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Equality and Human Rights in modern Britain 27 Jan 2009

Trevor Phillips, chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, asks why human rights has such a bad press when it's such a good thing – and talks about the best way to make it work for a better Britain

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The rights and wrongs of Human Rights

"I know my rights", we're often tempted to say. But do we? There are 14 human rights in the Human Rights Act. When read out they seem perfectly sensible. Who could argue against a right to a family life? But somehow, when a case comes to court and the papers get hold of it... things can start looking very different.

In this riveting talk, Trevor Phillips, chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, talks with journalist Kamal Ahmed about the problems of perception and practice.

Part of it is the confusion of the issue with 'Europe', Phillips maintains. Though drafted by British lawyers and reflecting a very British sense of respect, tolerance and fair play, he says, Human Rights are often portrayed as some sort of interference from 'Europe'.

Other pitfalls arise from principles versus practice. Interpreting rights in a situation where limited power and resources have to be distributed – interpreting them politically, that is – can be complex. Do patients have a 'right' to million-pound drugs? Do people have a right to a job or a three-bedroomed house?

The key to understanding the importance of the Human Rights Act, says Phillips, is to consider individual stories. He cites the example of an elderly couple who needed care. The council wanted to split them up 'for their own good'; the couple wanted to remain together. Here, Phillips points out, the Human Rights Act was their only weapon against a council which genuinely thought it was acting correctly. They won their case.

Listen to find out how the Human Rights Act is misunderstood and misused, and how it can be made to work for all of us – and, only half-jokingly, what the Jeremy Kyle show can teach us about it.

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