David Verghese: Britain and religious minorities in the Middle East

In late 1918, a stream of refugees slowly made its way downwards from Persia and Anatolia towards the town of Baquba, in modern-day Iraq. These were the remnants of the Assyrian Christian population of the Middle East, expelled from their homelands by a vicious campaign of violence. Thousands were murdered and many more forced to flee with almost nothing; whole villages were reduced to little more than a memory.

It was here that the United Kingdom intervened. British soldiers escorted refugee columns away from the violence and protected them in temporary camps; British administrators organised the creation of villages in Mesopotamia where Christian refugees were settled; the Assyrian minority grew to number over a million and became one of the most prosperous in Iraq. [i]

Once more, Middle Eastern Christians are in danger, and hundreds of thousands have been forced to leave their homelands yet again. In Iraq, the Christian population in 2003 was 1.4 million. Today as few as 250,000 remain. A similar story has panned out in Syria – before the conflict, 1.7-1.9 million Christians lived in the country, while by 2019 about 300,000 had left the country. They flee not only war and poverty, but also relentless sectarian attacks by Islamic extremists like the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Many have made their way to Europe, while many more are internally displaced within the region.

The present regime on asylum is inadequate for protecting Middle Eastern Christians, and religious minorities more generally. Over a thousand Syrian refugees were taken in by Britain in 2018; of these, not a single one was Christian. This is despite the unique risks faced by Christian refugees even in exile – many are forced to hide their identity or face violence and discrimination in countries like Jordan or Turkey. This is an abdication of our duty towards persecuted religious minorities. Britain should aim to match European allies like Poland by taking in at least several hundred of the most at-risk Christian refugees from the region.

The official policy towards Christian refugees seems more than just mere indifference; at times, it verges upon discrimination. Recently, headlines were made by the case of an Iranian Christian asylum seeker whose application was dismissed by the Home Office on the basis that Christianity was not a peaceful religion and thus his conversion could not be bona fide. This case is symptomatic of a genuine lack of both compassion and understanding towards religious minorities. Converts from Islam in Iran face official harassment and even incarceration if they remain in the country.

However, if Middle Eastern Christians are to survive and thrive in their homelands, rather than merely in diaspora, Britain must also exercise its soft power to strengthen safeguards for these groups.

Pressure could be placed upon Middle Eastern governments to protect the political and personal rights of Christians in the region. A key part of this is allowing meaningful Christian involvement in political institutions – this ranges from reforming the endemic corruption of minority-list elections in Iraq to advocating for an autonomous federal area for minorities in the Nineveh Plains, policed and governed by those groups who have been failed the most by the Iraqi and Kurdish governments.

Beyond political reforms to safeguard Middle Eastern Christians, Britain should also work closely with NGOs focused on religious minorities, such as World Relief, helping reconstruct communities devastated by war. Wherever possible, the goal should be to rebuild rather than to facilitate departure; to create the conditions to enable Christians and other minorities to flourish in the Middle East.

A Christian exodus from the region is not inevitable. Christianity is an integral part of the Middle East and has survived for millennia – there is no reason why it should fall away now. But to protect Christian communities, a concerted effort is required, and Britain is well placed to provide leadership for any such effort.

David Verghese is a member of Bright Blue. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.

[i] Further detailed discussion of the camps at Baquba and the events leading up to them can be found in ‘The Baquba Refugee Camp: An Account of Work on behalf of the Persecuted Assyrian Christians’, by H.H. Austin. (link)

Louise King: International law on torture and ill-treatment applies to all children, including those behind bars

Last week, the UK Government was examined by the United Nations on how well it is adhering to international standards on preventing torture and ill treatment under the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading treatment or Punishment, including in relation to children.  

Despite a welcome fall in recent years, England and Wales still incarcerate more children than any other country in Western Europe: the average number of children in custody at any one time over the last year was 894.

Contrary to popular belief, children in prison are some of the most vulnerable in our society - nearly half of children entering young offender institutions were previously in care, many children are subject to child protection plans prior to entering custody, one in five are disabled and mental health issues are wide-spread. A disproportionate number of children in prison are from BAME backgrounds.  

Prisons can be highly damaging to a child’s psychological and physical wellbeing and regularly infringe their rights. The appalling mistreatment of children in Medway Secure Training Centre (exposed by a BBC Panorama programme in early 2016) led to Government-commissioned reviews, which made recommendations for urgent improvement. Yet official inspections have found that violence, bullying and intimidation are regular features of daily life for many children in custody. In 2017, Her Majesty’s Inspector of Prisons concluded that There was not a single establishment that we inspected in England […] in which it was safe to hold children and young people.”

Restrictive physical interventions (RPIs) on children are frequent. In the year ending March 2018 there were 5,400 RPIs, 78 of them resulting in an injury which required medical intervention on-site and two resulting in injuries so serious they required hospital treatment. Medical warning signs, which include things like lost or reduced consciousness, blueness of lips, fingernails or earlobes, or difficulty breathing, were recorded in 201 separate incidents across eight child prisons.  

In February, the Chair of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse, Professor Alexis Jay, concluded that pain-inducing techniques, which include bending a child’s thumb or wrist, are child abuse and called on them to be banned. She also revealed that children in custody had made over 1,000 claims of sexual abuse between 2009 and 2017.

There is also mounting concern over the increased use of segregation and isolation. Some children are spending up to 23.5 hours in a cell each day for days and sometimes weeks on end. The Children’s Commissioner for England has described the ‘intolerable conditions’ of children kept in confinement including hard beds and open toilets, in either a too cold or stiflingly hot environment.   

This culture of compliance and control in child prisons is putting children’s safety at risk. It is time for a completely new approach where our response to offending behaviour puts the welfare and rehabilitation of children front and centre. Such an approach would see the vast majority of children who come into contact with the criminal justice system receive intervention in the community.

The very small number of children who need to be deprived of their liberty to prevent them harming themselves or others would be placed in small, home-like environments, centred on their needs and addressing the reasons behind their troubling behaviour. This new approach wouldn’t just be good for children, it would be good for all of us: with the latest figures showing that over 70% of children released from custody end up reoffending, a new approach would likely lead to less crime and safer communities.

The UK agreed to implement rules preventing torture and ill treatment when it ratified the UN Convention against Torture in 1988. Over thirty years later, the time has come to ensure it’s adhered to for all children, including those placed behind bars.   

Louise King is Director of the Children’s Rights Alliance for England, part of Just for Kids Law. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.

Alex Temple: School exclusions: It is time for government to act on the evidence

A new report from the Children’s Rights Alliance for England highlights how school exclusions infringe on children’s rights – leading to worse outcomes at a higher cost to taxpayers.

Last week I was buying a thankyou card from the corner shop over the road from our office. The woman serving me took payment and handed me a receipt. “When are they going to stop these stabbings?” she asked, conversationally, as I turned to leave.

She noted from the paper on her counter that one of the most recent victims of England’s rising number of fatal knife attacks was from a wealthy family in a quiet, leafy suburb. Not to suggest that more vulnerable, less wealthy people were less deserving of concern, but with a tone that was asking, “is no one safe?”

Perhaps I should have shared my belief that tackling this issue requires a critical look at our education system, as much as our policing system. I could have pointed out that the perpetrators and victims of youth violence are statistically likely to be the most vulnerable in our society; I could have said that our systems to support young people at risk of exclusion in mainstream schooling are failing, and this makes them easy targets for those who would seek to criminally exploit them. But truth be told I felt a little awkward and there was a queue forming, so I just murmured something about “police funding” and left.

This conversation happened the same day the BBC published an article headed: Knife crime: Excluded pupils 'sucked into criminality’. It was the second most prominently placed story that morning on the BBC news app.

That is how we know we have hit crisis point with violent crime. The story is challenging Brexit for prominence and Londoners are engaging strangers in conversation about it. This is understandable, the seemingly unsolvable problem of an increase in violent killings of young people is enough to cause any of us to panic. As my fleeting conversation with a distraught stranger shows, people want an answer.

But what is the answer? We should be careful that the conversation does not become dominated by police funding, as much as that might be an important component. It is still one component in a bigger picture.

A letter signed by the Mayor of London and eight police and crime commissioners, written to the Prime Minister, explains that because of changes to education funding early interventions designed to help vulnerable young people stay in school and engage with their education simply aren’t happening. The letter explained that it is these vulnerable young people who are facing exclusion and that, once excluded, they are more likely to be involved in violent crime; either as victim or perpetrator.

This letter is a timely and welcome statement. Last week, the Children’s Rights Alliance for England (CRAE), part of Just for Kids Law, published The State of Children’s Rights report – its annual report card on how well children are having their rights respected in England. The report highlights a membership survey by the National Education Union which found that a huge 94% of staff were pessimistic about their budgets. Even more alarming is that a meagre 2% of leadership staff believed that top-up funding received from the Government was enough to meet the needs of students with special educational needs, who require additional levels of support through an Education Health and Care Plan (EHCP).

CRAE’s report draws attention to the continued increase of school exclusions, including of very young children in primary school, despite the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child urging the UK Government to act to reduce them when it last examined the UK back in 2016.

We know from our work that if schools fail to support children with special educational needs, many will be excluded when they would not have been otherwise. The government’s own statistics show that students with special educational needs are more than 500% more likely to be excluded, when compared to their peers.

An example of this is a client of ours that I will call “John”. John had special educational needs that were difficult to manage. He was not receiving the one-to-one support that had been recommended by mental health professionals and, at only eight years old, was permanently excluded after an incident between him and the head teacher. An incident that took place between periods of one-to-one support. We represented John through his challenge to the exclusion, and the school argued that, given current funding constraints, more one-to-one support for John was not possible.

It is unlawful to exclude someone for resourcing reasons, or as a result of a persons’ special educational needs. However, schools hold all the cards in exclusion proceedings, as they are not bound by the decisions of the independent tribunals that are intended to judge their lawfulness. So, John’s exclusion went ahead regardless of the independent panel’s findings. The House of Commons Education Committee last year expressed their concern at the system as it is. They concluded that, “the exclusions process is weighted in favour of schools and often leaves parents and pupils navigating an adversarial system that should be supporting them.” The Government declined to act on this concern or the specific recommendations the Committee made to improve the situation.

Once excluded, children often end up in pupil referral units (PRUs). PRUs are a type of school with less requirements for qualified staff, a restricted curriculum and typically very poor prospects for their students. According to the House of Commons report, only 1% of students excluded to PRUs receive 5 or more “good” GCSEs. 99% do not. The State of Children’s Rights Report also highlighted that some councils do not have a single PRU in their jurisdiction that has been rated better than “requires improvement” by the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted). The government’s own guidance from the Home Office, for frontline workers, warns that a young person’s placement in a PRU makes them more vulnerable to exploitation by drugs traffickers and criminal elements, a key driver behind youth violence. Indeed, Ofsted have warned that sometimes perpetrators of criminal exploitation will equip young people with prohibited items such as drugs or knives, in order to get them excluded, because they are easier to control once in a PRU.

Therefore, John was excluded, and in an absurd quirk of our system, the government will have ended up paying vastly more per day for John to be in a PRU than they would have done for his mainstream school place. More money to make him more vulnerable and less likely to have his rights respected. More money to give him a more challenging and less hopeful start in life. More money to undermine his successful transition into adulthood. More money that could have been spent ensuring his effective participation in mainstream education.

Indeed in 2015 the then Education Secretary, Michael Gove, did recognise that excluded children are more vulnerable to being sucked into crime than their peers, and the evidence in the years since has only corroborated this position. It is thus disappointing that it has taken a spate of tragic killings and the shock of the public for this link to finally be discussed with some severity and urgency by leading politicians and commentators.

On 7 March a spokesman for the Home Office said the Government was “certainly listening to the evidence” on school exclusions. It is vitally important that the Government stops merely listening and begins to finally act on this evidence by radically overhauling our system of education for the most vulnerable young people, and ensure we break the path from vulnerability at school to violence in our communities.

To start with, the Government could give the independent panels back their power to bind a school to their decision, as the Education Committee recommended. That would give the most vulnerable young people a way to challenge unlawful exclusions, offering some much needed protection from the vulnerability to exploitation and violence faced more acutely by those who are excluded.

Alex Temple is a Public Lawyer and Policy Officer at Just for Kids Law. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.

Sam Lampier: ‘Undocumented’ children in the UK

There are an estimated 120,000 ‘undocumented’ children in the United Kingdom. These children tend to have lived most of their lives in the UK, however they lack a regular immigration status which gives them permission to enter or remain in the UK. This can happen for a number of reasons, including being born in the UK to parents who are also ‘undocumented’, who have overstayed on their visa or, more rarely, entered the UK unlawfully and never acquired any form of regular immigration status. Of these children, over half are estimated to have been in born in the UK and half are thought to be eligible for British citizenship.

These ‘undocumented’ children will face serious obstacles in adult life. Without a regular immigration status they cannot access parts of the benefits system or the student loan system that can help them to afford to go to university. They will not even be able to register with a GP. Before they turn 18, children tend to be relatively protected from the enforcement of the immigration system. For example, local education authorities have a legal duty to provide a school place to every child between four and 16 residing in their geographic area. There is no obligation for a local education authority to ask about immigration status, or even reveal that status to immigration authorities if it is disclosed to them. Similarly, ‘undocumented’ children can relatively easily access emergency healthcare. This is often why those affected aren’t aware they’re ‘undocumented’.

Although under the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009 there is a duty on the Home Office to “promote the welfare” of children in any immigration decisions, life as an undocumented child is nevertheless fraught with uncertainty, particularly over the threat of deportation both of themselves and their guardian. Indeed, there have been reports of children being separated from their parent or carer. The commitment to protecting children comes into conflict with an immigration system that is determined to root out ‘illegal immigration’.

One of the most significant barriers to acquiring the correct immigration status are the costs associated with it. To those who are eligible, the registration fee to become a British citizen for a child is £1,012 and for an adult is £1,206, a large amount for people who are often on lower incomes. Parents must also fill out a document over 70 pages long with detailed proof of residence of the child for the last 10 years. If ineligible for citizenship, children can also be granted ‘discretionary leave to remain’ after seven years living in the UK. This lasts for two and a half years and costs £649, along with a £500 NHS healthcare surcharge per application. Even requesting proof of status from the Home Office is expensive, carrying a fee of £250. That children have to prove they are of “good character” as part of these applications has itself also been a source of controversy.

The very nature of being ‘undocumented’ means identifying those who need help is inherently difficult. Some have suggested a reduction in fees, or indeed their abolition, as a policy solution. They argue it would remove the financial barrier experienced by the parents of children who have a right to British citizenship and for young adults in the same situation. Other more fundamental changes to the system, such as reinstating birthright citizenship (abolished in 1983), have also been proposed, which would remove altogether the issue of proving citizenship for those born here. However, this alone would not retroactively help those who are already without status in the UK or those not born in the UK but who are eligible for citizenship.

‘Undocumented’ children serve as a stark reminder of the failures that can happen in the UK’s immigration and citizenship system. As Britain leaves the EU, and will most likely be operating under a new immigration system next decade, the Government should seize this opportunity to address the issue and underlying causes of undocumented children.

Sam Lampier is a Researcher at Bright Blue.

Tom Chapman: 20 Years On: In Defence of the Human Rights Act 1998

In 1998, the Human Rights Act (HRA) was passed to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into domestic law. Since then, it has been demonised by centre-right voices, despite the ECHR being fundamentally British in origin, spirit, and drafting.

After the Second World War, Winston Churchill called for “a Charter of Human Rights… sustained by law”. The UK then ratified the ECHR after a British Conservative proved instrumental to its creation. Access to justice, however, was stunted, since applicants could not secure ECHR rights before British courts. When cases therefore reached Strasbourg, European Court of Human Rights judges could not benefit from our judges’ interpretation of the ECHR. With ‘Rights Brought Home’, the HRA obviated the need for applicants to spend such time and money pleading before Strasbourg, as they could invoke ECHR rights before domestic courts instead. It too allowed British judges to transform ECtHR case-law, with the UK only losing 1.4-2% of cases and a former ECtHR President commenting that Strasbourg frequently follows UK courts.

Since then, the two principal charges levied at the HRA have been that it disproportionately benefits criminals and tramples over parliamentary sovereignty. The Court often allows the removal of dangerous individuals, though occasionally objects on torture grounds. Even without the ECtHR, UK law is subject to long-standing international obligations and takes a historically dim view of evidence obtained by torture. Many cases are simply misrepresented. Despite media allusions, the ECtHR has not demanded that all prisoners have the right to vote, with minimal proposed change since satisfying the Council.

Many underreported ECtHR cases have improved lives. It was thanks to the ECtHR that the public learnt the truth of the Thalidomide scandal, that Mid Staffordshire victims won a proper investigation, and that Hillsborough families secured an inquest into the circumstances of their relatives’ deaths. The ECtHR has also protected soldiers supplied with inadequate equipment, advanced LGBT rights Europe-wide, and condemned corporal punishment. This perhaps explains why HRA consultations show public support. Moreover, the HRA obliges Ministers to declare if a Bill is ECHR-compliant. This, along with the obligation on public authorities to respect ECHR rights, serves as an immediate cautionary check against the ECHR. Thereafter, the Court’s jurisdiction serves as an ‘insurance policy’ guaranteeing fundamental rights.

Section 2 of the HRA instructs our courts to take account of Strasbourg judgments, following practice whereby courts already consider international cases. British judges are able and willing to depart from ECtHR decisions. Section 3 obliges courts to read legislation in line with ECHR rights. If this cannot be done, judges can declare that domestic law is incompatible with the ECHR, but do so rarely. Parliament can decline the opportunity to reconsider legislation deemed incompatible, but risks adverse ECtHR findings. This is, however, not the same as suggesting the HRA is capable of annulling legislation. Parliament is only constrained insofar as it chooses to honour international legal obligations. Whilst ECtHR applicants must first exhaust domestic remedies and most applications are inadmissible, Britain has comparativelyfew applications per year, indicating that the obligation on public authorities to respect ECHR rights avoids litigation by elevating human rights considerations within decision-making processes.

Some, however, accuse Strasbourg of overreaching when interpreting the ECHR. The Court views the ECHR as a ‘living instrument’ considered in light of the times. Liberty point out that the ECHR was drafted with “homosexuality…still illegal [and] discrimination against illegitimate children… still legal” in many nations, with “the internet, IVF [and] DNA profiling” also unforeseen. If treaty interpretation did not evolve, despite statutory and common law interpretation doing so, international law would be rendered obsolete. We must, however, acknowledge gaps between common law and the HRA, with legislation prevailing over the former. As the Equality and Human Rights Commission note, the HRA obliges respect of ECHR rights but also positively mandates the State to secure them. In contrast to common law, the Act imposed a duty on the Police to take steps to protect life when an individual is at risk. In our unwritten constitution, the ECHR is an important safeguard when common law or statute is found wanting.

Abolishing the HRA but remaining in the ECHR would take Britain back in time when applicants could only plead before Strasbourg, depriving individuals of access to justice and British judges of influence. There is no consensus concerning the content of a British Bill of Rights, particularly on socio-economic questions, whilst divergence with the ECHR could prompt Strasbourg’s intervention. If a Bill clarified judicial interpretation, it would be cosmetic since the ECHR considers the public interest when balancing qualified rights and Parliament has passed such interpretative guidanceOthers have questioned whether it would allow courts to strike down offending legislation, a more radical treatment of parliamentary sovereignty than the HRA permits. If the rights were not invocable before the courts, a hollow skeleton of principles would pale into insignificance compared to the ECHR. Procedurally and substantively, replacing the HRA with a Bill of Rights would likely weaken human rights protection.

The ECHR is also woven into UK devolution settlements and, crucially, the Good Friday Agreement for meaningful guarantees of equality and non-discrimination amongst communities. Mark Elliot points out that ECHR withdrawal would alter devolved competences; triggering the convention that devolved assemblies must accept such changes. It is, however, inconceivable that Holyrood would consent. While Westminster could plough on, it is unthinkable given that it would embolden Scottish nationalists. The repeal of the HRA therefore raises uncomfortable constitutional questions to which the answers have proved unsatisfactory.

The call for a British Bill of Rights carries a certain irony since the ECHR is precisely that already. The HRA and the ECHR protect individual liberty, enhance British influence, and provide common values binding the UK. Presented with potential ECHR withdrawal, Lord Bingham asked which rights should be discarded and whether we would prefer to live in a country where such rights were unprotected. Until we have detailed answers to both questions, we should continue to be thankful to live in a country where judges are occasional irritants to politicians, rather than faithful puppets.

Tom Chapman is a Bright Blue Member, a former Conservative Councillor who now works in the European Parliament. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not those of any other person or institution and not necessarily those of Bright Blue.

The Rt Hon Penny Mordaunt MP: Bright Blue’s Women in Work conference speech

Today is the centenary of women’s suffrage.

This is the moment when women finally gained a foothold in political life.

There are some that say: “So what?” They’re the sort of people that have never felt injustice.

When our Prime Minister made her first statement in her new role, she chose to focus on “burning injustices” that still existed in our country.

She was right to do so. And she gave some examples. Here are some more.

  • If you’re in the UK and disabled, you’re 70% more likely to be unemployed.

  • According to experts, LGBT people are more likely to be at risk of being homeless or rough sleeping.

  • 11% of all rough sleepers in London have been in care, and the majority have mental health needs.

  • 30% of women who were in low paid jobs in 2006 were stuck in low pay a decade later.

  • And people from Black African, Bangladeshi and Pakistani ethnic groups are still most likely to live in poverty and deprivation and, given the damaging effects of poverty on education, work and health, families can become locked into disadvantage for generations.

To fight injustice, we need a strong economy.

That’s why I’m proud of our track record economically. It was also clear to me that if we were to deliver her agenda we needed to enable Whitehall to better focus on these complex issues. And problems that needed to be tackled by multiple departments.

For the long term – not dependent on Government, but enabled by it.

Issues, which as a nation we had not yet gripped:

layered disadvantage;
ignored potential.
How do we remove multiple barriers, enabling more resource than government has, and help it to be levered in?

It was clear that business as usual wasn’t going to cut it.

If we’re going to deliver on this agenda. We needed to start by joining things up. We need to work smarter. We needed to make sure we are applying the best ideas and solutions, whether they are from within government or outside. We need to get moving – literally.

Last week I announced that the Prime Minister had approved some “machinery of government changes”, as Sir Humphrey would say.

Let me translate.

I want to give the Government Equalities Office not just a new home, but a permanent home, and most importantly at the centre of government.

That’s why I’m delighted that it’ll be in the Cabinet Office, from April, alongside the Race Disparity Unit. From there it will become an equalities hub, and provide some much-needed clout behind those working to ensure all our citizens have what they need to thrive.

A hub for all parts of Whitehall and beyond.

It’s no good having a central government strategy to tackle injustice if local government and communities can’t deliver it, too.

So, critically, such a hub will help us better articulate and co-ordinate a national mission to enable everyone to help fight injustice.

It will help join up our communications with key stakeholders.

One of the early things I asked for in my role as Women and Equalities Minister was a look across all the equalities asks we’re making of business.

An audit showed we’re making lots of similar requests depending on which government department is asking.

We’re asking large employers to report gender pay data.

BEIS are asking them to report CEO pay ratios, and are consulting on ethnicity pay regulations

Government wants business to sign up to a range of schemes like:

  • The Race at Work Charter;

  • Disability Confident;

  • Sector charters for gender equality;

  • and the See Potential campaign.

All of these issues are important and they all require energy and commitment in their own specific areas. But they’re not joined up or co-ordinated.

We need to think how that looks to an HR director or chief executive. How are we helping them to see the bigger picture or helping them to become an inclusive employer?

How irritating is it to have extra burdens placed on you or be lectured about workplace etiquette by a bunch of legislators whose own Houses are far from in order?

We owe it to our businesses to make sure these processes work with each other and reference each other, so that we are setting them up for success, not failure. I want to thank Greg Clark and David Lidington for supporting me in this.

I want us to get better at understanding of the asks we make on businesses and developing policy which supports them to do better on diversity and inclusion. The processes are only the means. It’s the end – the creation of dynamic, diverse, high performing business and organisations – that really matters.

It will help ensure that what we are doing as a government, but also together as a nation, really is greater than the sum of the parts.

My vision for GEO is that we’re the catalysts across government, amplifying and lending weight to the excellent work already underway in so many departments, and also across the country, too.

And while we’re not changing any reporting lines of Minister of State and Parliamentary Under-Secretaries who are doing work focused on tackling inequality, we will support them from the GEO in getting their ambitions met.

Work by people like:

  • Rory Stewart at the MOJ, trying to tackle the issues of drugs, violence and high rates of self-harm and suicide in prison;

  • People Like Jackie Doyle-Price, who is doing great work on women’s health inequalities;

  • Or Sarah Newton who is not only working on the disability employment gap, but also on empowering the disabled consumer;

  • Or Chloe Smith at Cabinet Office, who is leading work to engage young people in democracy;

  • Or Kelly Tolhurst, who’s putting into practice the government’s commitment to flexible working;

  • Or Heather Wheeler at Housing, Communities and Local Government, addressing the issues facing some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

I know they and other colleagues have huge ambitions and passion in tackling injustice and giving people what they need to build their future.

I know how hard it can be as a Junior Minister to join things up across Whitehall, and move at the pace that potential partners need us to. And the GEO can be of huge help to them in getting the things that we know need doing, done.

This machinery of government change is important, but more is needed too.

Across the public sector, we must ensure equality impact assessments are effective and remain core and integral to our policy development, with proper consideration of equalities knitted into our organisational cultures and decision-making.

And that the Equality and Human Rights Commission is as effective as it can be and delivers on the recommendations made by the Tailored Review which was published earlier this week. I know David is committed in doing that.

When I took over this brief I know questions were asked about its fit with my other, international facing, department.

Much of my focus at DFID is on the sustainable development goals and more recently on the Human Capital Index – what we’re investing in our people, what we could invest and what outcomes are we getting for that investment.

I’m a Human Capital Champion for the World Bank, and that’s a good fit with my domestic brief.

I’m pleased that the Index already disaggregates the data by gender – something the UK Government pushed hard for. But I would like to see it do the same, for example, by disability. The UK should be leading the way on this, building on the strong commitment to transparency which we have already demonstrated through the Race Disparity Audit and Gender Pay Gap reporting.

My work with other nations is about their journey – so that every one of their citizens can reach their full potential.

And that is the same measure we should judge ourselves on too, that no one should be left behind.

And that is at the heart of the Prime Minister’s mission she articulated on the steps of Downing Street.

To deliver that, we will not just need a shift of gear, but a broadening out of what the GEO has been focused on and an increase in our ambitions in this respect.

Whitehall tends to focus on what it knows can be done. What can be easily measured. Its strategy tends to focus pretty much only on what it can effect directly and control.

When it tackles thornier and more complex issues, it’s usually in the shape of discovering best practice, or chipping away at an issue.

And that is what we have tended to do at GEO.

Understandably, and rightly, it has historically had huge focus on women in work.

GEO has successfully shifted the dial on a number of issues including:

  • launching a £1.5 million grant fund to encourage action in the private sector, and launching programmes in the public sector for health professionals, teachers and prospective Civil Servants, all of which are helping ‘returners’ across the country get back into work;

  • supporting the Hampton-Alexander Review to make progress against their ambitious targets for getting more women at the top of business, seeing the number of all-male boards in the FTSE 350 fall from 152 to 5 since 2011;

  • working with BEIS on a Shared Parental Leave campaign to raise awareness and uptake of Shared Parental Leave, helping more families to share caring.

There’s a lot of focus on women in boardrooms. Of course, that is emblematic of the progress women are making. But, in truth, this is not the place where business is being re-imagined. Often poor treatment and the perception of being undervalued in the workplace is the main driver for female entrepreneurs.

But if we want every woman to thrive, to be as financially secure and resilient as they can be, and to reach their full potential we need to broaden out our work beyond, the FTSE 350, beyond London, beyond executives, women on boards and big business.

We need a focus on small businesses, part time work, women from all parts of the UK, low paid women, women with multiple barriers to reaching their full potential, older women, financially fragile women, women who aren’t easy to reach, or measure, or sometimes even to see.

The invisible women who keep our families our public services and our nation going.

Women to who we owe a great deal.

And women who really need our support.

And we need to focus on women at every stage of their lives.

And let me just briefly add some reassurance to the Times newspaper or anyone else who sees the fact that we want to support women who are cleaning offices, as well as the occupants of those offices, and see that as some sort of ‘downgrading’ of ‘middle class’ issues – don’t panic – women’s ministers can multitask.

The work done on gender pay gap reporting has been hugely helpful in focusing larger companies on the issue. It encourages them to understand the various drivers and the action that can be taken by them and others to address it.

Our work has inspired other nations to follow suit, and our metrics have now been adopted by the Bloomberg equality index.

But what does it tell us?

Let’s take a look at the data.

There is a gender pay gap from the beginning of working life, indicating structural inequalities.

The gap rises steeply as women begin to have children and take time out of the labour market to care for them.

It continues to increase as women approach 50, showing the impact of many women taking several years out of work or working part-time, often to enable them to care for children.

And it is highest for those aged 50-59.

The peak age for being an unpaid carer is 55-64 years old – women often do the caring for both children and elderly relatives.

Towards the end of a woman’s working life it continues to rise and then turns into a pensions pay gap. With men projected to have around a 25% higher income on average than women in their first year of retirement.

As we all live longer, this pensions gap will affect people long into their old age, leading to real inequalities in the standard of living people can afford.

It’s important to me that we recognise women are individuals and we are not all identical. A range of factors affects their personal experiences, which we need to do more to understand.

The gender pay gap data and the wealth of research GEO has done over the past year have helped us understand some of the challenges women face around work:

  • caring responsibilities is a huge issue;

  • women are more likely to be low paid than men and far more likely to get stuck in low pay;

  • just over 2 million people are inactive due to caring for home or family and nearly 90% of those people are women;

  • 1 in 10 working age women belong to the ‘sandwich generation’ – providing care as well as having dependent children;

  • this rises to 1 in 7 for women in their early 40s, those who are most likely to be in this position.

Older women of the ‘sandwich generation’ are more likely than men to have given up work as a result of their greater caring responsibilities. This disparity is particularly acute for older women on low incomes.

Women on legacy benefits can be trapped into limiting their hours or income by Tax Credit rules – that is why Universal Credit, which removes the cliff edge between unemployment and work, has to work.

We need to help women and men to have a better understanding of the negative impact of choices they have, may have drifted or been forced into.

The financial impact of these choices tends to be borne by women, so we need to address the reasons for that, find new solutions and create more choice so that those who want to, can share those burdens more equally. It used to be said that behind every great man, was a great woman.

These days great men are ones that get behind women.

And we need to make it easier for them to do so.

Too often work, schools, childcare and health services are designed assuming that one parent will be in work and one parent is the primary carer.

Today’s families want to share caring more flexibly, and we need work and wider social support to reflect that.

This Government has a strong record on childcare and parental leave: by 2019-20 we’ll be spending around £6 billion on childcare support, more than any previous government.

In 2015, we introduced Shared Parental Leave & Pay to help parents share the care in their child’s first year.

This Autumn, we announced plans to require large employers to publish their policies on parental leave and pay; and to ensure ALL jobs are advertised as flexible. But just as the nature of work is changing, and families’ expectations evolve, we must ensure that we continue to look at how we support parents to balance work and care more effectively.

For example, self-employed fathers are not eligible for Shared Parental Leave, and self-employed parents can find it impossible to navigate the complex system as to what they’re entitled to.

The Industrial Strategy points to workplace flexibility as a driver of productivity, but many people still can’t find jobs that offer them the right flexibility.

We recently published the Carers Action Plan and set up the Flexible Working Taskforce to promote best practice for flexible working.

And we also know that getting local and central government to work better together, is absolutely necessary in really making a difference.

There are some great examples – governments partnerships with local authorities in ‘Integration Areas’ across England, combine the weight of central government with the on-the-ground expertise only local government can provide.

But we know sometimes that is the exception rather than the rule – and if local and central government aren’t pushing in the same direction this leads to confusion for people trying to access local services, or incorrect assumption being made about a person’s costs of living, for example making assumptions about a person’s income, but giving no weight to devolved decisions which affect it, such as council tax discounts.

So, as well as what we can learn from gender pay gap data what else do we need to think about.

How can we give better support to the 4.2 million women who are also disabled, or those from an ethnic minority?

White women have an employment rate of 73.3%, while women of Bangladeshi ethnicity have an employment rate of just 32.8%.

In the 2011 census, there were 464,000 women in the UK who could not speak English well or at all.

Or what about those with complex backgrounds often involving domestic abuse – 1.2 million female victims last year.

Women who are financially or digitally illiterate. An OECD study, found that men were over a third more likely to reach a minimum standard of financial knowledge than women. And out of the 4.3 million adults who have no basic digital skills at all, over 60% are women.

But ALL of these women want to find opportunities to realise their talent and we must help all of them.

It should be the GEO mission to ensure that every woman in the UK has as much freedom and choice and capacity and resilience, and support and protection to do whatever she wants to do.

So, you will see a broadening in our work, as well as a new address.

And today I am announcing that the next phase of our returners programme – £500,000 of funding to support people to return to work when they are ready to do so, will be focusing on those with additional barriers to participating in the labour market – including people who speak little English, people with disabilities, and those who are homeless or have been victims of domestic abuse.

I am also announcing a further £100,000 to start some more bespoke support for very marginalised women some of who have little or no work history in particular parts of the country.

There is so much more to do.

We already have some great organisations out there helping us get this right. The Women’s Business Council helps us reach business leaders, and has done some brilliant work since it was established in 2012. In Parliament, the Women and Equalities Select Committee engages with a range of organisations to inform parliament and government’s thinking.

And there are some great forums and campaign groups out there.

But I want to make sure we hear from women in every community, so we are undertaking a piece of work to ensure female voices are better heard by policy makers.

Every woman in the UK should feel able to raise the issues which concern them, and know that we are taking them seriously and are responding to those issues. And to find the right solutions to the complex policy challenges we face, we need to be drawing on everyone’s expertise – no one has a better insight into tricky gender equality issues than the women who are dealing with them every day.

Our message to women is this: you will set our agenda.

The Prime Minister set out her mission.

But it is all of ours, too.

And in these turbulent and divided times I can think of no better mission to bring us together.

Thank you.

See extracts of the speech here and here.

The Rt Hon Penny Mordaunt MP is Secretary of State for International Development and Minister for Women and Equalities

Will Imran Khan Educate Pakistan’s Girls?

The UK Should Urge Him to Keep Promises on Girls’ Education

Pakistan’s new government has promised to fix one of the country’s biggest conundrums—how to get more girls into school. The UK—which gives more aid to Pakistan than any other country, much of it for education—should both push and help Imran Khan’s government to keep that promise.

Pakistan is facing an education crisis, especially for girls. More than 22 million of Pakistan’s children are out of school, most of them girls. Thirty-two percent of primary school age girls do not attend school, compared with 21 percent of boys. By ninth grade, when children are about age 14, just 13 percent of girls are still in education.

A new Human Rights Watch report cites the government’s under-investment in education, corruption, lack of schools, prohibitive school fees and other education costs, corporal punishment, and a failure to enforce compulsory education as the main culprits. Human Rights Watch also found that education, both in government and low-cost private schools, is often of a poor quality.

Girls also face additional hurdles from Pakistan’s patriarchal society and gender discrimination, child marriage and sexual harassment all make it harder for girls to get an education. Insecurity doesn’t help either. In the past five years, there have been hundreds of attacks on schools, teachers and students, giving already-reluctant parents yet more reasons to keep girls home.

Imran Khan was elected prime minister in July 2018. A relative newcomer to politics, he was supported by many young Pakistanis looking for change and a tough new approach to ending corruption.

He made big promises. Khan’s Pakistan Tehreef i-Insaf political party manifesto pledges reform in virtually every area of government, from tackling climate change to boosting tourism. Among those promises are ones crucial to Pakistan’s girls and women, including what it claims is “the most ambitious education agenda in Pakistan’s history”, spanning reform of and investment in the entire education sector.

The UK prides itself on supporting the rights of women and girls. From the 2014 Girl Summit on child marriage, to William Hague and Angelina Jolie’s initiative to prevent sexual violence in conflict, to the 2018 endorsement of the Safe Schools Declaration, to Boris Johnson’s pledge to prioritize girls’ education, the UK government has sought to be a leader in this field.

Pakistan receives more UK aid money than any other country, and the UK is Pakistan’s second largest bilateral donor, after the US. DFID’s planned aid budget for Pakistan this year is £325 million, and two of DFID’s three largest programmes in Pakistan are education projects, with a total budget of over £108 million. “Investing in girls and women is transformational – for their family, their community, and for the country”, DFID writes, describing its support for girls’ education in Punjab province, and noting that each extra year of schooling raises women’s wages by up to 20 per cent.

All true. And all reasons why the most important thing the UK can do for Pakistani girls is to push—and help—Khan to keep his promises to them. Pakistan’s education crisis results from decades of underinvestment and mismanagement. The government has consistently invested far less in education than is recommended by international standards. As of 2017, Pakistan was spending less than 2.8 percent of its gross domestic product on education—far below the recommended 4 to 6 percent—leaving the sector severely under-funded. Government schools are in such short supply that even in Pakistan’s major cities, many children cannot safely reach a school on foot in a reasonable amount of time. The situation is far worse in rural areas. And there are many more schools for boys than for girls.

Khan’s government can fix this, but many other issues are competing for its attention. The country is in an economic free fall, forcing Khan to desperately seek financial backing. Protests over a recent blasphemy ruling have rocked the country. Security issues are a perennial obsession.

Achieving the nation-wide sweeping reforms Pakistan desperately needs will be difficult and demands resources. There is a high risk these efforts will fall by the wayside.

The UK has an important role to play. Funding education projects is crucial. But so is speaking up for education reform at the highest political levels and insisting that Pakistan’s government be a full partner in the effort to educate its girls—and boys. The UK government should call on Pakistan to boost education spending to at least 4 percent of GDP, provide equal numbers of schools for girls and boys, and ensure that every child has access to—and attends—school.

Liesl Gerntholtz is Women’s rights Director, Human Rights Watch

"What about my right not to be abused?” Domestic abuse, human rights and the family courts

“I don’t believe I had any rights in court. I don’t believe I had any equality, or any equal rights in court. It never came across like that. We were there to make contact happen between father and child, and that was it” - Anonymous survivor of domestic abuse

The family courts are an obvious venue where human rights matter – after all they make life-altering decisions about children’s lives and children’s safety. They should be a place of safety, where children’s rights are put first and where the concerns and fears of survivors of domestic abuse are listened to and respected. However, recent research undertaken by Women’s Aid and Queen Mary University of London provides a stark reminder of what happens when this is not the case.

At Women’s Aid we launched the Child First: Safe Child Contact Saves Lives campaign in 2016. As a result of our campaign, there has been some progress in making child contact arrangements safer in cases where there has been domestic abuse. However, survivors of domestic abuse continue to raise concerns about unsafe child contact and inadequate understanding of the links between domestic abuse and child wellbeing and safety.

For this reason we decided to partner with Professor Shazia Choudhry at Queen Mary University of London. Professor Choudhry has drawn particular attention to the applicability of the human rights framework to issues of child contact in situations where there has been domestic abuse. Talking to survivors about rights – using plain language around the right to a fair trial and the right to life – helped uncover clear problems with the culture and practice in the family courts that affect the courts’ ability to do justice, safeguard against further trauma and prioritise children’s safety.

Human rights, domestic abuse and the family courts

The European Court of Human Rights has made it clear that domestic abuse will fall within the scope of Articles 2, 3, 8 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and that a state can be held to be in breach of those rights if they have not taken sufficient steps to protect survivors from further abuse.

Under Section 6 of the Human Rights Act (HRA), public authorities – including the family courts – are not allowed to act in a way that is incompatible with the Act, and under Section 3 of the HRA, courts are required to interpret all legislation ‘so far as is possible to do so’ in a manner which is compatible with the Convention rights. This is particularly relevant when the court is faced with survivors of domestic abuse and their children who may be at risk of further abuse as a result of contact and who are in a particularly vulnerable position.

What do the experiences of women in our research sample tell us about human rights?

Survivors told us that they were not consistently being given a safe and fair hearing in child contact cases where there is an allegation of domestic abuse and this prevented them from effectively advocating for their child’s best interests in the family courts.

Some survivors were further abused by their former partner during the court process. One quarter of survivors (24%) surveyed reported that they had been cross-examined by their abusive ex-partner during the court hearings, while three in five survivors (61%) reported that there were no special measures – for example, separate waiting rooms, different entry/exit times, screen or video link – in place in the court despite allegations of domestic abuse in their case. Our research indicates that in these cases, women’s safety had been compromised to such an extent that they were at further risk of abuse under Article 3 of the HRA: the right to be free from degrading treatment.

Women did not feel their cases were heard fairly in the family court, indicating that their rights to a fair trial under Article 6 of the HRA were not being met. They described submitting evidence of domestic abuse that was not considered; a lack of fact finding hearings; poor legal advice; and inconsistencies between the approaches of different judges and other family court professionals. Women felt they were viewed through a lens of gender stereotypes; as over-emotional, difficult, weak or unstable women, and they encountered victim-blaming attitudes.

We found inconsistent understandings of, and use of arguments around, Article 8 of the HRA: the right to privacy and family life. In our sample, it appeared that the rights to family life of perpetrators of domestic abuse were given higher priority by the courts than those of the survivors of the abuse. This is despite the fact that Article 8 rights are qualified rights which may be interfered with in order to protect the rights of another or the wider public interest, unlike Article 2 and 3 rights, which are absolute rights, and cannot be modified in the same way.

Our findings also suggest that Articles 3, 12 and 19 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) were not consistently upheld; in some cases the courts had dismissed evidence of child abuse and/or ordered unsafe contact, and the rights of children to have their views respected, best interests considered and to be protected from violence, abuse and neglect were ignored. Over two thirds of survivors (69%) reported that their abusive ex-partner had also been emotionally abusive towards their children, while almost two in five survivors (38%) reported that their abusive ex-partner had also been physically abusive towards their children. Yet unsupervised contact with an abusive parent was most likely to be awarded in the cases in our sample. This reinforced findings from a recent report by Cafcass and Women’s Aid which revealed that unsupervised contact was ordered at the final hearing in almost two in five cases where there was an allegation of domestic abuse (39%).

Survivors’ lack of access to a safe and fair hearing is clearly putting children’s wellbeing and safety at risk. In the most extreme cases, women felt their own and their children’s rights under Article 2 of the HRA: the right to life, had been threatened by the ordering of contact which placed them in unsafe proximity to their former abusive partners, or the revealing of confidential information about their address or location.

What will make the family courts a safer place for survivors of domestic abuse and their children?

Overall, the research highlights the damaging effects of a toxic combination: a lack of understanding of the dynamics of domestic abuse and the devastating impact it has on children, ingrained gender discrimination, and incorrect interpretations of human rights. As a result, we make a range of recommendations. These include:

  • An independent inquiry into the handling of domestic abuse by the family courts
  • Improved education and awareness raising on domestic abuse, human rights, theories of ‘parental alienation’ and equality for all professionals involved in child contact cases
  • Ban cross-examination in family courts of survivors by their abusive former partners
  • Guarantee special measures for survivors of domestic abuse in the family courts
  • Better, empowering, specialist support for survivors of domestic abuse throughout child contact proceedings
  • Take a safer approach to unsupervised contact, with no unsupervised contact for abusive parents where there are ongoing criminal proceedings for domestic abuse

Only by challenging the inequalities and discrimination within the culture of the family courts, and promoting understandings of human rights that apply to all, can we make sure that ‘Child First’ becomes the fundamental approach in child contact proceedings – not just in rhetoric, but also in reality.

Find out more about the report here.

Jenny Birchall, Research and Policy Officer at Women’s Aid and co-author of ‘“What about my right not to be abused?” Domestic abuse, human rights and the family courts’

Fighting for freedom? Conservatism, human rights and discrimination

Held on the 12th June 2018, Bright Blue’s human rights conference Fighting for freedom? Conservatism, human rights and discrimination, was the culmination of a major three-year project exploring human rights policy both here and abroad.

With guidance from some of the most well-respected experts and opinion formers, our efforts have resulted in the publication of three major reports accompanied by three essay collections. We have addressed some of the most pivotal issues surrounding human rights today, all while questioning how conservatives can approach human rights in a meaningful way that truly encompasses traditional conservative values of freedom and truth.

The conference

Fighting for freedom took place at the British Academy, kindly supported by the Equality and Human Rights Commission and Global Dialogue. The conference began with a keynote speech by the Minister for Justice and Human Rights, Dr Phillip Lee MP, who made a critical assessment of the state of human rights in Britain. Reminding the audience of the pioneering role that the UK has played in ensuring the introduction of basic human rights in the last two centuries, he urged conservatives to continue “carrying the torch of human dignity, liberty and empowerment”.

However, Dr Lee criticised an increasing dissociation between conservatism and human rights in the public consciousness. He emphasised the importance of not losing sight of two vital traits; humanity and citizenship. And he stated, above all, the need to “reclaim the true conservatism of Shaftesbury and Disraeli and others and model Britain as a compassionate force for good.” Following this impassioned plea and citing irreconcilable differences over the handling of Brexit negotiations, Dr Lee unexpectedly announced his resignation as Justice Minister.

After Dr Lee’s speech, we hosted two panel discussions, the first on ‘Tackling discrimination in the UK’ and the second, ‘Championing human rights overseas’:

Tackling discrimination in the UK

Bright Blue’s Communications Manager Olivia Utley chaired our first panel. She was joined by The Rt Hon Maria Miller MP, Chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee, David Isaac, Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Simon Woolley, Chair of the Government’s Race Disparity Audit Advisory Group and Sir Michael Tugendhat, former High Court Judge and author of Bright Blue’s Fighting for Freedom? to discuss ‘tackling discrimination in the UK’.

David Isaac began the discussion by emphasising the need to cut down on ‘rights inflation’ - a tendency to create more legislation before ensuring the protection of existing human rights policy.

Simon Wooley pinpointed racism as one of the most alarming disregards of human rights in this country today. Speaking of the discrimination felt by the black community, specifically how 40% of those incarcerated in UK prisons are young black men, he reminded the audience that “the race penalty is alive and kicking, and we must find ways to tackle it”. Regarding the targeting of drug use in cities, he also argued that current drug policies “disproportionately target black communities”.

Our third speaker, Sir Michael, Tugendhat, praised the role of the UK in driving forward human rights across Europe, however warned that we are now at risk of falling behind. He expressed worries about the absence of 'constitutionalised rights', leaving equalities open to parliamentary override. It is a critical time, he said, where the “future of the UK’s human rights protections depend entirely on the Government’s EU Withdrawal Bill”.

Finally, Maria Miller MP focused on sexual harassment, an issue that has been at the forefront of discussions in the past year, particularly in the wake of the #MeToo campaign. Pointing out that they are “more rules for companies to prevent money laundering than there are to protect employees against sexual harassment”, she emphasised the need to keep the momentum going in the fight for gender equality.

Championing human rights overseas

Our second panel was chaired by Anna Williams, former Head of BBC World News. To discuss ways of championing human rights overseas, we welcomed: the Rt Hon Andrew Mitchell MP, former Secretary of State for International Development; Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty International; Benedict Rogers, Co-founder of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission; Anthony Smith, Chief Executive of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy; and Bright Blue’s Director, Ryan Shorthouse.

Benedict Rogers began by telling the audience, “It is in our national interest to promote and champion human rights around the world”. He insisted that he is a conservative because of his passion for human rights, not in spite of it. However, Anthony Smith expressed fears about the state of global leadership, explaining that many of the human rights issues we must tackle have been exacerbated as the link between democracy and prosperity gradually weakens.

Kate Allen argued that the only solution to improving human rights abroad is to ensure that the UK leads the discussion “from the top”. As Allen emphasised, ordinary people all over the world are fighting for human rights under impossible conditions, and it is our responsibility to provide education and support for those in need.

Our Director, Ryan Shorthouse, said that Bright Blue supported the Prime Minister’s vision for a ‘global Britain’, however this could only be possible if the correct funding was in place. With two thirds of Conservative voters supportive of the significant role for human rights in British foreign policy, he stated that “Post Brexit, we must remain a proud signatory on the EU commission of human rights - which is very different from the EU.” Through solidifying strong trade deals and moving away from antagonistic immigration policies, he argued, we can once again lead the way on global human rights policy. The Rt Hon Andrew Mitchell MP supported this point and said that to withdraw from the human rights convention would be absurd. “Britain should show some humility”, he concluded.


Through our Fighting for Freedom conference, Bright Blue provided a platform for some of the leading thinkers and supporters of human rights in this country, and abroad. Our panel discussions did not shy away from the troubles facing human rights today, but also reminded us of the historical role that Britain has played, and must continue to play, in ensuring that equality is achieved, and discrimination wiped out.

Dr Phillip Lee MP: Bright Blue’s Fighting for Freedom? Conservatism, human rights and discrimination conference

It is a real pleasure to speak to you today. Because Conservatism and human rights are two things I ardently believe in and that drive my personal politics. They are why I am here as a Member of Parliament, Minister and a GP. And I see them as being inextricably linked. For me, the recognition of our human rights is what true conservatism is all about.

So I would like to take the opportunity to congratulate Bright Blue on this important discussion. We have a lot of good work to build on in the form of your Human Rights Project. I hope you will keep it up.

I need to say upfront that I am here under slightly false pretences. I am the minister for human rights – but I do not plan to talk much about that brief. Instead, I want to focus on the big strategic question that our Party faces…….
That is: how we advance human rights in the 21st century.
This is an important question.

To answer it, we have to understand how the world and our country are changing.

And we should build on our Conservative tradition of thinkers, politicians, lawyers and Governments who have worked tirelessly to advance human rights. So let me start with some historical perspective.

…We are the party of Edmund Burke, who advocated for the rights of peoples around the world like those in Ireland who were discriminated against because of religion.

…of Sir Robert Peel, our first Prime Minister, who committed to pursue “the correction of proved abuses and the redress of real grievances” in his Tamworth Manifesto that came to define Conservatism.
…We are the party of Benjamin Disraeli, who wrote that “Toryism will…bring back…liberty to the Subject”. His Government extended political, social and economic rights. He laid the foundations for today’s welfare state. His Conservatives hugely reduced the disparity in living conditions between rich and poor.

…of Lord Shaftesbury who ended child labour in mines and brought massive reform to factory working conditions.

…We are the party of Emmeline Pankhurst who was so instrumental in winning the right for women to vote.

…of Sir Winston Churchill who made the enthronement of human rights a British war aim in World War Two. His vision contributed to the founding of the United Nations; the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; and the European Convention of Human Rights. The last of these, of course, having been co-written by the Conservative MP and lawyer David Maxwell-Fyfe.
…And we are also the party of Margaret Thatcher, whose commitment to individual liberty against autocratic rule was instrumental in bringing down the tyranny of Communism in Eastern Europe – a warning of what Jeremy Corbyn’s hard left politics has to offer.

Into that great tradition steps Theresa May. Her inspiring words on the steps of Downing Street when she became Prime Minister in 2016 outlined today’s Conservative mission to fight the “burning injustices” in our own society. “That…..if you’re born poor, you will die on average 9 years earlier than others. If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system…. If you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university. If you’re at a state school, you’re less likely to reach the top professions… If you’re a woman, you will earn less than a man. If you suffer from mental health problems, there’s not enough help to hand. If you’re young, you’ll find it harder than ever before to own your own home.”
At every stage in modern history, the Conservatives and conservatism have carried the torch of human liberty, dignity and empowerment. We have been at the heart of the development and protection of human rights. A legacy that Britain has bequeathed to the world.

So it upsets me that the Conservative Party and human rights are rarely associated in the public consciousness except in negative ways. And some in our party fuel this judgment. These are often the same people who promoted our leaving the EU – an institution that, despite its failings, has done more than any other in recent times to advance human rights in practical ways – and would have us ditch the Human Rights Act.

Those colleagues are wrong. It is not Theresa May…..it is not me…..it is not you who are out of step with Conservative philosophy. It is those who would turn back the tide. Our task is to turn this around. To define a conservative approach fit for the 21st century.
Because our world and our country are changing. This is no longer the world in which Magna Carta defined rights to bring peace to our country; or in which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights defined them to help bring about the post-war peace in 1948.

It is one in which humanity faces new challenges at home and abroad…..The rise of authoritarian regimes, abject poverty, the impact of climate change are all crippling people in other parts of the world. Populist policies, corrosive injustices, and insidious discrimination are pervasive and have taken root in many societies…….. And of course – I hesitate to introduce the subject but cannot ignore it – Brexit.

For me personally, the experiences I have had serving some of our country’s most challenging communities as a doctor and travelling in some of our world’s most troubled places have brought home what some of this means in practice…..

In Britain, this means the lack of social mobility, the dysfunctional families, the scourges of homelessness, drug addiction and criminality, the failure of integration, the decline in personal responsibility – the sheer absence of hope. I have seen all of these things up close and personal – how they corrode our society, how they erode cohesiveness, how they destroy people, families and communities.

In Syria, I saw the impact of absolute poverty, the terror of living under an authoritarian regime and the way good people are left vulnerable to extremism.

And those experiences among others are the foundation of my Conservatism…..

A Conservatism that… seeks to harness the forces that drive human behaviour – love for our fellow beings, and the pursuit of power – to create a secure and just society in which every person is able to get a chance in life – of health, education and employment. To create a society that is fair and free – but in which freedoms are earned because we value our country, our environment, our world. A society in which rights are balanced by responsibilities, for each other and for ourselves.

A Conservatism that… recognises that we must take care of the world we inherit – conserve it – so that we pass something better to our children. We must respect our riches, and each other, and care for our vulnerable. And we must recognise that humanity is the vital bond without which our society, globally and nationally, our communities and our families will disintegrate.

A Conservatism that… people can trust to govern well – in ways that advance us – as individuals, as a society and as a country.
This is a testing time. And our generation will be judged on how we respond. Because our response goes to the heart of the country we want to be…. What we value; how we look after our people; and how we engage in the world to care for our country and our planet.

A first test we face is to create a strong and positive vision for our country after Brexit.

We are rightly proud of our commitment to the rule of law and our strong legislative record to protect individuals’ rights and prevent abuses of power. And it is absolutely right that our Government committed to staying in the ECHR and keeping the Human Rights Act. We also need to look ahead and consider how our legislation – and its enforcement – needs to be strengthened.

We need to recalibrate what we value as a society and consider how we regulate our markets. Because if we let markets decide how society should be governed, human beings become commodities and human values are debased. Some in our Party would have us oversee massive deregulation. Stripping employment and environmental protections along with everything else. Setting up as many trade deals as possible to generate money. This would be an unfair and unjust foundation for our country’s future. And it is not the Conservative way.

Markets have their place. But we have to make sure that they serve humanity, enhance our liberty and dignity. Not the other way round.

We should be guided by the courage, determination and wisdom that Wilberforce showed to end slavery. And that Shaftesbury showed to end child exploitation. They had powerful opponents. Because the end of the slave trade meant the end of a very profitable market that damaged the economy in places like Bristol, Liverpool and the West Indies. The end of child labour and the introduction of compulsory education made life hard for families who relied on income from their children and for factory owners who faced expensive regulation. Tackling those injustices was not the free market choice, nor the profitable choice. But it was the right thing to do. It was the Conservative thing to do.

A second test is how we nurture good citizens. Because if we lose our own humanity, the most perfect systems and legislation are – at best – worth nothing.

Let me share two personal stories with you from my role at the Ministry of Justice.
The first is that of Darren and John. John was born into organised crime. His uncle carried out one of our most famous robberies and at 16 he owned a sawn-off shotgun, which he was pointing at security vans across London. But in prison, thanks to Darren, a prison officer who appreciated John as a person and did not write him off as a criminal, John found out that he could row. He broke the world indoor rowing record. And now he is a law-abiding, professional, Nike-sponsored, leading international triathlete.

The second is about the women who get caught up in our criminal justice system – many of them ending up in prison for relatively minor offences. Remarkably, a few of them each year, usually among the poorest, are there because they have not paid the TV licence. Over half of them come from abusive backgrounds and are victims of domestic violence. I do not want our society to be one that sends these women to prison. I want us to help these women become the valuable members of society that most of them would like to be.
And we will do this. Our women offenders’ strategy will be published soon. And although I would have wanted more money for it, and our society should find the money, I am confident that I have secured the right direction of travel. We will begin to establish a network of residential women’s centres across the country – a better form of detention. One that helps these women to become responsible citizens, supports their families, respects human dignity and protects the weak. It will transform the lives of those it touches. It will be a measure of our humanity.

And looking after our most vulnerable is not the job of Government alone. It is a way of life that every responsible citizen needs to embrace. As our society fractures and religion retreats, we need to reconsider what responsible citizenship means and how to inspire it in our people, our communities and our companies.

A third test is to look beyond our shores. We must be ambitious for our generation – seek to advance the whole of humanity and see clearly that the abuse of human rights is the global crisis of our times. We must be more globally engaged. Because in our interconnected world, our actions affect others and ignoring problems overseas quickly brings them to our own shores.

It is to our shame that we are presiding over the highest levels of global human displacement ever. That 65.6 million people have been forced from their homes. That over half of our 22.5 million refugees are children under 18. That 10 million people are denied basic rights because they are stateless. Each of the world’s refugee crises is the result of a failure to protect human rights.

We must deal with tyranny. Because tyranny only begets tyranny. And it is always those that least deserve it that suffer most.

But you cannot bring freedom, justice and peace with high-tech weaponry – and I have previously opposed that course of action in Syria in 2013. The right focus for our effort is human security. And that needs to be pursued by empowering people. Military intervention has its place. But it must be used to create – not destroy – human security.

And here we need to be honest about where we still fall short. The Universal Declaration declares “periodic and genuine elections…by universal and equal suffrage” to be a human right. And regimes in every corner of the globe make a point of holding elections. But just holding elections does not empower people. Votes need to be meaningful. People must have a real choice and be able to make a difference.

So we must make better use of the levers we have for effecting change and use all our ingenuity to create new ones. Many countries still look to Britain to show the way and we have a responsibility to step up.
To conclude….

We should not lose sight of the fact that human rights in this country have moved on immeasurably in the last 70 years. This touches us all – young and old, regardless of gender, age, religion, ethnic background. For we all have protections that were unimaginable when Churchill made the enthronement of human rights a British war aim. The very air we breathe is better because we now recognise clean air to be a basic human right.

But we must not be complacent. The challenges that our generation faces are no harder and no easier than those that previous generations have overcome. Britain used to lead the way in protecting and expanding human rights. That is no longer true today. The cause is too often twisted to serve other agendas or selectively applied to some groups and not to others…and this is as true in our own country as elsewhere.

For me, it is simple. Respect for humanity, human dignity and human rights should guide all of our policy – at home and abroad – and every aspect of how we govern. Not just because that is right. But because that is what brings the security, prosperity and human advancement – physical and spiritual – for which we all strive and that is the fundamental point of human existence.

Brexit offers us the chance as a nation and a Party to look at what sort of country we want to be. For me, the choice is clear: we must reclaim the true conservatism of Shaftesbury and Disraeli and others and model Britain as a compassionate force for good.

So the discussion that you have started is vital. We must embrace it and use it to map the future for our Party, our Government, our Country – and our world.

Let’s make sure we are on the right side of history in the finest Conservative tradition – leading the way on liberty, dignity and justice.

And so my challenge to you – to this conference – is to reclaim our Party’s title as a great global champion of human rights…. In fact, to be the greatest! That means standing up to those – particularly within our party – who want us to move away from that path.

Before I finish, I want to make one final point….

The essence of a conservative approach to human rights is the Burkean principle that our institutions guarantee those rights. Most important of all, a Government’s first responsibility is to protect its citizens. This is usually understood in military terms but I believe it applies more generally. It means that sometimes, when a majority of our people wants something that is against the good of society, Government and Parliament have a responsibility to protect us. This was the case with the death penalty when for decades politicians went against the majority view and refused to reinstate it. Now I believe it needs to be the case with Brexit.

I believe that the evidence now shows that the Brexit policy our Government is currently pursuing on the basis of the 2016 referendum is detrimental to the people we are elected to serve. Certainly, it now seems inevitable that the people, economy and culture of my own constituency will be affected negatively. And I cannot ignore that it is to them that I owe my first responsibility as their Member of Parliament.
Today, as many of you know, MPs are voting on the House of Lords’ amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill. In particular, there is one amendment which – if it is adopted – will empower Parliament to take back control of the process, if necessary rejecting a bad deal and directing the Government to re-enter discussions, extending or pausing negotiations which are being badly rushed because of the deadline that Article 50 imposes.

It is fundamentally important that Parliament should have a voice so it can influence the final outcome in the interests of the people it serves. A fake choice between a ‘bad deal’ and a cliff-edge ‘no deal’ – a vote between bad and worse – is not a meaningful choice. It would breach such fundamental principles of human rights and Parliamentary sovereignty that we would not recognise it as being valid in other countries. It is not one that our Parliament should accept.

If it comes to it, my Parliamentary colleagues and I will have to ask ourselves whether we can vote in our own Parliament – that bastion of liberty, freedom and human rights – in favour of something that we would rightly criticise elsewhere. For me, the answer will be….I cannot….

That is why I urge our Government to do the right thing and amend the legislation to ensure that Parliament is properly able to exercise its duty to our country and our constituents by ensuring we are not stuck with a bad deal or no deal.

It is hard to be part of a Government that would countenance the breach of such fundamental principles – and it is important that individual ministers and Parliamentarians should be able to speak up. But effective Government in our country also relies on the important principle of collective responsibility. So I am very sad to have to announce that I feel I must resign as a minister so that I can properly speak out for my country and my constituents……..

I really have finished now. I will be issuing a statement shortly. And so you will forgive me if I get on with the important work that is ahead and go straight back to Parliament to represent my constituents and my country. Thank you……