr Straw: It is a nice point you have made but I was thinking about the kind of situation which our constituents encounter where, for example, they will encounter bad behaviour by juveniles, sometimes parents who assert the right of their child to do essentially whatever the child wants to regardless of its impact on other people. Getting across the sense in a text that there are responsibilities as well will not overnight for a second change that behaviour but it will actually enable people to have a better argument with such people when they are asserting that they have legal rights, which of course is true. You also remind them that they have responsibilities as well.

Later on Wills weighs in:

Mr Wills: If you focus on the word “claim”, I think what the Secretary of State is saying as well was that these rights are very precious and that there is a tendency among some people to assert them promiscuously and that devalues them.


What is important is that when people lay claim to these things they are precious. They have been fought for, they are rightly entrenched in our society but they are precious and they should be asserted and claimed with a proper sense, as the Secretary of State is saying, of the responsibilities that go with that inevitably.

Q438 Dr Harris: Free speech only if it is responsible.

Mr Wills: That is not what I am saying. You know as well as I do the famous analogy of shouting fire in a crowded theatre.

In fact the analogy is when someone falsely shouts fire in a crowded theatre with the intention of causing panic.

It’s related to unlawfully interfering with others. Of course we have a responsibility to avoid doing that! It is reciprocal to each of us enjoying freedom from unlawful interference.

Baroness Stern later on says “I cannot imagine who this person is” who is promiscuously claiming his rights.

Wills: … The more the majority of the British people feel that these rights somehow privilege unfairly certain groups of people and they are encouraged to do so by people who claim, often usually without any justification whatsoever rights, that is the point. That is what I mean by promiscuous. You can claim these rights but it does not mean that the courts will uphold them. They are often based on a profound misunderstanding of what the Human Rights Act actually does, but we have to be very clear about that. I think that is the point we are trying to get across.

I’m not sure what we can do about people believing the wrong thing except better education and persuading the media to stop (wrongly) banging on about how awful it is that immigrants (for example) are complaining about changes in immigration rules (you know the newspapers I mean). I’m not sure how this fits into the topic of a British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities – I’m not sure how we can ensure an aggrieved person doesn’t ‘selfishly’ claim his rights when we all ‘know’ that he doesn’t really deserve them. Doesn’t this go with the territory? It is for the courts to decide whether or not he has a case.

This point develops later, from Straw’s response to Lord Morris answering the point about shouting fire in a crowed theatre and asking “will the exercise of responsible behaviour go further, as you see it, than just obeying the law?”

Straw: If you are saying what duties are going to be enforceable, by definition anyone’s wish can be enforced which impose an obligation on individuals which are the subject of enforcement either by the criminal or civil law. That is a tautologous statement of obvious truth. There is a wider issue here which is how do you better get people to live as neighbours in the biblical sense to understand that they do have responsibilities to people they are living alongside and that of course the law is the longstop as a way of arbitrating these disputes, but to enable people to be better neighbours. Upbringing and all sorts of things play a fundamental part in this and also the conditions in which people are living.

This doesn’t seem like a legal problem to me but a social one, particularly if the responsibilities are non-justiciable. Is this just another case of using the law to “send a message”? I think it is. It is quite sad.

Lord Morris then pursues a line of questioning relating to whether you will be allowed to enjoy your rights if the state finds that you have not held to your responsibilities. Straw’s reply (after the third question), in short, is that “it depends”:

Going back to my education example, children have rights and parents are the means by which those rights are exercised, but the parents also have responsibilities. In practice now, but in any kind of encapsulation of rights to education, rights for children, these two will need to be balanced. I am not anticipating that such a statement of rights would be directly justiciable but it would be interpretive and when it came to remedies in respect of explicit rights I would hope the courts would take into account how far parents had exercised and showed responsibility that these things are not a one-way street.

Wills later says,

Rights are not contingent on discharge of responsibilities. In answer to your checklist, no, of course not, but there are consequences for people not fulfilling their responsibilities and the Secretary of State just sent it out. The fact that some of those consequences may actually mean that one of your rights is temporarily forfeited, if it is not the same thing, the punishment is in the law. The basic human rights say the same and so they should. It does not mean there is no value in articulating responsibilities for all the reasons the Secretary of State has so cogently outlined.

So in plain (indeed, correct and unequivocal) English, Labour want rights to be contingent in some circumstances on discharge of responsibilities.

Wills says something rather annoying about freedom of information:

Q443 Earl of Onslow: The answer is I completely agree with the Human Rights Act. I want it to be better. I do not think the Human Rights Act goes far enough.

Mr Wills: This Government does fundamentally agree with you in a whole range of ways, not just on the Human Rights Act, but the Freedom of Information Act gives huge power to the individual to be stroppy, as you say, against the state and that is right and proper and we are proud of it all.

The individual can be stroppy but it will be years before he is satisfied (if ever) given the propensity of our lovely government to only free information when it suits them, fighting all the way if it doesn’t. Is Wills proud of the fuss over MPs’ expenses? Is he proud of the fuss over the OGC ID Card Scheme Gateway Reviews?

It is all very well having these aspirations in legislation but if it doesn’t mean anything to Government what is it supposed to mean to us?


2 Responses

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  1. […] at the Ministry of Justice with responsibility for Freedom of Information, was only the day saying how “proud” he was of it all.  Trebles all […]

  2. […] Again, our responsibilities / duties are directly reciprocal to our rights and freedoms – that is, if you enjoy freedom of speech, you should let others speak, and you should also stand up for their freedom of speech. […]

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