24 March 2009

The Bill of Wrongs

Jack Straw launched a consultation paper on the proposed Bill of Rights yesterday and in doing so offered up a document which summarises New Labour's arrogance, hubris, authoritarianism, megalomania and downright stupidity in one place.

In the interest of fairness, I will acknowledge that this is a consultation document and therefore not official policy, but the really stomach churning sections aren't in the proposals, they're in the assumptions surrounding them, particularly in the press release accompanying the document[
1]:

The paper lists some of the responsibilities we have, and asks if some should be explicitly stated in a single document, including: obeying the law ...

Straight out of the trap, we have a masterpiece of stupidity. What is the point of a law which tells you that you have to obey the law? If you didn't already know that you have to obey the law, then presumably you'd think this new law is optional too. Maybe we should add another law which says you have to obey the law which says you have to obey the law.

...participating in civic society through voting and jury service

So compulsory voting is on the agenda. Very handy when low turnouts are threatening the government's authority. Even the most innocuous of statements are at odds with New Labour's track record:

We believe it is important that people know their rights and their responsibilities.

Well yes, one of the fundamental principles of the rule of law is that people should be able to understand the obligations that the law places on them, but the sheer weight of legislation enacted over the last twelve years, particularly the constant revisions, has rendered that pretty much impossible. A perfect example of the problem was detailed at the "Usefully Employed" blog[
2], which is written by a barrister who presumably has to wade through the legislative sludge on a daily basis. The press release goes on to say:

We also believe that there could be merit in bringing together rights such as free health care...

The phrase "free healthcare" is a misnomer. It isn't free of cost, it is just that the cost isn't paid at the point of use. Now, lots of people think that "free healthcare" is a good idea, but that doesn't make it a fundamental right. To try to make a fundamental right out of what is rightly a matter of political policy is offensive to democracy, particularly when it depends on using other people's money to satisfy it. Of course, it is a nonsense too. We have never had completely free healthcare. Prescriptions, eye care, dentistry, etc. have to be paid for, in part of whole, at the point of use. Even if those things were free at the point of use, for all healthcare to be free at the point of use, the state would not be able to limit the care it provides, not matter how expensive it is or how unlikely it is to be successful. "Free healthcare" would be impossible to satisfy as a right, unless the government outlawed all healthcare other than that delivered by the state.

I've no desire to unpick the main document page by page, as it isn't much different in substance to the original implications which I criticised when addressing the Falkland Islands constitution[
3]. The key problem now, as then, is that this proposal goes beyond the rightful territory of a constitutional document, which is specifying negative obligations (things the government mustn’t do) and begins to introduce positive obligations (things the government must do), which should be a matter for the electorate of the day to control. In essence, the government is trying to entrench elements of its own manifesto in constitutional law so that future governments are limited in their ability to reverse those policy decisions. That is undemocratic.

The one section I do want comment on specifically, because it speaks volumes about the government's mentality, is this comment on page 42[
4]:

The measures in the current Welfare Reform Bill are based on the simple idea that support should be matched with responsibility. They seek to renew the partnership between the state and the individual

Only a government drunk on power and completely out of touch with its purpose would ever publicly describe the relationship between the state and the individual as a partnership. It should never be viewed as a relationship of equals; the role of the state is to serve the electorate. Maybe they'll go the whole hog and rename Civil Servants as Civil Partners. Maybe we'll all be made to go through a Civil Partnership ceremony to promise to love, honour and respect them, although, as the press release suggests making it a responsibility to treat public sector staff with respect, it seems the government is planning to do that on our behalf anyway.

Dominic Grieve dismissed the proposals as "pap" [
5] and I don't think I can improve on either the accuracy or the succinctness of the description.

1.
http://www.justice.gov.uk/news/newsrelease230309a.htm
2.
http://blog.usefullyemployed.co.uk/2009/02/10/will-ignorance-of-the-law-become-an-excuse/
3.
http://plockett.blogspot.com/2008/11/new-falkland-islands-constitution.html
4.
http://www.justice.gov.uk/docs/rights-responsibilities.pdf
5.
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/7959471.stm

1 comment:

Vindico said...

I completely agree with you. I find the whole idea of a "Bill of Rights" terrifying. All it will do is enshrine rights as opposed to liberties, and create a tangled legal mess from which we will never recover as a society.