People are not inherently vulnerable - the situations they are placed in make them vulnerable
The moral outrage at last night’s Panorama programme on Whorlton Hall is clear. The response is clearly one of shock, and that phrase “vulnerable people” appears in practically every report. Language always matters, but especially now. The anger needs to be heard. But this cannot simply be about a few bad staff members. Nor cannot it be about “vulnerable people”. People are not inherently vulnerable; the situations they are placed in make them vulnerable, vulnerable to have their rights to safety, choice, participation, well-being and non-discrimination breached. We need to focus on the situation and resolving the vulnerability it creates, or the same abuses of human rights will continue unabated once the media spotlight shines elsewhere.
We must move away from simply thinking about good or poor practice and towards accountability for people’s legally protected human rights. Human rights are not about being nice; they are not even really about good practice, that implies an optional extra going above and beyond.
Human rights are also not about meeting the latest policy driver or even prioritising commissioning or financial incentives. Human rights are the legal entitlements that we all have, no matter who we are or where we might be living or placed. The Human Rights Act places a legal (not ethical or moral) duty to respect and protect these rights. We must name what we saw on TV last night as inhumane. This degrading treatment is not simply wrong, it is unlawful. The Human Rights Act, is a powerful red line which people must not fall below.
What a human rights framework gives us is a way to describe what has happened and the standards that need to be met to address it and to prevent further abuse. Human rights is a language that focuses on the people at the heart of services, but which locates responsibility squarely with decision-makers who have the power to make the changes needed.
The legal duty to respect and protect human rights is about the individual decisions of staff within the service AND the system of public institutions that sits around them. That means Whorton Hall and their staff, and commissioning authorities, NHS and local authorities involved in patient’s lives, monitoring agencies, the regulator.
Both need addressing – the service itself and staff, and the system that enables human rights abuses to take place. Too often we hear the system services operate within is broken and therefore bad things happen. A human rights lens does not accept this; it enables us to call for legal accountability for individual people, and across public services.
Yet a human rights approach really features in our analysis, commentary and the solutions needed. How many services understand and embed their legal duty to respect and protect human rights? How many people in services know their human rights and are confident to have open discussions with staff? How many families feel legally literate enough to do this? It can be done. From our joint work we know there are pockets of hope where leadership, frontline staff, people and families are using the legal language of human rights as the language for change, but this needs to translate to our national approach. We must move from outrage to action, and action which is about respecting and protecting people’s human rights.