Why should we worry about the abolition of the Human Rights Act?

26 Jun 2015

Sonia says…..

Why should we worry about the abolition of the Human Rights Act?

‘Some values must be universal, like human rights and the equal worth of every human being’ – Bjorn Ulvaeus (Abba)

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is one of the most important agreements in the history of human rights leading to the European Convention on Human Rights which was agreed in the aftermath of the Second World War. Both of these recognised that without formal protection, the concept of a human right is of little use to those facing persecution.

Many people are under the misunderstanding that this is to ensure a recourse to legal action should human rights be violated, but enshrining these concepts in law have led to many more changes in the way society views and treats groups of people, whether it was the Wolfenden Report that led finally to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in this country or the Sex Disrimination Act (1975) and Race Relations Act (1976), as well as the Equalities and Human Rights Act (2010) which goes further than addressing direct discrimination in recognising that the way people act and react to others may cause them emotional distress because they perceive discrimination.

The counter argument we hear is that we live in a world of political correctness, a place where people have the freedom to say what they want and behave in a way that leads to extremism and radicalisation, where they can abuse the systems of immigration and the welfare state. Abolishing the Human Rights Act, I believe, will not deal with the underlying reasons for any of these and will leave the most vulnerable in our society with no overarching benchmark, nor a place that can help develop safeguards to our liberties that are fair and recognise changing attitudes in society that can be both good and bad. To blame extremism, radicalisation or abuse of systems does not address the society within which this takes place – it is a quick fix that will not be sustainable nor address the economic and social issues that lie beneath the surface.

‘A people inspired by democracy, human rights and economic opportunity will turn their back decisively against extremism’ – Benazir Bhutto

For those of us working in social care these rights embed the way in which we work – the right to life; the prohibition of inhumane treatment; protection from slavery and forced labour; the right to liberty and freedom; the right to fair trial; the right to privacy and family life; freedom of thought, religion and belief; free speech and peaceful protest; no discrimination; and protection to property, education and free elections.

We could unpick each of these in turn, but I choose just to look at the right to family life where I can foresee areas for concern. Why this one? Because this is the one those who wish to abolish the Act have chosen to highlight. Their argument is that this right to family life has led to abuse of our immigration and welfare structures.

For those who approach us for services, whilst it may be cheaper to provide one service, or a borough may prefer to fund residential care only to those who have lived in their borough, we know that often decisions are made that take the whole family into account. The right to family life allows the individual to make decisions that may keep husband and wife together or enable a parent going into a home out of borough to be near to their children. It allows the argument for those living in council property that has an extra room to keep that property because their family carers are nearby or need to come and stay from time to time to take care of them.

For those who provide our services, the same right to family life can help valuable staff who have come from overseas. The Human Rights Act is there to protect every person resident in the UK, whether or not they are a British citizen. We all know that it is easier to work in an empathetic way with people if our home life is one that is relatively stress-free and supportive to that work. We also know that, without our oversees workforce in the care industry, we would find it hard to recruit enough staff and people with the values we want to support some of the most frail and vulnerable in our community. Being able to keep one’s family close to you can help relieve the stress of separation that many people who come here to work will suffer without that right.

The European Convention on Human Rights led to many other acts, the argument that we no longer need this ‘inteference’ from the outside because human rights are enshrined in English law does not really cut it. Apart from the fact that legislation can be revoked by any government at any time, judges must at the moment take the convention rights into account when making a judgement and public authorities cannot act in a way that is incompatible with a convention right.

It may take longer than the 100 days originally anticipated to revoke the Human Rights Act and draft the British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, but we should still take the threat seriously and think of the consequences.

Sonia Douek is Head of volunteering and community development at Jewish Care and has developed a strategy for the organisation that has seen the growth of volunteers in the organisation reach 3,000 people.