In their rage against the Evil Tories, activists are in danger of expanding the definition of “human rights” so far that the term loses all meaning
Last month, a ruling was handed down by a High Court judge. It barely received a ripple of attention in the media at the time, but it has potentially profound implications for our country and the ability of our elected governments to make policy.
In a stunning act of judicial activism masquerading as enlightened compassion, Justice Collins held that by implementing the welfare cap pledged in their manifesto, the Conservative government is actively discriminating against disabled people who might rely on the help of carers – other people – hit by the benefit cap.
The Guardian reports:
The welfare secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, unlawfully discriminated against disabled people by failing to exempt their carers from the benefit cap, a high court judge has ruled.
Mr Justice Collins said the government’s decision to apply the cap to full-time carers for adult relatives had created serious financial hardship for them, forced many to give up caring for loved ones, and loaded extra costs on to the NHS and care services.
The benefit cap, which limits working-age unemployed people to £500 a week in benefits, was introduced by the government on the basis that it sent a strong message to so-called workless families that they had to try harder to get a job.
The court ruled that the two carers who brought the case – and who were caring for upwards of 35 hours a week – were effectively in work even though they were in receipt of benefits, and therefore should be exempt from the cap.
Clearly the government should not have used the word “workless” and referred instead to “families without employment”. Of course caring for someone with illness or disability is work, though not employment. But a failure of semantics is hardly sufficient reason to overturn a flagship government policy, as Justice Collins seems to advocate:
Collins ruled that by applying the cap to unpaid family carers the secretary of state had unlawfully discriminated against seriously disabled people, because it meant they would no longer receive care from a trusted family member or relation.
He said: “For many it matters deeply that they are cared for by a family member. Thus there is adverse treatment since, although care can be provided by others, the loss of a trusted carer can be devastating”.
This ruling is but one small part of a wider programme of judicial activism which has seen the government found by our own Supreme Court to be in breach of international human rights obligations, has seen Britain investigated by the United Nations on the ludicrous suspicion of institutional domestic human rights abuses, and which establishes a truly terrible precedent in law. With this ruling, the government can theoretically be held liable for violating the human rights of Person A simply by enacting a policy that adversely impacts Person B.
Thus our so-called human rights now extend to the people around us, and a harm inflicted on any one of them is a harm inflicted on us. Not only is every citizen already surrounded by an ever-expanding protective bubble of their own “human rights” (including such imaginary leaps as the right of foreign criminals to a “family life” while serving a prison sentence), now that bubble theoretically extends to anybody associated with them in a caring capacity.
Let’s be clear – making somebody worse off financially is not a breach of their human rights, let alone the human rights of somebody else for whom they act as carer. It may be bad policy. It may be mean spirited. It may be short sighted or have any number of other flaws as a piece of social policy. But to call it a breach of a person’s human rights is an extraordinary over-stepping of the mark. Discrimination means treating somebody differently because of an inherent characteristic, but activists are now crying “discrimination!” when the government fails to treat people sufficiently differently.
These attempts by the Left to weaponise the issue of human rights must be fiercely resisted. If human rights are to mean anything, they must be primal, sacrosanct and indivisible. It is hard to express those universal rights any better than the signatories of the US Declaration of Independence, who referred to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. Life and liberty in particular are crystal clear, and the state should have no power to infringe upon these rights except in the gravest of circumstances (usually as punishment after being found guilty of committing a crime).
But the American founding fathers were also quite clear that there is no human right to be happy, or to live a carefree, comfortable life. There is only the right to pursue happiness. This properly reflects the fact that one person’s idea of happiness may be quite different to another’s, and that proper government becomes impossible when the state is continually forced to adjudicate between competing claims of infringement on happiness.
Indeed, the difficulty comes when activists and pandering politicians try to drill down from these lofty principles in a control-freakish attempt to ensure equality of outcome for all. We are all different, and require different social and environmental factors in order to be happy and free.
For some people, their inability to express certain outdated or bigoted views for fear of police harassment or prosecution is a gross infringement on their liberty to hold and express personal thoughts and beliefs. But for other sensitive souls, the mere possibility that they might encounter such unpalatable opinions in the real world – and the belief that unpleasant words heard are somehow comparable to physical harm inflicted – infringes on their own happiness and liberty.
This puts the government in the impossible situation of having to pick winners. Does one person’s human right to live life offence-free trump another’s right to freely express their own thoughts? Does the right of some people to enjoy new public infrastructure trump another’s right to peaceably enjoy their own property without having it seized, built over or spoiled? Does the right of a foreign criminal to maintain links with their UK-based family trump society’s right to deport foreign nationals convicted of a crime on the grounds of cost and public safety?
We live in an imperfect world and so long as we maintain our current expansionist view of human rights, such tough calls will always exist, regardless of who holds power. The best that any government can do – to avoid becoming bogged down in endless competing claims for favouritism – is to remain as neutral as possible and stick to enforcing only the most core human rights.
And let us remember that it is quite possible to establish various additional rights and principles to protect the vulnerable – enshrined either in law or through codes of practice – without elevating every single claim to the level of an “human right”.
For example, as a society, we may well want to establish a duty on large businesses or government departments to spare no expense in accommodating the accessibility requirements of the severely disabled. But if an organisation happens to fall short of the required standards, is it really right that they are sued according to the same laws that govern torture, detention without charge or war crimes?
Consider the London Underground, the world’s oldest underground metro system. Because of its age, the vast majority of the Tube network does not conform to modern accessibility standards, and could not quickly be brought up to standard without exorbitant, prohibitive cost. Of course this is hugely unfair to those with mobility impairments, as they are unable to avail themselves of the full range of London transport options. But to call it an infringement of their human rights is wildly excessive, and something of an insult to the millions of people living in more benighted parts of the world whose fundamental rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are routinely trampled.
In the information age, and with the growth of social media, it is easier than ever to identify businesses, organisations and government agencies which fall short of their responsibility to provide accessible services for all, and to apply pressure on them to raise their performance. One trending Twitter hashtag, coined in outrage at the insensitivity of an organisation, now has the potential to achieve more far-reaching change than any judgement handed down in Strasbourg.
But we absolutely can not continue to abide the corrosive idea that government policies should be struck down if they impact differently on different citizens. Because nearly every government policy will, by definition, impact different groups in different ways.
Spending more money on roads penalises those who walk or use public transport. Spending more money on pensions penalises those people of working age who will inevitably receive a less generous settlement when they retire. Spending more money on education penalises those currently in retirement. Enacting tougher prison sentences for criminals penalises people from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds who are more likely to end up in court. Government funding of research into cures for disease A penalises sufferers of disease B.
Where does it end? By clinging to the notion that individual government policies must never be disadvantageous to anybody, ever, we render ourselves ungovernable. We descend from being a cohesive society into a splintered and warring coalition of special interest groups, each jealously guarding their own perks and privileges at the expense of all others.
Government spending disproportionately benefits those who are not economically self sufficient. That much is obvious and unavoidable – rich people either do not or cannot claim the benefits on which poor people rely. And the fact that wealthier citizens support their less fortunate compatriots with their taxes is part of the social compact we make in order to maintain our inclusive society.
But to suggest that cutting government spending infringes on the “human rights” of the recipients is utterly abhorrent, even immoral, because it effectively enshrines a formal, limitless claim on the labour and earnings of the economically productive by the non-productive. It says that by refusing to fund government services with ever increasing taxes until the wishes of every welfare recipient are fully satisfied is to violate their human rights, to effectively inhabit the same low category as torturers and dictators.
It’s hard to know who comes out of this whole sorry affair looking worse – the disability rights activists, who have somehow managed to turn what should be a principled and laudable campaign into a grubby and petulant sulk, or the United Nations, which once again debases and undermines itself by treating the United Kingdom – of all countries – like some kind of rogue state.
It is perfectly possible to disagree with this Conservative government calmly and rationally. It is perfectly possible to advance the case that government spending restraint, the “bedroom tax” and welfare reforms are bad policy. But to claim that they infringe anyone’s human rights is a grotesque exaggeration that should be laughed out of town, not treated seriously and earnestly investigated by the UN.
Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness: these inalienable, indivisible rights have served us well for centuries – and not only in the United States of America. Generations of campaigners before us were able to argue for (and win) the abolition of slavery, universal suffrage and civil rights protection with reference to these noble aims. And they would be appalled at the modern-day assertion that we should obsess over whether each and every government spending decision has been carefully calibrated to benefit us personally, rightly viewing this as a condescending attack on our liberty and autonomy as free citizens.
If human rights are to mean anything at all, we must stop trying to invoke them every time the government does something with which we disagree, or whenever we have a less than wholly successful interaction with a business or government agency. Human rights violations are real. Even today, while puffed up social justice warriors in the UK write furious screeds accusing Iain Duncan Smith of human rights abuses, people in other countries are being imprisoned, tortured, spied upon, maimed and executed. Babies with entirely survivable conditions and disabilities are being killed, or aborted before they are even born.
If we really cannot find a way to discuss the human consequences of shrinking the state without resorting to shrieking about supposed human rights abuses then truly, we are suffering from a grievous failure of empathy and imagination as a country.
And that’s the real crime.
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In this very specific case, not too sure this argument really holds as much water as it could, though you make an interesting point.
Will have to read it through when I’m a little more in the right frame of mind, tho’.
I think we’re in real danger of inflating away our core liberties by establishing so many super detailed individual human rights that eventually they will start contradicting one another to such an extent that the whole edifice comes tumbling down.
It also concerns me that we feel the need to look beyond our own borders for external adjudication on whether or not human rights have been breached. It tells of a lack of trust in our own leaders and institutions which we should work to fix, rather than circumvent.