Alan Waters, Leader of Norwich City Council, blogs about the Human Rights Act and Local Government

 

Setting a ‘Gold Standard’ is an instantly recognisable phrase, a ringing endorsement of something that is solid and true; the best you can get. John Mortimer, creator of Rumpole of the Bailey had his fictional character wax lyrical about the ‘Golden thread’ of the Common Law that upheld the liberties and freedoms of the citizen.

 

The idea of a ‘Gold Standard’ is certainly in play in current debates about whether Britain should scrap the Human Rights Act and instead introduce a British Bill of Rights, and whether or not we will change or reject our relationship with European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR). In terms of replacing the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights, one can certainly see the influence of Aristotle’s gold, silver, bronze and iron standards in the idea that human rights are not universal but conditional. Suggestions have already floated categories such being a British citizen (full fundamental rights), an EU national (fewer rights) or a foreigner (basic rights).

 

The Government’s stated ambition to have a replacement for the Human Rights Act on the statute book, will no doubt continue to be accompanied by a torrent of supporting headlines to give the process a fair wind.

 

While Parliament debates and the media amplifies competing arguments, local government has a crucial and measured role to play in highlighting the benefits of the Human Rights Act as currently framed. Publications, such as Ministry of Justice guidance for Local Government and reports from the Audit Commission are a reminder of the applicability and value of the Human Rights Act to the work of local government and the citizens it serves.

 

As is the work of the British Institute of Human Rights, who partner with local government helping officials to change the way we deliver services, as well as supporting advocates to make sure the people we serve are able to speak up when things go wrong. For example, BIHR’s Human Rights in Local

 

Case studies of how human rights can impact the work of local government can be found on the British Institute of Human Rights (BIHR) website including the findings from the ‘Human rights and local government project’.  For example:

 

  • One newly merged county council was developing new community services, and used the Human Rights Act to support a collaborative social inclusion approach to engage with the community, inform impact assessment processes and the county’s Adult Social Care transformation programme.
  • A borough council worked on using the Human Rights Act to help establish guidelines for working with third sector organisations in a more coordinated and holistic way to support those who have no recourse to public funds, and to ensure that services are accessible to those eligible for funds.
  • And when the people local government work for have experienced poor treatment, the Human Rights Act can empower them to have the conversations and negotiations with services to address the situation. Such as ensuring women and children at risk of violence are made safe, or making sure disabled people aren’t left in undignified housing situations.

 

These all provide strong evidence of the benefits that human rights can bring to users of public services and as drivers for greater fairness and equality across local communities.

 

Beyond the sound and fury of some parts of the media and exotic examples of apparent abuse of the HRA, there seems little appetite to strike down the HRA. The human rights lawyer Philippe Sands has observed, “I served on the last government’s ill-fated commission on a bill of rights, set up by Cameron and Nick Clegg. Our commission engaged in a wide ranging consultation, which made crystal-clear the overwhelming public support across the UK for continued adherence to the convention and the aims of the 1998 Act.  We also found no strong objection to the Strasbourg court, given the vital role it plays in guarding against abuses of the kind that plagued Europe in the 1930s and 1940s”.

 

As one participant in the ‘Human Rights and Local Government Project’ observed: “We should be confident about the role of local government in strengthening and defending human rights for all”. Not a bad ‘Gold Standard’ to set ourselves as we engage in one of the most critical debates of this Parliament.