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"Third anniversary of the Human Rights Act", London 2003

David Lammy (Labour)

Location: London

Many of you will have received a letter from me on 2 October, the occasion of the third anniversary of the Human Rights Act coming into force. I am pleased to have this opportunity to speak to you all even more directly.

The general work of the Audit Commission is, of course, well known, and needs no advertisement from me. But your pioneering work on the response of public authorities to human rights is perhaps less familiar. It seemed to me to deserve a wider audience. It makes for important bedtime - and day time - reading for anyone involved in the delivery of public services.

The Audit Commission Report

And that is why my recent letter to all chief executives of local authorities and health trusts enclosed a free copy of the most recent report of the Commission.

Of course it is the publication of that report that brings us together today.

What messages does the report carry? I would summarise them simply:

• one, that public authorities are generally in a more vulnerable legal state than they need to be; and,

• two, that many are missing important opportunities to lever up their delivery of public services using the Human Rights Act.

From the Government's point of view, these messages chime in with information that has also been coming back to us from other sources. The British Institute of Human Rights, for one. And the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights for another. My Department delivers a programme of road shows around the country and I have to say that anecdotal evidence from people who come to these fits with the general picture as well.

In many ways it is the second of the two messages - the one about missing opportunities to develop good practice and lever up public service delivery standards that is the most important.

We didn't bring in the Human Rights Act to give work to lawyers. We didn't do it because we wanted to encourage disputes and a great litigation fest. We brought it in because we wanted to see the development of a culture of respect for human rights across this country, with public authorities in the lead. And when I say that the culture is about "respect for human rights" I mean just that: this is about balancing rights and responsibilities, about upholding the rights of all, including the rights of the wider community.

Of course we never expected this culture was going to happen overnight. We also realised that people would focus first on the need to comply with the basic minimum requirements of the law. The real question is about what leadership and help is needed to get the deeper culture we all want to see. This turns into the very topical question whether we need institutional arrangements, independent of Government, to promote and protect human rights.

A Commission for Equality and Human Rights

The Government made it clear, when the Human Rights Act was passing through Parliament, that we were open to persuasion about the case for a Human Rights Commission. But we also made it clear that the relationship between such a body, and the existing Commissions - for racial equality, for the disabled and for equal opportunities - needed to be worked out. The Government suggested that the new Parliamentary Select Committee on Human Rights should look carefully into the options and the pros and cons. And that is exactly what happened.

So it was that, last week, Patricia Hewitt and Charlie Falconer jointly announced the Government's decision to set up a Commission for Equality and Human Rights. In other words, we are going to get a human rights commission - and we are going to get it within a body that draws together the existing equality commissions.

This is the big policy decision. Many details remain to be worked out and a task force of key stakeholders will shortly be convened. The Task Force will feed its thinking into a White Paper to be issued in April.

But even if we do not yet have all the details, we can still recognise and celebrate the decision as a really major step forward for human rights - and a really major step forward for equality. 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 is to flourish must make full use of the talents of all its members. Equality matters to everyone - its not a minority concern.

The point here is that human rights and equality are complementary. In fact they are two sides of a single coin - respect for the dignity and value of each person. Human rights principles can also help resolve possible tensions between individual anti-discrimination strands in the new body, for example between religion and sexual orientation. And adding human rights means that the new body will be able to engage more fully with public services than would otherwise be the case.

Broadly speaking, the intention is that the human rights remit of the new body will focus on the work of public authorities, and on promoting a culture of respect for human rights. I do not envisage that the new body would have an enforcement role in relation to human rights. I don't believe that there is a serious gap in the market there. But I do foresee it 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 very interested in the "one-stop-shop" idea regarding guidance and advice because I think that the simpler we can make all this the better. We need to cut out red-tape and bureaucratic duplication.

So we are looking at a really significant development for all of us who care about basic fairness and opportunity in our society. It is no less significant for those who care about the reform of our public services. The reason is simple: the public services reform agenda is about focussing on individual need, and moving away from block provision. So is human rights.

'One size fits all' is out.

Respect for personal need is in.

The Human Rights Act - a tool for culture change

As I've said, this isn't really about the law. 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 is profoundly sad that some public authorities should apparently regard human rights as a matter for their legal departments and no one else.

Of course, the Act was designed to allow people the legal opportunity to assert their Convention rights in UK courts, rather than having to go all the way to Strasbourg. We called our White Paper about the Human Rights Act "Bringing Rights Home". Access to rights in out own courts is certainly one meaning of that phrase.

But there is another meaning to "bringing rights home" - making them connect with our everyday lives. Deepening and strengthening our awareness of what respect for human rights actually means. In short to build a new culture in which the language of rights and responsibilities become an integral part of the vocabulary of everyone.

Parliament's Human Rights Select Committee have produced the best description I know of how what such a culture would look like. They said this:

"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 where this influenced all our institutional policies and practices"

They went on to say why this worth having:

"This would help create a more human society, a more responsive government and better public services, and could help to 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."

Amen to that.

By putting public authorities at the centre of the Act, and creating a completely new statutory duty for them to respect human rights, Parliament took the view that the focus in building the culture was to be the delivery of public services. To some that would seem like a tremendous task, but I say that it is no more than the people in this country deserve.

When we think of human rights, we often think of repressive regimes and political prisoners in other countries. But basic rights, such as the dignity with which people are treated when in hospital or care, are a matter for all of us. They are central to the establishment of a true understanding of human rights in the UK.

There is no distinction to be drawn in my mind between delivering a good public service and delivering a human rights culture. There is a great deal of difference, however, when delivering a public service without regard to human rights considerations.

A foreign thing?

Far too many people still see 'human rights' as a foreign innovation - something imported and alien to the British way of doing things. In fact, they couldn't be further from the truth. British lawyers had a very big hand in drawing up the European Convention and it is imbued with our common law values such as fairness, freedom of speech, liberty and equality before the law. Those values are much bigger than the immediate post-war aspirations of a bloodied and overwhelmed Europe. They are basic ethical principles which underpin a decent society and inform the way the state treats its citizens.

The challenge is to take them beyond the courtrooms, and into the public buildings up and down this country, whether they are council offices, the GP's surgery or the hospital. People must engage with the language and concepts of human rights - rather than pretend it doesn't exist, and become overtly defensive when people do mention it.

So, for example, if you are a local authority, and you are looking to close a care home for elderly people, you should be looking to consult the people who use the service and their families, and you should also be considering the Article 8 rights of the residents. The rights in Article 8 are not alien to this country: they concern the very things that affect and reflect all of our personal needs and interests. It would be the failure to consider these matters that is alien to the way we do things in this country - as well as being a breach of your obligations under the Human Rights Act.

Next steps?

Public authorities need to realise that frontline staff are crucial to delivering on this challenge. That means that there needs to be a programme of training and awareness raising. Even for those bodies that did train their staff during implementation of the Act, natural staff turnover means that a good proportion will have moved on: the newcomers need to be brought up to speed.

For those that remain, refresher training should be considered, especially since 3 years of case-law will have brought new priorities and changes to practices need to reflect this.

Leadership and a corporate approach

The fact that the obligation under the 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. What this demands is a consistent analysis of practices and procedures, to ensure that human rights is 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, and one that is growing - not diminishing, is the consequences of out-sourcing the delivery of some services. Public authorities need to be clear that contracting-out the delivery of some (or all) of their tasks does not absolve them of potential liability for breaches of human rights by their agents. Nor does it mean that developing good practice can be kissed good bye.

The Audit Commission report highlights outsourcing as one of the greatest areas of weakness. At the very least, the process of drawing up the contract needs to ensure that the terms require the contractor to comply with the public authority's obligation under the Act.

Of course, there is also the question whether the agent becomes a public authority too, but that is another matter, and one that I do not propose to dwell on today.

The new Commission, when it comes into force in 2006/7, will be able to help with these things. But public authorities should not sit back, do nothing and wait for that to happen. They need to take this as their cue to take stock of where they are at, and to devise a strategy for rising to the challenge. If they do not, they will not only be failing themselves, their own staff, and the public they serve, but will leave themselves open to the risk of litigation.

My Department's Human Rights Unit can help with publicity materials and basic guidance. It also runs road shows up and down the country - you can get details and book using our website. The Audit Commission report also points the way where much work can be begun straightaway. You all have a role to play in building a culture where rights are respected: and where responsibilities are recognised. Please take this message when you go back to you colleagues. Human rights is for all of us and for all our futures.

Thank you for listening to me.

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