back to article Joint Committee gets it (mainly) wrong on human rights

The Joint Committee on Human Rights delivered its 29th report at the weekend on the vexed question of whether the UK should adopt a “Bill of Rights”, and if so, how. Make yourselves comfortable - it's a long one. It is said that the Ten Commandments could be expressed in a mere 300 words - the American Declaration of …


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  1. bobbles31

    Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn.....

    I have come to the conclusion that the Government in this country is corrupt to the core. The only use for party politics (and it looks exactly like a party to me) is that there are less people for rich people and huge corporations to bribe.

    Parliament, the Lords and the Royalty should all be wiped away and replaced with something less corruptable and preferably makes greater use of referendums for anything more serious than the level of fine issued for dropping litter.

    Yes, this would involve the sheeples of the UK stepping up and voting on individual issues, but then I like the Australian system of it being a legal requirement to vote, whilst almost making it ridiculously easy to vote. (Are we the only western nation that still votes on a Thursday so as not to disturb the over paid underworked civil service employees weekends?)

    Maybe if people starting taking an active role in the direction and actions of the country as a whole they might like the idea of personal responsibility and start taking responsibility for their own direction and actions. Also, if we still end up with a shit country then it is definately no ones fault but our own.

    Maybe I will just emmigrate instead and simply stop contributing to the trough that the pigs all have their nose in.

  2. Neil Hoskins

    Bill of Responsibilities

    I suggest:

    - After a lifetime of drugs, drink, and fags, I shouldn't expect the same healthcare as somebody who was more careful

    - Being out of my head is not mitigation if I commit a crime.

    - My responsibility to protect life, limb, and property is more important than my right to drive like a twat.

    - Believing in Christ, Mohammed, the Easter Bunny, or other deity does not make me a better person or give me more rights than somebody who doesn't.

  3. The BigYin

    I can see it now

    You have the right to :

    1. be fingerprinted at every turn

    2. have your DNA indexed in a database

    3. be under constant surveillance

    4. be silent and obey all laws without question

    5. be denied any all assistance should none of the preceding rights be exercised

    6. sub-standard schooling

    7. dirty hospitals

    8. be denied life-extending medication

    9. live in penury without a proper state pension

    10. pay increasing taxes to keep MPs in the lifestyle they wish to become accustomed to.

    Or is that just the joint manifest of the Tory and Labour parties?

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    How very very silly...

    The Magna Carta gose to show how we cannot have a bill of rights based on the current world.

    I feel that we should have one, but very limited in scope and very clear in wording with rights that cannot be argued against in any fair and free country.

    For example, we should have in some way:

    The right to a fair trial

    The right to not be held without trial or representation.

    The right to know why you are being held and for how long, prior to being charged.

    The right to a free, fair and open democratic process.

    Not things like the right to use the NHS, or higher education. These are nice things, but not fundamental rights that will stand the test of time.

    It seems the government are thinking about wether these things will be important in 10 or 20 years, but a bill of rights should be so fundamental that they should be important in 100 or 1000 years, unchanged. Anything else is nothing more than new (or old) legislation under a popular name.)

  5. David Harper

    572 words

    The U.S. Bill of Rights is 572 words long, excluding the preamble, and it guarantees basic freedoms such as freedom of speech, religion and assembly, and the right to a fair trial, and it forbids cruel and unusual punishment. Moreover, it seems to have stood the test of time.

    Why are our legislators unable to frame a guarantee of basic human rights as succinctly as that?

    (We could probably drop the second clause, though.)

  6. Paul

    @The BigYin

    "Or is that just the joint manifest of the Tory and Labour parties"

    Na. They would never say anything as clearly as that. Give yourself a few days on Whale song, Joss sticks and dobble Expresso, re-write, add a few lies, and then come back.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Computer says no

    "Compare that with the present government’s plans to use ID checks to prevent individuals leaving if they have unpaid fines."

    So another punishment without judicial process, given on the spot fines are issued without judicial process and that HMGov issues automatic fines when the computer says it hasn't received some form within some deadline.

    So HM Border Controls will check the passport, "Computer says no" and send them back on their way to the outramp?

    Another sure fire vote winner Jacqui, why you're so talented, Labour are sure to win the next election. And it's all thanks to you Jacqui!

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    We should have the right to....

    ...line up the entire cabinet against a wall a shoot them if we think they aren't doing what they said when they wanted to be elected and we can get more than a million votes to make it democratic. I reckon online voting every quarter should do the trick.

    P.S. When I had joint with a few friends, we never called it a "committee".

  9. John Band

    Universal unchanging rights throughout time? Err, yeah.

    "a bill of rights should be so fundamental that they should be important in 100 or 1000 years, unchanged"

    In which case, it would consist of " ".

    We've only had democracy since 1928, FFS - how's that any different from state-funded hospitals and universities?

  10. Gideon Hallett

    The spirit of which age?

    "...a Bill of Rights “could provide explicit recognition that human rights come with responsibilities and must be exercised in a way that respects the human rights of others”. While this is very politically correct, and probably reflects the spirit of the age very well..."

    - provided that 'the age' in question is the nineteenth century; specifically the year 1854.

    It's nothing more than a legal restatement of one of the central points of J. S. Mill's 'On Liberty'; that individual A's rights to act do not supercede individual B's rights not to suffer the consequences of A's act without their consent.

    Gosh, those pesky politically-correct mid-Victorian liberals...

  11. frank

    @ bill of responsibilities

    "- After a lifetime of drugs, drink, and fags, I shouldn't expect the same healthcare as somebody who was more careful"

    Shurely shome mishtake.

    "- After a lifetime of drugs, drink, and fags, I should expect to be welcomed into the hospital on a plush red carpet as I have paid the taxes of a dozen of my whingeing teetotal killjoy brethren."

    2007 tax revenue from tobacco: £9.3Bn

    2007 tax revenue from alcohol: £15Bn

    Cost to NHS from tobacco related diseases: £1.5Bn

    From same BBC news article

    Cost to NHS from alcohol related diseases and accidents: £3Bn

    Total revenue: £24.3Bn

    Total cost: £4.5Bn

    The numbers speak for themselves really.

    Heart, because I wouldn't seek to deny NHS treatment to teetotal non-smokers because my sclerotic arteries don't need the additional load of pushing them out of bed.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    An important distinction in the US...

    The bill of rights, and constitution, don't exist to enumerate the rights of the people, but rather to impose limits on the power of the government.

    The power of the government flows from the people, rather than the government deigning to 'allow' these rights.

    (This is why Bush has been spending a lot of time overseas recently.)

  13. Richard

    Let them have their fun

    They'll right it, print it, bind it with gold leaf, then hold it high and say "Yay! We have formalised your rights, you lucky plebs" today.

    ...then tomorrow it'll be hanging on a nail and string in number 10's lav.

    [Gloomy stops off to get a coffee]

  14. Anonymous Coward

    Why should anyone want to emulate the US?

    We clearly need to base our rights on the US system, so we can all enjoy the freedom to buy heavy weaponry in a local carboot sale and zip off down to Asda to kill a few dozen random shoppers 'cos we're really pissed an missing Eastenders last night!

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @John Band

    "We've only had democracy since 1928,"

    What where when? I asume you are trying to be clever with that, with the 1928 Equal Franchise Act. Very funny. Grow up. Or are you sugesting that in future Voteing rights might change, yet we will retain the NHS in its current form?

  16. Mike Richards Silver badge

    Finally something good from America - the Bill of Rights

    The first ten amendments to the US Constitution; incredibly powerful, incredibly simple and incredibly well written. What more would we need?

    Of course the US Constitution was written by geniuses who possessed a clear moral vision and an almost unparalleled command of the English language - we have the likes of David Milliband and Hazel Blears who are devoid of either.

  17. Anonymous Coward

    RE: John Band cont...

    Sorry all, I shoulden't feed the troll, but... Somehow you seem to have got the idea that I was listing what MUST be in there, but it was just examples. If you wanted to make a joke about what I said please put a joke icon or smily icon to make it clear you are not just a twat. Internation and tone don't tend to come across very well in writing.

  18. W.S. Burroughs

    appropriate & reasonable

    Appropriately arguable & reasonably unreliable, a lawyer's wet-dream indeed. I have seen contracts thrown out because they contained the seemingly innocuous 'reasonable'; seems such an obliging, helpful word but it's meaning is entirely subjective & gives me learned friend a lifetime of work as a quibble-point.

    & besides, it all sounded like anodyne rubbish: We happy citizens can expect government to achieve appropriate KPIs within a reasonable timeframe, based on best-value service provision analysis...

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Wrong time for rights...

    The place for a Bill of Rights is in the heady afterglow of revolution when the blood of the right, and the blood of the wrong, and the blood of the disinterested bystander who turned left instead of right at the Chistlewick crossroads, mingle to fertilize the mighty oak of nationhood. When the red mist lifts and the vacated battlefield is revealed in all its bloody turmoil, the wisdom of hindsight descends on the most hardbitten warrior - usually in the form of a "List of things that would have disinclined me to skewering that chap with a halberd". At a time and place of moment and emotional extremity such a list often presents itself as a "Bill of Rights" and the mighty oak grows.

    From the modern battlefield of the "rat race" - where swimsuit season cellulite cuts swathes through the advancing infantry and poor cellphone coverage rains down on the huddled yeomen and even the most steadfast knight can be unhorsed by a railway timetabling error to the chest - the best you can possibly hope for is a Bill of Gripes in a million volumes. One for every twisted misanthrope who can find some poor sap to listen. That kind of dung only grows toadstools and cholera.

    I demand the right to poke kids with sticks until they leave me alone.

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Rights defined by lack of definitions too

    "It's nothing more than a legal restatement of one of the central points of J. S. Mill's 'On Liberty'; that individual A's rights to act do not supercede individual B's rights not to suffer the consequences of A's act without their consent."

    Normal world defines a right "right to free speech". This is a very common right, because words are words and there's no idea I can express in words that does you any real harm.

    NuLabour comes along, adds a right to not be offended. Effectively they're adding a right to nullify the freedom of speech simply by claiming to be offended by something someone said. This is classic A grade, Blair plop.

    That's why it's dangerous to let NuLabour define NuRights, because they're a bunch of Blairist lawyers. They simply assert there is a consequence X to A's actions, then assert a right of B to prevent that consequence.

    Vague, unprovable rights, like a right not to be offended (i.e. right to force censorship on others) right not to suffer anti-social behaviour (i.e. right to be intolerant), right not to be afraid of suspected terrorists (i.e. right to be a racist), right not to be afraid of rape (i.e. right to make slanderous accusations), right not to see drunken behaviour (i.e. right to force prohibition on others)....

    It's like when the Home Office defined it's role as to "Help people feel secure in their homes and local communities;" i.e. marketing and spin. It's not about making people secure, it's about helping people feel secure, i.e. change their perception not the reality.

  21. Dave Bell

    What a load of plonkers

    Making the NHS a right is stupid. Making it a right that we are treated equally under the law is not.

    The trouble is that we don't have a constitution. We don't have some special law which is somehow protected from change. Under the English system, at least, any law can be changed by Parliament. Nobody can limit a future Parliament.

    The US Bill of Rights is a part of their Constitution. It can be changed, but the change needs to follow a defined special process, which is not easy. Arguably, this had led to a Supreme Court which has been corrupted to subvert those protections, but the formal changes are infrequent.

    A Bill of Rights which is just an Act of Parliament is worthless. Parliament just passes another Defence of the Realm Act, and the rights vanish.

  22. P. J. Isserlis
    Thumb Down

    Whole emphasis is wrong

    I am against a written statement of rights, whatever one calls it: bill, constitution ....

    Why? Because any form of list is a limitation. It means that anything not listed is not allowed or guaranteed. It means an aeon of legal argument about what the list means as individuals interpret it and time and fashion pass. Who on earth are you or anyone else to tell me what my rights are? Am I vulnerable to legal sanction if my actions, however innocent, harmless, good even, are not listed as rights that I can exercise?

    To me it is blatantly obvious that, whereas it is necessary for society to say what is not allowed in order to live as part of that society (e.g. murder, theft, fraud) or to state specific obligations (e.g. pay taxes), it is very big-brotherish to tell me what I am allowed to do, with the clear implication that nothing else is allowed, whether through oversight, carelessness or malice during the drawing up of the list.

    It is clear to me that it is restriction of rights that needs to be debated in depth and that no earthly power can "grant" me rights that all people are born into, with or without a state. Would an ID card be a right or a requirement or a limitation of my freedom? Does a legal requirement for one translate into a right for me to be given one (free of charge if it is both a right and a requirement)? Would I have no "right" to refuse one or do other rights depend upon holding one?

    Just what is "reasonable" or "appropriate"? In whose judgement, by what measure? In today's British economy and health service, one may claim that two years on a waiting list for a hip replacement or heart surgery are "reasonable". Luckily, I live in a country where more than a week or two is thought unreasonable.

    A final couple of thoughts: how on earth can one guarantee by statute such things as access to a health service, that depend upon the state of the society that must provide it? I sometimes think the US constitution is particularly nonsensical: some things along the lines "right to the pursuit of happiness" as if happiness can be defined in some universal way. And just what may I do in that pursuit? What would a right to adequate housing mean? A three bedroom house in the shires for an average family? A bed in a hostel? Who judges such things?

    I gather that the former USSR had an admirable, written constitution, one of the best. Propaganda aside, the USA has some of the worst, most abject poverty, corruption and living conditions (and daily displays terrible abuses of power) as well as some of the best material conditions and examples of freedom.

  23. Pete Silver badge

    in 4 words:

    what's the IT angle?

  24. Henry Cobb

    Mutton honey

    Yes, you don't need American style rights.

    Afterall, you lot ain't no superpower no more.

    Instead replace the ID card with ID eartags so that the sheep can be herded up whenever fleecing is called for.

  25. oliver Stieber

    sounds a bit like the smoking law

    Anything that is lit and can be smoked.

    Which (assuming the shops have their lights on) will include things like cheese and fish.

    These idiots should be sent to iraq with a t-shirt saying shoot me were the ones that caused all this mess in the first place.

  26. Frederick Karno

    Mr Grumpy

    The fact that a select band of MP's are pushing for this makes me want to be against it outright.

    They are all tainted as corrupt .They like to pull on the heart strings and say it's for the children blah blah.

    These are the same lot that label all internet users as all being paedophiles and all people as potential terrorists.

    We already have a constitution forced upon us "The Lisbon Treaty" we dont need any more amendments to our own already bloated laws.

    If i could change one thing it would be to remove Political Parties en block, none of them serve us all , and none of their MP's have a free vote to represent the people who have voted for them , but without a revolution there is no way to change it.

  27. Mike Crawshaw
    Thumb Up

    I second that! AC 14:05

    "I demand the right to poke kids with sticks until they leave me alone."

    The party that includes this in their next manifesto gets my vote.

  28. janet ward

    As AC said....

    "The bill of rights, and constitution, don't exist to enumerate the rights of the people, but rather to impose limits on the power of the government.

    "The power of the government flows from the people, rather than the government deigning to 'allow' these rights."

    The Magna Carta (whichever edition) was written to curb the King's power, so the Barons had more 'rights'. Note that the peasants, the plebs in current parlance, or citizens in NuLabourSpeak, were kept in their suitable place and little considered.

    NuLabour is very happy to promote the misunderstanding that a Bill of Rights is about what a citizen may and may not do, rather than it is to keep government from being oppressive and arbitrary.

    Are El Reg readers aware that NuLabour,a fully paid up lackey of the EUSSR, wants to include, as one of the clauses in this so-called Bill of Rights, a clause that the government can override any clause, including those made to protection the 'citizens' rights, whenever it wishes and for any or no reason?

    Mine's the one with a one one-way ticket out of this EUSSR satellite in the pocket.

  29. Mark

    Re: Bill of Responsibilities

    "- After a lifetime of drugs, drink, and fags, I shouldn't expect the same healthcare as somebody who was more careful"

    But that means that all pop stars, studio execs and, really, all the successful media unable to get free state aid! That's impossible!!!

    I mean, how will MP's get good copy for the press if they are mean to the media?

  30. Mark

    Re: 572 words

    And now the US has Free Speech zones. Gitmo. Seizure. Illegal spying and a religious Christian prayer in the oath of allegience (remember, "in God we trust" was a recent invention, not the original pledge).

  31. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Are you lost Ms Ward?

    EUSSR? NuLabour? I think your looking for HYS. Its this way >

    Either that, or people have to stop playing with the twatotron.

  32. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re: Bill of responsibilities

    "- After a lifetime of drugs, drink, and fags, I shouldn't expect the same healthcare as somebody who was more careful"

    After a lifetime of paying tax on drink and fags I would expect better healthcare than someone who hasn't paid these taxes.

  33. PolicyWatcher

    "Deal with the hard stuff among the waffle, and ignore it completely in the legistlation

    Note that "privacy" occurs a VERY few times in the narrative, and mostly as a justification for calling the Bill a "Bill of Rights and Freedoms"...

    And then when you get to the meat - the outline of the bill...



    The word does not occur...

    Sir Humphrey would be so proud...

  34. Highlander

    Weasel Words? In a bill of Rights?

    Oh yeah, adding weasel words to a bill of rights. Talk about Epic Fail. Honestly. A Bill of rights is a guarantee that says this is the line in the sand beyond which no one can step. But as soon as you start using language that allows wiggle room or ambiguity you shatter the guarantee and open it up to exceptions. The kind of exception I'm talking about is jot the kind of exception that allows a police man to obtain a search warrant from a court, that is more of an explicit exception. No I'm referring to implicit exceptions. You know the kind that can be granted by a civil servant in secret with a simple statutory instrument that redefines what is appropriate now. For example, a right to appropriate health care free from cost at the point of delivery. Well, sounds great until some twit in Whitehall decides that it's no longer appropriate to cover heart disease treatments for any more than 2% over the ideal BMI or past the age of 50.

    Nope, a Bill of rights has to be a shining example of clear speech and thought. The more concise and precise the words, the better. Strong and categorical terms need to be used. It must be constructed with the absolute minimum of weasel words and wiggle room for any. A bill of rights must be an unequivocal, clear, explicit, statement of the guaranteed rights. The rights enshrined in a Bill of Rights can not be narrowly defined. Instead they have to be as broad as possible. If a mistake is made, or a freedom too broad, then the Bill of Rights can be amended through a process of legislation requiring a full vote in whatever passes for a parliament with a positive vote of at least 2/3 or perhaps 3/4 of the democratically elected representatives required for an amendment to the Bill of Rights. Basically once it's granted it should be difficult to change.

    But, I expect that the Brown Bill (if such a thing happens) will be full of mealy words, muttered and softly spoken into one's collar so that no one else can hear. That way no one knows what their rights are. So it's far easier to take them away again if need be.

    Seems like somewhere over the last 20 years or so, people forgot the lessons of the last century or two. Perhaps it's not forgotten, simply ignored. I really hope that we are not doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. I thought that we were better than that.

  35. Steven Knox Silver badge
    Paris Hilton

    The Important Question

    How long ARE the EU regulations on the export of duck eggs? I've checked the linked resources and found no answer to this critical issue.

  36. Boris the Cockroach Silver badge
    Black Helicopters

    Revolution now!

    A bill of rights written by a bunch of lawyers in such a way to make sure succeding generations of lawyers can argue over the smallest point while being paid by the taxpayer.

    Mmm yes please

    How about this as a better idea, banning all lawyers and political science grads from being an mp since the've shown us over the past 30 yrs they could'nt run a bath.

    there again.. expressing that opinion over the internet will mean the secret police will be along shortly to arres

  37. Watashi

    On second thoughts...

    The EU Human Rights Act was designed to please a fairly wide range of political and philosophical ideaologies. Inspired by a genuine desire to create a free and fair society, the laws also had to be tolerated by different European cultures eg, French individualism, German pragmatism and British arsiness. The result is pretty good - the proof of its usefulness is that the New Labour keep falling foul of it.

    The US Bill of Rights and the US Constitution were written by a mixture of independent intellectuals and visionary politicians hoping to avoid the worst elements of British Imperial opression, the injustices of European Monarchy and class based elitism, and religious bigotry and other forms of intolerance. Say what you will about the US, it would be much, much worse if it wasn't for the hard-line liberal attitude of the founding fathers.

    The problem with Westminster politics is that it is short-termist, parochial and lacks genuinely outward looking, up-to-date intellectualism. It's also increasingly a monoculture, obsessed with a narrow field of late 20th Centurly political thought and has little philosophical variation between parties. A modern cross-party political consensus covers a smaller part of the philosophical spectrum than that covered by any one of the individual political parties of thirty years ago. A thought experiment - what would be the difference between a British Bill of Rights produced by the Tories or by New Labour or by the Lib Dems? Now, what about a Scottish Bill of Rights produced by the Scottish Government? What about one produced by Old Labour? Or one by the Victorians? Westminster is close to being a single party state - three flavours of one single set of core principles.

    This is the Catch 22 situation - we desperately need a Bill of Rights to protect us against the current toxic mixture of suffocating state authoritarianism and regulation free, do-what-you-like business culture, but the people who write that Bill of Rights will be the self-same bunch of authoritarian politicians intent on controlling us but protecting the big businesses that we're trying to get away from.

  38. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @EU Human Right act, ECHR

    "The EU Human Rights Act was designed to please a fairly wide range of political and philosophical ideaologies. Inspired by a genuine desire to create a free and fair society, the laws also had to be tolerated by different European cultures eg, French individualism, German pragmatism and British arsiness. The result is pretty good"

    I'd second that as long as we're talking about "European Convention on Human Rights", not the EU Fundamental rights (no mention of 'human', lobbyists got corporations included in the rights, and got copyright and trademarks added as fundamental rights). I think the world is about making the world better for people, and only people have fundamental rights. ECHR is something I believe in.

  39. Pete "oranges" B.

    Item #1:

    Thous shalt not attempt to land thy surplus Harrier on thy front lawn.


    Thou shalt not aim at the neighbor's cat while engaged in the same."

    I have no idea how it contributes, but for some reason this is all I could think about while reading the article after "responsibilities" were mentioned, and the visual was too funny not to share.

  40. Chris G Silver badge

    Drafting a Constitution or Bill of Rights

    For the British people should NEVER be done by members of a current government.

    It is more a job for the judiciary, if, the judiciary are a little more in touch with the real world than many of them seem.

    It should contain the fewest words possible in the clearest way to describe it's intentions and be protected from political change by a strongly defined process. More importantly, it should restrict itself to a small number of basic rights that imply further rights so that any attempt to restrict freedoms at any time can only be done after extensive discussion to determine if any restriction affects one the basic rights. Etc etc. We, the human race can take photos of volcanoes on worlds hundreds of millions of miles away surely we figure out a succinct and genuine bill of rights to protect society and help to assure a decent quality of life?

    Of course the inherent honesty that gave birth to the yank's bill of rights doesn't really exist in the current world, probably better to buy a gun!

  41. Mark

    re: @EU Human Right act, ECHR

    Which was based on the extant UK Bill Of Rights, brought in under Tony's chairing of the EU and uner UK minister request.

    Point your howitzer-like intellect and outrage to the right people, boy.

  42. Secretgeek

    The limits of power.

    It seems to me that what is happening is a separation into two issues of something that should only be one.

    The rights of the individual and the limits of government power are being split with the diluted limits of government getting the upper hand. So you can quite happily say that the individual has the right to a trial by law but if you then remove governments need to comply with their half of that agreement then the right is effectively not worth the paper it's written on.

    I have a right to freedom of expression (within the limits of the rights of others e.g. I can't just kill people and say I'm expressing myself of course) but the government has the right to create legislation that restricts that expression in any way they see fit (or gets good headlines). Again what exactly is my right now worth? Nothing.

    A right should be both a means of granting freedom and granting limits, to the individual and the government respectively. Anything other than that is merely food for the sharks, sorry, lawyers.

  43. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Intellectually bankrupt

    The whole idea of "natural rights", which came to prominence in the 18th century, is intellectually bankrupt. Jeremy Bentham's critique is so short, pithy, and lucid that it cannot be bettered to this day:

    "Right is the child of law; from real laws come real rights, but from imaginary law, from ‘laws of nature’, come imaginary rights… Natural rights is simple nonsense, natural and imprescriptable rights… nonsense upon stilts".

    His point is simple and, once you think about it, unbelievably obvious. What is a "right"? Simply the promise of someone else to do, or not to do, something specific under certain circumstances. If I have a right to food, someone must give me that food. If I have a right to quiet, everyone within earshot must avoid making excessive noise (where I define "excessive"). Is this beginning to seem a little odd, or even impractical?

    What happens, for instance, if everyone has a right to as many children as they can produce? As long as they, or others, pay for those children to be raised, everything looks OK for a while - until we have standing room only and the human race suffers the inevitable massive die-back. But what of the "right" to have children when there is nothing to feed them on, and people are eating each other's existing children because they are starving? The Chinese government has faced this problem and dealt with it, and they get nothing but abuse from the human rights squad. But would a world with 3 or 4 billion Chinese be a better world?

    The truth, of course, is that no rights exist except those specifically granted by law. Moreover, in any sane society, the law that grants a right must make sensible provision for the satisfaction of that right in a fair and sustainable way. The crazy idea that "everyone has natural rights that cannot be taken away, just as they have four limbs and a head" cannot be justified. (Besides, anyone who has read any history must be aware that limbs and heads are very easy to take away, and very often have been).

    No, the theory of "natural rights" is impractical pie-in-the-sky rubbish. It is up to us to decide what rights people are entitled to; but at the same time, we must make sure that we can afford the associated cost and consequences. Moreover, we should return to the traditional (and logical) view that rights are balanced by duties. Thus, my rights rest on your duties; and vice versa. If I fail to discharge my duties, you may find that your rights are infringed. Arguably, someone who fails to perform his duties should forfeit some (or all) of his rights.

    Of course, it is difficult to frame a set of laws that balances rights and duties in a way that is fair to everyone, and that can be practically implemented in the long term. But who said governing was easy?

  44. Steve Crook


    Anyone ever watched 'The rise and rise of Michael Rimmer'? It's hard to believe it was made all of 40 years ago. It shows exactly where voting on everything more important than littering fines would lead....

  45. Bob. Hitchen


    I can think of stronger words but I might offend the twats. They certainly offend me.

  46. Gianni Straniero

    These are the times that try men's souls

    Greater minds than mine have been excercised on this point for hundreds of years. The second part of Tom Paine's "Rights of Man" and John Stuart Mill "On Liberty" are excellent starting points. Essentially an individual has the "right" to do precisely as he or she chooses, so long as it does not interfere with "the liberty of action" of anyone else.

    "The individual is not accountable to society for his actions, insofar as these concern the interests of no person but himself". And yet, at the same time, "The liberty of the individual must be thus far limited; he must not make himself a nuisance to other people."

    When you start to codify liberty in law, you get wonderful documents like the US Bill of Rights. Unfortunately, as has been said above, there are certain clauses that were particular to the age of its composition.

    I'm thinking especially of the Second Amendment. Nobody seems particularly troubled about the Third Amendment: there are plenty of places to garrison troops these days. Yet the fact that it follows so immediately from the right to bear arms should make it clear that both were only necessary in the early days of the Republic.

    It's unfortunate that these "rights" were bundled up with the sacrosanct rights expressed in the other eight amendments. It makes arguing with NRA members extremely tiresome.

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