Labour Conference 2019: 9 Human Rights Takeaways

By Aaron Walawalkar, News and Digital Editor 25 Sep 2019
Credit: YouTube

From abolishing immigration detention centres to enshrining a right to food in law, human rights issues have been high on the agenda at this year’s Labour Party conference.

The Brighton-based conference came to a close on Wednesday (25 September), a day after the Supreme Court ruled that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decision to suspend parliament was unlawful.

As parliament reconvenes and the prospect of a general election becomes ever more likely, here is EachOther‘s rundown of the party’s major policy announcements touching on human rights:

Brexit: Northern Ireland And The EU Charter Of Fundamental Rights

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Image Credit: Pixabay. 

Labour delegates have backed party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s policy on Brexit. This plan would see a Labour government spend up to three months negotiating a new Brexit deal with the EU, which would then be put to the public in a referendum within six months. The other option on the ballot paper would be to remain in the EU.

The party plans to hold a one-day conference to decide whether it would campaign in favour leaving the EU under the terms of its newly negotiated deal or staying in the EU.

By staying in the EU, the UK would presumably retain the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. This contains all the rights that UK citizens are afforded in the separate Convention of Human Rights, and adds in some new ones, such as:

  • A right to physical and mental integrity (including rights around personal data);
  • A right to asylum;
  • A range of social and workers’ rights – including the right to fair working conditions, protection against unjustified dismissal, and access to healthcare, social care, and housing assistance.

In negotiating a deal to leave the EU, Labour has said it would seek to stay in the customs union and have a close alignment to the single market. That would mean the UK would be able to continue trading with the EU without tariffs (taxes on imports) being applied. It is argued this could solve the problem of Irish border – which is feared could undermine the Northern Ireland peace process and undermine human rights abuses.

Right to Food: Halving Food Bank Use In One Year

Labour has pledged to halve food bank usage within its first year in office and enshrine the right to food in UK law by passing a Fair Food Act.

This new law will create a National Food Commission to monitor food insecurity, make recommendations to governments and oversee all aspects of the food system in Britain. In the financial year 2018-2019, the Trussell Trust gave out more than 1.6 million emergency food parcels at food banks across Britain.

The party would also set up a £6m Access to Food Fund to kick start the development of local community food plans in the 50 most food deprived areas of the country.

This money could be used to help set up food markets, community gardens, community shops, and kitchens, or to improve allotment management and educate or train local people on healthy diets, household food management or food cultivation skills.

Sue Hayman MP, Labour’s Shadow Food and Environment Secretary, said: “Food is a basic human right. The next Labour government will introduce a Right to Food in a Fair Food Act. We will make sure no one in the country needs to go hungry.”

Access To Justice: Reversing Legal Aid Cuts

legal aid protestors outside the houses of parliament

Image Credit: Flickr.

Labour’s Shadow Justice Secretary Richard Burgon unveiled a slew of manifesto pledges on Sunday which are aimed at increasing UK citizens’ access to justice. These include:

  • A £20 million fund to create a network of People’s Law Centres, where families can get legal support if faced with poor landlords or unlawful employment practices, among other issues. The number of law centres in the UK has fallen from 63 in 2005 to 40, according to the Law Centres Network.
  • These law centres would be staffed by 200 social welfare lawyers, who would would receive free legal training through an £18m fund.
  • All cuts to legal-aid funded Early Legal Help made since the 2010-2015 Conservative-Lib Dem coalition government will be reversed within the party first 100 days in government. Early legal help is the support people receive from a lawyer before appearing in court.

“When people lack the money or the knowledge to enforce their rights, those rights are not worth the paper they are written on,” he said. “We will put an end to that and ensure that justice serves the people, not just a privileged few.”

The Right To Health: A State-Owned Pharmaceutical Company

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In his speech, Corbyn announced a scheme called “Medicines for the Many”, intended to make life-changing drugs available through the NHS at affordable prices. The steps outlined in this proposal include:

  • Using voluntary and compulsory licences to secure cheaper generic versions of medicines subject to patents – which grant companies the exclusive right to manufacture and sell drugs they have invented – if the patent means the drug cannot be accessed.
  • Create a publicly-owned pharmaceutical company, to manufacture drugs and medicines to sell to the NHS at affordable prices. Profits would be reinvested into research and development of new drugs and fund public health initiatives.
  • Increase the transparency of medicine prices and pharmaceutical companies research and development costs so the NHS can take informed decisions on drug pricing.

Earlier in the conference, the party also announced a pledge to scrap charges for prescribed medicines and increase the number of trainee GPs by 50 percent.

The right to health is protected in the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which the UK signed in 1976. It is a ‘progressively realisable’ right – which means the UK must take steps towards achieving this right to the maximum of its available resources, but recognising that realisation can be hampered by limited resources, and may only be achievable over a period of time.

Environment: ‘Green New Deal’

Climate change protest sign

Image Credit: Unsplash.

Labour has announced a range of proposals aimed at addressing the climate crisis. These include:

  • Committing to slash greenhouse gas emissions to “net zero” by 2030 – 20 years sooner than the target set by the Conservative government, and 15 years sooner than the Liberal Democrats’ pledge.
  • 2.5million interest-free loans of up to £33,000 to allow people to purchase electric cars, aimed at helping the country transition away from reliance on polluting petrol and diesel cars.
  • Planting 1 million trees on NHS land to offset an estimated 11,500 tonnes of carbon per year.

Global heating in inextricably linked to human rights issues, as had been highlighted UN special rapporteur Philip Alston urged in June.

Worker’s Rights: Collective Bargaining And 32-Hour Working Week

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In his conference, shadow chancellor John McDonnell made a number of pledges to which would impact on rights in the workplace, including:

  • Setting a target for the average working week to be cut to 32 hours within 10 years, with “no loss of pay”. Working hours will need to be set out in legally binding agreements between trade unions and employers. Unions and employers will together how best to reduce these hours, it is proposed.
  • The party would keep the UK within the EU’s Working Time Directive, which calls the maximum number of hours people can work in an average week at 48 hours.
  • It would repeal the 2016 Trade Union Act to roll out collective bargaining across the UK’s different sectors. Collective bargaining is where wage rates and conditions are agreed between employees and trade unions, a practice that used to be commonplace in British industry.

Shadow equalities minister Dawn Butler also announced plans to that would force employers to provide flexible hours for women experiencing menopause to end stigma in the workplace.

Universal Basic Services And Free Personal Care

Pixabay Gerald

Image Credit: Pixabay.

The shadow chancellor also announced that a Labour government would make a number of public services and personal social care free at the point of use.

Childcare, public transport for under-25s, and school meals are among services which would be made free, according to the party’s “Universal Services: The Right To A Good Life” policy document. Personal social care includes tasks such as helping older people with getting in and out of bed, bathing, washing, and preparing meals.

Describing the policy document, McDonnell said: “It lays out our belief that everyone has a right to a good life, that the state has responsibility to make good on that right by providing public services free at the point of use.

“As socialists we believe that people have the right to education, health, a home in a decent safe environment and, yes, access to culture and recreation.”

Rights For Migrants

Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre would be shut down by a Labour government. Image Credit: Flickr. 

On the final day of its conference, Labour approved a motion which would see it back the free movement of people and the closure of all immigration detention centres at the next election.

The immigration motion also includes a pledge to “extend equal rights to vote to all UK residents” as well as ending “no recourse to public funds” policies, which people’s access to public services and social security payments based on their immigration status.

It would see Labour repeal the “hostile environment” policies, introduced by former Home Secretary in Theresa May in 2013. These policies have seen the “use of landlords and public service providers as border guards” as well as “restrictions on migrants’ NHS access”, the motion reads.

Education: Abolishing Private Schools

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Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner announced plans to integrate the UK’s system private schools, in which parents must pay fees for their children to attend, and incorporate them into the state school system.

Rayner said that the government would scrap the “tax loopholes” private school enjoy by removing their charitable status, and redistributing their endowments, investments and properties.

However, it has been argued that this policy could violate Article 2 of the first protocol of Convention on Human Rights – which guarantees parents the right to “Parents also have a right to ensure that their religious and philosophical beliefs are respected during their children’s education”.

Julie Robinson, chief executive of the Independent Schools Council, told The Guardian: “Tearing down excellent schools does not improve our education system. The repercussions would be irreversible and far-reaching, damaging educational opportunities and limiting life chances.

“Moreover, Labour’s plan would breach the European Convention on Human Rights on the right to choose education.”

Featured Image Credit: Official Jeremy Corbyn Channel / YouTube. 

About The Author

Aaron Walawalkar News and Digital Editor

Aaron is an NCTJ-accredited multimedia journalist focussing on human rights. His extensive reporting on rough sleeping in east London has been nominated for multiple awards. He has worked for regional and national newspapers and produced illustrations, infographics and videos for humanitarian organisation RedR UK.

Aaron is an NCTJ-accredited multimedia journalist focussing on human rights. His extensive reporting on rough sleeping in east London has been nominated for multiple awards. He has worked for regional and national newspapers and produced illustrations, infographics and videos for humanitarian organisation RedR UK.