Table of contents
This briefing focuses on:
- bills announced by the Government that have not yet been introduced; and
- policy announcements on constitutional affairs that may be the subject of future legislation.
1. Bills announced by the Government that have not yet been introduced
1.1 Human Rights Act 1998 reform and new bill of rights
In December 2021, the Government published plans to reform the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA).
The HRA brought certain rights and freedoms of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into UK law. The ECHR is an international treaty launched by the Council of Europe that set minimum standards for protecting human rights. The basic human rights of the ECHR are set out in the HRA and include the right to life and right to a fair trial, amongst others. The Council of Europe is not part of the European Union but is a separate international organisation that promotes human rights, democracy and the rule of law.
Proposals to “revise and replace the HRA with a bill of rights” were contained in a Ministry of Justice consultation, Human Rights Act Reform: A Modern Bill of Rights, that ran from 14 December 2021 until 19 April 2022. This said the new bill of rights would do several things, including:
- retain all substantive rights under the ECHR and HRA, with some rights (such as freedom of expression) being strengthened under the new bill, and others (such as the right to trial by jury) being added;
- enable UK courts to apply human rights in a UK context, taking account of UK common law traditions and judicial practice as an additional consideration to the case law of the European Court of Human Rights (Strasbourg Court);
- provide greater clarity regarding the interpretation of certain rights, such as the right to respect for private and family life;
- make sure that the UK courts are not required to alter or interpret legislation contrary to Parliament’s clearly expressed democratic will;
- safeguard the protection of the right to life and the absolute prohibition on torture, confirming that people should not be deported to face torture (or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment) abroad, whilst ensuring that other rights in the HRA cannot be used to frustrate the deportation of serious criminals and terrorists; and
- introduce a permission stage for human rights claims to ensure “spurious cases” do not undermine public confidence in human rights.
The Government said the aim of the bill of rights would be to strike a balance between individuals’ rights, personal responsibility and the wider public interest. It said the reforms would help to “reverse the mission creep” of human rights laws being increasingly used for a wider range of purposes.
However, the Government emphasised that the UK would remain faithful to the basic principles of human rights. It also said the UK would remain a party to the ECHR and continue to respect its international obligations to uphold human rights and democracy across the world.
1.2 Background to the proposed HRA reforms
Discussions about reforming the HRA are not new and have developed over time. In 2006, the then Leader of the Opposition, David Cameron, raised concerns about the impact the HRA was having on fighting crime and terrorism. He also described the HRA as inadequate for protecting freedom.
Several years later, the Conservative Party’s 2010 manifesto included a pledge to replace the HRA with a UK bill of rights. However, this legislation did not make it into the coalition agreement.
The Conservative Party’s 2019 manifesto included a commitment to update the HRA and administrative law and look at the balance between the rights of individuals, national security and effective government in the UK.
The Government launched an independent review into the HRA in December 2020. A panel chaired by a previous Lord Justice of Appeal, Peter Gross, considered how the HRA was working in practice and whether changes were needed. The independent review’s final report, published in December 2021, included a package of reforms to the operation of the HRA. The chair said the recommendations aimed to put the UK’s common law and case law at “centre stage”.
Following the independent review of the HRA report, the Government launched the aforementioned Ministry of Justice consultation on the bill of rights.
- House of Lords Library, ‘Reforming the Human Rights Act 1998’, 8 February 2022
2. Government announcements that may be the subject of legislation
2.1 Restoration and renewal Sponsor Body
The Palace of Westminster requires substantial repair and restoration work. Following years of exploratory investigations, in 2016 a Joint Committee on the Palace of Westminster published a report setting out options for the restoration and renewal of the Palace. In 2018, Parliament agreed a motion approving the next step of work on restoration and renewal. This motion included an endorsement of the joint committee’s recommendation of a full decant of the Palace (that is, the relocation of staff and members to alternative premises during the works).
In October 2019, the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act 2019 provided for a Sponsor Body to take responsibility for the programme of works. The Sponsor Body acted in shadow form from July 2018 to April 2020, when it was formally established once the act had received royal assent. The Sponsor Body’s strategic review, which also recommended a full decant of the Palace of Westminster, was published in March 2021.
In April 2021, the House of Commons Commission asked the Sponsor Body to assess the impact of maintaining a continued presence in the Palace of Westminster throughout the works. The Sponsor Body prepared an initial assessment of the implications for the cost and schedule of a continued presence of parliamentarians in the building. In January 2022, the House of Commons Commission expressed concern about the conclusions of this analysis.
In February 2022, the House of Commons Commission proposed replacing the Sponsor Body with a new department of both Houses which would be accountable to the clerks of both Houses and their commissions. At a joint meeting in March 2022, the commissions of the two Houses agreed a “new approach” to the restoration and renewal programme. As such, the commissions agreed to seek independent advice and assurance on the new approach to the works, as well as on proposals to take forward the commissions’ decision to replace the Sponsor Body. They said that before the summer recess they would seek a revised mandate for the works and changes to the sponsorship function from the two Houses.
On 27 April 2022, a communique sent to members and staff on behalf of both House administrations said that if members supported that motion, legislation would be required to transfer the Sponsor Body’s functions to an alternative entity. The transfer could be made by a statutory instrument made under the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act 2019. The message also said that options were being worked up on the assumption that changes to the act would be limited to those that could be made by statutory instrument.