My Discovery of Access and Human Rights

By Guest Blogger: Richard Turner, blog originally posted on http://turnerrichard7.wordpress.com/

I never really thought about human rights issues or equality before I lost my hearing. I didn’t think these issues affected me personally. My life then revolved around making money, watching football, going to the pub and socialising with my friends and family.

But then I lost most of my hearing and my whole life changed. I suddenly saw things from a different perspective, and many things that I took for granted no longer seemed accessible to me. It wasn’t just the obvious things, like not being able to make a simple phone call anymore, but also things that never would have occurred to me such as not being able to go to the cinema or theater spontaneously anymore and not being able to go to hospital appointments on my own without taking someone with me. Without them I couldn’t understand what the doctors were saying to me and most of the staff there didn’t have any deaf awareness. Daily problems accessing public services have caused me real stress and frustration.

Through my voluntary work in my local community I became interested in learning more about social care. I did a course in Health & Social Care at the City Lit in London, which was excellent. It was so refreshing because of the good access, which is so important. They provided me with two electronic note-takers in the class to help me follow it and gave me the access I needed. The tutor Rebecca and the electronic note-takers Fiona and Anita were very supportive.  This is an example of equality and inclusion done at its best and I felt equal to the other students in the class.

On the course I learned about equality legislation in social care, which was directly related to my voluntary work. It really opened my eyes to how important it is to understand how equality and access affect our everyday lives. It is also about respecting other people’s values and rights, and how diversity and tolerance of other people’s differences are essential to a better functioning society.

It led me to thinking more about our basic human rights and how they affect us all, so I wanted to learn more. I saw on Twitter that there was a one-day introductory workshop last week on human rights run by the British Institute of Human Rights (BIHR). My wife called them up to ask about arrangements for communication support for me and they told her that they would arrange an electronic note-taker to support me. I was delighted to hear this and really excited about doing the workshop, as I wouldn’t have been able to do it without this support.

There was a mixture of people on the workshop from different backgrounds, but I was the only deaf person there. It was really interesting to learn about what human rights are, how they are the building blocks of a healthy democracy, what the legislation on human rights is about and how it is enforced on governments, which abuse their powers and deny people their basic human rights throughout the world.

I learned about the evolution of Human Rights legislation since its introduction after the Second World War, how it is applied in practice and how it affects all of us in our everyday lives. It was fascinating to learn about a subject which is so fundamental to our everyday lives, but which I knew very little about before.

I learned that human rights are universal protections for everyone and serve as a safety net for us all. In the UK we are protected by 16 fundamental rights in the Human Rights Act, which cover many different aspects of our lives. Human rights relate to the relationship between the State and individuals. Our society hands power to the government to make decisions for us and human rights are there for when it goes wrong, as it has done many times in history, such as during the Holocaust, and even now with the terrible situation going on in Syria.

One of the most interesting things I learned was that the Human Rights Act relates to all levels of government and public services provided, for instance the police force, local government, the courts and the NHS, as well as voluntary and community sector organisations. The situation becomes complex when private organisations provide a public service, for instance when a local authority hands over the operating of a care home to a private company or a charity or a voluntary organisation provides a public service. The net has been spread wide in the Human Rights Act so that any body or organisation, which delivers public services, is included in it.

The Human Rights Act is meant to act as a floor for basic human rights and freedoms, but it works in conjunction with other UK legislation, which is more detailed and specific, such as the Equality Act 2010, which includes legislation on disability discrimination, and the duty to make reasonable adjustments where a disabled person is put at a substantial disadvantage. All these laws are meant to be compatible with each other and work alongside each other.

I was so glad I did this workshop. The communication support provided by Simon, my electronic note-taker, and the BIHR, made it fully accessible to me so that I felt included and equal to the other people in the class. It made me realise that all too often there are instances where both public and private organisations are not taking their duties and responsibilities towards deaf and disabled people seriously and not providing us with the proper access to services that we need. In some cases they are actually breaching people’s human rights, such as the right to be treated with dignity.

I intend to do more accessible courses and workshops like the ones run by the BIHR. I want to learn more about how equality and human rights issues affect us all. This is particularly relevant to people with a hearing loss, as with any disability. I’d like to see more deaf and hard of hearing people attend these courses with good communication support. You learn a lot from them and they make you feel much more empowered and aware of your access and equality rights in an inclusive society.

You can find out more about BIHR’s training courses here and follow them on Twitter via @BIHRhumanrights

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Human rights Day in Tunbridge Wells

By Guest Blogger: Edward Collins, BIHR Human Rights Champion.

TWHRD3

A little over a month ago, Human Rights Day was celebrated across the globe. I would like to take a (slightly belated) opportunity to briefly tell you about my own Human Rights Day, which I spent working as part of BIHR’s network of local human rights ‘Champions.’ My task was to hold an event in my local community to mark the day. This is what I got up to.

I live just outside of Tunbridge Wells in Kent, and work for a café in the centre of town. The café is a friendly venue with great community links, so I decided to host my event there one evening. I was aware that ‘human rights’ have sometimes suffered a poor public image and I wanted to instigate some debate which might help to change this.

TWHRD 1I organised live music, guest speakers and audience debates, all of which centered around the question, ‘what are human rights doing in Tunbridge Wells?” I put up posters and Tweeted as much as I could to promote the event, and soon we had lots of people coming into the café asking questions and expressing interest.

On the night, we had between 20 and 25 people come from around Tunbridge Wells. It would have been great to have had more, but it was quality not quantity! The number filled the café well and a nice atmosphere was created with an acoustic set from local singer/songwriter James Phippen.

The evening began with the audience dividing into groups of four or five people and we started by trying to define ‘human rights.’ After this, everyone had a go at rating the importance of human right protections in the local community on a scale from one to ten.

The initial scores were fair and people mostly agreed that rights are important, however, there was a tendency to see this importance as simply theoretical. The practical use of Human Rights protections was perhaps seen as less significant in our community because of a lack of awareness of its occurrence. Additionally, negative press coverage may make people feel uneasy about this matter.

Next, we heard talks from representatives from the Citizens Advice Bureau, Age UK and a local homelessness shelter the Tunbridge Wells Churches Winter Shelter.  Each organisation talked about the work they do in Tunbridge Wells and raised awareness about the groups of people they help in our community. The talks were centred around the theme of human rights and it was made clear that numerous groups within our community regularly need help to gain access to basic rights. The representative from the CAB made it particularly clear that, in some circumstances, appealing to the Human Rights Act is the only way to achieve this.

I also talked a little about the practical uses human rights protections. I mentioned their ability to act as a safety netTWHRD 2 but also as general guidelines to help improve standards of care. To back these points up, I gave plenty of practical examples that I had learnt about through the BIHR.

After this, we went back to our debating groups and it was great to see a change in perception about practical human rights protection. People were keen to stress that although Tunbridge Wells is often seen as a ‘well off’ area, there are in fact a considerable number of people living in relative poverty, an issue exasperated by the area’s comparatively high living costs.  The audience was agreed on the importance of not ignoring those who do not have access to various rights we often take for granted.

Thus, we came to the conclusion that the importance of practical human rights protection lies in safeguarding the voice of the more vulnerable members of our community.  As such, to miss the significance of practical human rights protections is to turn a blind eye to these people.

Throughout the evening, there was a lot of interesting and meaningful debate. One particularly lively discussion occurred between the representative from the CAB who specialises in housing needs and a member of the audience who used to be in charge of a local housing organisation. People were also keen to talk about the social responsibility of rights holders towards other rights holders, especially in situations where individual rights come into conflict.

One final positive outcome of the evening was that a local student approached me, wondering whether I might be able to repeat the event at his school. So, with a bit of luck, I will start getting the preparations for that going soon and so continue my human rights ‘championing’ into 2014.

Parliamentary Launch of the Human Rights Charter

By Guest Blogger: Katie Simkins

 

On Human Rights Day, 10 December, the British Institute of Human Rights launched its Human Rights Charter in the company of politicians, representatives of charities and NGOs and one of BIHR’s local Human Rights Champions. This day marked the 65th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and presented us with an opportunity to celebrate the ‘unsung positives’ of human rights.

Sir Nicolas Bratza, the President of BIHR, told us now was the time for the Charter. It is not merely a list of rights, but a statement that everyone can participate in and one that aims to foster a culture of respect for human rights.

The event was kindly hosted by thee members of the House of Lords who are known for their bold defence of human rights in politics, both big P and little p.

Earlier in 2013, Baroness Campbell led a successful campaign to retain Section 3 of the Equality Act 2006, which puts a duty on the Equality and Human Rights Commission to exercise its functions with a view to encouraging and supporting the development of a society in which there is respect for and protection of people’s human rights. Baroness Campbell told the delegates that ‘to be excluded because you don’t belong is the most dehumanising act a government can do’. She became a human rights activist not just for disabled people, but for everyone.

Baroness O’Loan, a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, presented the Charter as another way to protect people and a way that can foster some understanding of what human rights are really about. Human rights, she insisted, are as important now as they were in 1948.

In October, Lord Low sought to clarify a currently ambiguous area and ensure that the Human Rights Act protection applies equally to all people receiving care services. Having successfully tabled an amendment to this effect to the Care Bill, the House of Commons will now discuss whether it will be made law. Lord Low highlighted the fact that human rights are not to be seen as academic, lofty or detached. They protect ordinary people against neglect and poor treatment in health and social care settings; the areas in which individuals should feel their most safe.

Several MPs then spoke to welcome the Charter. Dr Hywel Francis MP called for the Lord Chancellor to focus on the value of human rights, and not exclusively the cost. Sadiq Khan, the Shadow Minister for Justice, put forward a question: If the UK had the expertise to build a product that was exported to 48 countries and over 800 million customers, would we not be celebrating? Instead, politicians are stepping away from our finest export: the European Convention on Human Rights. With the election only 18 months away, now was the time to get our hands dirty if we want to keep the Human Rights Act. Simon Hughes agreed that fostering a culture of human rights was ‘a big battle for little people’. Jeremy Corbyn MP highlighted the intricate links between human rights and democracy. Democracy is not just about voting. It’s about participation, our independent legal system and the freedom to express an opinion.

Representatives from charities and NGOs spoke about how they needed the statements in the Charter to be alive in their work. Kate Allen, the Director of Amnesty, called for the Charter to bring human rights back into our daily lives. The UK’s impact overseas could only ever be as good as its ability to protect rights at home.  To Natalie Samarasinghe, the Executive Director at UNA-UK, the Charter aims to foster a wider, more accurate understanding of human rights. They are not simply pesky laws, bureaucratic annoyances and the property of minorities. They are for the everyday and everyone. Keith Best, the CEO of Freedom from Torture stressed the importance of human rights education. Through this, we are in a better place to take on the challenge of countering negative headlines in the press and celebrating what human rights have done for us.

Inquest’s Directors Helen Shaw and Deborah Coles told us how human rights legislation has had a profound impact on their work. In 2007, a law was introduced that called for institutions to launch an Inquiry if a person died in prison or a police cell. This was a victory for bereaved families; it was no longer acceptable that they remain in the dark about the circumstances of their relatives’ deaths. But the human rights journey has by no means come to an end. An independent inquiry is not legally required if someone dies while detained under the Mental Health Act, yet these deaths account for 60% of those that occur in detention.

 Stephen Bowen, the Director of BIHR, brought the Charter launch to a close by presenting the Charter as a mobilising statement. By using it to educate people about human rights and supporting all levels of government and services to consider them when delivering laws, policies and services, we can repopulate the human rights landscape with many more voices.

Safeguarding family life and children’s rights – are we making the most of the Human Rights Act?

By guest blogger: Sam Smethers, Chief Executive of Grandparents Plus@Samsmethers and @GPlusinfo

Towards the end of last year I attended a fascinating conference organised by the Separation and Reunion Forum which posed the question – is childhood attachment a need or a human right? It got me thinking about the value of the Human Rights Act, and in particular the right to respect for private and family life together with the UN Convention on the rights of the child.   I think that the family and children’s sector do not make the HRA and the Convention visible enough in the work that we do, and I wonder whether legal representatives of the families we work with are doing enough to draw on the human rights framework in the cases they represent? And does the Human Rights lobby sometimes overlook this important, potentially unifying part of the Human Rights Act?

So let’s remind ourselves what article 8 says:

Right to respect for private and family life

There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

The UN Convention on the rights of the child also focuses on the best interests of the child being the primary concern (Article 3); that governments should respect the rights and responsibilities of families to direct and guide their children, placing on governments the responsibility to protect and assist families in fulfilling their role as nurturers of children (Articles 5 and 18); that the child has a right to the preservation of identity (Article 8), including family ties.

Yet we have a state that is arguably adopting a more interventionist approach than that set out in the UN framework and which does not consistently respect the child’s right for private and family life.  I should say clearly here that where a child needs to be removed from their immediate family for child protection reasons then that is clearly in their best interests (and also consistent with the Convention).  But there are many cases that we see where children could remain within their wider family network rather than be placed with stranger carers but either potential carers are not considered or consulted or a decision is taken that they are unsuitable but in fact, when challenged, it subsequently turns out that they are suitable carers for that child.

I am particularly thinking of children who are either in the care system or on the edge of that system.  The state, in the form of local authority children’s services, is faced with the decision of whether to support children to remain within their families or to remove them into stranger care, either temporarily or permanently.  My charity, Grandparents Plus, works with grandparents and family (kinship) carers who step in to raise children who can not live with their parents.   There are thought to be 200,000 raising up to 300,000 children across the UK.  Evidence shows that children brought up within their wider family tend to do well and certainly better than those in foster care.  So it follows that if we are going to act in the best interests of the child we must consider the wider family first before placing a child elsewhere.  Yet the government, in the Children and Families Bill, is currently legislating to speed up the care process and creating a fast track to adoption via foster to adopt.  In practice this will make it more difficult for family members to be considered as potential carers of children as they will have to come forward much earlier in the process.  If a local authority does its job well and looks for potential family carers before care proceedings start then this will help to mitigate this risk.  But we know that many will not invest the time, either through lack of resources, a lack of expertise, or because it can simply be difficult, time consuming work to find and assess potential family carers.   Families in turn may be reluctant to step forward in the first week or so, holding back to see if the parents will be able to resume caring for their children, or they may be simply struggling to process what it would mean for their own lives and families. Do we have enough room? Can I keep working or will I have to give up my job?  What do I say to the child?  How long will this arrangement last, will it be temporary or permanent?

Underlying all of this is the basic (often unstated) assumption that if the parents are unable to raise their children then the wider family must be part of the problem rather than the solution – “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”.  So families are not always given a fair hearing by those standing in judgement on them.  In practice it can often be the courts who will rule in favour of a grandparent or family carer, against the recommendation of the local authority.

A recent judgment (Re B-S) in the court of appeal has been particularly significant in challenging the use of adoption against the wishes of the parents.  Article 8 was central to the judgement which also referred to the UK’s system being unusual in Europe in permitting the total severance of family ties without parental consent.  Building on other cases, the judgement also makes clear that adoption should be regarded as a last resort and that in repeated cases local authorities were presenting inadequate reasoning supporting a case for adoption.  The government’s focus on increasing adoption rates is perhaps a factor in this?  The intention is to reduce the number of children in the care system who are waiting to be adopted.  But the consequence of the approach is that local authorities are in some cases progressing too readily towards adoption at the expense of other permanency options, including placing the child with their grandparents or wider family.  In practice it is the courts and the Human Rights Act which may be families’ and children’s last line of defence