U.K. official proposes changes

United Kingdom Justice Secretary Jack Straw discussed his long-term goals to draft Britain’s first written constitution, beginning with a new bill of rights and responsibilities, in a speech at the Law School Wednesday morning.

Straw has served as the U.K.’s lord chancellor and justice secretary since June 2007 and spoke to an audience of law students and professors as part of a three-day visit to the U.S.

Straw praised the U.S. Constitution and the “civic duty” that it fosters.

“The (sense) of civic duty in the U.S. is something which is worth us emulating,” he said.

Straw cited a U.S. poll that found a majority of U.S. citizens considered the Bill of Rights essential. He said he would be interested to know the results if a similar poll were conducted in Britain.

“The British people have developed an innate understanding of their rights,” he said. “(The) next stage is to look at whether we need to better articulate these rights.”

The U.K. does not have a single written constitution and is governed by a framework of documents dating back to the Magna Carta, written in 1215, and common law. Most recently, Parliament passed the Human Rights Act in 1998 to further enforce the European Convention on Human Rights. Straw referred to this as a “landmark” achievement.

“The question is whether this goes far enough, whether the bill of rights and responsibilities should be a step forward on a path towards a fully written constitution,” Straw said.

He said the constitution of the U.K. is “in our cultural DNA” but that “(British) people struggle to put their finger on where their rights are.”

Britain is one of only three democratic nations without a written constitution – Israel and New Zealand are the other two countries.

On plans for a single, written constitutional document, Straw said it is a “big debate but it is important to spark it.” He said the process could take 10 to 20 years.

Straw made it clear that a constitution would not be simply “pushed through” and would go to a referendum, drawing similarities to the ratification of the U.S. Constitution.

To the question of whether a bill of rights would contain economic and social rights as well, Straw said, “A bill of rights and responsibilities could give British people a clear idea of what we expect from what we expect from the states and each other.”

“Constitutions must modernize to reflect the world in which they operate,” Straw said, referring in part to the U.S. Constitution. He implied that challenges faced in today’s world create the need for a structured government document.

“Not because we are a society in turmoil, but because we are a society in flux,” he said.

He noted that the U.S.’s creation of a constitution helped transform it from a scarcely populated agrarian nation to a world power.

Straw also spoke about Britain’s efforts to create its own independent supreme court, using the U.S. judicial system as a model, to be introduced in 2009. The British high court is currently a function of the House of Lords. He stressed the need for judges to be able to make decisions without interference from political pressures.

Straw said, “The strength of our legal system depends on judges being beyond politics.”

Kara Wright contributed to this report.

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