Public services must value human rights

It beggars belief that it’s even an issue. Two years after the
Human Rights Act was introduced, parliament last week debated
whether human rights should be part of a new single equality

How is the new body supposed to do its job without that vital
element? The House of Commons human rights committee also timidly
proposed that, as part of a single commission, human rights should
focus on education and promotion, not litigation. In an article in
The Guardian, Yvette Cooper, a minister in the Lord
Chancellor’s department, questioned why the legislation was still
seen as controversial, regarded as “an individualists’ charter of
unconditional entitlements”.

“We need to shore up a consensus behind human rights across
society,” she warned. “If we do notÉ it is the poor and the
vulnerable who will lose out most.”

She is right except that, according to research by Jenny Watson on
behalf of charity the British Institute of Human Rights (BIHR), the
act has made little difference to the way in which public services
are provided. In Something for Everyone Watson describes
cases in which older people were fed breakfast while sitting on the
commode and disabled people in residential care were put to bed at

The task of the BIHR is to develop and support the Human Rights Act
and, in particular, how it affects the marginalised. For instance,
it has a Community Fund grant of £105,000 over three years to
offer free training on the issue. The organisation has also
consistently campaigned for a Human Rights Commission “to create a
culture of respect for human rights”.

“The act needs to be framed on the walls of front-line public
service managers. With human dignity at its core, it offers a
framework for making our public services more responsive to the
individual,” says Sarah Cooke of the BIHR. Instead, the act is seen
as “irrelevant at best and harmful at worst” and linked to
politicians’ ideas of unpopular causes. “What it’s about is the
development of best practice. It should inform how people make
ordinary day-to-day decisions.”

A decision on human rights and the single equality body is about to
be taken by a Cabinet subcommittee, hence Cooper’s article. How
else can interested parties lobby? By requesting from managers what
their human rights policy is – and by writing to MPs and ministers.
It matters.

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