Speech on Equality and Human Rights", London 2004
David Lammy (Labour)
Location: London
I am delighted to be here this morning. Looking through the list of participants, I would like to say how wonderful it is, because it conveys how far we have travelled on the agenda of equality and human rights. I am humbled and honoured to share the platform with Gus and Angela who have been pioneers in this agenda.
It is very much the next stage and next big step that we will be taking in equality over the next period. We know that race equality, sex equality and the issues that arise around disability have for too long been a preoccupation of those in London, but have they really been the preoccupation in Shropshire or Warwickshire? We need to think how that can be achieved.
Everyone knows that the Commission for Equality and Human Rights will essentially be about equality. But while equality is always about dignity, dignity is not always about equality. In other words, human rights includes but goes beyond equality. It is the fabric which meshes the two together. It reaches the parts that some equality policies cannot reach, and those are precisely the parts we must reach if we are to change the politics of equality from a minority issue into an issue for all of us. The young people in constituencies like mine desperately need that to be the case.
Therefore, human rights need to inform and support the six equality strands. And the new body needs to be able to promote human rights whether or not there is a linked equality issue.
In a sense I'm really glad we're ending the artificial distinction that has developed in this country - not in the rest of the world, I might say - between equality on the one hand and human rights on the other. We should never forget that the human rights movement was born out of the horror of the Second World War in Europe. That involved clearly the worst case of discrimination the world has ever seen. Yet, for too long in the UK we didn't connect the human rights agenda with our own domestic anti-discrimination agenda. It is ironic that when you hear some of the horrifying things said by young people who have been captured by movements like the BNP in northern cities like Oldham. Their own grandparents fought against that discrimination in World War II. We didn't see how human rights would help make the step change that we so desperately wanted. A lot of people said - and felt - that human rights are what foreign countries lack and what Britain doesn't need.
We can now see that we do have human rights issues in the UK - and that they do indeed relate directly to equality. They are issues about degrading treatment, such as people in care homes being fed their breakfast on commodes. I remember when I was a Minister at the Department of Health I went into an Accident and Emergency ward - an elderly woman, in her 80's, was going round with her gown on back to front, and no-one was concerned enough about her dignity to put it on the right way round.
My slot today says that I am going to talk to you about how we are going to deliver a new approach to human rights. I am going to talk about that but, actually, the approach isn't really new at all. Its just that a lot of people weren't listening to us when we said it back in 1998 when we put through the Human Rights Act, that we're bringing rights home, that it wasn't about a litigation culture, but a human rights culture.
So, what do we mean by a human rights culture and who is to deliver it? Definition is easy, because the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) has done the job for us. They say:
"A culture of respect for human rights would exist when there was a widely-shared sense of entitlement to these rights, of personal responsibility and of respect for the rights of others, and when this influenced all our institutional policies and practices." [Page 12, para 9 of Vol. 1 of the Report]
They go on to say:
"This [culture] would help create a more humane society, a more responsive government and better public services, and could help deepen and widen democracy by increasing the sense amongst individual men and women that they have a stake in the way in which they are governed. For these and other reasons we believe a culture of respect for human rights is a goal worth striving for."
Two points, then, on the JCHR definition: one - it is about profound, systematic and gradual change. This isn't the language of one off individual court cases and damages. Is it really about something that the judges are equipped to build at all? It is much bigger than the Courts can provide.
Two - though the buck clearly stops with Government, the definition is telling us something very important about the responsibilities we have to one another. Reciprocity is key. Awareness and training is key. Again, are the courts really in a position to deliver and manage training and awareness raising? It's clearly for public service institutions and managers. And it's for people like you in this room. That is why the cross section of people here today is so important.
The job Parliament has given to the courts is to deal with violations of fundamental legal rights. That's absolutely as it should be. But violations of fundamental legal rights isn't what's going on up and down this country. I am not saying that there aren't human rights issues out there. On the contrary, there are plenty of those, sadly - I gave examples a few minutes ago. What I am saying - and it's the lesson of the three years since we introduced the Act - is that, by and large, bare legal compliance with the Convention rights isn't the big problem. In a sense, we are not into mountains of violations, that is what the record shows.
Let me put it this way. If our idea of a human rights culture is just staying on the right side of a writ then, fine, let's leave it to the lawyers. But that isn't what is going to make a difference for public services. You are not going to sue your way to a better Britain. At least, not the better Britain I want to see. Trust me on that - I'm a lawyer!
Our vision is not just bare compliance with Convention rights - and we never said it was. Our vision takes shape in the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights.
Please don't get me wrong - enforcing minimum rights is vital. Access in our own courts is part of what we meant by setting up the Human Rights Act and saying we "brought rights home".
But there was always a bigger prize. It's about making rights connect with our everyday lives. It's about deepening and strengthening our awareness of respect for human rights and what that actually means. And underpinning that, not just in our homes, but in communities all around the country.
It goes back to what I said about A&E wards and care homes. Human rights is relevant to each and every person in this country whether or not the courts are involved. It applies to every-day situations. It applies to every-day attitudes. The principles of human rights - fairness, respect for individual human dignity, balancing rights - sometimes rights conflict - reciprocity. That's what we are looking for.
We want our public services to be fair for all, and personal to the user.
So the culture we want to build isn't really about the courts. It is about policy and good practice, based on the principles of human rights. Its about doing as you would be done by. And it is about treating the rights in the Human Rights Act as a floor, not a ceiling.
It's tragic and, frankly, pathetic that some public authorities see human rights as a matter for their legal departments and no one else. We're not going to get very far if we continue like that. That is something that I and the Government take very seriously indeed.
The fact is that the culture change we want has been happening slowly, where it is happening at all. The JCHR report, the British Institute of Human Rights 'Something for Everyone' report, the work of the Audit Commission. Three stories, one message. Our public services need help in changing gear - and in some cases, moving into gear. The CEHR is that help. What these reports indicate is that we are moving to that human rights culture, but that it needs to go deeper in our public authorities.
That is the big policy decision. Many details remain to be worked out and the Task Force is contributing to that thinking. We are still aiming for a White Paper to issue in April.
But even if we do not yet have all the details, we can still recognise and celebrate the decision as great for equality and great for human rights. Most importantly, it's great for all the people in this country.
For the first time in this country we will be looking at a truly inclusive agenda of fairness and opportunity for all. And that is what we need. A society that doesn't make full use of the talents of all its members, as we know, is a failing society. Equality matters to us all.
Broadly speaking, the intention is that the human rights remit of the new body will focus, as does the Human Rights Act, on the work of public authorities, and on promoting a culture of respect for human rights. It should - and I am borrowing a phrase here from Mary Robinson who gave evidence to the JCHR about this - "complement access to justice".
Do we envisage that the new body would have a specific legal enforcement role in relation to human rights? Let me say this: of course human rights are bound to feature in the legal work of the Commission. The Human Rights Act means that all legal proceedings where those Convention rights are engaged are human rights cases. Obviously some discrimination cases will engage Convention rights.
I expect the new body to be under the HRA duty to act compatibly with the Convention rights. And I expect that it, like all of us, will be bound to interpret and give effect to its legislation compatibly with those Convention rights. There is work to be done in Government in working through the precise implications of this for the new legislation.
But let me also say this. The Government is clear that there is no serious gap in the human rights litigation market for the new body to fill. Its role should be complementary to access to justice. Nor, even more to the point, do I believe that court cases are going to make the difference we so badly need. I for one don't want the new body to get bogged down or distracted in that way.
But I do foresee the new body helping to co-ordinate and develop monitoring and inspection work in relation to human rights. I also hope we shall see thematic inquiries into the handling of human rights issues in particular sectors.
I am also keen to see the Commission work on ways to use the Human Rights Act as a means of building bridges between communities who have forgotten how much we all have in common. Trevor Phillips has made this point very well recently. I completely agree with what he had to say.
I want to say something about leadership. The fact that the obligation under the Human Rights Act rests with individual public authorities - who will have to justify their own actions in any legal challenge - means that there needs to be a corporate approach to the Act. This demands a consistent analysis of practices and procedures, to ensure that human rights are mainstreamed into the core processes of every public authority. This is not a one-off exercise - and it does require leadership from the top.
A key consideration is the consequences of out-sourcing the delivery of some services. This is something we have to think about very clearly. Public authorities need to be clear that contracting-out the delivery of some of their tasks does not mean they duck their human rights obligations. Nor does it mean that the task of developing good practice can safely be kissed good bye, and handed over to the contractor.
I made sure that every Chief Executive and Council Leader received a copy of the recent Audit Commission report, highlighting outsourcing as one of the greatest concerns. The Audit commission says that, at the very least, the contract needs to ensure that the contractor must comply with the public authority's obligation under the Act. There is a JCHR inquiry on the topic running now. I'm sure they will underline the need for responsible action in this area.
The new Commission should help in these and other areas. But public authorities cannot sit back, do nothing and wait for that to happen. They need to take stock and act now. We are doing the same in central Government.
So, to recap on my main messages today:
The CEHR is great news for those who care for and work on the human rights agenda and great news for the equality agenda in this country. It's a new beginning.
Litigation has a role but we know litigation on bare compliance with the basic Convention rights isn't going to get us the human rights culture we all want to see - and the CEHR remit needs to reflect that. There is detail still to be resolved in this area but, in general, we are going for what I called the Mary Robinson approach - a Commission role on human rights which is "complementary" to access to justice.
We have to get into the business of promotion. We cannot hand this one to our legal departments. We are certainly not looking at a talking shop role for the new Commission. Now that we have decided to have a Commission, Government and public authorities cannot sit back and wait. They must act now. There is a tremendous amount to be done and ground to be made up. That's a DCA priority. I know that it is a priority for everyone in this room. All of us can benefit from a new dawn in this country.
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