Controversial plans for a Bill of Rights in Northern Ireland would be scrapped by a Conservative Government, the party says.
The Bill, which critics say would take power from elected representatives and hand it to judges, was drawn up by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission.
It has been called “unwieldy” by current Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Shaun Woodward, who has avoided criticizing the Commission but said the recommendations were “well beyond the brief they were given”.
However, the Conservative Party wants to scrap the plans altogether, replacing them with a UK-wide Bill of Rights and Responsibilities.
“We would be looking at introducing a British Bill of Rights, because we think that the proposals may stray deep into the territory of elected politicians,” said Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Owen Paterson.
In February Chief Commissioner Monica McWilliams urged the Westminster Government to adopt the draft Bill quickly, after hearing that the proposals might be ‘parked’ while alternatives were considered.
However, Mr Woodward said last month that the Commission’s ambitious draft contained more than 80 new statutory rights, which would “preoccupy huge amounts of time” in the Parliamentary timetable “for which there currently is not that sort of slot”.
Strong opposition to the draft came from two of the Commission’s ten members, who argued that it went beyond the original requirements of the Belfast Agreement.
Lady Daphne Trimble and DUP representative Jonathan Bell both signalled their disapproval of the lengthy recommendations.
The Bill of Rights was meant to cover the “principles of mutual respect for the identity and ethos of both communities and parity of esteem”.
Speaking in December, Lady Trimble said the rest of the Commission had suggested “additional rights” which fell outside its mandate.
The Commission’s report on recommendations for the Bill of Rights says “significant opposition” remains in Northern Ireland to homosexual rights and civil partnerships.
It recommends that civil partnerships are given “additional protection” in a Bill of Rights to “help promote respect and equality”.
The Commission says a Bill of Rights should include laws on “harassment motivated by hate on any prohibited ground of discrimination”. This would include sexual orientation and religion.
Similar sexual orientation ‘harassment’ laws were struck down by a High Court judge in Belfast last year because, in part, of concerns that the laws would infringe free speech and religious liberty.
Depending on the wording of a right to be protected from sexual orientation or religious ‘harassment’, such a right could leave Christians vulnerable to legal action if they publicly express the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality or other religions.
The Commission recommends that smacking should be banned. It says this ban should not be part of the Bill of Rights, but is an “additional recommendation”.
It notes the UN’s conclusion that smacking be banned in the UK and says the Government should “respond accordingly”.
The Commission said that abortion was one of the most controversial issues in its public consultation. It decided it would be inappropriate for the matter to be included in a Bill of Rights.
Although the Commission does not recommend a ‘right to abortion’, it also fails to recommend that an unborn child’s right to life be included in a Bill of Rights.
It did, however, recommend that the Government “respond” to the conclusions of a UN Committee on the elimination of discrimination against women, which called for a public consultation on abortion in Northern Ireland.