On 24th May 2016 the Bishop of St Albns, Rt Revd Alan Smith, spoke in the third day of debate on the Queen’s Speech. The Bishop focused on human rights issues, including the proposed new Bill of Rights, prison reform, counter-extremism and investigatory powers.
The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, in response to Her Majesty’s gracious Speech I will make just a few points on the subject of human rights, rights which from my perspective arise from the inherent and God-given dignity of every human being. In 1213, St Albans Cathedral was the setting for the first meeting of the bishops and barons which was to lead, two years later, to the sealing of Magna Carta, the 800th anniversary of which we celebrated just last year as a foundational document in the history of human rights.
However, the proposals for a British Bill of Rights to replace the Human Rights Act make me question whether the celebrations last June were something of a missed opportunity.
When would there have been a better chance to educate the public about Britain’s historical and intellectual contribution to the European Convention on Human Rights, or to dispel the myths and misperceptions that surround the Human Rights Act? It is deeply to be regretted that this educational opportunity was missed. I appreciate that what has been announced now is merely a period of consultation on the Bill of Rights. However it is difficult to imagine what the Government can hope to achieve. At best, the Bill of Rights will be the Human Rights Act dressed up in expensive new clothing or, at worst, it will seek to curtail rights already enshrined within the European convention, a position which would be wholly opposed to the spirit of Magna Carta, a major part of which was to hold the Executive to account.
I am as aware as anyone that human rights are not always easy for Governments. I am sure it can be very tedious when the possibility of inhumane treatment prevents the Government from extraditing those who would bring harm to our country. However, treating our enemies with the fundamental human dignity that they would seek to deny to us is exactly the sort of British value that I hope this Government will promote, whatever form the Bill of Rights eventually takes.
Finally, I will comment briefly on three further Bills that I hope will also place human rights concerns at their very heart. First, I hope that, within the very welcome proposals on prison reform and prisoner rehabilitation, there might be an opportunity for us to think afresh about the voting rights of prisoners. I recognise that this has been a contentious, and indeed very unpopular, issue. However, there is a positive case for voting reform that has perhaps become lost among wider angst at the perceived activism of the European court. If we are serious about the process of rehabilitating prisoners, part of that must be to help them exercise their democratic rights.
Secondly, I highlight my concern that, unless we simply roll over and the terrorists win, the counter- extremism Bill has to guard free speech, and promote and find a way to adequately define British values. That will not be an easy task. Indeed, we need to look very closely at definition, which will be the sticking point over this Bill. How are we going to define extremism in a culture where we want people to have strong debate?
Finally, I want to highlight the Investigatory Powers Bill, which is already before the other place. Clearly, it is no easy task to find the right balance between the rights of the individual to live free from state intrusion and the needs of the state to maintain surveillance capacity in a rapidly changing technological environment. Given the ease with which surveillance matters can become politicised, I particularly welcome the increased role for judicial oversight of powers, and I hope we can think of ways to strengthen this oversight as the Bill passes through Parliament.