Harriet Harman has today delivered a speech ‘In defence of human rights’ as interim leader of the Labour Party. It is encouraging to hear Harman and the Labour Party join other voices from across the political spectrum in standing up and opposing the government’s proposals to ‘scrap’ the Human Rights Act including Tim Farron and Norman Lamb for the Liberal Democrats, and Dominic Grieve and David Davis for the Conservatives. However, some might say “about time” (more on this later).

The speech was a refreshingly accurate summary of how our human rights are protected here at home, key points being:

  • our modern understanding of human rights developed out of the horrors of WWII with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and how the “Human Rights Act inherits and embodies those universal values”
  • human rights are for everyone, including “those we don’t agree with or approve of, as well as those we do agree with and approve of” and that “we have to protect the minority from the majority”
  • human rights are about power; they are not for governments, but for the people: “the Human Rights Act is always going to be a nuisance to those in power because you want to get on and do things. But it’s right that as a government minister that you should have to look over your shoulder and that your power is constrained by other people’s rights.”

Harman also touched upon how the Human Rights Act has “precipitated good cultural and organisational change...changed the way public authorities reach decisions…and requires them to think about the rights of the individuals and communities affected by what they do”. At BIHR we see this first-hand through the work we do supporting and building the capacity of public authorities to use human rights to design and deliver better services. From the NHS and care services, to the police and teachers, we know how the Human Rights Act has transformed our public services, for the benefit of us all.

Mersey Care NHS Trust recognised that it was difficult for families with children to visit their relatives in secure mental health settings in Liverpool. Children were finding the ward environment unwelcoming, and chaotic and frightening from their perspective. The Trust looked at providing family visiting rooms, and developed the ‘Jelly Baby’ kite mark; a specialised visiting area for families with children designed in consultation with children. Children told them that it was important that the rooms were away from the ward environment, comfortable and ‘home like’, and contained toys and things to play with. Young people were involved in the design and décor of these rooms and invited to ‘inspect’ the quality of the family rooms provided by the Trust, before awarding the Jelly Baby’ kite mark to ensure they were meeting the standards set out by young people. For more examples like this, see The Difference It Makes: Putting Human Rights at the Heart of Health and Social Care

Harman also talked about the importance of human rights to “protect the individual from the state when it gets it wrong”. At BIHR we also see how individuals (as well as advocacy and support groups) are using human rights to challenge public officials when they overstep the mark. Throughout June we are telling a story a day of the positive impact human rights are having on people’s lives, through our website and social media. Today’s story is about how Priya and Sunil, a learning disabled couple, used the Act to challenge unannounced visits by social services to protect their right to respect for private and family life. Check out our other stories here.

What was missing

Harman was quite right when she said the values underpinning the Human Rights Act are “not just Labour values – they are British values and universal human values”. She might have added that they are cross-party values. David Cameron all too often refers to “Labour’s Human Rights Act”, quite incorrectly. Although it was the Labour government that introduced the Human Rights Bill into Parliament back in 1997, its now forgotten that it left Parliament with cross-party support, including from the Conservatives. Harman also left out an interesting and important bit of the history; that the European Convention on Human Rights (which is where the rights in the HRA emanate from) was Winston Churchill’s idea – he called for a Charter of Human Rights for the whole of Europe after WWII. And it was a British lawyer who wrote the first draft of the ECHR, Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe, who later went on to become a Conservative Home Secretary. The current cabinet might need reminding about their own party’s history in enshrining into law the rights they now seem ready to turn their back on.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the speech (for a human rights geek like me) was Harman’s message to the government about their plans to “fundamentally undermine the Human Rights Act” when she said:

“You can’t be a bit in favour of human rights and a bit against it. You have to be clear and resolute about it.”

Quite right. It’s a shame that the Labour Party didn’t get that memo back in 2000 when the Act came into force. Almost as soon as the ink had dried and the Act started be used to hold the (then Labour) government to account, it faced a torrent of criticism from Ministers. As Harman herself pointed out, like other bills of rights around the world, the HRA is “always going to be a nuisance to those in power because you want to get on and do things”. Things like detaining suspected terror suspects without charge or trial, for instance, which because of the HRA had to be halted, meant Labour soon turned their back on the Act. If we’d had a few more speeches like this from political leaders over the years, the Act might not be so misunderstood today.


To learn more about our Human Rights Act and how we can stand Together For Human Rights see our website here: The Human Rights Act: Protect What Protects Us All