It's now 11 years since the Human Rights Act was passed, enshrining into UK law a set of minimum necessary fundamental rights and freedoms for all. Local authorities and other public sector bodies are required to act compatibly with those rights and many have risen to the challenge.
But a recent inquiry by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) concluded that public bodies could be doing much more to use a "human rights approach" to improve service delivery.
The EHRC inquiry was set up to examine the extent to which respect for human rights for individuals is embedded in service delivery. Evidence was provided by local and central government, the voluntary and community sector, the NHS and other public sector bodies as well as members of the public.
The final report suggests that the act can provide a framework for public bodies to plan and deliver services. It also makes a series of recommendations for how public bodies and their staff can improve services by addressing human rights.
Human rights are not merely "abstract concepts," but they can be used as an "effective tool" for delivering organisational success and better services to the public, the report states. But it concludes: "A true understanding of human rights as a tool to improving people's lives is not widespread… improved knowledge and understanding is essential."
Making human rights a reality in local government was the focus of a recent roundtable discussion convened by the Guardian, in partnership with the EHRC.
More than one participant referred to human rights as "the elephant in the room".
Lack of understanding
One participant admitted: "There is a considerable lack of understanding about human rights among chief officers." Another suggested that the implications of a human rights approach to service delivery was responsible for the fear factor: "If you start thinking about rights to care and housing that people might be entitled to and so on, most local authorities can't afford it. So it's easier to keep your head under the pillow."
These sentiments echo the EHRC inquiry findings, which highlighted "significant misunderstandings and misconceptions" around human rights, resulting in service users and service providers being "uninformed".
Eighty-four percent of people agree that it is important to have a law that protects human rights in Britain. Yet 42% believe that the only people to benefit from human rights in the UK are criminals and terrorists.
So what has caused this confusion? One participant said that equalities legislation has come "from the bottom up" – driven by grassroots groups – but there has been more of a "top-down approach" for human rights and no clear discussion about what should be changed by the legislation in the UK. Another felt that the public and the media often confuse human rights and equality rights, further muddying the waters.
The complexities are exemplified by cases such as that of Lillian Ladele, the registrar in Islington who took her employer to an employment tribunal, arguing that her religious beliefs should exempt her from having to perform civil partnership ceremonies.
Last year, Islington council won an appeal on the case, with the tribunal ruling that religious employees do not have the right to discriminate against others, and that refusing to provide services to people on the grounds of their sexual orientation is wholly unacceptable, no matter what your religion says.
The EHRC inquiry found "a very clear reluctance" on the part of public bodies to use the specific language of human rights. One diversity chief thought that this "has negative connotations for people, so they become disassociated".
It was felt that many local authorities "shy away from the language" even if they have adopted a human rights approach.
Several participants agreed that more powerful leadership could help to drive the human rights agenda across service delivery. Others said that, for many authorities, human rights are "a bolt on" or a "tick-box exercise", but this has been "a missed opportunity". Human rights "should be mainstreamed" and "integrated across all services".
Guidance and good practice
As a follow up to the EHRC inquiry, IDeA – the improvement and development agency for local government – has commissioned the British Institute of Human Rights to examine the human rights approach in local government .
The project – to be launched at a conference on 24 November – will consist of five pilots with different types of local authorities and specific service areas such as adult care. The aim is to produce guidance and good practice for local authorities.
For many around the table, public spending pressures and implications of a possible change of government overshadow the human rights debate.
One commented: "I don't think its rational to think that human rights will form a central plank of what happens next year. There is still money in the pipeline [for public services], but the pipeline is about to be shut off."
But protecting "the deserving poor", who stand to lose out under efficiency drives, makes a human rights approach to service delivery even more important, argued one participant There is "an impact on the public purse of not protecting fundamental freedoms," claimed another.
The EHRC inquiry heard evidence calling for the introduction of a duty on public authorities to promote human rights, along similar lines to existing public sector duties to promote equality on race, gender and disability.
The final report recommends that the government should consult on this proposal and look at better inspection and regulation processes. There were mixed responses to this around the table.
But for others, "self-regulation will be the name of the game". There was consensus that a joined-up approach to service planning and delivery is needed.
Making the rhetoric a reality for service users should be of paramount importance. "The challenge for [local authorities] using the human rights approach is to take it from the model of benevolence to one based on choice and independence."