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