Think human rights are just about courts? Think again!

Did you know it’s NHS Equality, Diversity and Human Rights week and Mental Health Awareness week? The idea behind NHS Equality, Diversity and Human Rights week is to raise awareness and celebrate best practice, perfect timing for BIHR’s final roundtable on our Human Rights in Healthcare Project and to launch our latest resource “Mental Health Advocacy and Human Rights: Your Guide

BIHR’s Human Rights in Healthcare Project, funded through the Department of Health’s Grant Programme has been exploring ways of assisting voluntary sector organisations working on health and social care to use the Human Rights Act to provide and advocate for better services, given that all public authorities, including NHS organisations, have legal obligations to respect, protect and fulfil peoples’ human rights.

We were pleased to receive the following words of support from Norman Lamb, Department of Health Minister for Care and Support:

LambI am sorry I am not able to attend this important event but wish to send my support for the day and for what you have already achieved. I sincerely thank you for the excellent work that the BIHR and you, its 20 partner organisations, have completed over the last three years on behalf of the Department of Health.

It is crucial that the NHS and care services take time to consider human rights and how they must underpin the way in which patients, carers and clients are treated, as well as understanding that their views and experiences are crucial in shaping our care systems.I look forward to seeing the outcomes of today’s discussions. Once again thank you and have a great day.

Discussions at the event focused on the challenges and opportunities of making rights a reality – to take human rights off the law books, beyond the courtrooms and into our everyday practice. Designed to be a framework law, the Human Rights Act provides both a legal and practical foundation for health and care services to develop and deliver policy and practice.

Through the Project, BIHR has worked closely with over 20 organisations based Birmingham, Liverpool and London and a sub-group focused on mental health. At the event we heard how groups are putting the Human Rights Act into practice, helping to transform internal culture, to secure good outcomes for service users, their families and carers and forming the basis of partnership working with services.

We heard from Mind Brighton and Hove about the initial “fear factor” and the sense that getting involved with human rights might end up in the courts, something which was dispelled with BIHR’s training and capacity building. In fact understanding the Human Rights Act means their advocates can be more targeted in raising concerns, empowering them to challenge poor practices. NSUN, a survivor-lead network, spoke about how the project has helped them to understand what the Human Rights Act is and how it can be used to as a lever for change. Just knowing there are legal rights which protect people has been very powerful and helped shift language of the organisation at every level, from local advocacy to engagement with Government Ministers.

We also watched films  from some of our other project partners, including:

Participants agreed it was important to ensure services are complying with their legal obligations under the Human Rights Act, an in some cases this is still not the reality. Recent scandals such as the deaths and suffering at Mid-Staffordshire Hospital, the abuse at Winterbourne View care home, and  others are reminders that quality of care is not simply a case of common sense or compassion. Values are important, they are the foundation of services, the ties that bind us. At the heart of health and social care are human rights values such as universalism, dignity, respect, fairness, equality, choice and autonomy. Yet these ties are too easily broken, sometimes something more is needed, assurances below which services cannot go below, and empowering framework for positive action and accountability for when things go wrong. This is what human rights laws do.

We were particularly pleased to launch “Mental Health Advocacy and Human Rights: Your Guide” at the event. Produced with Project partners Mind Brighton and Hove, Wish andMHG NSUN, our latest practical resource to help respect and protect the human rights of people with mental health problems. Aimed at both advocates and people who use services, the  Guide explains how the Human Rights Act is relevant in mental health settings, drawing on real life stories of how laws and legal cases can be used in everyday advocacy practice, providing helpful flow-charts, worked through examples and top tips. The Guide was warmly welcomed at the event, and  just one-day in we’ve been overwhelmed by the positive feedback we’ve had via Twitter, email and the phone. You can find out more and get your copy here.

No doubt there are challenges ahead, with the changing landscape of health and social care, economic constraints and the need for strong political leadership. But as the work of the Project shows it is possible to put the Human Rights into practice, securing not just legal compliance but also helping to build a culture of respect for human rights. There is much to be done to fulfil the spirit of this legislation, so that human rights become part and parcel of the way public services are developed and delivered, placing human rights at the forefront of daily interactions, but it can be done!

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