Comment: The ironies of our human rights law

Critics and commentators of our culture have always had an eye for irony, from Plato - the word first appears in The Republic - through satirists such as Dryden, Swift, Pope and Johnson, all the way to Alanis Morissette.

Irony's an ambiguous concept, but it entails a sense of there being a discrepancy or incongruity between words and their meaning, or between actions and their results. "It's the good advice that you just didn't take," goes Morissette's song. "Isn't it ironic ... don't you think?"

She might have added: "It's like the Human Rights Act being rejected by charitable umbrella bodies." Acevo, the NCVO and Navca have all spoken out against a new clause in the Health and Social Care Bill - which just had its third reading in the House of Lords - that would bring private and voluntary sector care homes within the scope of human rights law, regardless of whether they provide public services under contract.

Why? Because to extend the reach of human rights law, the bill would turn charities into public authorities. As things stand, the Human Rights Act applies only to public authorities - statutory bodies, courts and tribunals, and charities and voluntary organisations that carry out public functions for central or local authorities. If public functions are only part of what a charity does, then compliance is restricted; but if all a charity does is public functions, then everything must comply with human rights law.

What this does expose, incidentally, is that if the vast majority of a charity's activities are delivering contracts for the state under contract, it could be called a public authority. But it's often the case that only some - or none - of charitable care home activities can be categorised as public functions. You can argue it makes sense for charities to be just as observant of human rights as government, but it doesn't make sense to ignore varying degrees of public involvement and rename all care homes as public authorities.

Ultimately, the bill would achieve an end we might wish for - human rights protection - through a means - undermining the distinctiveness of charitable care homes - that's plainly crackers. "Isn't it ironic ... don't you think?"

- Nick Seddon is an author and journalist: nptseddon@hotmail.com.

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