In 2016 the United Nations Human Rights Council produced its periodic working group report on UK human rights. Such reports are often a tad anarchic, and this was typical. A total of 227 recommendations, some duplicated, came from 94 UN member states; they ran from the sensible (privacy, violence against women) to the frankly wacky (apologising for all past colonialism, placing children’s rights at the centre of climate change adaptation, etc). The UK in its official response weeded out the latter, and ended up accepting about 40 per cent of the recommendations.
Last month a prominent UK pressure group roasted the UK government, saying that this response was just not good enough. In accepting fewer than half of the proposals, it said, the UK was losing its ‘reputation as a champion of human rights’. The pressure group demanded guarantees from the government (among other things) that all immigration detainees be released after a fixed time limit; children should never be subject to immigration detention; the tabloids be reined in on matters that might be regarded as expressions of xenophobia, and that if there was a British Bill of Rights all guarantees of the European Court of Human Rights be retained in full force as well.
These demands are open to objection on any number of grounds, the least of which is that they are very bad ones. Controls over newspaper opinion going beyond the general law are always dangerous. An absolute time limit on immigration detention is an open invitation to prevarication by illegal migrants with the aim of causing the time for detention to run out. Child migrants (not to mention self-declared under-18s who might well be older) are just as capable as adults of disappearing into the demi-monde never to be re-encountered; to prohibit their restraint entirely is plain batty. Equally foolish is the belief that the protections of the ECHR must be regarded as sacrosanct. It is by no means obvious, for example, that democracy must stand aside – such being the totemic significance of the words ‘human rights’ – while the right to privacy allows suppression of one’s own previous criminality, the right to family life affords the option of a heterosexual civil partnership as an alternative to marriage, or the right to protection of one’s possessions gives a way to neutralise the housing benefit cap. If championing human rights means supporting positions like this, some might even relish the loss of human rights championship status.
But the real problem is deeper. I have deliberately omitted one curious fact. The pressure group concerned is not some well-meaning private campaigning organisation determined to have its say. It is a UK government office (strictly a ‘non-departmental statutory body’), funded by you, the taxpayer, to the tune of £20million a year, operating ultimately under the Department for Education, with employees who are technically civil servants. Anyone who knows the workings of Whitehall will by now have guessed: it’s the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which while retaining its day job of overseeing the observation of the provisions of the Equality Act on discrimination, also openly operates as a political advocacy group in its own right.
How did this come about? Responsibility, predictably, lies with the Blair government. Until 2006 there were bodies set up to police specific anti-discrimination provisions (namely the Commission for Racial Equality, the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Disability Rights Commission). In 2006 the EHRC was established as the umbrella successor to, and replacement for, all these earlier bodies. But its mission crept in a small but vital respect. The new body got a roving statutory commission, not simply to press for enforcement of specific legal provisions and human rights protections, but absolutely generally, to progress towards ever greater equality and human rights protection in society as a whole. It has done so with gusto, recently for example apparently supporting the Lammy Report on the criminal justice system, and calling for a shake-up of working practices to reduce pay gaps. Indeed, its promotional video is instructive, and could have been put together by Labour Party headquarters. It talks of the need to ‘act as a catalyst for change’, to ‘finish the fight for equality’, and to suppress what is seen as homophobic hate crime; it even contains a long disquisition from Sharon White of Ofcom on – yes, you guessed it – the need for diversity in the media to make sure that it reflects the society we live in.
In other words, our elected government is now paying its own employees to lobby itself. Civil servants, once thought politically independent, are employed to press the government for action which is politically highly controversial, which the government was never elected to carry out and which, indeed, most of the electorate would probably reject indignantly. And we have a government department dedicated to the ever-increasing extension of a form of Blairite socialism. As any TCW reader, and for that matter any democrat, will accept, this will not do. As a matter of urgency, the EHRC needs to be reined in and limited to enforcing the existing law, rather than leading attempts to change it to reflect the view from Islington or Hampstead.