"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.

Conclusion

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……

 

Why human rights should be at the heart of Conservative foreign policy

Thirty-one years ago today, President Ronald Reagan stood at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and gave one of the most inspiring clarion calls for freedom and human rights by any Conservative in recent times. Urging the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “open this gate” and “tear down this wall”, he contended that “There stands before the entire world one great and inescapable conclusion: Freedom leads to prosperity. Freedom replaces the ancient hatreds . . . freedom is the victor . . . freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace.”

Today, as Bright Blue holds a conference on Conservatism and human rights, another American President meets with the leader of the world’s most oppressive regime, North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un. It is essential that human rights are put on the agenda alongside security, just as they were in the Helsinki Process with the Soviet Union three decades ago.

For Conservatives, human freedom is in our DNA. I am a human rights activist because I am a Conservative, and the very reason I am a Conservative is that I believe in freedom, the rule of law, the dignity of the individual, getting the State off your back: in other words, human rights. And I believe these values are universal – for everyone, everywhere. That is why I was so excited when, twelve years ago, as Shadow Foreign Secretary, William Hague promised that a Conservative government would put human rights “at the heart of foreign policy”.

In a speech alongside a courageous women’s activist from Burma, Charm Tong, his message was clear: “To dissidents, activists and brave people around the world who continue to struggle for democracy, freedom and human rights in their own countries, we want to say: we are on your side. To the victims of state-sponsored violence in its many forms again we say: we are on your side. To regimes that terrorize their own people, we must say: your behaviour is unacceptable and we will do all we possibly can to stop it.  To the international community, including our own Government, we say: when you act to stop these crimes against humanity, we will support you. But when you drag your feet or look away, we will not stay silent. And to the people of our own country, we must say: these issues matter. Slavery, murder, rape and torture are wrong, and we have a moral obligation to speak out and act.”

In many subsequent speeches, William Hague repeated that pledge. So where are we today?

The current Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, has championed the right to education for girls around the world, and rightly so. He was visibly moved by what he saw and heard from the victims of ethnic cleansing in Burma when he visited earlier this year, and rightly so. He spoke out strongly when I was denied entry to Hong Kong on the orders of Beijing, and I appreciate the stand he took. And his Minister of State responsible for human rights, Lord Ahmad, has been an energetic voice for freedom of religion or belief around the world in particular. The Foreign Secretary has emphasized that: “Standing up for human rights is not only the right thing; it also helps to create a safer, more prosperous and progressive world. This is what Global Britain stands for. And promoting, championing and defending human rights is integral to the work of the Foreign Office and part of the everyday work of all British diplomats.”

This is welcome, but there is much more that could be done. Britain could be bolder in speaking out for human rights in China, as Germany’s Angela Merkel has consistently done. Britain could speak out more strongly against the erosion of freedoms in Hong Kong. Britain could lead the world in ending impunity and calling for accountability for ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity in Burma. Britain could build on and expand William Hague’s Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative. Britain could enforce targeted Magnitsky sanctions on Russian and other human rights abusers around the world. As it builds its ‘Global Britain’ brand, the government should consider how Britain could better promote the values and ideals behind that brand. More resources could be devoted to human rights, both in terms of personnel within the Foreign Office, and in terms of funding for human rights promotion around the world. The appointment of a senior-level Ambassador-at-Large for International Human Rights ought to be considered. Further thematic Prime Ministerial special envoys, such as the role that already exists for preventing sexual violence, could be created – for freedom of religion or belief, for example.

Human rights are under increasing threat around the world. There was a time not long ago where, following the end of the Cold War and the end of apartheid, it appeared that freedom was advancing. Today, open societies are threatened, liberty is curtailed and impunity goes unchallenged. Whether it is crimes against humanity in Syria, North Korea and Burma, or religious extremism in Pakistan, Iran, Nigeria and Indonesia, increasing repression from authoritarian regimes in China, Russia, Vietnam, Cuba, Eritrea, the erosion of freedom and autonomy in an open society such as Hong Kong, or even threats to human rights in democratic countries, the articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that exist to protect human dignity for everyone are at risk almost everywhere.

Human rights are not a luxury. They are not some sort of moral endeavour to be pursued when life is good. They are the bedrock of the values we take for granted and too many people give their lives for. It is therefore in our national interests to defend and promote human rights around the world. Most conflicts and much of the world’s poverty are caused by dictators, tyrants and terrorists who abuse human rights, reek of corruption and sow instability.

Human rights are sometimes considered to be at odds with short-term commercial and geopolitical interests. But that need not be so. By promoting human rights – the rule of law, basic freedoms – we are creating the conditions for more stable societies better equipped to tackle poverty, resolve conflict, build better governance and be more reliable business partners. Our foreign policy should always be based on our values.

There are few Conservatives who put the case for human rights around the world better than Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in challenging Communism, Winston Churchill in fighting Nazism and William Wilberforce in ending the slave trade. I recommend Reagan’s Westminster Address as the case for why Conservatives are natural defenders of human rights.

As Senator John McCain puts it in his new memoir, The Restless Wave: “We have advanced norms and rules of international relations that have benefited all. We have stood up to tyrants for mistreating their people … We don’t build walls to freedom and opportunity. We tear them down … We have a moral obligation to continue in our just cause, and we would bring more than shame on ourselves if we let other powers assume our leadership role, powers that reject our values … We will not thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent.” He is speaking of his own country’s role, but his words apply to ours too.

Benedict Rogers is co-founder and Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, works for the international human rights organisation CSW, and is founder and Chair of Hong Kong Watch.

Fighting for Freedom: Conservatism, human rights and discrimination

Today Bright Blue hosts its latest human rights conference, Fighting for Freedom: Conservatism, human rights and discrimination. The conference includes a keynote speech by the Minister for human rights, Dr Phillip Lee MP, and two panel sessions panel events with high-profile centre-right speakers such as Maria Miller MP and Andrew Mitchell MP.

The conference is the culmination of a major project exploring how conservatives can approach human rights issues in a thoughtful way, while encompassing traditional conservative values of individual freedom and empowerment. Throughout the project, Bright Blue has published reports and essay collections addressing some of the pivotal human rights debates in the UK and abroad.

We have taken a broad view of human rights. We have sought to understand and improve domestic and international human rights legislation. But we have also focused closely on the issue of tackling discrimination. Discrimination is, like the abuse of human rights, an unjustified barrier to individual freedom..

Our motivation

Our work in this area was particularly motivated by a desire to understand conservative scepticism towards Britain’s current human rights framework. Bright Blue began its work on human rights in late 2015. At that time, the Government was expected to shortly announce plans to repeal the Human Rights Act (HRA), and legislate for a new British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities (BBRR).

But, conservative scepticism towards our human rights framework was not just apparent among conservative decision makers and opinion formers. There was also strong evidence that Conservative voters were similarly sceptical. Opinion polls suggested Conservative voters were unconvinced of the merits of the HRA and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), for instance.

Yet, for us, there seemed no inherent reason why conservatives should be sceptical of human rights as a whole. Conservatives typically believe in the principles of personal freedom and a government limited by the rule of law. Human rights codify these fundamental conservative principles to protect individuals from an overreaching state and undue power.

In addition to the philosophical link between conservatism and human rights, there is a strong tradition of Conservative politicians championing the development and protection of human rights. The ECHR was drafted and championed by Conservative politicians after World War Two. As revealed in one of Bright Blue’s human rights reports, it was actually a Conservative MP – Quintin Hogg – who first advocated a bill to incorporate the ECHR into UK law.

As we continued our work into human rights it also became apparent how crucial the idea of tackling discrimination was to a conservative understanding of human rights. Central to conservative ideology is the concept that unfair barriers that prevent humans from flourishing should be removed to allow everyone to reach their full potential.

This belief has been strongly held by the two most recent Conservative Prime Ministers. David Cameron talked of ‘life chances’ and how his Government could transform the lives of the poorest in Britain. While Theresa May has railed against the ‘burning injustices’ which prevent certain people from reaching their full potential.

Our research

Our first major report on human rights was Britain breaking barriers. The report was published following a year long inquiry, led by a high-profile commission that included three former cabinet ministers. The report recommended 68 policies to strengthen human rights and tackle all forms of discrimination following a call for written evidence, an oral evidence session, and several site visits. High-profile recommendations included a call for Britain to remain a signatory of the ECHR and a proposal for new trade deals, after Brexit, to include obligations to improve human rights in partner countries.

Shortly afterwards we published Individual Identity which analysed why Conservative voters are often considered to be sceptical of the concept of human rights and their views on tackling discrimination. The report included a poll of 6,530 British adults which included 2,240 Conservative voters. The report unearthed some scepticism towards human rights among Conservative voters, but also found that Conservative voters do believe that discrimination exists in the UK and support policies which ‘level the playing ground’ for certain groups who experience discrimination.

Perhaps our most detailed appraisal of human rights legislation in Britain and its history can be found in Fighting for Freedom? In the report, Sir Michael Tugendhat, former High Court Judge and report author, explores the relationship between conservatism and human rights, the meaning and history of human rights in England, and assesses Britain's contemporary human rights framework. Tugendhat concludes by exploring a number of possible future reforms to Britain’s human rights legislation before arguing in favour of the HRA rather than a new BBRR.

During the project, we also published three essay collections. Conservatism and human rights, explored ways to tackle discrimination in Britain, the role of human rights in British foreign policy, and the significance of possible reform to Britain’s human rights framework. Burning Britain? sought to highlight some of Britain’s ‘burning injustices’, and provide solutions to help address them. While A sense of belonging evaluated the potential avenues to ensure integration and opportunity in modern Britain, specifically in isolated and deprived communities.  

Conclusion

Today’s conference, supported by the Equality and Human Rights Commission and Global Dialogue, brings together some of the leading voices on human rights in Britain and beyond. Through two panel sessions, one on tackling discrimination in the UK, and the other discussing the importance of championing human rights overseas, we hope to further expand and inform the discussion on human rights, particularly at what is a critical time for policymaking in the UK.

Amabel Scott is a research assistant at Bright Blue

The UK, human rights and the new world disorder

At a recent BFPG event in Exeter, after a senior foreign office official had presented an impassioned case for the UK being a force for good in the world, one audience member sharply responded, ‘What right do we have to talk about being a force for good on the very day the UK Government admitted its responsibility for human rights abuses against a Libyan dissident and his wife?’.

It is a fair question. Indeed, the UK Government has now been forced to apologise to Mr Belhaj (said dissident) and his wife. Why? Because a recent legal case against the Government has very publicly proved just how badly the couple was treated.

The irony is that by so publicly submitting to the rule of law, our Government allows its faults to be highlighted.  Most other governments would have found a way to keep the issue hidden.

In these circumstances how helpful is it for the UK to champion human rights, when openness only attracts criticism?

This tough question is worth asking, because after decades when it seemed that the march of progress was on our side, and the liberal interpretation of “rights” was spreading around the world, liberal values are now out of fashion.  Emerging and revanchist powers – China and Russia in particular – are undermining key aspects of the liberal international order.

In the face of this, the key international governance institutions are showing ever more signs of stress, and the first indications of failure. The UN security Council is paralysed. The World Trade Organisation is increasingly beset by claim and counter claim. The IMF is being challenged by the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, set up specifically by China to provide an alternative financing model with more Asian control.

To make things even worse, this is all taking place in a context of massive global cultural and technological change. People around the world are connected like never before – and respect for institutions, authority and governments is waning.  

When faced with so much cynicism, is it not fair to ask whether there is actually any point in the UK trying to champion human rights globally? Particularly when our circumstances demand an ever-fiercer focus on trade and economic growth, often in partnership with countries that do not share our values in whole or in part, and in competition with economic powers that are very ready to do what whatever it takes to make the deal. Surely our values leave us fighting for our economic future with one arm, of not two, tied behind our back?

Perhaps part of the answer to this weary cynicism lies in leaving London and talking to people in different parts of the UK about our place in the world. Away from the overwrought Brexit fevered Whitehall village, the BFPG’s regional events on our place in the world suggest there is indeed a frustration with the UK’s foreign policy. It is often seen not to serve interests outside London adequately.

Yet at the same time there is a growing determination to develop stronger international trade links, between large regional and devolved authorities across the UK and their counterparts overseas. The interests of these UK regional communities is fiercely practical – with a focus on trade and skills – but with very specific regional concerns in different parts of the county, whether it be the importance of the maritime trade in Southampton, or of Chinese investment in Yorkshire.

But underlying it all is an understated but tenacious belief in treating people fairly, and the power of fairness to deliver the relationships and deals that will support the growing ambitions of our great cities, regions and devolved administrations. That sense of fairness ultimately translates into a desire to treat others as we would be treated – with dignity, with respect, and with Rights.

So tempting as it may be to slide down the route of least resistance, and to give in to the growing cynicism, our regional events suggest there is another way, and one which with the right leadership, vision and engagement could help revitalise Britain’s confidence and global impact.

What’s more, a strong and consistent international stand on fairness and human rights can attract and command the support and loyalty in the way that only truly principled leadership can do – both from our own citizens, but also globally. But we need to be sharper and bolder in stating this and not be afraid to admit our shortcomings.

Ultimately, championing human rights – whatever the cost to our reputation – is the surest way to create a ‘Global Britain’ that wins hearts and minds and delivers the prosperity and security we need in an increasingly uncertain and turbulent age.

Tom Cargill is Executive Director of the British Foreign Policy Group

Civil partnerships – to abolish or extend?

For four years, Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan have fought a legal campaign to secure civil partnerships for heterosexual couples. They disagree with the “historically patriarchal” implications of traditional marriages and believe they should, like same-sex couples, be granted the right to choose between marriage and civil partnership.

As an unmarried couple, Steinfeld and Keidan do not benefit from the financial and legal protection enjoyed by their married counterparts. The couple argue that they should be permitted these basic rights through a civil partnership if they wish.

The legal situation

The Civil Partnership Act, passed by the Labour Government in 2004, entitles same-sex couples to enter a civil partnership whereby they receive the same legal effects, rights and obligations as a legal marriage. Civil partnerships are almost identical to legal marriages, with the exception that they must not include a religious component. Couples in civil partnerships are treated equally in matters of inheritance, next-of-kin arrangements, tax and pensions. Their partnership can be dissolved under the same rules as a traditional marriage. 

Civil partnerships are currently only available to same-sex couples in the UK. Prior to the introduction of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act in 2013, under which same-sex couples can now legally marry, the Civil Partnership Act was the first to provide same-sex couples with the equivalent legal entitlements as opposite-sex couples. Now, unlike heterosexual couples, same-sex couples can choose between marriage or civil partnerships depending on their personal preferences.

Many feel that this is discriminatory, as heterosexual couples who cohabitate, but do not wish to legally marry, must resign themselves to having fewer legal rights. For example, if one partner dies and does not leave a will, then the other will not legally be entitled to inherit from them regardless of the length of their relationship.

There are implications for parenthood too. Whereas married parents and unmarried mothers gain automatic parental responsibility of their child, unmarried fathers can only acquire parental responsibility by being present at the registration of the birth, getting a parental responsibility agreement from the mother, or a parental responsibility order from a court.

Why not extend civil partnerships for all?

The debate on civil partnerships for opposite-sex couples came to the fore in 2016 when Steinfeld and Keidan had their initial claim rejected by the High Court in England. Following a successful appeal, they have now brought their case to the UK Supreme Court, coinciding with the launch of a Private Members Bill to allow opposite-sex couples in England and Wales to form civil partnerships by Conservative MP Tim Loughton.

Steinfeld and Keidan have urged the Government to “stop making excuses”, referring to Cabinet reshuffles in the recent years that have led to u-turns on government pledges to allow heterosexual civil partnerships. Most recently, Ministers have been condemned for spending £65,000 on the “indefensible” court battle against civil partnerships for opposite-sex couples.

There are potential benefits of extending civil partnerships to all. The number of unmarried, heterosexual couples with children who split up is significantly higher than married couples – it could be that this is remedied, in part, by offering opposite-sex couples civil partnerships as a legal alternative to marriage.

The recent announcement of a Government review of civil partnerships has fuelled fears that they might be scrapped altogether. However, Equalities Minister, the Rt Hon Penny Mordaunt MP, insists that the Government is “open minded on this matter”. If civil partnerships are scrapped, same-sex couples in civil partnerships could be forced to convert their union to a legal marriage.

The Government review, however, should consider whether there is any significant demand for opposite-sex and same-sex civil partnerships. Since the introduction of the Same Sex Couples Act, demand for civil partnerships has been in rapid decline. Between 2007 and 2013, an average of 6,305 civil partnerships were registered per year, but this dropped to just 890 in 2016. Many same-sex couples have also chosen to convert their civil partnerships into legal marriages.

Moreover, the extension of civil partnerships raises questions about the legal rights and treatment of other forms of relationships. For example, blood relatives who raise a child together could miss out on legal and financial benefits that will be granted to those couples who are married or in a civil partnership.

Conclusion

Steinfeld and Keidan’s campaign has increased the profile of the campaign for extending civil partnerships to heterosexual couples. The Government has now promised a review on whether civil partnerships should be extended, or scrapped altogether.

Amabel Scott is a research assistant at Bright Blue

Effective social action: an approach to delivering race equality

Deciding how to effectively address a social ill often appears to be fraught with difficulty.  The Government launch of the Serious Violence Strategy, is perhaps the latest example. The call by many families and communities for action to end the violence that has seen a rise in the number of deaths in London, has quickly descended into hyperbole, with the suggestions that the ‘murder-rate’ in London has overtaken New York regularly repeated, without qualification or explanation.  However, it often appears that the only way to secure social action is to highlight how damaging a problem is and the urgency of action. In this context, it is no surprise then, those of us calling for action to address the impact of racism will highlight the persistence of discrimination in access to employment or under-representation in popular media, or over-representation in poorest quality private housing.  But, such an approach to addressing racial discrimination has its limitations. First, it is very easy to slip into a victimology that denies agency and sees black and minority ethnic people as passive victims with little opportunity to control and shape their lives. Second, it is equally easy to conclude that not much has changed since the arrival of the Windrush and as a consequence there has been little improvement in the experience and outcomes of those who have hoped to make a better life for them and their children in Britain.  Third, and perhaps most worrying for effective social action, we pay little attention to whether policies, strategies or interventions have worked, with whom and why.

Yet there are examples of attempts to progress race equality by better understanding what works and building on this.  In the mid-1990s a study by the Foundation of what were then called family centres (Butt and Box, 1998) highlighted the widespread deployment of parent education programmes, but the lack of take-up of these programmes by black and minority ethnic parents.  Literature reviews at the time suggested that it was not that parents from these communities did not need support, it was more that programmes were not reaching out to these parents and/or the curriculums were not engaging and retaining parents. This was at odds with evidence from the US, which showed African American, as well as Latin American and Asian American parents, attending programmes which resulted in growth in their own confidence, positive change in relationships and in improvements in outcomes for children.  We conducted a review of programmes available in the US and brought over one to trial in England. After working with parents to sensitise the programme to England, it was deployed in London and the West Midlands through black and minority ethnic-led and other voluntary organisations.

The Strengthening Families Strengthening Communities (SFSC) parenting programme sets out to support a violence free healthy lifestyle.  SFSC is a 13 week, inclusive, evidence-based parenting programme designed to promote some of the protective factors associated with better outcomes for children.  At the same time, SFSC helps parents to explore and develop strategies for dealing with the factors in parenting that are associated with increased risk of poor outcomes for children, such as harsh and/or inconsistent discipline.  Focusing on helping parents to develop self esteem, self discipline and social competence in children and young people, as well as enhancing family cohesion and building effective support networks for parents and children alike, SFSC offers a real opportunity for building family and community resilience.

The evidence from a range of evaluations shows not only high rates of retention (on average 76 per cent complete the programme) and recommendation (99 per cent would recommend the programme to other families) it also shows a range of outcomes from including a statistically significant change in parents’ self-esteem, confidence in their parenting, family relationships (in the main with their partner, but also with other adults) and relationships with their children. Parents also report growth in their child’s self-esteem and their child’s ability to manage their own behaviour.

Furthermore studies demonstrate both reach and impact with a range of parents who have not been engaged by other programmes or approaches. Karlsen (2013) looked at a sample of 1842 parents and highlighted the diversity of the parents who complete SFSC; showing a large proportion of people on low incomes (on average 60 per cent of participants have household income of less than £10,000), fathers (59 per cent of programmes have at least one father participating), lone parents (on average 60 per cent of participants were lone parents at the time of participating), and a range of white and black and minority ethnic parents regularly participate (in overall terms 55 per cent of participants were from black and minority ethnic groups and 45 per cent were white communities).  Other published studies have used scientifically validated tests to report on these and other outcomes. In 2010, Lindsay et al from the Warwick University’s Centre for Educational Development and Research, published another comparative study examining three model parenting programmes delivered in the UK, and reported that parents who had completed SFSC demonstrated statistically significant improvements in mental well-being and parenting efficacy.

SFSC was one of the three recommended programmes for the Department of Education funded Parenting Early Intervention Pathfinders 2006-2008 and was one of the evidence-based programmes supported by National Academy for Parenting Practitioners between 2008 and 2010 and subsequently by the Children’s Workforce Development Council.  More recently, SFSC was included in the CanParent Government-led trial to make parenting programmes available to all parents of under 5’s and has also been used by the Family Intervention Pathfinders in Bristol, Grimsby, Leicester and Tower Hamlets. SFSC continues to be a programme used to prevent violence by local authorities such as Waltham Forest, Hertfordshire and Manchester, a point recognised by the Government’s Serious Violence Strategy.

It would be foolhardy to claim that the experience of SFSC suggests that our approach to progressing race equality is the only effective one.  Furthermore, understanding what has made a difference can prove to be a challenge as illustrated by the debate that has surrounded improvement in educational attainment of a range of black and minority ethnic children in London.  However, the demonstrable success in reaching, engaging and impacting on black and minority ethnic parents and children suggests that it is certainly one effective approach. Our experience also suggests that when we are successful in understanding and implementing support for black and minority ethnic communities, we are likely to put in place the components to reach and impact white majority communities who were poorly served to date.

Jabeer Butt is Acting Chief Executive at the Race Equality Foundation

Repealing the eighth – The wider impact

Today, the Republic of Ireland votes on whether to repeal the country’s eighth amendment, and, in doing so, lift a thirty-five year ban on abortion. The referendum has provoked debate across the world, including in the UK.

Ireland’s eighth amendment provides an unborn infant with equal rights to life as a mother, effectively outlawing abortion in the country. The amendment was passed in 1983 amidst widespread support, with only five constituencies voting against it. Since then, over 170,000 women have been forced to travel outside of Ireland for an abortion, and the trauma and fear caused by these journeys has been well documented.

In 2012, the case of Salvita Halappanavar, who died after she was refused an emergency termination during a miscarriage, caused outrage in Ireland and signified the beginning of a campaign to amend the law. Subsequently, the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act was passed to allow the termination of pregnancy in cases where there is a “substantial risk” to the mother’s life. However, ‘Yes’ voters who wish to repeal the eighth amendment argue this is not enough, and that all women should be allowed to make a choice depending on their own personal circumstances.

The repeal campaign has a large lead in the polls, although this margin has narrowed in recent weeks. If the yes campaign is successful, abortion will be permitted for all pregnancies up to 12 weeks, and at any time in cases where the mother’s life is at risk, there is a medical emergency or a fatal foetal abnormality. Alternatively, if Ireland votes against the repeal, the eighth amendment will remain as it is.

The Situation in Britain

While Britain’s stance on abortion is significantly more liberal than Ireland’s, some observers have argued that there is more to do to increase access to abortion. Currently, abortion in this country is regulated by both the 1967 Abortion Act and the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. Under the former, an abortion can legally be carried out by a registered doctor, providing that it has been authorised ‘in good faith’ by two medical practitioners and complies with at least one of the following terms; that the pregnancy has not exceeded 24 weeks, could cause serious harm or death to the woman, or that the child is likely to suffer from severe, debilitating disabilities.

In practise, these conditions are more lenient – in essence, an abortion is available to any woman in mainland Britain who has not passed 24 weeks of pregnancy. The Offences Against the Person Act means that home abortions, even when carried out with the same medication used in certified clinics, is punishable by life in prison, but these instances are rare as most women seeking abortions in Britain tend to visit certified clinics.

The law is very different in Northern Ireland. Here, abortion is only legal under the terms of the Infant Preservation Act, which permits termination only if the mother is at risk of serious mental or physical harm. In 2014, a 19-year old woman was given a suspended prison sentence after buying drugs on the internet to induce a miscarriage because she did not have enough money to travel to mainland Britain for a legal abortion. Cases like this have provoked criticism about Northern Ireland’s abortion laws. A recent inter-Departmental report from the Northern Irish government has called for changes to the law, which they believe prevents women from accessing proper standards of healthcare, and places doctors in situations which are ‘professionally untenable’.

Further reform?

Since the legalisation of abortion in mainland Britain fifty years ago, a debate has emerged over whether British abortion laws are still too stringent. The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) has launched a campaign which calls for the outright decriminalisation of abortion in all parts of the UK. This would include allowing women to use abortions pills in the home, rather than having to face the financial implications, physical distress and emotional strain of travelling to and from abortion clinics.

The home-use abortion pill has already been legalised in Scotland, a move which has received praise from medical organisations but has been condemned by pro-life campaigns; The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) are calling for a judicial review of the new legislation, describing the home-use pill as a form of “DIY abortion”. There are also fears that legalising the home-use abortion pill could lead to some women using it as a form of contraception which could lead to poorer sexual health.  

Further concerns that outright decriminalisation will eliminate the 24-week time limit for terminations have been raised. However, the British Medical Association (BMA), who voted in favour of decriminalisation, insists that regulations will still be in place – but these sanctions will be imposed by medical rather than criminal bodies. Nonetheless, in a public survey found that 72% of respondents opposed further changes to Britain’s abortion laws.

Conclusion

Whichever way Ireland votes in its referendum today, the highly charged debate around abortion is likely to continue in the UK and Ireland. Recent debates in the House of Commons suggest there is widespread sympathy for allowing women to access abortions at home to avoid the distress caused by visiting a medical practitioner. However, equally, there remain strong critics of this apparent liberalisation of abortion laws in Parliament. It therefore remains unclear how abortion laws will evolve in the UK in the years to come.

Amabel Scott is a research assistant at Bright Blue

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We need to talk about human rights

When Theresa May pledged to correct the ‘burning injustices’ in modern society, she indicated that the Government would be happy to have difficult conversations to help address unfairness wherever it exists. The Prime Minister's commitment provides us with an opportunity to debate how we create a fair society.  For me, human rights must always be at the core of any vision of a ‘shared society’ – whether we are seeking to address unfair treatment, discrimination or improve social mobility. Indeed both the domestic and international human rights frameworks provide us with valuable tools to address and resolve all these issues. I would like to see a more open and honest conversation about the value of human rights and how they can be used to make Britain fairer.

More importantly, this isn’t a conversation that the Conservative Party should shy away from. Not just because they are the party of Government, but because they have a strong historical record in this area – whether it was Disraeli’s extension of the franchise or Churchill’s pivotal role in advocating for the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), a document drafted by Conservative MP, David Maxwell-Fyfe.

It is well known that the human rights debate amongst Conservatives has not always been straightforward.  Uncertainty in many quarters has resulted in calls for the UK to leave the ECHR and to replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities. These debates have been postponed until after Brexit but they are definitely not going to go away and we must ensure that everyone is properly equipped to participate in this debate.

As Great Britain’s national equality and human rights body, the Commission is the guardian of human rights and equalities. These areas of our parliamentary mandate have rarely felt more relevant. Yet, as the Prime Minister’s ‘burning injustices’ speech showed, Conservatives are far more at home addressing inequality than human rights. Equality is an easier concept to understand and to promote; it's essentially about fairness. Who wouldn’t support the desire to create a level playing field whether its focus is tackling the gender pay gap or improving employment prospects for ethnic minority communities and disabled people?

Human rights on the other hand are altogether more nuanced. Fairness doesn’t transpose quite as straightforwardly to human rights. For example, some people feel it isn't fair for prisoners to have the right to vote. For many, human rights feel like a zero-sum game. The fact that human rights apply to everyone and are universal is also a tricky concept for some. Indeed recent research by Bright Blue has shown universality is a divisive issue for many Conservatives.  As such, many people prefer a ‘pick and mix’ approach to human rights and are happier supporting the right to a fair trial for suspected criminals than ensuring convicted criminals have the right to a private and family life.

To look more closely at public attitudes towards human rights the Commission has recently worked with ComRes. Our survey has thrown up some encouraging findings. For example, we found that 90% of people surveyed support human rights as a concept. This is valuable evidence for Conservatives who want to change the nature of the debate and show that people aren't quite as opposed to the concept of human rights as some media reports might lead us to believe. We also tested views about the continued protection of rights after Brexit. Tellingly, there was strong agreement with 79% of people in favour of maintaining current protections. This is valuable information about where we need to focus our attention.

My anxiety, however, is that the polarising political environment of Brexit means that the Government’s attention is narrowly focused on economic matters at the expense of human rights. Clearly economic and trade issues are vital to the future of our country – but so too are our values.  How we treat others will define us as a nation and for this reason we have argued passionately that rights must be protected in British law once we leave the EU.

I'm certain that people didn’t vote for Brexit in order to have their rights at work weakened or to lose protection of their personal data – both elements of the EU Charter on Fundamental Rights that the Government currently plans to remove from UK law.  Although the House of Lords recently voted to secure amendments to maintain these protections we must wait to see how these amendments fare in the House of Commons.

The Commission will continue its important work to understand how people perceive human rights and how we can build wider support for their role. I am keen that the Commission facilitates a wider debate beyond those who are supportive and those who are opposed to human rights. We need to move beyond these echo chambers by providing real life examples of how human rights help all of us.  Human rights are a force for good and we should not be afraid to say so - not just to people who agree with us but to the wider public too.

David Isaac is the Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission