Creating a fairer Britain
Almost every morning, I am confronted with examples of how the Human Rights Act is being used which any reasonable person would describe as thoroughly bonkers: prison service vans that travel ninety miles to take a prisoner 90 yards; paedophiles freed to leer at children in the very parks where they have committed horrific crimes. If I were to believe it all I would be inviting Sunday Times readers to join me at my protest encampment on the nearest available site under the banner: "What About Our Human Rights?"
Of course many of the so-called outrages are nothing of the sort, and often the odd judgements in question have nothing to do with human rights law. Nobody can really explain how some social problems - from bad manners in public to last summer's riots - are down to the Human Rights Act as opposed to, say, poor parenting.
But there are some examples of cases in which, though the Human Rights Act might technically be applicable, I do wonder if people have just lost the plot. Last week, for example, Keith Porteous Wood of the National Secular Society, a decent and sincere fellow, made me drop my coffee when he told early-morning radio that he wanted to use the Act to prosecute the councillors of a small town in Devon. What was their alleged crime? Compelling unbelievers to walk over hot coals? Forcing small children to recite chunks of scripture before breakfast? No. It was for taking a democratic decision that those councillors who wished to follow the long tradition of saying prayers before meetings in the Council Chamber could do so.
This is nonsense on stilts. Being an easy-going type, who believes fundamentally in liberty and diversity, I'd like to dismiss this kind of obsession as an example of typical British free-thinking. But I can’t, because human rights are too important.
International human rights legislation sets down in law the principles that we send young men and women abroad to defend with their lives. And here at home it is the last line of defence for millions of elderly, disabled and vulnerable Britons at the mercy of people who mistreat or neglect them. Undermining this legislation by employing it to settle parochial disputes is like taking over St Paul's Cathedral to stage an end-of-pier show.
All too often the pattern of misunderstanding and trivialisation has been set in the very place that should be protecting human rights, our Parliament. That is why I was delighted that the Prime Minister has asked us to work with the government to tackle some of the misconceptions about, and yes, the abuses of human rights law.
This weekend, as we celebrate international human rights day, we need to start a new debate about human rights. We must not allow human rights to be used as combat weapons by grandstanding lawyers, or as a political football in the debates over religion or our place in Europe.
So let me tell you about some of the important work this legislation is really doing. This week in parliament, peers will be debating an amendment to the Health and Social Care Bill proposed by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, of which I am chair. This amendment would mean that half a million older people who receive care in their homes will be fully protected by the Human Rights Act.
If we secure this change, it will help to end the shocking abuses we revealed recently in our inquiry into home care. We found older people being treated with a casual, callous disregard: one woman’s weight dropped to seven stone because her carer couldn’t take the time to feed her; others were put to bed early in the afternoon, or left lying in filthy sheets for hours on end.
Most of these older people – unlike those in residential care homes - had no recourse to the courts under human rights law because of a legal loophole. We believe it is essential that the law upholds their right to decent, humane care, and we hope that Sunday Times readers will back our campaign to have that loophole closed.
For those who think human rights only matter for foreigners living under oppressive regimes – here we have an example of how this legislation could, for a significant number of people in Britain today, be a matter of life and death.
There are many more areas in which the Human Rights Act provides us all with essential protection. According to the popular narrative, human rights apply predominantly to criminals – prisoners who want the right to vote or porn magazines brought to them in their cells, or rapists and murderers who wish to avoid deportation.
The truth is quite the reverse. It is the rights of victims, not criminals, which are at the very heart of the Human Rights Act. It is thanks to human rights legislation that children who have been left in abusive homes have been able to take the authorities which have failed to protect them to court; public authorities have been obliged, for the first time, to provide adequate protection for a woman suffering sustained sexual harassment by her partner.
At the Commission, we believe that human rights legislation should be able to do more for victims. Human rights should help us better protect vulnerable people who are targeted with violence because of who they are, or who suffer because our police, local councils and courts don't take their calls seriously or provide enough support to get them justice.
But while we must defend human rights tenaciously, it is also essential that supporters of human rights recognise and address the reasons why these great principles have fallen into disrepute. For too many people nowadays human rights have come to mean the defence of the rights of unpopular minorities - of criminals, terror suspects, and illegal immigrants - at the expense of everybody else.
This has happened, in part, for a noble reason. Some of the most brilliant lawyers and advocates I know have chosen - at great personal cost - to apply their talents to defending people for whom no-one else would fight. In my days as a campaigning journalist I stood shoulder-to shoulder with such men and women, who were defending ordinary people caught up in a nightmare from which there seemed to be no escape.
For many people from ethnic minority communities, in the days when Britain was a far less enlightened place than it is today, our human rights legislation would have been the only thing that stood between them and serious injustice. Human rights are not worthy of the name if they do not protect the people we don’t like as well as those we do. But they must not become the exclusive property of minorities. In a good society, human rights should be about balance and fairness for all - and no-one should ever need to ask "What about my human rights?".
And as the Prime Minister has said, human rights should not be used or twisted to prevent public servants doing things which protect and serve the public. This summer, for example, there were references by the media and politicians to the police being unable to publish photos of the rioters because doing so would breach their human rights.
This was patently untrue and I wrote to the president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, Sir Hugh Orde, to assure him as much. Human rights should never be seen as a barrier to effective policing of disorder and crime. I have also written to the Prime Minister offering our expertise in helping public authorities understand human rights.
Human rights will always have a role to play in defending the marginalised, the people who do not find defenders elsewhere. However, over the next three to five years we will be focusing our efforts and resources on the issues that are most relevant to the lives of ordinary people. This is what our forefathers in the human rights movement would have wanted, and is no less than this seminal legislation deserves.