How did you first come across human rights?
Working with immigration and asylum issues. People faced not only human rights abuses in the countries from which they were fleeing but also breaches of their human rights in their treatment here. My first job, after a law degree and a masters in politics at the University of California Riverside, was working for Greville Janner MP in the early 1990s. I did both research and casework. I used to drive with him up to his constituency in Leicester for his Saturday surgeries. He had many asylum and immigration cases.
What was your next job?
I went on to work as a Parliamentary Lobbyist for what is now called Citizens Advice. Much of my work related to what I would now think of as human rights though, at the time, we did not use that language. After a period of this, I decided that I wanted to be a barrister specialising in asylum and immigration cases.
So you took the Bar Vocational Course?
Yes. At the Inns of Court Law School. I knew exactly what I wanted to do and I had relevant experience. That was of enormous assistance in getting me pupillages in two good sets of chambers.
Did you stay on at the Bar after pupillage?
Yes. I stayed on after my pupillage as a squatter for a short time. I had started taking cases in my second six months. I was completely horrified at some of the solicitors. Some of their work was really shoddy. I would find that I was the first person to whom the client had had the opportunity to tell their story – and I would meet them only right before the hearing. After a couple of months or so, I got a tenancy at 1 Pump Court where we built up an immigration and asylum team. I was there when the Human Rights Act came in and we gave one of the first seminars for solicitors on its implications. I stayed for a couple of years and then decided that the law was not really for me. I felt frustrated acting for individuals and not being able to address the problems in the system. Having had previous experience of that, I wanted to do more. To give myself a break, I took a year off and went travelling in India, Nepal and South America.
And on your return from your gap year?
I wanted to get back to charities. I worked first for the Child Action Protection Trust and then went to Age Concern first as lobbyist and as campaigns and Parliamentary manager for four years. I kept up my interest in immigration and asylum and, in a voluntary capacity, chaired Asylum Aid and Bail for Immigration Detainees.
And from Age Concern you came to the British Institute of Human Rights?
Yes. I just thought it was a fantastic opportunity to combine my different skills and experience.
Tell me about BIHR.
We have an overall mission to bring human rights to life for everyone in the United Kingdom. For individuals, this means actually them the knowledge and practical support to claim their rights. For organisations, it means helping them to use the human rights’ ideas and practice to do what they are doing better. It is about the application of human rights ideas to achieve a better society.
What are your current aims?
First, to change the terms of the debate about human rights and to broaden acceptance of the idea beyond a set of specific civil or political rights enshrined in law. Second, to build the capacity of other organisations to develop human rights based approaches and methods by which they put human rights into practice. Third, to lock this broader version of human rights into public policy. It is absolutely necessary at the highest level that policy incorporates human rights’ principles.
And how do you achieve them?
We produce information aimed at individuals – guides, leaflets, fact sheets, reports, that sort of thing. We undertake consultancy and training. We go in and provide organisations with whatever support they need – whether it is consultancy, training or facilitation of some kind. We undertake policy analysis, research and demonstration projects – like the health project where we are in partnership with the Department of Health and five health trusts to show how human rights can working a health context.
Where do you think we are in terms of debate on human rights?
At the bottom of the mountain. In society at large, there is a fundamental misunderstanding about what human rights are and the values they represent. We are seeing what we can do to give people – like, for example, carers – information about a human rights approach so that people see its relevance and how it can help them. But it will take time for human rights – as it did earlier for equalities.
But you are optimistic?
Yes. In my experience, people have a real appetite to learn more and to use an understanding of human rights in their day-to-day life.
Katie was appointed Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society in August 2010.