The start of this week was a busy (and worrying) one for anyone concerned with the protection of basic human rights in the UK. It began with a weekend prelude. It was reported that Theresa May, our Home Secretary, is considering making withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) a Conservative Party manifesto promise in the next General Election. Followed by Chris Grayling, our Justice Secretary and the Minister responsible for human rights, writing that he cannot conceive of a situation to put forward the reform he thinks necessary without scrapping the Human Rights Act and starting again.
The protections we helped build
If the promises of reported withdrawal from the ECHR and scrapping the Human Rights Act are true, then we have reached a profoundly disappointing moment in UK politics. UK withdrawal from the ECHR would risk unravelling an important and internationally-recognised system of rights protections, one which provides a vital safety net for us all. What Winston Churchill and his contemporaries understood when they created the ECHR system was the need to place limits on the exercise of power, to ensure basic levels of dignity and respect for all, to provide a rule book for Governments. This is what human rights are all about.
Human rights are relevant here at home
Parliament and political leaders of all colours understood this when they passed the Human Rights Act (HRA), a simple and particularly neat piece of drafting which accounts for the UK’s constitutional arrangements. Importantly, the HRA does many of the things its critics are seeking to remedy. For starters it ensures access to our rights is no longer limited to litigation in the European Court of Human Rights. Rather because of the HRA our cases can now be heard in our courts here at home. Perhaps more important, but little known, is duty the HRA places on public authorities not to act incompatibly with our rights (under section 6 HRA). What might at first glance appear as a somewhat technical obligation is in fact pretty simple. Human rights are about ensuring Governments treat us with equal dignity and respect, and the HRA means this is about the way we are treated by NHS professionals, social workers, the police, local authority officials, and all the various other “everyday” ways that we interact with the State.
Whilst endless column inches and political sound-bites have been dedicated, often inaccurately, to extreme cases, what is rarely heard is how human rights are helping people across the country to live dignified and respectful lives, enabling them to secure accountability when powerful officials overstep the line. How many times do human rights stories feature examples such as the mother who used the law to stop the authorities from removing her child simply because she lost her sight, or helping carers access respite, to stop older and disabled people having ‘do not resuscitate’ orders simply placed on their hospital files, or how the law helped end inhuman treatment of homeless people and ensure victims of crime are not denied justice by refusals to prosecute perpetrators of abuse.
It’s not about the law alone, our institutions matter too
As the week began we moved from rhetoric on the law to very real threats to institutional frameworks. In the House of Commons MPs were debating proposals which would effectively permit secret courts in certain cases. In many ways human rights simply add force to those ancient principles that have shaped our legal system for centuries. Principles of the rule of law, equality of arms and that it is not enough for justice to be done it must be seen to done. Yet amendments which would have secured important safeguards were defeated, and the Bill presents very worrying proposals.
At the same time the Lords were scrutinising the removal of an important purposive duty from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, one of the UK’s National Human Rights Institutions. Institutions are important; the law alone cannot achieve the kind of society we want to live in, nor can we simply rely on individuals seeking redress for poor treatment in courts. We need institutional frameworks which help us to achieve prevention and not just cure. This is why we believe the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s general duty is important, it places people’s fundamental aspirations centre-stage, emphasising the basic desire of each of us to be treated with dignity, equality and respect. It focuses on the difference that the EHRC should be making to people’s lives, making it clear that the EHRC must go beyond tick-boxing and bare compliance and speak to people’s sense of shared values, the diversity of our experiences and the common desire to live in a dignified, fair and respectful society. That is why we supported an amendment by Baroness Jane Campbell and Baroness Ruth Lister and others to keep the duty rather than ditching it as the Government suggests. Thankfully, the peers agreed and overwhelming backed the amendment, safeguarding the EHRC’s general duty for now.
The Rule Book for Governments Applies to the UK too
So all in all a mixed bag and that was just the end of Monday! Whether or not the threats to take us away from the Convention or scrap the Human Rights Act are political bluster or a soon-to-be-reality, whether it is legally sound or a nonsense is not really the point. A modern democratic society such as ours must operate by the rules rather than seeking to change them when faced with a result we do not like. This is not only about the example we set on the international stage – one rule for us and another for you – it is about the kind of society we want to be here at home. Whilst our human rights laws were born out of the devastation of the Second World War, in a very different, they were built to last and to endure. The fact is that human rights challenges remain here at home from inhuman treatment and deaths in our hospitals, to proposed secret justice in our courts, and that rule book for Governments remains as valid now as it did in Churchill’s time.