'New Britain': Labour plans to protect 'basic social rights'

A new raft of ‘social rights’ is at the centre of constitutional reforms aimed at ‘renewing Britain’ proposed by the Labour Party today. The proposals also tentatively suggest a new role for the Supreme Court in resolving conflicts between the House of Commons and a new upper assembly proposed to replace the House of Lords. 

Labour published the report of its ‘Commission on the UK’s Future’, chaired by former prime minister Gordon Brown, as it stands 21 points ahead of the Conservatives in the opinion polls, with a general election due before the end of 2024. Commission members included Sarah Sackman, an expert in public law and Shaheed Fatima KC, an expert in public law, civil liberties and human rights. 

The report states that a future Labour government’s key aim is to safeguard rights ‘which we perceive currently to be under threat’. The current government, it states ‘has been seeking to legislate to restrict civil and political rights, and for over a decade or more has been hostile to social rights.’ Thus ‘the case for enunciating and protecting certain basic social rights is a strong one.’

Such rights would seek to address the ‘five giant evils’ set out in the 70-year-old Beveridge report: ‘idleness, disease, ignorance, want, and squalor’, though it notes that these social problems take different forms today than in Beveridge’s time. It therefore proposes four new social rights relating to health, schooling, poverty and housing. 

The new rights ‘should be concrete in form, and usually positive rather than negative in formulation, to best demonstrate what it is that the UK guarantees.’ The commission concedes that ‘Creating such rights will undoubtedly create challenges in particular circumstances or situations, and further detailed work would be needed on the mechanisms for legal challenge.’  

Elsewhere the commission’s report sets out what it says are detailed proposals for abolishing ‘the current undemocratic House of Lords’. A new second chamber would have an explicit power to reject Commons legislation that contravened a list of defined constitutional statutes. However any contemplated use of such power would have to be referred to court, ‘most likely directly to the Supreme Court, for an authoritative judgement on whether the constitutional protection powers are engaged’. 

The report notes that the Supreme Court ‘is already well able to make such judgments; for example it has a well-developed jurisprudence on whether devolved legislation “relates to” a reserved matter’.

‘Involving the courts in this way would be a safeguard against the second chamber adopting an improperly political approach to powers which are constitutional in nature,’ the report states. 

In widespread proposals for greater devolution, the commission proposes that new powers be made available to the Senedd and Welsh governments, including embarking upon new powers over youth justice and the probation service. 

Implementing the recommendations will require major legislation in the first term of a Labour government, perhaps through a comprehensive New Britain Act, the commission concludes.


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