Submission from the Equality and Diversity Forum
1. The Equality and Diversity Forum (EDF) is a national network of organisations committed to equal opportunities, social justice, good community relations, respect for human rights and an end to discrimination based on age, disability, gender and gender identity, race, religion or belief, and sexual orientation.44 Further information about our work is available at www.edf.org.uk.
2. Our members represent some of the most disadvantaged groups throughout the UK and so we will comment on how limitations on equality and human rights will affect them.
3. EDF members are committed to the eradication of all forms of discrimination. The questions that you ask are too comprehensive to answer in a three page document but we would very much welcome the opportunity to discuss them further with you.
4. In terms of over-arching issues we would wish to mention –
a. Access to justice – without effective access to justice the existing rights to protection from discrimination become meaningless45; and
b. There is a need to recognise that discrimination often occurs on more than one ground simultaneously – the law needs to be able to recognise this.
5. EDF member organisations represent a wide range of experience and specialist knowledge and include many who might not automatically be assumed to have an interest in human rights issues. For example, EDF member organisations include large charities such as Mind, Citizens Advice and Age UK – organisations with the interests of millions of people at heart who are concerned with a wide range of policy issues and as such bring a fresh perspective to this debate.
6. EDF member organisations place a very high value on human rights in practice and on the specific protections, duties and enforcement mechanisms in the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA). EDF member organisations support the HRA because we know it has brought many benefits for the beneficiaries of our work. We know from direct experience that the HRA offers vital everyday protections for ordinary people. It protects vulnerable people, some of whom are targets of popular or media hostility. It provides vital safeguards for people detained for compulsory assessment and treatment, for example under the Mental Health Act, to ensure it is proportionate and appropriate. The HRA also offers important guarantees of a fair hearing and treatment for people accused or suspected of offences, which is an important element of a safe and just society.
7. There are many legal cases that illustrate the importance and utility of the HRA46 . The HRA has been used effectively to bring to light abuses of power and hold authorities to account – from Hillsborough to Mid-Staffordshire to Rotherham. While many of these cases received significant media coverage, the role the HRA played went largely or wholly unreported. There are also numerous examples that have not reached the Court where the application of the HRA has brought a positive result for people in need. Here are two examples.
Case Study: Fleeing Domestic Violence
A woman and her children were fleeing domestic violence. The woman’s husband was attempting to track the family down; each time he discovered their whereabouts the family moved to a different area. The family eventually arrived in London and was referred to the local social services department. Social workers told the mother she was an unfit parent and that by moving she had made the family intentionally homeless.
They therefore told her she was not eligible for housing. She was told that her children had to be placed into foster care. An advice worker helped the mother to challenge this claim using the Human Rights Act. They argued that social services were not properly considering the rights of the woman and her children to respect for family life, protected by Article 8. Under this right, social services needed to consider the rights of the woman and her children and to take actions which are necessary and proportionate. As a result, the family were told that they could remain together and that the social services department would provide the deposit if they could secure private rented accommodation.
Case Study: Older People
Mr V contacted Counsel and Care when social services threatened to move his wife into a care home which was some distance from the family. Mrs V has Alzheimer’s and is blind. Mrs V had temporarily moved into a local nursing home after being hurt in a fall. Mr V was also injured in the fall, and unable to care for his wife at home. Social services decided Mrs V should be moved to a permanent care home but Mr V disagreed with the home social services chose, because it was too far for him and other family members to travel to see Mrs V. Counsel and Care helped Mr V to challenge this decision, by providing information on community care laws, and combining this with the argument that social services needed to consider Mr V's right to private and family life under the HRA (Article 8). This helped Mr V persuade social services to allow Mrs V to remain in the nursing home close to her family.
8. Without the HRA there would be no duty on public authorities in the UK to respect the ECHR human rights in everything that they do (‘section 6 duty’), nor would it be possible to enforce these rights by taking cases in UK courts. The section 6 duty on public authorities is key to ensuring that the obligations and liberties in the ECHR become part of people’s everyday lives. In addition to improvements driven by court cases, the section six duty prompts public bodies to make proactive improvements in public services and to involve service users in helping to design services that better meet their needs. EDF member organisations would be strongly opposed to any dilution of the protections contained within the HRA or the enforcement mechanisms and public duty associated with them. EDF member organisations consider unequivocally that the HRA has provided an important legal underpinning for fundamental rights in the UK, reflecting the European Convention on Human Rights, and we are committed to the retention of the HRA.
9. The EDF considers that it is vital that Britain remains a signatory of the ECHR both because the rights it contains are necessary for the building up of a civilised society and because of the negative message that leaving the ECHR would convey to other signatories such as Russia and Ukraine.
10. Any additional UK Bill of Rights must build on the HRA, both in terms of its substantive protections and enforcement mechanisms. Voluntary organisations working to tackle inequality and unfairness value the HRA because it helps us to safeguard the dignity and safety of some of the most vulnerable people in society, as case studies elsewhere in this response demonstrate. Any proposals coming from this Commission must protect and build on the rights and enforcement mechanisms in the HRA. Any additional Bill of Rights, whatever it is called, must have legally binding force. If the HRA were to be replaced by an additional Bill of Rights, the new legal instrument would, at a minimum, need to include the same enforcement mechanisms as the HRA.
11. EDF member organisations have direct experience of the significant benefits that the HRA has brought to a wide range of people. A greater emphasis on effective promotion of the HRA by public bodies in general and central government and the Equality and Human Rights Commission in particular, should increase these benefits and help turn the public’s support for human rights into wider public support for the HRA. Effective promotion of the HRA is preferable to an additional UK Bill of Rights but if such a Bill is to be introduced it must build on the HRA and not reduce it.