Les Allamby: why human rights matter

27 Oct 2014 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 6 Nov 2014

Northern Ireland’s latest Human Rights Commissioner
Les Allamby, Northern Ireland’s latest Human Rights Commissioner

Les Allamby had been in post a few days when David Cameron set his party on a course that could plunge Northern Ireland into a constitutional crisis with Allamby's office at its centre.

Yet when Scope caught up with him to discuss the challenges he faces as Northern Ireland’s latest Human Rights Commissioner, he didn’t seem the least bit phased.

The Conservatives, aided and abetted by the Daily Mail with stories like this have been getting increasingly restless about the European Court of Human Rights – and this disquiet came to a head when the court ruled that the British government could not put a blanket ban on prisoners voting in elections.

So if re-elected the Tories plan to introduce a Bill of Rights that would include within it all the clauses of the European Convention on Human Rights but the supreme authority over it would be the British Parliament and not the European Court. If the Council of Europe does not agree to this, they would lead Britain out of the convention altogether.

Allamby said: “This is playing for very high stakes. What they are after is a sort of pick and mix approach to the convention and the chances of the Council of Europe agreeing to it are somewhere between nil and negligible. After all if Britain were to take this approach, what would stop others? Russia, for example would be delighted to take the same route.”

“And if Britain were to withdraw it would place it in a difficult position, reducing its international influence – the only country to have done this before was Greece after the Colonel’s coup in the 1970s.”

But here, in Northern Ireland withdrawal would cause a difficult dilemma: the Good Friday Agreement, which is a binding international treaty signed by both the British and Irish governments commits Northern Ireland to adopting its own Bill of Rights, based on the convention and supplemented by additional clauses that the particular situation here demands.

And so if Britain were to withdraw, a key element of the agreement would be under threat, casting further doubts over a Bill of Rights here, progress on which is currently at stalemate.

All that is for the future, if and when the Conservatives form the next government.

For now Allamby is getting his feet under the desk after 30 years at the Law Centre where he built a reputation as a tenacious advocate for the disadvantaged using his legal skills to take on the authorities: bringing some cases, ironically in the current context, as far as the European Court of Human Rights.

So why take on this role now and why do human rights matter?

He said: “My career has been about trying to enhance and assist people to access their rights particularly those who are disadvantaged whether it be financial, health, disability, or what happened to them in another country.

“Rights are really important because my experience is that the people who are most trenchantly against human rights are those who have access to power and influence and unless you have a universal approach those without power and influence lose out and when it comes to difficult circumstances like those we are currently facing with the financial crisis it is disadvantaged groups who will find it much more of a struggle than those with influence and power.

So a belief in fairness and equality and rights sit together.”

He is passionate about this and is angered by the way that what he calls the “social security debate” has been twisted.

“I find this notion that some people are welfare dependent and that there is somehow a deserving and undeserving poor offensive,” he said. “If you go to school or of you use a hospital nobody describes you as welfare dependent, so why should we use that phrase regarding carers, or pensioners or people who are reliant on benefits?”

“We are part of a broader society than that.”

So we can expect Allamby to bring his knowledge and passion for social and economic rights into his new office. But is that really what the Human Rights Commissioner is for? And why has there been so much recent focus on health issues, with the recent care homes inquiry, and the current one on hospital A&E Services? Aren’t there more pressing items in Northern Ireland to do with civil liberties? Is the Commission shying away from these areas?

He is not having that. “I don’t accept that charge. In the recent past we produced analyses on parading and on flags and put forward evidence to Haas on dealing with the past."

Currently the Commission is undertaking a piece of work using a human rights framework to look at demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration of victims and ex combatants. This is part of the broader issue of the past: looking at both victims and those involved in the conflict: a very difficult and sensitive question. So no. Absolutely not. We’re not shying away.”

“Yet social and economic rights are really important and I make no apologies for our involvement in those areas and I am comfortable with the work I have inherited. It is important to look at how you can make human rights provide a contribution to how you develop policies and services."

He is excited about the work being undertaken to look at the A&E services. This is a wide-ranging piece of work looking at the whole system, including community care both before and after admission, and how the GPs out of hours and the minor injury units work.

The starting point for it is the right people have to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health subject to available resources and included within that are such issues as the right of patients to involvement in treatment, privacy, dignity, and accountability of the authorities.

He said: "It has been really interesting. In our hearings many of the medical professionals are telling us that these rights are implicit to the service they provide. The challenge is to make them explicit, which does not seem too great a leap, and then to provide a human rights framework that will help guide policy and services into the future.”

If this were to be adopted patients would know exactly what they could expect and all staff would have clarity on the standards to be applied to care.

Allamby is very well known both within the third sector and government. He is regarded as a charming, articulate and persuasive man. He is also relentless in pursuit of the cases he takes up. He’s going to need all those qualities in one of Northern Ireland’s most sensitive and difficult offices.

In the next issue of Scope we will examine where the Bill of Rights now stands and what the chances are that this element, regarded by many as central to the Good Friday Agreement, will ever make it on to the statute books

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