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UK justice secretary outlines proposed 'rights and responsibilites' legislation

[JURIST] UK Justice Secretary Jack Straw [official website] Monday outlined draft legislation [materials] that would officially recognize certain "rights and responsibilities" for British citizens. The legislation described in a government green paper [PDF text] prior to public consultations would formally declare a number of rights which already exist in the country including access to medical care, education, and housing, as well as certain rights for victims of crime. It would also set out responsibilities expected of citizens, including the duties to vote, pay taxes, obey laws, and serve on juries. Straw said that the bill would not create new causes of action for citizens who had been denied these rights, nor against those who failed to perform otherwise non-mandatory duties, but would instead serve as an official declaration of their importance to the operation of the country and government:

Bills of rights all over the world have demonstrated great symbolic and cultural importance, in the face of threats and challenge to a country’s stability and system of values.

From the Magna Carta in 1215 and the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320, the later Bill of Rights and Scottish Claim of Right in 1689, the great Reform Acts of the 19th and early 20th centuries, through to more recent landmarks, such as the foundation of the National Health Service as part of the welfare state, our history illustrates the proud traditions of liberty on which our current framework of democratic rights and responsibilities is built.

We are living through a period of change – technologically, demographically, economically, socially and culturally. At such times of change, constitutional protections for fundamental rights and freedoms and the articulation of responsibilities can offer security. A new constitutional instrument, reflecting the values that give rise to these rights and responsibilities, could act as an anchor for people in the UK.
Some who oppose the bill have criticized it [BBC report] for lacking substance because the rights will not be enforceable, while others have said it does too much to entrench large social entitlements. A revised draft of the bill is expected in 2010 after consultations are concluded.

The bill has long been a goal of UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and in a 2008 interview [JURIST report], Straw said it was part of a process [JURIST report] of "moving towards a written constitution" for the UK. The UK currently has no single overarching constitutional document or rights charter, although its working "unwritten constitution" includes a variety of fundamental documents such as the Magna Carta [text]. The opposition Liberal Democrats have long pushed for a written constitution, but the idea has only recently gained support among Labour and Conservative [JURIST report] party leaders. A British Bill of Rights would supplement but not replace the 1998 Human Rights Act [text] implementing for the UK the European Convention on Human Rights.

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