Many people who have worked closely with Dominic Raab, have described the Bill of Rights as the justice secretary’s “baby”. Though the bill was only introduced to the House of Commons in June, for many years Raab has been a vocal proponent of repealing the Human Rights Act and replacing it with a Bill of Rights. He even wrote a book on the subject, which was published in 2009.
On Wednesday 14 December, however, during a legislative scrutiny session with the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR), Raab appeared eager to distance himself from the bill. Rebutting the suggestion that the bill was his pet project, he told the committee: “Well, if you want to be precise about it, it was in the 2010 manifesto, 2015 manifesto […] I think it’s a very British thing, not just a Conservative thing.
“I’m very confident that the Bill of Rights is a government proposal, not my proposal, and we have collective responsibility on these things.”
A proposal for the Bill of Rights did appear in both the 2010 and 2015 Conservative manifestos, however the legislation has never materialised until now. The 2019 Conservative manifesto took a step back, pledging only to “update” the Human Rights Act. As justice secretary, Raab has been reportedly a driving force behind bringing the bill into existence.
Yesterday it was revealed that five more bullying complaints have been lodged against Raab, which means that a total of eight complaints are now being investigated by Adam Tolley KC. Raab has rejected the allegations of bullying, stating that he has behaved “professionally throughout”.
Labour has called for Raab to be suspended while the investigation takes place, amid concerns that he has lost the confidence of his department. Today civil servants received an internal job advert for up to ten private secretary roles across the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), including in the deputy prime minister’s office. This comes just weeks after reports that MoJ staff had been offered a “route out” following allegations about Raab’s behaviour.
If Raab were to resign, putting distance between himself and the Bill of Rights may be a way to ensure that Rishi Sunak – who pledged to lead a government with “integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level” – will continue to take the bill forward.
There are concerns, however, over the bill’s effectiveness. Proponents would argue that sweeping constitutional reform in this area is necessary. As I noted earlier this week, the Bill of Rights could strengthen Sunak’s plan to deal with illegal immigration, as the bill could make it easier for the government to override some case law ruled by the European Convention on Human Rights and deport illegal migrants to Rwanda. In Wednesday’s evidence session, Raab told the committee that the bill would aid the deportation of foreign offenders and strengthen freedom of speech laws. Notably, however, he admitted that no current proposed legislation would hinge on a Bill of Rights and that immigration laws must stand on their own.
The bill has also been criticised by some lawyers, human rights groups and experts. Raab’s predecessor Robert Buckland, dubbed it “worse than useless”, while Peter Gross, the former court of appeal judge for England and Wales and chair of the Independent Human Rights Act Review, told the government that the “unwise” bill could not be justified. The government’s public consultation received similar condemnation.
Support from within the government is lacking too. It’s been six months since the bill’s publication and it is still awaiting a second reading. During Liz Truss’s premiership, the bill was abandoned. When Raab was reappointed justice secretary by Rishi Sunak, he tweeted that the bill would return to parliament in “the coming weeks”. A date for its second reading has yet to be announced.
When Joanna Cherry, the chair of the JCHR, asked Raab who would take the bill forward should he leave his post, he responded: “That’s a bunch of hypothetical questions I’m not going to indulge you on.”
The future of a bill that has already been deemed unworkable and unnecessary by many is likely to be bleak. If Raab leaves his post, the Bill of Rights may well die with the departure of its greatest supporter.