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MPs discuss human-rights Bill

08 March 2013

GREATER protection for freedom of thought, conscience, and religion was one of the ten "pillars" of a Bill that would have replaced the Human Rights Act with a UK Bill of Rights and Responsibilities. The Bill was given its second reading in the House of Commons last Friday, but was withdrawn at the end of the debate, and will not progress further.

Presented by the Conservative MP for Dover and Deal, Charlie Elphicke, the Human Rights Act 1998 (Repeal and Substitution) Bill was a Private Members Bill first introduced in June last year. It would have made the UK Supreme Court the final court of law for human-rights matters.

The Bill would have repealed the entrenchment of the European Convention on Human Rights in UK law. UK courts and public authorities would not have had to ensure that their judgments were compatible with Convention rights.

"Human rights today are in crisis, with a substantial majority of British people regarding the Human Rights Act as a charter for criminals and the underserving," Mr Elphicke said last Friday. "A new settlement is needed to restore trust and confidence in human rights."

He cited a poll by YouGov, published in February last year, which found that 72 per cent of respondents agreed that the Human Rights Act had become a "charter for criminals and the undeserving". Among the cases that had "undermined" the public's confidence was that of a Sudanese man who was convicted of raping a 12-year-old girl: he could not be deported owing to the risk of his being maltreated in Sudan.

Mr Elphicke, an Evangelical, set out the "pillars" of the new settlement that he was proposing. Among these was protection for freedom of thought, conscience, and religion: "We have seen too much attack on people's thoughts . . . too much in the way of aggressive secularism, which has sought to attack the Church and attack people with deeply held religious beliefs . . . they should be able to set out and preach what they think."

But, he said, "We cannot have a situation where freedom of religion could possibly be used to promote terrorists." The Bill that he proposed would have reduced the circumstances in which it was permissible to limit the right to manifest religion to the cause or incitement of physical harm to others.

Mr Elphicke said that the Bill sought to ensure that "serious foreign criminals and persons in the UK illegally should not be able to avoid deportation using human-rights claims". It incorporated the right to use force against intruders, and would have denied the right to vote to prisoners, and those who are not British citizens.

It also precluded from the prohibition of slavery and forced labour "any work or training required to be performed as a condition of receiving a welfare benefit".

The Bill's final Article set out six "basic responsibilities", which, Mr Elphicke said, would be taken into account when a person sought to claim one of the rights set out in the Bill. These included "rendering civil or military service when his country requires his support for its defence".

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