Change that leads to better lives

Getting human and civil rights back on the agenda

Here’s an optimistic wish for the new year – that human and civil rights returns to being a substantive policy and delivery priority in the health, social care and education sectors.

Rob web

But wait, I hear some of you say, don’t we have what is internationally recognised as one of the strongest legislative frameworks in the developed world around rights – and is it not only a few months since the Government confirmed the enforcement of the ban on age discrimination in the health and social care sectors as required by the Single Equality Act?

True – but my worry is that whilst the law and the policies are in place, there is little more than lip service being paid to them when priorities are set and spending decisions taken. People’s rights are becoming a casualty of the economic crisis. Not overtly, but surreptitiously, as the language of rights has disappeared from the everyday discourse of decision makers. The result is that decisions on service design and delivery are not considering the impact on rights, and people will thus not feel the potentially positive impact of the existence of these laws. Let me offer two examples:

Example One – Age Equality: As already noted, the Government has made age discrimination illegal in relation to the health and social care sectors. A positive decision – but one that it appears services are choosing to ignore. NDTi previously worked with the DH to develop materials and guides to help health and social care services take action to meet their legal obligations under this new law. This included a particular focus on mental health services, where there is strong evidence of age discrimination. Yet these free, widely endorsed resources are being ignored. Age equality in mental health appears to have zero priority within the emerging CCGs and almost all Mental Health NHS Trusts. To quote one Trust CEO in a private aside – “It’s on no-one’s agenda. All we are concerned about is budgetary cuts and introducing Payment by Results”. The law against age discrimination exists, but it is about to be widely disregarded.

Example Two – Housing Rights for Disabled People: The move towards people with learning disabilities and others having proper tenancies, with the housing rights that are not possible in a residential care setting, has made significant progress in recent years through policy initiatives such as Valuing People and the PSA indicator on housing. Yet an increasing number of commissioners are saying to us that group residential care is back as the preferred option because of their (often wrong) belief that it is more cost effective. Cost is assuming a greater priority over consideration of housing rights, and related factors such as access to disposable income and the capacity for community inclusion.

Five to ten years ago, those leading organisational priority setting would generally have engaged in a debate about the rights agenda. Increased rights were understood as an outcome to be achieved. I am not hearing that debate nowadays. It is as though human and civil rights have become optional extras – that they only come into play when everyone is sufficiently well-off that we can turn our attention to luxuries like treating people as equal citizens with equal rights.

There are a number of factors that may have contributed to this situation arising – some of which the rights ‘lobby’ needs to accept ownership of. For example has the willingness to encourage and allow the rhetoric of rights to be used well beyond the original intentions of those drafting the UN Declaration on Human Rights debased the rights’ concept and allowed the Daily Mail’s of this world to discredit its importance. Hard questions also have to be asked about the failure of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission to provider the leadership that has been significantly lacking since its predecessors like the Disability Rights Commission were disbanded.

Yet there is one reason for this slipping of focus on rights that can be addressed comparatively easily. The reason why we need to legislate against discrimination on the grounds of race, gender, disability, age and the other ‘protected characteristics’ is that, without the law, significant elements of society naturally discriminate against others. Laws exist because general exhortations to behave appropriately are sometimes not enough. Ignoring or even picking on the ‘powerless’ in society is sadly a well-established human trait.

So merely passing a law is inadequate. Words on paper do not change societal behaviour. People will need to be reminded of a new law’s existence, what it expects of them, how they might enact it and, if necessary, the consequences of a failure to do so. Government has a central role to play in this – which is the inherent problem in 2013. There is no evidence that equality and human rights are a political priority and that demonstrating compliance is an expectation of all parts of the public services system. The right words may exist in the Act, but unless and until the language of rights compliance returns to its position as a central expectation from the Government, from the monitoring and regulatory regimes, from the professional bodies and from all right minded individuals working in and around services, then equality and human and civil rights will continue to be things that exist on paper and are talked about by the advocacy movement, but are sadly absent from the reality of people’s day to day lives.

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