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British Values and Human Rights

A discussion on the Bill of Rights
sue pascoe 1

Sue Pascoe

Sue Pascoe stood for election for Yorkshire and the Humber in the 2019 European Election, and sits on the Conservative Party’s Approved Candidates List.

What are British values? Why are they important to all of us? Why are they linked to our fundamental human rights?

As a parent, as a member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales and a person sitting on the Conservative Party’s approved candidates list, I’ve given these questions much thought, as values should underpin our decision making and political rationale. Without values we are so much flotsam washed up by the waves.

On 10 December 2022 it was the 74th anniversary of when, in 1948, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (the most translated document in the world) and the day we celebrate ‘Dignity, Freedom, and Justice for All’.

Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the great women of her age and wife of President Roosevelt, who chaired the committee who brought the Declaration to the UN for adoption hoped it would guide the UN in “promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all,” that it would have the “moral” force necessary to “guide and inspire individuals and groups throughout the world.”

Our great war leader Sir Winston Churchill understood the importance of human rights and basing his diplomacy on appeals to common culture, values and language. His appeals to the empires of the mind through the magic of the cultural arts with their nuances and empathies that get in deep under the skin suggesting common bonds of humanity as alternatives to division and extremism. Indeed, all culture in one way or another addresses what it means to be human. That is why it has such power to influence and change people’s perceptions of themselves and of each other. Our British culture is important and deeply meaningful to each of us.

European Convention on Human Rights

Sir Winston inspired the development of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which was signed by the UK in 1951. They were drafted under the guidance of another Conservative, David Maxwell-Fyfe (later Lord Chancellor Kilmuir) in the face of considerable opposition from the Attlee government. These human rights were not some new invention but are deeply intertwined with British history and common law. For example, they include the right to life; the prohibition of torture, first enacted by the Long Parliament in 1640; rights to liberty and security of the person; and the right to a fair trial, which dates back to Magna Carta.

There was a time when Britain was the world leader in human rights. In July 2022, we signed the Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence (the Istanbul Convention), which sees us joining the ‘gold standard’ for protecting women and girls from violence. Praise can also be given to the work of the Foreign Common and Development Office (FCDO) in representing our British values and human rights across the world. The Human rights and Democracy: the 2021 Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office Report published 9 December 2022 is a smorgasbord of human rights project interventions showing Britain’s soft power at its best.

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said, “I believe in the power of honest leadership and open societies to create a world where democracies prevail over autocracies, ensuring respect for individual rights and freedoms. Democracies need to work together to achieve this. That’s why we are creating a network of partnerships with like-minded nations, bound by economic, diplomatic and security ties, and by our collective drive to uphold our values and face down aggression for a freer world.”

So you would think all would be well but sadly not.

Now there are calls from some for us to join the pariah States of Russia and Belarus as the only European countries not Parties to the Convention. The people calling to leave claim they will gain some dubious benefit over other European countries in the Convention relating to deporting undesirables and to control of borders. The only problem with that is many countries who are also Parties to the Convention are taking tough stances within the framework of the Convention. Also we can’t forget even if we did come out of the Convention we would still be signatories to all our UN international treaties covering similar areas.

What those who wish us to leave fail to tell you is the EU trade agreement is predicated on membership of the ECHR. Secondly, we can only be a member of the Council of Europe if we are a Party to the Convention, and mutual security and co-operation agreements are based on our membership of the Council. Further peace in Northern Ireland is built on the Good Friday Agreement which is also predicated on membership of the Convention. And lastly the Convention underpins the human rights of every single person in the UK and is enshrined into domestic legislation via the Human Rights Act (HRA). Oh the very Act the proposed Bill of Rights seeks to abolish!

The Conservative Party does not have a manifesto mandate for this. The manifesto only said that the Human Rights Act would be ‘updated’ ‘to ensure that there is a proper balance between the rights of individuals, our vital national security and effective government.’

The Bill of Rights has gone way beyond these aims, which could be supported by many reasonable minded Conservatives, into a State power grab and the abolition of everyone’s rights. So in fact it is not a Bill of Rights but a Bill of Takeaways and a fundamental attack on our British values.

Don’t take my word for it the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, Dunja Mijatović (the Commissioner), carried out a visit to the UK between 27 June and 1 July 2022 and wrote in her report published on 9 December 2022 that:

“The Commissioner’s impression is that the repeal of the HRA and its replacement by a Bill of Rights is an attempt to fix something that is not broken. The HRA has been a remarkably successful instrument to ensure that people can effectively enforce their Convention rights through domestic courts, to strengthen public bodies’ duties to respect and protect rights, and to improve alignment of domestic courts’ judgments with the case law of the European Court of Human Rights. While this should not rule out the possibility of making changes, such changes should lead to strengthened, rather than to weakened, protection. However, the Commissioner considers that the Bill of Rights Bill contains many elements that would do exactly the latter.”

Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe Report on the UK

She goes on in her report to highlight that the current political climate “has resulted in an increasing presentation of human rights in the public and political discourse as an obstacle to the effective implementation of government policies, rather than as a foundation for such policies in a democratic society based on the rule of law” and she “urges all public and elected officials to refrain from derogatory and inflammatory language against lawyers and others who are engaged in supporting people to access their rights or in advocating on their behalf.”

She highlights that “peaceful assemblies carried out in public places often temporarily disrupt the life of a community, including through the generation of noise, the obstruction of road traffic, or other types of nuisance. This temporary alteration of ordinary life does not exempt State authorities from their positive obligation to facilitate the effective exercise of the right to peaceful assembly”. The justifiable concerns over climate versus valid and lawful means of protest are particularly challenging our society at the moment.

She then raised concerns over:- repressive measures targeting Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities; asylum, migration and human rights law; various issues related to LGBTI people, especially discourse and discrimination towards trans people; child poverty, homelessness, healthy and clean environment, mental health and children’s treatment in the justice system; together with issues related to Northern Ireland.

In my charity work as a trustee, we cover LGBTI people, asylum seekers and refugees and children’s mental health so let me speak more on these issues.

Asylum seekers and refugees

The Commissioner called on “the UK government to ensure that its overall approach to asylum and migration fully complies with its obligations under international refugee and human rights law, and to refrain from introducing and implementing measures that would put the rights of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants at risk.”

This message was re-enforced by the Most Rev Justin Welby who told peers recently that “control has become cruelty” in the UK’s asylum system. He said that the duty to offer sanctuary to refugees has been “politically degraded” in Britain and warned that the country must reject the “harmful rhetoric” painting refugees as “invaders”.

I’ve never met an asylum seeker or refugee who didn’t have ‘a story to tell’ of a genuine reason for coming to the UK and who did not wish to contribute economically to our society given the opportunity. Many of the stories I’ve heard I struggled to hold back the tears hearing the pain they have gone through. All of which re-enforces my belief in their humanity. By the same token I have great sympathy with those communities on the South coast who have to deal with people they don’t know and don’t have the facilities and resources to cope with. Let’s understand cause and effect. People are in the boats because you can’t claim asylum until you are on UK soil and many normal legal routes have been closed for refugees to take.

LGBTI people

The Commissioner “urges government representatives and parliamentarians to refrain from stigmatising and harmful discourse against LGBTI people, and especially trans people, including promoting narratives that frame trans people as a threat.”

Further:

• rebuild trust with the LGBTI community and to re-establish constructive co-operation with civil society actors

• accelerate efforts to ban conversion practices, and to ensure that such bans are comprehensive and cover trans people

• ensure legal gender recognition procedures are quick, transparent, and accessible, and in line with internationally recognised human rights best practices, including self-determination

• all relevant authorities and institutions tasked with preventing and combating discrimination to take all necessary steps to maintain strong equal treatment provisions in relation to trans people, in line with the UK’s international obligations, and to ensure that equal treatment is maintained as the rule and differential treatment as the exception

The FCDO document referenced above clearly states that “The UK is fully committed to promoting and protecting the rights and dignity of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT+) people. The UK condemns any discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity.” So how are we in this position that the Commissioner is having to call the UK out? I find this such a difficult question to answer as there is clearly a battle going on across all political parties and in wider society to challenge the concept of sex and gender and the very rights many LGBTI people have relied upon in the UK for some time. It has all the features of a media led moral panic not routed in reality of people’s existence or basic humanity or medical science. Hate crimes are up, social media is awash with daily grime and it’s reported that the immigration centre fire bomber also had trans hate on his list of grievances.

Children’s Mental Health

The Commissioner “calls on all authorities to significantly invest in mental health support services for children, to ensure these are adequately available and accessible to all who need them, and to take comprehensive measures around the prevention and early warning of mental health issues among children.”

The proportion of young people in England with a probable mental health disorder increased significantly from one in nine in 2017 to one in six in 2021. Many reports have established the link between the regression of children’s mental health and the COVID-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns. To a large extent, mental health is shaped by the social, economic, and physical environments in which people live and the intersectionality of the issues they face.

It is also easy to see a link with the rise in the prevalence of social media and its ubiquitous presence in young people’s lives which is the rationale for the Online Harm’s Bill.

What is abundantly clear the overall availability and accessibility of mental health services requires urgent attention.

What does all this mean?

These are worrying concerns which go to the heart of who we are as a nation which question our fundamental British values, put me in conflict with my Christian values and our country at odds with multiple international treaty obligations. I appreciate that no country will ever get a perfect ‘scorecard’ that’s why it is the overall trajectory on rights, the desire to adhere to the rule of law and comparison to values that is so important.

The government set out its definition of British values in 2011 and the Department for Education states that there is a need “to create and enforce a clear and rigorous expectation on all schools to promote the fundamental British values of democracy, the

rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.”

For me being British is more than this. I was brought up believing in Queen and Country and in our Union, now our King, and our family of Nations and the Commonwealth. All peoples in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth are important to me. I was also brought up with the famous British sense of justice and fairness and that with hard work should come opportunity no matter who you are no matter what background you come from. And finally with citizenship comes personal and social responsibilities to family and others in your community and society at large to participate, be kind and treat others with respect and dignity, being humble, and showing integrity in your dealings with others.

Our established church is the Church of England and I’m a practicing Christian. The latest census says that 27.5 million people in England and Wales described themselves as Christian. Key values of the Christian faith are to ‘love thy neighbour as thy self’ and ‘forgiveness’.

Values shaped Sir Winston Churchill’s politics and these values shape mine.

I appeal to all politicians to reach back to your roots of compassion and respect for all humanity and focus back on the fundamentals of restoring trust in Parliament and each other. Divisional politics and treating others as less than is just nasty and against our British values. Time to forgive a little, speak less, listen more and seek solutions to the people’s problems not the party’s problems. I stand for humanity and hope for a better world for each and everyone of us. What about you?

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