David Lammy speech: “Human rights are an integral part of Labour’s mission”

David Lammy
© David Woolfall/CC BY 3.0

Below is the full speech on strengthening human rights delivered by Shadow Justice Secretary David Lammy to the Institute for Public Policy Research today.

We must not take our human rights for granted. I know this because I am the first generation in my family to have been born with them. My ancestors were dragged out of their homes, shackled in chains and taken in ships across the Atlantic to Guyana where they worked on plantations as slaves. After the abolition of slavery, their descendants, my parents, took the opportunity to come to the UK as British citizens. They could not have been more proud of their role in helping to rebuild what they called the mother country after the Second World War. My mum worked on the London underground and for the local council. My aunts worked for the NHS.

But we all know the story of how so many of that generation, the Windrush generation, were denied rights, abused, made homeless, jobless, detained and even deported by their own government. But it isn’t just Black Britons – or only ethnic minorities – whose rights have been neglected. It was not until 1928 that all adult women were given the right to vote. It was not until 1938 that the first working-class Britons were entitled to paid holiday. And it was not until 1967 that two men or two women were allowed to express their love for each other without breaking the law – and it wasn’t until just seven years ago that they were allowed to marry. The evolution of these rights is the great story of the 20th and 21st centuries. People stood up to demand that they would be treated with fairness, dignity and equality.

All of us depend on legal rights to live our lives freely. This is at the root of what it means to live in a democracy. It is about empowering everyone in society, not only those who happen to vote for the winning party on the one day every four so years when we have a vote. That is why is individual rights are protected by the Human Rights Act.This is why, when the government and other public bodies are perceived to have broken the law, the public is able to challenge them through judicial review. Let us not forget how difficult it was to win these rights in the first place.

It took the tyranny and the bloodshed of two world wars in half a century for European leaders to come together to learn the lessons of a fascist dictatorship that was popularly elected. The European Convention on Human Rights, which resulted, laid the hidden foundations that help us live together freely and fairly to this day: from the right to express an opinion; to the right to fair pay; access to education; a decent place to live; privacy at home; and protection from abuse. I am proud that it was a Labour Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, who signed the human rights convention in 1950. Just as I am proud that it was another Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair, who created the Human Rights Act in 1998, which finally incorporated those rights into domestic law.

But this does not have to be partisan. A former Conservative Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, was one of the first world leaders to set out his vision for a “Charter of Human Rights, guarded by freedom and sustained by law”. And another Conservative politician, David Maxwell Fyfe, drafted them “as a beacon to those at the moment in totalitarian darkness”. Labour and the Conservatives have disagreed on so much in recent decades. But until the arrival of the current Prime Minister, mainstream politicians in both parties have supported human rights. And both parties have recognised the importance of judicial review for the public to be able challenge the government when it breaks the law.

Sadly, Boris Johnson wants to divide us by putting our shared rights and freedoms under threat. In this Parliament, Boris Johnson has announced the government’s plans to dilute, attack and water down both human rights and judicial review. Last September, No. 10 gave briefings to The Sunday Telegraph that they are planning “opt-outs” from the Human Rights Act that threaten Britain’s place in the European Convention on Human Rights. All countries in Europe – both those who are in and outside of the EU – are members of the European Convention on Human Rights except one. Belarus, which is an authoritarian state. The Prime Minister’s lapdog Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland, whose job it is in government to defend the role of the judiciary, even attacked the rule of law itself – accusing it of being left vulnerable to “politically motivated interests”.

Alongside this, the government is stripping the public of its right to protest with the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill. It is disenfranchising millions of voters with the Voter ID bill. The senior Conservative MP David Davis summed this up best earlier this week when he described it as “an illogical and illiberal solution to a non-existent problem”. And through threatening the UK’s obligations to the Good Friday agreement, the government has isolated globally by showing its disdain for the rule of law travels across borders.

This is the first British government in my lifetime that appears determined to swim against the current of human progress, as well as to roll back our rights and the rule of law. Rather than uniting Britons around the common values we share, he is intent on waging a grubby culture war designed to stir up division. While it was right for the government to curtail our freedoms as a response the pandemic; it is totally wrong to use this emergency as an opportunity to undermine the framework of humans rights we desperately need to keep.

Make no mistake. Boris Johnson is cribbing notes straight from Donald Trump’s playbook. In doing so he is allying himself to the world’s populist nationalists: from Viktor Orban in Hungary to Narendra Modi in India. We would be naïve to take our rights for granted at this moment. They are under threat. Labour’s response to Boris Johnson’s culture wars must be to refuse to take part. Instead we will focus on strengthening the common values, interests and rights we all share.

The attack on our rights comes at a time when the justice system has never been more vulnerable. 11 years of Conservative cuts to the justice system, the closure of 295 courts in England and Wales since 2010, pushed it towards the brink of collapse even before the pandemic began. The government has been forced to apologise for rape convictions and prosecutions falling to a record low. And the backlog in the Crown Courts stands at an all-time record high of almost 60,000 cases. Victims of violent and sexual crimes are being told to wait up for years to get their day in court – leading many to drop out entirely.

The government has ignored Labour’s proposals to strengthen victims’ rights and protect women and girls from violence. But this does not deter Labour from its mission to make sure victims come first in the justice system. To do this we need to strengthen, not water down, human rights. The Human Rights Act is not enough to protect all of our rights on its own, but it does provide the foundations that help us live together freely and fairly. We need to ensure that the Act is applied correctly as society changes.

The Act is essentially a contract that protects the individual from abuses by the state, and which enshrines certain ‘positive’ individual rights. But in this contract between the state and the individual there is still some ambiguity. Only some service providers are ruled by UK courts to be pure or hybrid public authorities – and only those that have public authority status are bound by the Human Rights Act. We live in an era of privatised public services, crony contracts and Conservative sleaze. In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, where unusual contracting-out arrangements were used, Labour will consult to ensure that the scope of public authority status is as broad as is necessary to defend the public’s rights.

On top of the Human Rights Act we can build further rights and protections, based on the same values. This is why today I am setting out Labour’s commitment to go further than the current Human Rights Act in domestic law. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is an international human rights treaty that sets out the rights every child has: life, survival and development; protection from violence, abuse or neglect; an education that enables children to fulfil their potential; be raised by, or have a relationship with, their parents; express their opinions; and be listened to. The UK ratified the UNCRC in 1991 but it has not yet been made part of domestic law. This means that many of the protections contained within it are not accessible to children and young people across the UK. We have to do better.

The government’s disastrous handling of schools through the pandemic shows us what happens when children are treated as an afterthought. So many children have been denied the right to education by this government’s incompetence. By the end of the 2020 school year, the government had distributed just two-hundred-and-thirteen-thousand laptops and tablets. This left 1.5 million children without the laptop, tablet or desktop they needed to access teaching remotely – forcing them to miss up to 75 days education between March and July last year. Labour’s children’s recovery plan includes an ‘education recovery premium’ to provide additional funding for schools to provide extra academic catch-up to children who have been left behind.

But there have be the means the children to get access to the rights the government owes them. So, Just as Labour brought the 1950 commitment to human rights into domestic law in 1998, in government Labour would legislate to bring The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child into domestic law too.

There is more we can explore that goes beyond children’s rights. The UK has signed up to a number of international treaties that say that everyone living in the country is entitled to the right to health, the right to social security, the right to adequate housing and the right to other socio-economic rights. But unlike other countries, the UK has done very little to incorporate these rights into domestic law. Following the catastrophes of Grenfell and Windrush – and the scandal of fire and rehire – it is clear this gap can stop people from accessing the rights to which they are entitled. The Welsh Labour government is already ground-breaking work in this area – by determining which socio and economic rights could be integrated into domestic laws. We too should explore what other changes could be made to make the rights our government has signed up to internationally a reality in our everyday lives.

I started this speech by talking about my ancestors. Their struggle to be recognised as of equal value to every other person was an historic one. They saw first the brutal indignity of societies that neglected individual rights in favour of mob rule. But their story of the struggle to be recognised is not unique. And it is not only those of us facing the evil of chains who depend on human rights. Human rights are the basic rights and freedoms that we all exercise every day. Human rights are the essential tools that empower us to stand up to people in power. Human rights are an integral part of Labour’s mission to make the UK the fairest country in the world. Any politician who attacks them attacks all of us. Labour will strengthen your rights, because Labour will stand up for you.

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