The coalition agreement published yesterday by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties sets out in outline form the new government's position on a range of issues, including on civil liberties. With regard to two of the significant constitutional reforms introduced by the Labour government, the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Freedom of Information Act 2000, it gives some indication of the new government's commitments but more detail is needed.
The Human Rights Act 1998
The Conservative Party had previously committed, in its election manifesto, to replacing the Human Rights Act with a UK Bill of Rights. However, the Liberal Democrats' manifesto contained an express commitment to protect the Human Rights Act. The document published yesterday contains no reference to the Human Rights Act 1998 leaving the position on this unclear for the time being.
The new Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, has indicated his support for a Human Rights Act based on the European Convention on Human Rights (as is the case for the 1998 Act). He was reported as having stated yesterday, "we are not committed to leaving the European Convention on Human Rights, we have committed ourselves to a British Human Rights Act. We are still signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights".
It remains to be seen whether the new government will commit itself to keeping the Human Rights Act 1998 or whether it will seek to introduce new human rights legislation, which Mr Clarke's comments did not expressly rule out. The detailed coalition agreement that will apparently be published in due course should hopefully shed further light on this.
The Freedom of Information Act 2000
The Liberal Democrats' election manifesto may provide an indication of the shape of the reforms which the outline coalition agreement envisages in respect of the Freedom of Information Act (the Conservative Party's manifesto contained no reference to this Act although it did contain a commitment to increasing transparency, including a commitment to publishing details of the money government spends and the people it employs). In particular, the Liberal Democrats committed to "extend[ing] Freedom of Information legislation to private companies delivering monopoly public services" (they singled out Network Rail in particular). They also promised to strengthen the Information Commissioner's Office, although this commitment does not appear to be reflected in the outline agreement. It should be noted that there is already a mechanism in the current Act for extending it to private companies delivering public services and the Labour Government had previously consulted on extending the scope of the Act in this way. The coalition agreement may though signal important developments regarding the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and it is hoped that the detailed coalition agreement will provide more insight on what form these might take.
Yesterday's blueprint document will be followed "in due course" by a final Coalition Agreement which will set out the arrangements between the parties in finer detail. This is widely expected to be published next week, prior to the return of Parliament. We intend to publish a further e-bulletin on this following its publication.