71. Executive Summary, Something for Everyone,
The British Institute of Human Rights
The British Institute of Human Rights (BIHR)
believes that the 1998 Human Rights Act was a major development
for the protection and promotion of human rights in the UK. The
Act has the potential to impact significantly on the lives of
vulnerable people in our society, in particular through the framework
it offers to shape the provision of public services. Supported
by a grant from Comic Relief BIHR commissioned this report to
assess the impact of the Act to date on parts of the voluntary
sector, and see what further steps, including the creation of
a Human Rights Commission, might be necessary if this potential
is to be realised and a human rights culture is to take root.
The evidence from participants in the research
across all sectors indicated that there is no serious attempt
from either government or the voluntary sector to use the Human
Rights Act to create a human rights culture that could in turn
lead to systemic change in the provision of services by public
authorities. The Act has simply not had an impact in the areas
that this project considered, leaving many vulnerable people open
to abuses of their rights. Yet without an independent body of
some kind to promote the Human Rights Act and the principles that
it upholds this situation is unlikely to change.
During this research project, the Prime Minister
spoke at the Labour Party Conference of the importance of public
services meeting individual needs, rather than the "one size
fits all" model which is increasingly inadequate for modern
Britain. The framework of the Human Rights Act can help those
who make decisions about service provision to consider how best
to meet the needs of vulnerable people: how to achieve systemic
change and put the individual back at the heart of the service.
There is a single recommendation arising from
the report's findings:
that the government should establish
an independent body capable of effectively promoting and protecting
human rights, and should seize the opportunity presented by the
single equality body project to do this by creating an Equalities
and Human Rights Commission.
The project's findings show:
Overwhelming support for the establishment
of a Human Rights Commissionor for a similar sort of body
that could promote and protect human rights. This would meet the
need that currently exists for good quality advice, guidance and
training on the Act itself. But as importantly it would be able
to promote the principles that underlie the legislation in a way
that everyone can understand.
I think one thing is that peoplethe
whole communityaren't aware of human rights as anything
that's good for them. It needs some publicity, it needs somebody
to take it forward: it needs the dissemination of knowledge so
that people realise what it's good forand it's good for
them. I think it's really important for them to know that they
can use human rights. You know, it's something for everyone; it's
for the good of the people. (Cheryl Monteith, Refugee Support
This support is driven by the report's other
Awareness of the Act has not in general
spread outside the legal field. The absence of a human rights
cultureor of even the first green shoots which might grow
into a human rights cultureleaves a void. The Act is considered
to be the domain of lawyers and legal policy staff: very few organisations
used it systematically in their parliamentary lobbying or in their
work with civil servants for example. Without more attention paid
to the promotion of the Human Rights Act and the principles which
lie behind it in a way that makes it accessible to lay people
the vicious circle of unresponsive public services which lead
to legal challenges cannot be broken.
I really can't say to you that one of the
options that we feel able to put forward to people is the Human
Rights Act, because of the link with the need to take legal action
in order to get redress. We use equal opportunities legislation
in that context, so there probably isn't any reason other than,
for some reason, the Human Rights Act doesn't appear to have come
across in the same way as being a tool, a mechanism for change.
(Gary Fitzgerald, Action on Elder Abuse).
individual members of staff in public
services have no understanding of their responsibilities under
the Human Rights Act. The lack of any ongoing concerted promotional
strategy for the Act means that staff who provide public servicesparticularly
front line stafffail to understand what the Act is, the
rights that it contains, and the responsibilities that they have
to uphold it. A Commission could have a key role, working in partnership
with regulatory, training, and industry bodies, to demonstrate
that the Act is not simply about legal challenges; rather, it
gives all staff in the public sector a responsibility to promote
and uphold human rights.
An agency worker told us about going into
a residential care home for older people at breakfast time. She
was instructed to get the residents up and onto their commode.
She was then told to feed them breakfast. When she started to
get the residents off their commodes first she was stopped. The
routine of the home was that residents ate their breakfast while
sitting on the commode and the ordinary men and women who worked
there had come to accept this as normal. (Showing Restraint: challenging
the use of restraint in care homes: Alison Clarke and Les Bright,
Counsel & Care, January 2002)
There is little or no understanding
of the Act as a useful framework for public service providers
within which problems can be solved and risks assessed, and within
which the needs of individuals in the provision of services can
be considered. This may be particularly useful for areas where
the rights of one individual may need to be balanced against the
rights of others, perhaps leading to restrictions on rights which
can be justified using the Act's concept of proportionality. Such
a framework could enable public service workers to make difficult
decisions about allocation of resources, or protection of vulnerable
children or adults, with more confidence.
Sometimes you have a situation where a person
doesn't want any help, and wants the person who's caring for them
to do everything. The person who cares does round the clock care,
incontinence, all those kinds of things. In terms of the balance
of one individual against the other, if you discard the Human
Rights Act, the law at present favours the disabled person's rights
for example over the carer's rights. It is an enormously difficult
and complex situation, and at some point there needs to be a compromise
of rights. So that's where the Human Rights Act is useful. (Emily
Holzhausen, Carers UK).
There is no single authoritative
source of advice and information that could help to shape the
development of a human rights culture in the absence of a Human
Rights Commission. Important principles captured in case law are
not, at present, applied across a wider area of work. This prevents
the development of good practice. A Commission's interpretation
of case law is of course open to debate, particularly by others
who have an interest in this field. But it would also be able
to give a leada visible leadwhich is badly needed.
I definitely think there's a need for a Human
Rights Commission. Having thought about the other commissions
and having worked through the lifetime of seeing the Disability
Rights Commission being set up, there is nowhere for an individual
to go. There's so much misinformation about the Human Rights Act,
and that's why we've been very careful about publicising it, because
if you just look at the basic words of the Human Rights Act, you
could read anything into that. You'd end up with overuse of the
Human Rights Act which wouldn't necessarily be very helpful. (Emily
Holzhausen, Corers UK).
The following emerged as common themes that
could function as some sort of success criteria for a new body
if it is to command support and confidence.
It should be independent from government,
with clear terms of reference. Most respondents assumed that the
body would be similar to the existing equality commissions. They
wanted its remit to be set out in a way that could be easily understood
by a wide range of stakeholders.
It should promote human rights. This
would include a focus on the principles and values that lie behind
case law, and which support the application of the legislation.
It could include producing guides to good practice, working with
the media to raise awareness of human rights, running advertising
campaigns, and working in partnership with other interested bodies
to raise the Act's awareness. It could also include producing
materials for the citizenship aspect of the national curriculum.
It should have the ability to take
test cases. Many organisations referred to areas of their work
which they felt could benefit from a test case to see how the
Human Rights Act might impact, but they lack the resources to
take the case themselves. In addition a sensible test case strategy
could save service providers time and money since they will face
fewer individual challenges.
It should provide advice and information
about the Human Rights Act. Advice might be provided both to individuals
and to public authorities affected by the Act-as well as to private
companies that could be considered to be public authorities for
the purposes of the Act.
It could provide training. Training
could be provided by the Commission alone, or in partnership with
a range of other bodies. Importantly it should include training
for front-line staff, and be designed to engage their interest.
It could provide a mediation service.
The Human Rights Act framework with its emphasis on resolving
conflicts between competing rights might lend itself quite naturally
to such a service.
It could research the implementation
of the Human Rights Act. This could include audits of public authorities
as well as summaries of case law in relevant areas to learn more
about trends and enable people to improve good practice.
The project took place in the context of a growing
debate about the creation of a single equality body, suggested
by the government in February 2002, and currently under consultation.
The findings show that:
The majority of respondents were
positive about the idea of an Equalities and Human Rights Commission.
Many respondents felt strongly that equality and human rights
should be located together. They believed such a body was less
likely to create a hierarchy of oppression, and would be better
able to deal with multiple discrimination by treating people as
whole human beings.
It brings together the perception of equality,
of justice in a way that the individual commissions under the
individual Acts don't. When we're talking about human rights or
equality, we're invariably talking about a spectrum of abuse,
or a spectrum of disadvantage. You're talking about whole individuals,
and it doesn't feel that we're dealing with people as whole individuals
if you have to exclusively categorise it, "this is an issue
to do with race, and this is an issue to do with gender, and this
is an issue to do with disability". It doesn't make sense.
The logic screams for it being one single body. (Gary Fitzgerald.
Action on Elder Abuse.)
The debate about the place of human
rights in our society and the form which infrastructure to protect
and promote the Human Rights Act takes cannot develop in an informed
way without more dialogue between those working in the spheres
of equalities and human rights.
I do think that people who work in non-discrimination
need to see the holistic approach of human rights. They often
don't, and they get sucked into the legalistic trap. (Rachel Hurst:
Disability Awareness in Action).
There is an urgent need for evidence-based
research to enable public policy makers as well as equalities
and human rights practitioners understand more about the gaps
in protection for people's rights that will exist if a single
equality body does not include a human rights dimension.
We continue to hear of DNR notices on the
hospital beds of disabled people where it may be perceived that
they [non-disabled people] have a more valuable life than somebody
with a chronic health condition for example. We also know of a
disproportionate amount of disabled people on trolley waits within
hospitals. We know of individual disabled people who have died
as a result of being on a trolley wait. (Kate Nash, RADAR).
Something for Everyone was commissioned
by the British Institute of Human Rights. It was funded by Comic
Relief and researched and written by Jenny Watson.
10 December 2002