The implementation of the Human Rights Act 1998 in October 2000 was heralded as a major turning point in social policy because of the expected changes that would result in social care. But these have not occurred to a large extent and the potential for developing a culture of human rights has yet to be realised.
A study by the Audit Commission reports on a survey of 175 public bodies.1 It points out: “Not only has the act increased public service providers’ awareness of the rights of the individual, but it has also meant an increased risk of legal challenges by service users.” However, it does conclude that the act is in danger of stalling now that the initial burst of activity around its implementation has subsided. The report also suggests that few links have been made between human rights issues and the wider field of equality. The picture painted, then, is not a rosy one.
The report argues that there are benefits to be gained from taking the act and its implications seriously, particularly in relation to enhancing quality of service. Conversely, the report also points out the costs, in terms of financial penalties and damage to reputation, of failing to comply with the act. The financial costs of individual cases so far have ranged from £18,000 to £320,000. On top of this, the effects on morale of negative media attention can also be significant.
Despite these issues, 58 per cent of the public authorities surveyed have not developed a strategy for human rights. This is a disturbing figure when we consider how important human rights issues are in relation to good, ethical practice. In addition, 61 per cent of the public bodies surveyed have not made arrangements to ensure that their contractors and partners are taking reasonable steps to comply with the act.
What saddens me most about this report is that it paints a picture of many public authorities failing to look at the act’s potential for improving services, safeguarding rights and promoting social justice.
It is perhaps inevitable that some people will respond to the legislation only when they need to case by case. That is, there will be a degree of defensiveness, a concern about being subject to litigation and its adverse effects, with little or no emphasis on the benefits of promoting human rights. Sadly, this reflects the situation in relation to equality issues more broadly, with defensiveness often being more evident than an embracing of the benefits of legislation geared towards safeguarding vulnerable groups and promoting their rights.
The report also mentions complacency as a factor. Until it is their organisation that is facing a legal challenge, many managers, it seems, will not take human rights seriously. They will continue to run the risk of not only failing to provide the best level of service they can, but also of incurring the financial, reputational and human costs of prosecution for a breach of one or more articles of the European Convention on Human Rights. We can but hope that this rather dismal picture will change over time.
1 Human Rights: Improving Public Service Delivery, Audit Commission, 2003. See www.audit-commission.org.uk
Neil Thompson is a director of Avenue Consulting. He is the co-author of a training resource pack on the Human Rights Act 1998 published by Learning Curve Publishing (www.avenueconsulting.co.uk )