Human rights and public services

We often hears stories of our public services failing to protect people’s basic human rights; from Stafford Hospital where patients’ right to life was put in jeopardy through lack of basic care, to the police service failing to investigate reports of rape leading to many more victims having their rights infringed. What we often don’t hear are the positive stories of how our public officials are using human rights on the frontline of service delivery to ensure better decision-making.

One example is council worker, ‘Monica’. When she was trying to secure emergency accommodation for a woman and her children fleeing her violent ex-partner, it was using human rights that got things moving. After initially being told by the housing department that there was nothing available, Monica used the council’s positive duty to protect the woman and her children from inhuman or degrading treatment (protected by Article 3 in the Human Rights Act) to secure the accommodation.

We also don’t often hear about the quiet ways our services are being transformed by public officials embedding human rights into their day-to-day work, leading to better outcomes for us all. Like the hospital that re-wrote its policy on relationships to ensure it takes into account the right to private and family life of patients. Or the mental health ward for children and young people that lifted its blanket ban on mobile phone use, ensuring families can keep in touch with their loved ones, whilst taking into account any individual risk such as cyber bullying.

“Using a human rights approach has revolutionised decision-making. It needs to be rights based, not just risk based.” Practitioner, North Essex Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust

At the British Institute of Human Rights we work with organisations across the sectors, from those delivering our public services, to those supporting people using services. We’ve seen from our work that the Human Rights Act can be a practical tool for frontline practitioners, providing them with a framework to help them make the (often) difficult decisions they have to make in day-to-day practice, sometimes in fast-paced, stressful environments. As public services get more stretched by the effects of austerity, we are seeing how human rights can play a crucial role to help ensure no-one falls below the minimum standards of rights set out in our law.  

“Human rights have provided us a different focus which helps support our service users live independently with dignity, respect and pride.” Practitioner on BIHR’s project

We also often hear that human rights are all about individual claims and can be combative. At BIHR we see from our work that human rights can actually take the heat of discussions, and help practitioners across the sectors to work together to resolve issues. By focussing on internationally agreed legal standards, rather than ‘charity’, human rights can help create a level-playing field, ensuring discussions don’t become about a practitioner’s ‘moral compass’:

“Using the human rights framework has helped us express our concerns as being relevant as a matter of law, something concrete.” Practitioner on BIHR’s project

This can allow advocacy/support workers and practitioners to work together to try and find solutions. Take the story of ‘Erin’ who is in her late 70s and living in a care home so that she can get support for her dementia. A social worker and her advocate used Erin’s right to family life to ensure her partner ‘Patrick’ could continue to visit her in the care home. Erin’s friend was pushing the local authority to restrict Patrick’s visits after a concern about sexual touching. Following a safeguarding inquiry, where Erin was supported by her advocate, the social worker concluded that the local authority would not intervene to prevent Patrick’s visits, to uphold their family life and also Erin’s autonomy to decide for herself about the relationship (both protected by Article 8 in the Human Rights Act).

As Eleanor Roosevelt said, it’s in these “small places, close to home” that universal human rights begin. “Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.” By bringing these universal human rights standards to life here at home, the Human Rights Act ensures they have real resonance and the chance to make an enormous difference to people’s everyday lives.

Helen Wildbore is Senior Human Rights Officer, the British Institute of Human Rights