Rights minded

If the government is bold enough to sanction a human rights
dimension for the proposed single equality body, the result could
be far reaching for care professionals. The likely merger of the
Commission for Racial Equality, the Disability Rights Commission
and the Equal Opportunities Commissionhas led to a proposal, backed
by MPs and peers, to give the new organisation a mandate to promote
human rights.

But some ministers suspect that such a body may spend its time
challenging the government’s own human rights record on sensitive
issues such as asylum. And so this proposal may fall by the wayside
long before those who would be most affected have a chance to
consider its impact.

When it comes to light that psychiatric patients have been fed
while tied to the toilet or that medical staff have decided not to
resuscitate an older person, few care professionals use human
rights language to explain what has gone wrong. Despite the
government’s hope that its Human Rights Act 1998 would lead to a
culture change in public services, providing “an ethical bottom
line” and a “fairness guarantee for the citizen”, few public
authorities have overhauled their working practices to infuse human
rights concepts into their thinking.

Research by the District Audit has found that most councils and NHS
trusts have not reviewed their policies for compliance with the act
and 42 per cent of health bodies have not taken action to raise
staff awareness.1

With responsibility for implementation spread thinly across
Whitehall and no statutory body to drive change, the act has not
led to the transformation its drafters predicted. A recent
investigation for the British Institute of Human Rights on its
impact on children, disabled and older people and refugees found
low awareness of the act and that it had not been used as a lever
for systemic change.

The government sidestepped calls for a human rights commission by
promising a parliamentary select committee inquiry. The Joint
Committee on Human Rights found a widespread lack of respect for
the rights of public service users, especially the most vulnerable.
Neither public bodies nor those who inspect and audit them
prioritise respect for human rights.

The committee concluded that the case for a statutory human rights
body was “compelling”. It should create a climate in which respect
for human dignity becomes an integral part of our contact with
public authorities and with each other. With rare optimism, they
argued that such a culture could help create a more humane society
and enhance the quality of public services. Their preferred option
was a combined human rights and equality commission.

The government’s plan to establish a single equality body is
prompted by EU regulations that require the UK to make
discrimination at work on grounds of age, sexual orientation and
religion (or belief) unlawful. It is not practical to create three
more commissions to match those that already exist on race, gender
and disability – it makes sense to create a single organisation
that promotes equality for all.

Critics argue that adding responsibility for broader human rights
standards would be an unwelcome complication; others say attention
may be diverted away from equality issues to contentious human
rights cases. But the existing equality commissions, working with
non-governmental organisations such as Help the Aged and Stonewall,
under the auspices of the Equality and Diversity Forum, have told
the government that the new body must have a human rights mandate.
There is an eagerness to discuss how this human rights dimension
may work. Ministers, too, need evidence of the advantages for
service providers of a combined diversity-human rights strategy and
of the benefits for users.

If the single equality commission gets the nod there will be
consultation this autumn on detailed options. Ministers may yet
rule out, or decide to consult, on the human rights dimension. If
the select committee is right, one significant opportunity to
enhance the quality of life of vulnerable people rests on their

Sarah Spencer is senior associate at the Institute for
Public Policy Research and chairperson of the Equality and
Diversity Forum.



1 District Audit, The Human
Rights Act. A Bulletin for Public Bodies
, Audit Commission,

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