Humanists UK welcomes Labour commitment to strengthening human rights

In a major shift, today David Lammy MP, Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, is to announce that the UK opposition will adopt several new policies on strengthening human rights. Humanists UK has welcomed the news, as all the new policies are ones that humanists have long campaigned for.

The new policies include the incorporation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) into UK law.They also include consulting to make sure that all organisations that provide public services, including those under contract, are accountable under the Human Right Act (HRA) 1998. In a speech to IPPR, Mr Lammy is also to commit to protecting access to judicial review, the mechanism by which individuals can legally challenge a decision made by a public body. And he will commit to exploring which other socio-economic rights should be incorporated into domestic law.

Human rights and judicial review are currently under threat from the Government. It has been reviewing both with a view to rolling them back. Humanists UK has as a result brought together a coalition of over 200 charities, trades unions, and human rights organisations in calling for the protections of the Human Rights Act and judicial review to be maintained. It has today welcomed Mr Lammy’s announcements.

UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

The European Convention on Human Rights is enforceable in UK law through the HRA. But UN treaties are not enforceable in domestic courts, nor are public authorities bound to follow them. This means that although the UK has signed up to the treaties, some of the provisions they contain are not legal protections that citizens can actually access. This gap between international and domestically enforceable law is most significant with respect to the UNCRC and its protections for children.

In his speech, Mr Lammy is expected to say, ‘The [UNCRC] is an international human rights treaty which sets out the rights every child has: life, survival and development, protection from violence, abuse or neglect, an education that enables children to fulfil their potential, be raised by or have a relationship with their parents, express their opinions and be listened to. The UK ratified the UNCRC in 1991 but it has not yet been made part of domestic law. This means that many of the protections contained within it are not accessible to children and young people across the UK. We have to do better.’

Strengthening the Human Rights Act

The HRA applies only to ‘public authorities’, but if a public service is contracted out then the Act does not apply directly to that provider. Humanists UK has long campaigned for this to be changed to ensure that all public service users, regardless of who is providing that service, are protected by the HRA.

Mr Lammy stated, ‘The Act is essentially a contract that protects the individual from abuses by the state, and which enshrines certain “positive” individual rights. But in this contract between the state and the individual there is still some ambiguity. Only some service providers are ruled by UK courts to be pure or hybrid public authorities – and only those which have public authority status are bound by the Human Rights Act. We live in an era of privatised public services… In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic… Labour will consult to ensure that the scope of public authority status is as broad as is necessary to defend the public’s rights.’

Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented, ‘The incorporation of human rights into UK law and policy is unfinished business, which began with the Human Rights Act but still has far to go. We are delighted that the UK Opposition has committed to strengthening citizens’ access to children’s rights. The Human Rights Act provides a strong framework for citizens’ rights in the UK. We have worked tirelessly to defend that framework from attacks and attempts to dilute its protections. But more than ever, as Mr Lammy has recognised, it is time to not only protect the rights that we have but to enhance those protections as our society changes and evolves to encounter new challenges. This is especially true with respect to children’s rights, where there is a particular gap in protections as things stand.’