By: Guest Blogger Katie Simkins
From 9:30am, locals from Wolverhampton, Walsall and Birmingham arrive at the Workspace for the fifth event of BIHR’s Human Rights Tour. It aims to take a simple message to every corner of the UK: the Human Rights Act need not be the domain of lawyers. It is for local people in local situations. That’s why, today, members of the local council, the police, and voluntary organisations concerned with issues ranging from domestic violence to mental health, fill the room. For each leg of the Tour, BIHR teams up with a local organisation to make the workshop relevant to its immediate surroundings. The partner for today’s event is Unison West Midlands.
At the outset, we are invited to have honest and frank conversations about human rights and their relevance to our work and life. In the current climate of an ageing population, debilitating public sector cuts and high-profile scepticism of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), these debates are crucial. Politicians, the media and the general public react to human rights with praise, scorn and confusion. This room is no exception. On post-it notes, we write down what human rights mean to us. Within minutes, the board is littered with ‘abstract’, ‘misunderstanding’, ‘controversial’ and ‘fundamental’.
We separate into different groups for the next task: case studies. Here, each group looks at different individuals who have been subject to neglect, maltreatment or injustice. We discover quickly that the application of human rights is complex. One group looks at the case of Stella, who is severely disabled, cannot dress herself and, as she cannot access the first floor of her house, cannot put her children to bed. This group mulls over how long the local council must fail to amend Stella’s care plan until it breaches one of the most fundamental provisions in the Human Rights Act: the right not to be tortured or suffer inhuman or degrading treatment. Another group asks whether the police, in its attempt to keep a protest under control, are within their rights to ask a journalist to stop filming. For me, this task is the most crucial of the day as it demonstrates that the Human Rights Act has brought justice to individuals in varied places and situations.
Most poignantly, many of us around the room make links between these case studies and situations we have come across in our work. To know that the Human Rights Act is another tool with which we can address inequality, unfairness and abuse is hugely comforting. A further comfort comes when we discuss the institutions that have a duty to carry out the Human Rights Act. We learn that since its implementation in 2000, all organisations carrying out a public function must incorporate human rights into their decisions. This applies just as much to private institutions that are commissioned to provide a public function, such as care homes, as it does to the police or social services. Moreover, the Human Rights Act places a positive obligation on public authorities, to take steps to protect an individual from known abuse. For example, although domestic violence may take place within a private home, a public authority would have an obligation to take positive steps to try and protect someone from such abuse, once it becomes aware of the situation. In this light, human rights are there if we need them; they are a safety net for us all.
After a quick lunch in a small café in the back of a curtain shop (one of the most unusual lunch stops on the Tour I’m told!) these empowering thoughts are flattened somewhat by the afternoon sessions, in which we look at what the media and politicians are saying about human rights. After learning in this morning’s sessions that the Human Rights Act ensures that politicians cannot act without restraint or checks on their power, I am rather unsympathetic towards their frustration about it. We explore some of the negative and misleading headlines that the media has published about human rights. We learn that, although newspapers gave a huge amount of attention to the tragedies at Mid Staffordshire Hospital, the coverage failed to mention that the families who lost loved ones were granted justice due to their use of the Human Rights Act.
I learn that the UK’s furore about human rights is quite exceptional compared to the 46 other states that are signed up to the ECHR. Easily forgotten is the fact that the Act has only been incorporated into UK law for 13 years. Thus, the optimist in me hopes that all this debate is just part of its teething process. I for one look forward to a time when the Human Rights Act is ingrained into our society. I leave Wolverhampton knowing that it is now more than ever that we have to look out for injustices and negotiate with public services to ensure that human rights are respected and protected within our communities.