While on balance I think that no charter is the right decision, the process of drafting and debating it would have had one distinct advantage over the chosen policy path. This would have been to focus attention on which interests and freedoms really deserved to achieve quasi-constitutional status as ‘human rights’, and which were things that should be the stuff of ordinary political debate.
Instead, the government has decided that ‘human rights’ are all the contents of the seven international rights treaties that have been signed on our behalf by various executives (this is not a democratic process; treaties do not require ratification by parliament). New legislation and delegated legislation will need to have a statement that ‘assesses its compatibility’ with these treaties.
The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in particular has provisions that are, as Jeremy Bentham famously described rights, ‘nonsense upon stilts’. It is a social democratic wish-list. Take for example this one on higher education:
(c) Higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education;
Or this one on maternity leave:
2. Special protection should be accorded to mothers during a reasonable period before and after childbirth. During such period working mothers should be accorded paid leave or leave with adequate social security benefits.
Both these issues involve complex trade-offs, which legislators should make in the context of current social science evidence and competing priorities. They are not sensible things to include in an international treaty, and they are not ‘human rights’. Yet presumably under the government’s new policy legislative provisions authorising fees will score an adverse compatibility with human rights report. These ‘rights’ could also be included in the national curriculum (yet another reason it is a bad idea).
I think the Opposition should reject even this compromise unless the government draws up a shorter, more defensible, list of ‘rights’.