Debate Opinion The Human Rights Act: what does it mean for children? In the run up to the general election, the question of what will happen to our human rights law, and the protection it provides to us all, loomed large. Although the new Government stopped short of saying it would “scrap” the Human Rights Act immediately, it was made clear in the Queen’s speech that they ‘will bring forward proposals for a British Bill of Rights’ to replace the Act. As we await further details from the Government, it is important to take stock, reflect on the Human Rights Act and assess the information available about the Government’s plans. What human rights are we talking about? This debate matters because it is about the protection of everyone’s rights, including children, to hold the government and public officials to account. Human rights are about our ability to live dignified, equal and respectful lives. Human rights are the basic freedoms and protections that every person has; they are not privileges to be earned or gifts that governments can give or take away at will. It is important to bear this in mind when unpicking proposals about changing our laws – human rights protections by their definition protect everyone no matter who they are or what they may or may not have done. Laws which seek to provide rights only to certain people are not human rights law. What does the Human Rights Act do? The Human Rights Act is bring 16 human rights from the European Convention of Human Rights into our law, rights such as freedom from inhuman treatment, the right to life, to a fair trial and to respect for family life. These rights were written down when the international community, including the UK, came together after the horrors of World War II to say there must be minimum standards for all people. The Human Rights Act makes these 16 rights accessible here at home by placing legal duties on public authorities to respect them in their decisions and action. This empowers children, strengthening their protections when they go to the doctor, are at school, interacting with the local council, involved in the legal system, or when their parents may be deported to another country. The Human Rights Act also means that all other laws should be applied in a way that respects our human rights, and new law proposals should be assessed for their compatibility with human rights. Finally, if necessary, children can also access UK courts and ask them to make a decision about whether their rights are at risk or have been breached. Children and the Human Rights Act Through legal cases, the Human Rights Act has empowered children to: protect their right to privacy in receiving confidential advice and treatment about contraception and sexual health make sure they are protected from abuse and harm when in trouble with the criminal justice system ensure special children’s rights in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) are considered by the courts when deciding whether deporting a child’s mum was a breach of the child’s right to a family life. (The CRC is not part of UK law). Perhaps more important, is the many ways the Human Rights Act can be used without court action, to make sure children’s rights are properly considered by public officials. At BIHR our work has shown how simply knowing when and how to talk about the Human Rights Act has supported children, for example: enabling a disabled girl get access transport to get to school preventing a new born baby and her mum from being made homeless giving a young person a voice to be rehoused following abuse getting the right support for a boy with Down’s syndrome and his family Isn’t a Bill of Rights a good thing? The new Government has been clear that it wants to ‘scrap’ the Human Rights Act and replace it with a new British Bill of Rights. A law that sets out our rights and enables us to hold the government to account may sound like an appealing idea but that is exactly what the Human Rights Act does. It’s also important to be aware that this is not an opportunity for expanding human rights, as the Government ‘will not introduce new basic rights through this reform.’ In fact, the whole direction of travel is worrying. Never mind using language such as “scrapping”, the policy paper produced by the Conservative party explaining its plans for government, makes it clear that a new bill would restrict people’s rights depending on whether they belong to certain groups or behave in certain ways. In contrast our Human Rights Act is based on our universal human rights, not on a DIY version of rights decided on by a government. So what next? There has been much discussion about what format a British Bill of Rights will take and what rights it will contain. This detail will obviously be important, but those of us who value universal human rights must not get so caught up in the technicalities that we are (inadvertently) co-opted into the cause for getting rid of our protections. Right now we have a great opportunity to talk about our human rights on our own terms. And for organisations and individuals who believe in universal human rights to join together to make the case currently for strong, effective and universal human rights protections, as set out in the Human Rights Act. Now is the time to stand Together for Human Rights, individuals can join in here: www.bihr.org.uk/together and organisations can join BIHR’s Human Rights Alliance www.bihr.org.uk/alliance.