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"Using human rights in the voluntary sector", London 2004

Lord Falconer of Thoroton (Labour)

Location: London

I am delighted to be here to welcome Frances Butler's new publication for the IPPR, ‘Human Rights: who needs them?'.

I would also like to thank Comic Relief for funding a range of work, including this event, that promotes human rights.

And I would like to pay tribute to Lord Scarman who passed away on Wednesday - a brilliant lawyer. A man who made connections between the law and the needs of the community. His report into the riots in Brixton had a transforming effect on the lives of people there. His loss is deeply felt.

Frances's book says that people should be promoting human rights. I agree completely. This Government will do so - as loudly and as clearly as possible.

Frances makes a number of cogent points about how human rights are seen by the public through the prism of the press and opposition politicians. She makes the point that Government has concentrated on encouraging public authorities to mainstream human rights, rather than providing help and encouragement to voluntary organisations to use the Act in support of their clients.

She says “the potential contribution that the Human rights Act and its underlying principles could make to social justice is waiting to be realised.”

I couldn't agree more. We have a responsibility in Government to make the Human Rights Act work, not just in theory, but in practice. In the way that public services operate and the way policies are shaped - human rights are, more than ever, about real people and real lives.

But we should not ignore the fact that, rather than do more to implement the Human Rights Act, some people say we should repeal it.

So it is right that we look at these issues today - the 56th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

We should remember the origins of the Declaration, formed in the wake of the Holocaust and the defeat of Nazism - perhaps the proudest legacy of those who gave their lives, so that democracy and freedom could flourish.

Looking back further, we in this country have a long and noble tradition of human rights in this country - a tradition that dates back as far as the 13th century.

The seeds of human rights today can be found in ancient English law and the Magna Carta.

And we have brought these traditions into the modern age.

Britain was a key member in drawing up the European Convention on Human Rights in 1951. This brought to Europe in a meaningful way the values of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Underlining our commitment to these values, we were the first country in the Council of Europe to ratify it.

And, in 1998, this Government put the Human Rights Act on the statute book - one of the most important pieces of constitutional legislation that any Government has introduced since the achievement of universal suffrage. Enshrining in British law, through a framework of fundamental rights, the notion that all human beings should be treated with respect, equality and fairness.

These principles I believe are the foundation of an equal, fair and civil society - they protect vulnerable people; the elderly, disabled people and children. They give a voice and redress to those who need it most. It is a force the vulnerable and the dispossessed - a force for positive change in the way services are delivered

The Act has improved access to justice for those who do not have the resources or support to travel to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

And critically these rights are for everybody. Nobody is more entitled to them than anybody else. They do not recognise popularity. You have only to be in this country to qualify for human rights. To add other qualifications is to claim that one person is more human than another - something that is akin to the evils we fought in World War Two and fight against today.

The Human Rights Act provides us with a reference point. It does not dictate what we should do in each and every circumstance.

It is neither rigid nor inflexible - there is scope for debate and even for disagreement on the merits of individual cases, while ensuring common ground and that the principles are accepted and agreed upon.

The Human Rights Act ensures that modern, progressive values - respect; equality; fairness - are the values that guide and shape the society we will become.

It too recognises the need for balance - ensuring one individual's rights are balanced against those of another or of the wider society.

One person's right to privacy is balanced against another's right to freedom of expression.

The right to free speech is balanced with the obligation not to incite racial hatred.

The right to a family life is balanced with our responsibility to protect children's safety.

What this means is that public services, in central or local government, in policing, in prisons or in health, must look harder about the effect of policy on real people and real people's lives.

This is the culmination of a progressive movement over a number of years. Since the modern notion of human rights was first captured in the 1948 Universal Declaration, a consensus has formed in this country.

A consensus that has become a mark of a progressive, civil society.

From the Declaration onwards, there has been little argument that human rights are rights that we, as a nation must defend, both here and abroad.

This has become embedded in the British mindset. All major political parties supported the Declaration, all major political parties voted in favour of the Human Rights Act.

Yet this consensus is now under threat.

The idea that the Universal Declaration, the UN Convention and, more recently, the Human Rights Act are part of what is good about this country, part of what we should be proud of, is being tested.

Rather than show the leadership and direction that you want in the voluntary sector, some are urging us to turn the clock back not just 50 years, but to the legal values of the Dark Ages.

Here at home people want to take our human rights away because they think they have gone too far. They think the balance is skewed and the solution is to take the Human Rights Act off the statute books and dump it in the waste-bin. They say:

• That human rights is a third-world issue, so why bother here?

• They say the Human Rights Act favours criminals over victims - that it lets people off scot-free and allows mass murderers to demand new rights in prison;

• That human rights favours minority groups such as gypsies or travellers - and that these groups are asserting their rights in a way that is causing problems for everyone else.

• That human rights has unleashed a tidal wave of litigation - what is called a ‘compensation culture'. The idea that for every mishap that befalls us, someone is to blame and, more importantly, someone to pay.

• And, finally, people are saying, that human rights are making it harder for us to fight terrorism - that terrorist groups or individuals are able to evade detection or detention because they have rights that supersede national security.

These arguments are myth. It's a Chinese whispers approach to policy-making - sweeping aside decades of British tradition because we think, that we may have heard, that someone, somewhere is using the human rights legislation to take us all for a ride.

But, because these arguments are being presented seriously, I intend to respond to them seriously. Let me answer some of these criticisms:

First, are human rights relevant for a modern, wealthy western country?

The answer is yes. Unequivocally.

The Human Rights Act ensures that we look to our own back yard. It means that every piece of legislation complies with human rights legislation and all public services take human rights into account in the way they operate. Not after the event, or in a way that is burdensome - but as part of good business-planning, as an integral part of policy-making.

An example - Article 8 sets out a right to respect for your private and family life. If you have an elderly relative in a care home, the authority can't just close it down and move the residents without proper prior consultation with the residents themselves or those who speak for them.

Just the same for people who are detained suffering from mental illness - under Article 5 they no longer have to wait a standard 8-weeks for their reviews to be heard by a tribunal because of “administrative convenience”.

Care home residents who are treated in a way that is inhuman or degrading now have the right to challenge that treatment, either themselves or through an intermediary.

Human rights are not a distant, abstract concept - unconnected from the way we live our lives. This is not for the theorists or for the academics. These rights are changing forever, and for the better, the relationship between the state and the individual.

Everybody can expect the same protection and treatment as a result of these rights, no matter who they are, what they look like, what they believe or how they live their lives.

The Human Rights Act also gives Britain an international voice - when we speak about human rights - in the Security Council, the Council of Europe or with the European Union, we are listened to. Repealing the Human Rights Act would fatally undermine this.

The second criticism is from people who say the human rights legislation favours criminals over victims.

I reject this argument.

One of the oddest myths is that the mass-murder Dennis Nilson used the Human Rights Act to get hard-core pornography in his prison cell. It's part of the folklore of those who say our rights have gone too far. It seems to matter little that it's completely untrue.

The prison governor said he could not have it, and despite Nilson's attempt to use the Human rights Act to persuade a court to overrule the Governor, he was unsuccessful and the Governor's perfectly proper ruling stands.

In reality, the Human Rights Act is about common sense - it does pretty much what our instincts judge to be fair and proper.

Yes, citizens should have their life protected by law and have a right to liberty and security. And there should be no punishment without law.

And, equally, in return citizens should behave with respect for others. Not all behaviour is permissible in all circumstances.

Sometimes the behaviour of a minority is so intolerable that it has to be proscribed for the good of the majority. The Human Rights Act recognises this.

Look at Anti-Social Behaviour Orders.

There is no human right to break the law or make other people's lives a misery. Where people do so, the state has a responsibility to act.

Orders can prohibit entry to a specific area - a park or a play area. They can protect people, by prohibiting someone who behaves anti-socially from approaching a vulnerable person.

But, equally, the Human Rights Act means individual orders must be made fairly and proportionately.

This is common sense - we all want a justice system that is fair. And proportionate. We all want to see offenders given appropriate sentences. The Act does not preclude this.

Third, what of the suggestion that human rights excessively favours minorities, such as gypsy's and travellers?

The Act grants nobody, travellers included, immunity from general laws. The Human Rights Act cannot be invoked to protect illegal settlements. Any other test would encourage the continuation of illegal activity. The courts are there to uphold the law, not to disregard or undermine it.

A court may decide not to evict gypsies from an illegal site if the decision on a planning application is close. Or it may decide that the decision making process followed by the local authority or planning inspector failed to take human rights issues properly into account. Or it may decide to allow the gypsies longer than originally intended to leave following the settlement of the case.

What it will not do is overrule a properly followed legal process. The Human Rights Act can test a planning decision and if it is properly arrived at, it will not be overturned. It does not contradict the planning process. What it does is provide a framework against which the planning process can be tested.

If the planning process fails in any of these tests, it has not only breached Human Rights, but it has failed in its own standards of reasonableness and fairness. The Human Rights Act simply provides that extra safety net.

Fourth, has human rights unleashed a tidal wave of litigation? Is there a compensation culture?

Let's be clear - human rights are not about litigation. The Human Rights Act has not altered the law of negligence. The law is clear - where there is wrong-doing which causes loss, people are entitled to compensation from the wrongdoer. That's common sense. It's rational.

It may be convenient to say the Human Rights Act has changed this, but it wouldn't be true. The courts are not extending liability - and nor are they being flooded with new claims.

Where the compensation culture is having an effect is on organisations moderating or curtailing their activities because people think they have new rights. Some claims advertising clearly encourages people to ‘have a go' - we need to respond to this.

But, to say the Human Rights Act is the cause is dangerously wide of the mark.

And, finally, has human rights hindered our ability to fight terrorism?

Government - any Government - has a responsibility to defend its citizens against terrorist attack. Terrorism is an attack on our people, our rule of law and our values.

And Governments have difficult decisions to make - particularly when the nature of the threat changes. But the greater the threat, the stronger the response.

The difference the Act makes, is that it provides a framework so the measures we take are consistent with the values we are defending.

It does not mean we fight terrorism with one hand behind our back. Far from it. It does mean that, because of the Human Rights Act, we have the scales on which we can weigh our decisions - balancing the arguments for and against a particular measure. It means any decisions we make as a Government can be tested against an objective standard.

Fighting terrorism and the Human Rights Act are not incompatible, as some would have us believe. They go hand in hand.

We fight terrorism to defend our values - human rights embody our values.

Human rights are not for the history books - they are applicable to new circumstances and new challenges. The Act is a living instrument, responsive to the world around us at it changes - not least, in light of terrorist activity.

This is how we should look at the Government's derogation from Article 5: the right to liberty.

It is a fundamental duty of government to balance the rights of individuals who threaten the safety of this country, against the rights to security of the rest of its citizens. It is not contrary to the Act to move decisively against those who seek to harm us.

However, the rule of law and the Act ensure that when the Government is held to account for its decisions the convention articles give an objective standard against which they can be judged.

Indeed, the Civil Contingencies Bill was significantly amended in line with human rights values. The Bill now contains an explicit provision putting it beyond doubt that powers taken under emergency regulations must be proportionate to the threat they are intended to combat. It also requires the responsible Minister to give the House his view about the compatibility of the regulations with human rights.

At the heart of our culture is a commitment to the rule of law and human rights. We could never countenance individuals being put beyond the law as has happened at Guantanamo Bay. The period of the detainees being beyond the rule of law is now I hope at an end, in the light of the supreme court ruling.

So, human rights are being questioned. But human rights are here to stay.

They are part of a British way of life, and will remain so.

Yet, as Frances points out, making the Human Rights Act work is unfinished business.

Considerable progress has been made since the first equality Commissions were established thirty years ago. But change is too slow - and the challenges we anticipate in future mean that fresh thinking and new approaches will be needed.

A change in how we promote, enforce and deliver equality and human rights is needed now if we are to achieve the prosperous, creative and cohesive society we seek.

The time has come to recognise that our society needs a body, independent of Government, to promote and protect a culture of respect for human rights

The new Commission for Equality and Human Rights will provide institutional support for the Act for the first time. It will be proactive in helping to embed a culture of respect for human rights, so that everyone can be confident of fair and decent treatment from public bodies.

The goal is to move beyond compliance with the Act to using good human rights practice as a way to make radical improvements in the way services are delivered.

So, we are not complacent.

The pursuit of human rights does not cease - it's not ‘job done'.

Looking back, we have a proud record - the development of the rule of law dating back centuries and the lead role Britain has played in the Universal Declaration, the UN Convention and this Government's enactment of human rights legislation.

Looking forward, we face challenges. From those who want to turn the clock back - and from those who use false arguments to chip away at important rights.

We face a choice - to retreat and give in.

Or to renew our determination to defend our human rights.

To rebuild a consensus which recognises that human rights are here to stay. Human rights are mainstream and they represent the centre of our culture not to the right or to the left.

And to focus more clearly on making sure the human rights legislation is used to shape and define our society for years, for decades and for generations to come.

Thank you.

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