Meaning of ‘Public Authority’
The passing of the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) was a clear example of the Government’s desire to develop a culture of respect for human rights in the UK, to complement and take further a range of equality and anti-discrimination legislation already in place and being developed.
The HRA is essentially a contract between the individual and the State, protecting the individual from abuses by the State, and enshrining certain ‘positive’ individual rights. In the context of public services, the HRA is of great importance for the protection of the rights of service users. However, only a narrow range of service providers are deemed by British courts to be public authorities, and it is only those with public authority status who are bound by the HRA.
In practice, this means that ‘pure’ public authorities, such as government departments, the police, NHS Trusts, local authorities and so on are covered by the HRA – and so service users have recourse to legal action should their human rights be breached by their service provider. However, a feature of contemporary Britain is the increasing marketisation of public services, with many and varied services, from housing to after-school clubs, from social care services to welfare and employment services, being contracted out to private and third sector providers. This means that increasing numbers of service users are left at a lottery as to whether they are covered by the HRA or not.
A particular feature of the Government’s policy of contracting out public services is the inclusion of religious, often highly evangelical, organisations as service providers. We think there are real risks that religious service providers in particular may wish to infringe on the rights of service users.
See Public Service Reform for more information about our public services campaign.
Read our report “Quality and Equality: Human Rights, Public Services and Religious Organisations“ for our position on the contracting out of public services to religious organisations, and for a detailed discussion and analysis of the Human Rights Act and the Meaning of Public Authority.
Amendments to the law are needed to ensure that all those organisations contracted to provide public services on behalf of the state are considered to be ‘public authorities’ in the context of the Human Rights Act 1998.
What are we doing?
We supported an amendment in the Health and Social Care Bill in 2008, which aims to close the gap in human rights protection in the area of health and social care by ensuring that contracted providers are bound by the Human Rights Act 1998.
We are continuing to campaign for changes to the law to ensure that all contracted providers of public services are bound by the Human Rights Act 1998.
We are also looking at the Government’s procurement processes, to see in what ways they could be reformed to ensure, pending changes to the legislation, that they promote human rights as far as possible.
How can you help?
Tell the BHA if your local authority contracts with religious organisations to provide public services in your area.
You can support the BHA by becoming a member. That helps in itself, and you can help even more by supporting our campaigns in the ways suggested above. But campaigns also cost money – quite a lot of money – and we also need financial support. You can make a donation to the BHA.