OPINION: THINKPIECE - Build a case for a human rights watchdog in UK

JENNY WATSON, a human rights consultant. Responses can be sent by email to jchr@parliament.uk

Eighteen months ago, the Human Rights Act came into force with the promise of a new human rights culture. The Act would form a minimum standard that those providing public services - from the NHS to Railtrack - would have to meet, said ministers. This has the potential to make a significant difference to the lives of charities' clients. Think of the impact of the right to freedom from degrading treatment on care home residents and the right to respect for private and family life on a woman and her children who are experiencing domestic violence. And yet charities are letting a golden opportunity pass them by when they could be participating in an important debate by putting forward the case for a Human Rights Commission.

The Act is already having an impact through individual cases. Diane Pretty and even Posh and Becks have used it to fight for their rights in court.

Slowly people are realising that by using human rights standards, they can achieve systemic change. Last year a case changed the way in which mental health appeal tribunals are run, using the right to a fair trial. No longer is it for the person detained (in hospital, without easy access to a solicitor) to prove that they should be released.

Instead, the tribunal must prove that they should not.

But the lack of a Human Rights Commission is the biggest barrier to a human rights culture taking root in Britain. Without a Commission there is no consistent independent guidance for organisations as to how the Act - or specific case law - will impact on their policies and procedures, only that available from government departments or costly solicitors.

And, most importantly of all, there's no promotion of the Human Rights Act, and no way for us all to understand what it has to offer.

A parliamentary committee, the Joint Committee on Human Rights, has started taking oral evidence from a wide range of organisations on whether or not there should be a Human Rights Commission. But this can only scratch the surface. Charities can provide hundreds of examples that could demonstrate the difference a Commission could make in practice. They can also provide information about issues that fall between the gaps in our equality legislation. So why not participate in the debate?

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