Commission unveils findings of study into human rights

Commission unveils findings of most comprehensive study into human rights in England and Wales

13 June 2009

An overwhelming majority of the British people support legislation protecting their human rights and where a human rights approach is incorporated into public services both users and providers benefit, a major new Inquiry Report released today by the Equality and Human Rights Commission has found.

Witnesses told the Inquiry about innovative and exciting new human rights initiatives and called for more leadership in promoting the positive benefits a human rights approach can bring.

The Commission’s Human Rights Inquiry is the most comprehensive research to date into the Human Rights Act’s first ten years. It brings together evidence from almost 3,000 individuals and organisations including service providers, service users and advocacy groups, inspectorates, academics and legal experts politicians, the media and Government Ministers. The Inquiry held evidence sessions across England and Wales.

According to an Ipsos MORI survey of almost 2,000 adults commissioned as part of the Inquiry, 84 per cent of people said they wanted human rights enshrined in the law for themselves and their families and 81 per cent of people saw human rights as important to creating a fairer society.

In the first major study into how far public sector authorities have adopted a rights based approach to delivering services, the Inquiry found that where human rights were put at the heart of the delivery of public services, they delivered successful results.

For example, since Knights Enham School introduced its Rights, Respect and Responsibility programme, unauthorised absence has dropped, exclusions are down by almost 90 per cent, and SATS scores have risen dramatically. The scheme has now been extended to more than 150 primary schools and 15 secondary schools across Hampshire.

Mersey Care NHS Trust put the human rights of its service users at the heart of decision-making when it was formed in 2001. Since then, more than 200 service users have been trained and paid to advise the Trust on everything from recruitment to the evaluation of its services. Almost 90 per cent of those involved said the approach had a resoundingly positive impact on their recovery and the Trust has won numerous awards for its approach.

The Inquiry also includes evidence from charities and other voluntary groups who have used the Human Rights Act to negotiate with public officials for improvements in public services on behalf of people they represent, often without having to resort to the courts.

Dame Nuala O’Loan, Chair of the Human Rights Inquiry, said:

“The evidence we’ve gathered is very clear: the public overwhelmingly supports human rights protection in law, and a human rights approach helps public service providers contribute to a better quality of life for many people. The examples which we’ve seen prove that this approach needn’t involve more bureaucracy or cost. Often it’s just a willingness to challenge the status quo, try something new and take a common sense approach to something as simple as checking that an elderly patient has eaten her lunch every day, protecting her right to life, or that pupils understand that bullying is wrong, thereby ensuring all pupils’ right to education.”

“However, our Inquiry also reveals that while some people have benefitted, we need a lot more leadership from those in senior positions to ensure a human rights approach is used across all our public services. We have made a number of recommendations to the Government, public sector authorities and the Commission itself will provide guidance and support to help.”

When the Human Rights Act was introduced the Government said it would lead to a cultural change within public services, representing the ethical bottom line and a ‘fairness guarantee for all citizens’. It gave citizens the ability to assert their human rights in the courts of England and Wales. It is no longer necessary to make the long journey to Strasbourg and to wait in a queue of cases from all over Europe.

While the Inquiry points to some positive results, it concludes that ‘less than perfect implementation’ of the Act over the past ten years means individuals and public service providers have failed to harness its full potential while at the same time many people have yet to recognise why human rights benefit everyone.

According to the Commission’s research only 25 per cent of public sector directors 'felt they received sufficient information about human rights cases, or that their operational managers and front-line staff received sufficient, timely access to such information'. Only seven out of 11 of the inspectorates examined set out their commitment to human rights in their strategies and corporate plans, suggesting inspectorates could be doing more to drive forward change in the public sector and hold service providers to account.

Trevor Phillips, Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said:

“Human rights are a framework for ensuring that the power of the state cannot override the rights and freedoms of the individual. By providing a mechanism to hold an often faceless bureaucracy to account they really can help return power to the people. And, when applied properly, they can ensure a common sense and proportionate outcome to complex problems.

“As the State gains more and more information about us and can use that information in more and more sophisticated ways, human rights protection becomes increasingly important. Whether it’s ensuring that soldiers receive the right equipment when serving abroad; that our DNA and other information held by the State is not misused or that we are treated with dignity and respect as we get older, the human rights framework is an essential element of how to manage society through difficult and troubling times.”

Today’s report makes a number of recommendations to help embed human rights in the public sector. They include:

  • Encouraging those in leadership roles in public authorities to help ensure their staff prioritise human rights. This could include the appointment of ‘human rights champions’ in the public sector.
  • The provision of better information, advice, training and more targeted resources for the appropriate bodies in the public sector. The Commission will explore options for working with various public bodies to provide more targeted advice and guidance on how human rights can be effectively applied to the services they deliver.
  • Helping public authorities and voluntary groups to put a human rights approach at the heart of their decision-making processes, strategies and business plans. The Commission is recommending that the Government consults on whether or not a statutory “human rights duty” should be brought in alongside the existing public sector duties.
  • The Government should review whether the Commission should be allowed to provide legal assistance to members of the public in cases involving only human rights legislation.


For more information contact the Equality and Human Rights Commission Media Office on 02031170255, out of hours 07767272818.

Notes to editors:

For a full copy of the report or individual research reports and case studies, please visit

The Human Rights Inquiry

The Commission launched the Inquiry in April 2008 and has since heard from more than 2855 individuals. These include service users, user groups, grassroots representatives and NGOs, service providers, politicians, the media, Government Ministers, the police, inspectorates, regulators and ombudsmen. The Inquiry commissioned three research reports looking at the impact of Human Rights Culture on Public Sector Organisations; the role and experience of inspectorates, regulators and complaints-handling bodies in promoting human rights standards in public services; and an evaluation of selected legal cases under the HRA on public service provision. Ipsos MORI conducted an opinion poll and associated deliberative groups, and the Commission launched a Call for Evidence which resulted in written submissions and group meetings across England and Wales.

The Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute, on behalf of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, carried out a survey among a representative sample of 1,994 British adults aged 16+, between the 14th and 21st of August 2008.

The Inquiry was limited to England and Wales. In Scotland under the Equality Act, the EHRC is entitled to undertake human rights action in relation to devolved matters within the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament if it obtains the consent of the SHRC. In Scotland, the Scottish Human Rights Commission was just beginning its work when the Inquiry was commenced. It was agreed between the Commissions that, at that time, the Scottish Human Rights Commission would rather consult on its Strategic Plan to give a foundation for its future work in Scotland. Both Commissions continue to work closely and to discuss areas for future cooperation.

About the Equality and Human Rights Commission

The Equality and Human Rights Commission is a statutory body established under the Equality Act 2006, which took over the responsibilities of Commission for Racial Equality, Disability Rights Commission and Equal Opportunities Commission. It is the independent advocate for equality and human rights in Britain. It aims to reduce inequality, eliminate discrimination, strengthen good relations between people, and promote and protect human rights. The Commission enforces equality legislation on age, disability, gender, race, religion or belief, sexual orientation or transgender status, and encourage compliance with the Human Rights Act and international treaties. It also gives advice and guidance to businesses, the voluntary and public sectors, and to individuals.