Speech by Home Secretary, Jack Straw MP
I am grateful to the Dean, the Very Reverend Dr John Moses, and Chapter, for inviting me here this evening to talk about the Human Rights Act and what it represents.
Todayís been a big day in the life of our nation. Being here gives wider perspective and meaning to whatís going on. Itís an honour to speak at St Paulís.
This place is a monument to the values of the British people and a symbol of their hopes.
Who can forget the famous photo of this Cathedral in the Second World War, seeming to rise like a phoenix from the flaming carnage of the Blitz? This is a place of national heroes and visionaries. Wellington, Nelson, Wycliffe, William Blake, Florence Nightingale and Alexander Fleming are honoured here, to name but half a dozen.
To my left is John Howard, the great penal reformer whose name, as the inscription reminds us, is remembered with respect, gratitude and admiration Ė and I quote Ė "from the throne to the dungeon". A great phrase which, as it happens, perfectly describes the span of the Home Secretaryís responsibilities. On my right is a monument to Samuel Johnson, now remembered mainly for his dictionary, but in his time a beacon of common-sense and common decency, and one who struck one of the early blows for freedom of information (or for the proper public accountability of government) through his pioneering work as a verbatim reporter of Parliament. He used his vigorous intellect to stir the conscience of nations as well as individuals.
Behind me is the high altar, commemorating the sacrifices made during the Second World War. A time when St Paulís stood unbowed as London was burning to the ground and the Battle of Britain was raging overhead. A time which has relevance to what I am going to talk about this evening.
Just over in the south aisle there is the memorial to John Donne, the poet and former Dean of this place. He famously said, "No man is an island, entire of itself; each man is part of the continent, a part of the main". And thatís a very good thought to start with.
Because this evening, on the day that the Human Rights Act comes fully into effect across the whole of the UK, I want to set out my thinking on human rights and responsibilities. I want to talk about citizenship in the broadest sense of the word and about the values of community and society. About the values of the kind of society I believe that we all want to see flourish.
My theme is our mutual dependence, one upon the other, for future progress. Why, echoing John Donne, no man Ė or woman Ė or, for that matter, child, can be an island.
My argument is that, in a world of rapid change, a self-interested, exclusive and materialistic philosophy will not get us very far. It is only a belief in society, in the equal worth of all and confidence in our institutions that can offer the serious hope of a peaceful and prosperous future. That belief in society must be backed by commitment. So Iíll explain the Governmentís reforms and what I believe that they are doing to build a stronger civil society at grass roots level Ėbuilding the kind of society which most people want for themselves and their children.
Iíll talk first about the European Convention on Human Rights and its relevance today in the Human Rights Act. I will then set out how we are seeking to strengthen individual rights and equality of opportunity. Then I will come onto responsibilities, particularly in relation to strengthening families, the essential building block of society. Finally, I will talk about active community involvement and reconnecting people to the political process Ė or how, to use a contemporary phrase, we should better tackle the "democratic deficit".
Part 1: THE ECHR AND ITS RELEVANCE TODAY
First, letís get our bearings on the Human Rights Act. I mentioned the Actís historical context a few moments ago. Itís the Second World War, uniquely commemorated here at St Paulís Ė and uniquely commemorated in the ECHR, the European Convention on Human Rights, which is the heart of the Human Rights Act.
The Second World War because the ECHR was Europeís attempt Ė helped in no small way, it must be said, by British lawyers Ė to make sure that the common sacrifices commemorated behind me were not in vain. In the ECHR, Europe set its face forever against the repression and atrocities that so defined its defeated regimes. It affirmed for all time its belief in the worth of every human person.
What strikes most first time readers of the ECHR? Itís about bans on state killing, torture, false imprisonment, rights to freedom of assembly, expression and belief. "Oh", they say, "itís about stopping another Hitler or Stalin".
Thatís right, of course - in part. The ECHR was and is Europeís answer to Mussoliniís false choice between fascism and communism. In the ECHR, free Europe rejected both as incompatible with its basic values of human rights and chose democracy instead.
Whatís that got to do with Britain in the 21st century? Is the ECHR just another monument to history? If you look to the European Court of Human Rights for an answer to that question you would probably hear the words "living instrument". Thatís the term they use to describe the legal idea that they develop the ECHR through case law to reflect societyís changing attitudes. And that it is also the answer to those who assert that the convention has been developed in a way not anticipated by its draftsmen.
I donít have a problem with the living instrument explanation, but I would put it a slightly different way. The ECHR is relevant to the UK today Ė and tomorrow Ė because the basic values at its heart are timeless. They are about the equal worth of all, and the belief in our responsibility to create a society that advances such equal worth and dignity.
Itís about a new citizenship, for a new society and a new economy.
The challenge and dilemma of global change
New citizenship is a lot more than a soundbite. Itís a strategy and a necessity. Our country Ė all countries Ė are challenged by change.Globalisation, IT, The Internet, economic progress, technical progress, movements of population, pollution. Yes, these developments bring higher living standards. New choices. New opportunities for travel and communication and leisure that couldnít have been dreamt of when the ECHR was first drafted.
But they also create new inequalities, new unfairness and atomisation which make superficial communication easier, but can also intensify loneliness. Modern living is strong on allowing individual choice, but weak on supporting individuals through a network of human relationships.
Bonds of family, community and country seem under constant strain.
Traditional mechanisms for mutual support, like relatives round the corner are no longer available to everyone. People are mobile, individualistic, family patterns vary.
Yet - and this is a paradox of modern life - though weíre buying and consuming more and more as a matter of personal choice, our significant life chances depend increasingly on choices we make together.
Like making our schools better. Our food healthier. Our environment cleaner. Our communities safer. And the weaker our community bonds, the more difficult it is to find a common basis for making these decisions or meeting the challenges of the modern age. What are the basic values we all share?
John Donne gives us the key: we have to respect individual worth - and acknowledge our interdependence. The basis of society is - and always has been - people living together in groups for mutual protection and support. These may be families. They may not. Liking each other helps. Knowing each other helps. But what matters most are shared values and a framework.
The Governmentís aim is to build a modern civil society based on basic values of individual worth and equality of opportunity for all. Those values are directly reflected in the ECHR, which through the Human Rights Act, is now in our system of law. Basic values we can all share. They will act as a compass as society moves through the uncharted waters created by global change.
A key argument for setting basic values down in statute law is the increasingly diverse nature of UK society. Diverse societies cannot take shared values for granted. The core values need to be stated and affirmed so that everyone understands what they are, so that we can speak the same moral language.
Thatís good for binding us all together. And itís good because, under the Human Rights Act, everyone gets the same set of basic guarantees from our public services, whoever we are and wherever we live.
Look at America. Their Bill of Rights has undoubtedly helped weld together a hugely diverse society. The Human Rights Act should do even better Ė the ECHR is rooted in the best of British values and was drafted with the ideas of interdependence and society very much in mind.
Part 2: STRENGTHENING INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS AND EQUALITY OF OPPORTUNITY
The Human Rights Act is, of course, about positive rights. Equality of worth and dignity do not mean much unless you can assert them in a positive way. And that means saying goodbye to what was a key feature of our constitution - that freedom is whatís left when the State has finished saying what you cannot do. That approach is no longer enough. If you want a real culture of equality of worth you need positive rights, based on those values which the Stateís restrictions must not unnecessarily constrain.
Of course, especially in the early days, people will test the limits of the Human Rights Act to assert their rights. I happen to think that the courts will find that, by and large, the UK has looked after rights pretty well. After all, we have been complying with the ECHR for fifty years, and had a big hand in drafting it in the first place.
But in any case that is not an argument for denying our people access to their rights in our own courts. People canít be expected to fulfil their individual potential if they are treated like old-fashioned subjects. Citizens have positive rights. Subjects donít - they are ruled.
Of course there are limits on asserting rights against the State. These limits are often themselves a protection against abuse. Under the Human Rights Act, Parliament remains sovereign. You canít use the Act to knock down an Act of Parliament. In this respect it is not like the US Bill of Rights.
But the courts do get strong powers to give legislation a meaning that fits with the ECHR rights, wherever that is possible. And thereís also the power to declare primary legislation to be incompatible with the Convention rights.
Rights do not stop with the Human Rights Act. Though the general, positive rights are an essential base for a modern, plural society, they arenít always enough. The UK pioneered specific anti-discrimination legislation in Europe in the 1970s.
Now weíre updating it to promote race equality. The Human Rights Act doesnít give people a basic right to see information held by public authorities. Freedom of Information legislation will provide that right.
Sometimes these rights and values need to be legislated for. Sometimes we have the legislation but need to fill things out by a lot of practical measures. Take education. Protocol 1 to the ECHR has the right to access education down as a fundamental human right, and a good thing too. But a lot of flesh needs to be put on those bones, which is exactly what we are doing in our efforts to drive up standards through the school system.
Part 3: RESPONSIBILITIES
Strengthening individual rights and equality of opportunity in the ways Iíve been discussing is part of what needs to be done to build the new citizenship for the new society. But you canít build a society on individual opportunity or rights alone. Itís a question of balance. Rights and opportunities need to be matched by responsibility and duty. Thatís the unspoken contract at the heart of civil society. The covenant.
Rights with responsibilities are at the core of the relationship between citizen and state. Thatís where you also find the bundle of public goods to which a modern state needs to ensure access. Such as education, health, environment, a minimum income and civil and political rights.
Some people tease me for talking about rights and responsibilities in the context of the Human Rights Act."Show me the section in the Act about responsibilities", they say.
Or, "Donít make it sound as if you canít get rights without accepting responsibilities".
But the Human Rights Act isnít - as some seem to think Ė just about individual rights. Thatís because it bases itself on the ECHR. And the ECHR balances and accompanies much of what it says about individual rights with detailed statements of the limitations that can be placed on those rights. Balances and limitations which reflect the rights of others and of the wider society. The balances and limitations in the ECHR reflect what is needed to maintain a society based on modern, pluralistic democratic values.
Rights with responsibilities is what the ECHR is about, in my view.
Balanced values we can and must all share
Families are where most of us learn the give and take of rights and responsibilities and the logic of togetherness. Itís within the family that we each are most directly to experience the values of community: that a crisis shared is a crisis halved; that a celebration shared is a celebration doubled.
That no one is an island Ė that your rights within a group or community are interdependent.
Societies depend on shared values. Shared values are passed on through children. Values wonít be passed on from one generation to the next unless they are reinforced by the parent / child relationship. So parenting is a public Ė as well as intensely private - act. Hence societyís interest in the parent / child relationship. Families are crucial to the survival and development of shared values.
Here again we cannot make progress unless we combine the best of the old with the best of the new. The basic family values so often cherished by the traditionalist are good. Yes, marriage and stable adult relationships do provide the best of all possible bases for bringing up children. The evidence supports this view. But itís no use framing policies which ignore the variety of arrangements in which children grow up. Family policy must start from where families are.
Where are families in Britain today? A third of marriages are ending in divorce. More than a third of all babies are born to unmarried couples. The number of children in lone parent families has tripled over the last 25 years Ė pushing three million now. And the country has the highest rate of teenage pregnancies in Western Europe Ė nearly 8,000 in a year.
Here again we donít get anywhere by bewailing the facts or by running away from the challenges. Family structures have changed, are changing and no doubt will continue to evolve. What wonít change is the need for people to fulfil their responsibilities towards each other. There is no point in pretending that Government has no role here. Governments can make things better for families. This Government is keen to find out how best to do that.
Tolstoy says at the beginning of Anna Karenina: "All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Later, Arthur Miller said that every family has a secret. And that secret is that they are not like other families. But actually, they are, especially regarding need.
Thatís the message which is emerging from the "Supporting Families" consultation exercise we mounted two years ago, looking at policies which affect children and parents across the board. I believe that the Government should develop policies that give what help parents say they need, when they say they need it. Thatís what we are seeking to do, for example through the Sure Start programme, which offers support and advice to parents of pre-school children through the Working Family Tax Credit, through real increases in child benefit and through the national child care strategy. These things help. Theyíre making a real difference for many, many families around the country.
The Government is developing policies which will help all parents find out where they can get help. So weíre providing funding for the new National Family and Parenting Institution and for Parentline Plus and for other voluntary organisations which support families and parenting. My Department is working on a follow-up document to our 1998 consultation exercise "Supporting Families". I attach a lot of importance to it.
We must recognise peopleís right to act according to their own lights, and their right - itís in the ECHR Ė to respect for their private and family life. But Government cannot duck its responsibilities to help people make a success of parenting. This is essential if we are to achieve our goal of a stronger civil society, offering people more opportunities in life. Parenting is hugely important to creating the kind of society we want to live in.
Part 4: RECONNECTING PEOPLE AND THE DEMOCRATIC DEFICIT
So helping families is vital to sustaining communities and the shared values which hold societies together. But thereís another vital area of work at the grass roots level that needs to be done. Iím talking about getting a major expansion in volunteering Ė in getting people involved in their communities.
Why? Because it will strengthen the bonds between individuals which are the bedrock of a strong civil society. Volunteering brings people together and helps create a sense of citizenship that is often missing from our communities today. In the past volunteers have been undervalued, and insufficiently supported by government policy. People coming together on a voluntary basis to achieve common aims is a key feature of a dynamic democracy.
It empowers people. It can pioneer innovations, be the most effective way of changing things which matter at local level. When people donít just wait for "them" to solve problems. It is rewarding for individuals. It cuts across social trends which isolate and alienate people and is open to all Ė young / old, black / white, man / woman. A strong and fair society depends not just on an effective public sector and a dynamic private sector. It also depends on a healthy and independent sector of voluntary and community organisations. And it depends on that sector because that sector builds and strengthens community life like nothing else can.
Volunteering has strong historical roots in the UK and strong links with my own political tradition Ė self-help organisations, co-operative movements, well developed charitable sector and now single issue pressure groups.
By and large the sector is more highly developed here than in the rest of Europe. But this British tradition needs a new lease of life and a new image.
The Prime Minister has set a target of increasing the number of volunteers substantially by 2004.
How is the Government going to do this? Encouraging the giving of money Ė the "explosion in giving" called for by the Prime Minister Ė putting in place the most favourable fiscal regime in the world for donations to charity. Encouraging the giving of time Ė putting in place a modern machinery for offering volunteering opportunities. Encouraging more partnership between the voluntary and public sectors Ė with new funding streams like the Childrenís Fund and regeneration programmes.
Encouraging older volunteers. As people live longer and healthier lives, we are building up a huge pool of talent and experience from which society can benefit. Many people over 50 have more time at their disposal than younger people juggling the demands of work and families. The Government aims to tap this experience by creating a National Experience Corps. We will make it easier for people to find out what opportunities for volunteering locally are available, and which of these are particularly suited to experienced people.
We will work with the voluntary sector in developing imaginative ways of using the skills and knowledge of mature people to benefit society as a whole. Volunteering is an essential ingredient in the kind of society we want see in 21st Century Britain.
Educating for citizenship
Finally, there is a desperate need to educate for citizenship in this country today. We need awareness raising and education, formal and informal at all levels. The Government is making a good start.
For the first time, education for citizenship will be part of the formal school curriculum, a statutory provision. It will help young people to develop social and moral responsibility Ė learning from an early age the value of respect, tolerance and co-operation. It will teach them about community involvement Ė becoming helpfully involved in the life of their schools and local communities. And it will raise awareness at all levels about the key values which underpin a society based on human rights and responsibilities.
My own Department is doing what it can to help Ė working with experts from inside and outside Government, the Human Rights Task Force. Weíve worked with the Bar Council to produce a major new study guide to understanding what the Human Rights Act is about.
200,000 copies are already on their way to Citizensí Advice Bureaux, advice centres and others. We are making it available on our Home Office website and anyone who wants one can have one. With the help of the Task Force weíve also got out two million copies of a guide for the general public. And my Department has sponsored, with the Department for Education and Employment, 250,000 copies of a special Human Rights edition of the Young Citizens Passport. The Citizenship Foundation are sending these free to 16-year-olds right across England and Wales.
As part of our constitutional reform programme weíre setting up an independent Electoral Commission. The Commission will have a duty - and a budget - to promote voter education. It will educate not just in the narrow sense, of where to vote and how to fill in a ballot paper. But also in the broader sense of educating people about the systems of government which underpin a democratic society.
Action to promote and develop good citizenship is a very high priority for the Prime Minister and the whole of this Government. Our constitutional reforms are designed to break down public cynicism and the terrible decline in confidence weíve seen since the war in the institutions of the state and the political process. But building a strong and successful democracy needs more than the right constitutional framework. It needs participating people.
People like 12-year-old Alex Barry, whose poem about the meaning of the Human Rights Act you may have seen in the morningís papers. It won the national competition we ran to celebrate the launch of the Human Rights Act. Weíve been struggling in the Human Rights Task Force for months trying to crystallise the meaning of the human rights culture.Alex got it in one. Brilliant.
I announced another sort of competition last Autumn for people to come forward with practical ideas about valuing citizenship. There have been quite a few takers since then, Iím delighted to say.
Lord Phillips came up with the idea, amongst others, of a special Human Rights Edition of the Young Citizenís Passport Ė incidentally, if you havenít seen one of these passports yet, it should be on your must read list.
Itís going down really well with young people all over the country. Then thereís Andrew Rowe MPís idea for a Youth Parliament. We are helping fund that with DfEE and DETR. The Home Office and DfEE have also been working together to help the BBC produce a citizenship training package aimed at primary schools. With the Institute for Citizenship, weíre helping provide factual material for young people about voting and elections. And Margaret Moran MP is moving forward with all kinds of cyberspace ideas Ė like her Cyberspace Question Time - and the Luton Cyber Soap Box idea I launched the other month.
Actually, I want to claim some credit for bringing back the soap box as a means of connecting politics and the ordinary voter. Itís not just about elections, you know. For the last 15 years Iíve stood outside Marks and Spencerís in my constituency, Blackburn, doing my bit to bring back a speakerís corner. Iím really pleased that people are now working on a network of 300 speakersí corners up and down the country.
Perhaps thatís enough of Speakerís Corner at St Paulís for one evening. I started off this evening talking about some of the nationís stars who are honoured in this place, especially John Donne - whose five lines on social cohesion sum up five hundred of mine.
As I look around St Paulís this evening I am struck by the challenges these diverse people faced and the values which lay behind their achievement. Ladies and gentlemen, the challenge of today is to take those core values that made us great in the past and put them to work to make this country succeed in the future.
Those values: the equal worth and dignity of all, equal opportunity for all,
mutual dependence, one upon the other, unity in diversity, and constitutional government, answerable to the electorate and subject to the rule of law lie at the very heart of the Human Rights Act.
I believe that the changes we are putting in place today will help liberate our full potential to meet the challenge of global change and create the kind of society most people want for themselves; for their children; and for their childrenís children.
Thank you very much.