ON Monday afternoon, in a simple ceremony at the Merchant Taylors' Hall, Lord Mayor Dave Taylor will sign a declaration proclaiming York to be the UK's first Human Rights City.
It is a pledge that will commit the city's people to 'treating everyone equally, with fairness, dignity and respect', he says.
Nothing too controversial about that. But is it really necessary? The UK is, after all, signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights, which already guarantees UK citizens the right to life, liberty and security, freedom of speech and a fair trial, amongst other things. The Convention also bans torture, slavery and forced labour.
What can signing a declaration in York possibly add to that?
Well, it is still not exactly clear how leaving the EU will affect things, for a start.
And even assuming that human rights do remain firmly enshrined in UK law - as they surely will - they remain at risk, says Prof Paul Gready of the centre for Applied Human Rights at the University of York. Not from dictatorship or oppression, but from apathy and impatience.
"They are under threat not only because they are inconvenient to politicians or criticised in the press, but because human rights no longer capture the public imagination," he says. "Members of the public see human rights as irrelevant, remote or even hostile to their interests."
Paul Gready: human rights are too often seen as irrelevant, he says
You can see that in the growing intolerance towards migrants and refugees; and in the impatience and even anger that sometimes greets complaints about how austerity is affecting people with disabilities, or disadvantaged families, or single parents.
When times are difficult, money is scarce and the future uncertain, it is unsurprising that we become less tolerant, says Dr Marilyn Crawshaw, a member of the steering committee of the York Human Rights City Network. "Championing human rights is perhaps never more important than in uncertain times when the potential to scapegoat, blame and marginalise others is greater than ever," she says.
Perhaps the real value of York declaring itself a Human Rights City, however, is that it enables us to focus on local issues and how they affect local people. Because when you really start to look at the way we live now, right here in York, the levels of inequality and unfairness that we seem prepared to turn a blind eye to are quite shocking.
How can it be right, for example, that if you are born in Westfield ward, you are likely to die eight years earlier than if you are born in Heworth Without?
Or that a child from a less well-off family in York who qualifies for free school meals is 34 per cent less likely to get five or more decent GCSEs than a child from a better-off York family who doesn't qualify for free school meals? Can we honestly be said to be protecting the human rights of York people while such inequalities are allowed to continue?
Education is a basic right: but some children get better schooling than others
"Such statistics are a challenge to us all and we hope as a Human Rights City we will not only highlight such challenges but also focus on finding solutions," says Dr Crawshaw.
"Human rights are often associated mainly with atrocities beyond these shores – abuses in war zones; repression of freedom of expression in dictatorships; trafficking of vulnerable refugees, sex workers and the like. But they’re of real value here and now within the UK whether in highlighting abuses in hospitals and care homes, pursuing justice for such as the Hillsborough victims, fighting modern slavery, or challenging the closure of Bootham Hospital here in York leading to people going miles away for treatment."
The steering group of the York Human Rights City Network includes City of York Council, York CVS, North Yorkshire Police, the York Citizens Advice Bureau and other organisations, all of which are pledged to putting the human rights of York people at the forefront of what they do.
Demonstrators protest about the closure of Bootham Hospital: a decision a human rights city could perhaps have challenged
Much has already been achieved, Dr Crawshaw says.
"We’ve helped North Yorkshire Police with research on hate crime and on using a human rights framework in bail reporting," she says.
"We’ve helped secondary schools across the city run human rights sessions and worked with their students to develop social action projects (and) we’ve worked alongside the British Institute for Human Rights in providing training sessions for City of York council staff, and for staff and volunteers in the voluntary sector."
Perhaps one of the most important achievements, however, has been to develop a series of 'indicators' by which to measure York's progress on human rights.
Following a series of surveys, street interviews and focus groups in which the people of York were asked to identify which human rights mattered to them most directly, five priorities were identified: education, health, housing, standard of living and equality (including non-discrimination).
Each year, York's performance in each of these areas will be assessed, using publicly available data, and published in a report.
York: a beautiful city, but not perfect. Now our progress on a series of key human rights will be monitored annually
The first of these, published last December, revealed huge gaps in income, life expectancy and educational attainment - as well as a worrying rise in hate crime (see panel below).
But at least, by publishing the report each year, it will be possible to hold agencies to account, says Dr Crawford.
"Every year a new report will come out, and we'll be able to go back, each year, to those responsible and say 'why hasn't this improved?'"
In short, declaring York to be the UK's first Human Rights City doesn't mean we think we're getting everything right.
"It is a marker of intent, an invitation to join us, and a reaffirmation of hope for a positive future," says Prof Gready. "(And) our hope is that as so often in the past York will set a trend that others in the U.K. will follow."
It is surely right that York - the home of Seebohm Rowntree, whose groundbreaking work on poverty 100 years ago helped paved the way for the modern welfare state - should be the city flying the UK flag for human rights in this way...
Smiling down: Seebohm Rowntree would surely have been pleased at seeing York become the UK's first Human Rights City
HOW YORK IS DOING ON HUMAN RIGHTS
The 2016 York Human Rights Indicator Baseline Report, published last December, looked at how York was doing in five areas of everyday life. This is what it found:
Children from less well-off York families who qualify for free school meals are 34 per cent less likely to get 5 good GCSEs than children from better off families.
Last year, 283 young York people (5.2 per cent of 16-19 year-olds) were not in either education, employment, or some kind of training. Although below the national average, this had increased slightly from previous years
Standard of Living
Child poverty is far higher in some parts of York than others. In Westfield, more than 30 per cent of all children live in poverty, while in Derwent it is less than 5 per cent.
The high cost of housing in York is adding to child poverty in the city.
Despite the high cost of housing, there is evidence that in the last couple of years, the number of York families declared 'statutorily homeless' and placed in temporary accommodation has been falling - down from 80 in 2013/14 to 56 in 2015/16. This, however, is 'not by itself able to tell us how great the need for adequate housing is,' stresses the report
Health and social care
There is a huge difference in life expectancy depending on which part of York you were born in. If you are born in Westfield, your life expectancy is 77-78. If you are born in Heworth Without, meanwhile, it is 85.
Equality and non-discrimination
Hate crime in York is rising - up from 98 cases recorded by police in 2013/14 to 140 cases in 2015/16.
WHAT THEY SAY
Here are some comments on what people think of York becoming the UK's first Human Rights City:
Lord Mayor Dave Taylor: "Declaring York as the first Human Rights City in the UK means the people of York have pledged that treating everyone equally, with fairness, dignity and respect is important to them and that they want the city to continue to work towards this objective.
"I am delighted to be part of this event celebrating the commitment that the city has to the fundamental freedoms and rights of its residents."
Prof Paul Gready, director, Centre of Applied Human Rights, University of York: "A Human Rights City requires commitment from key participants, including local government and different political parties, statutory agencies like the police, and a wide range of civil society groups. The approach seeks to (use) human rights to address local, everyday priorities - such as education and housing - and highlight positive stories as well as areas needing improvement. York is an ideal city to start with - drawing on a long history of social justice activism, an international outlook and a willingness to innovate."
Stephen Lee Hodgkins, York Independent Living Network: "Human rights are important to all people because ...the very idea ...specifically enables access for disabled people to be able to participate and contribute as ‘equals' and not ‘others'."
Carole Zagrovic, York Carers Centre: "For many unpaid carers, often themselves elderly and frail, lonely and isolated, providing long-term care to a loved one leads to them suffering from both mental and physical health problems. Their right to health is protected through human rights conventions and York Carers Centre supports that right. As York becomes a Human Rights city, our work will be strengthened."
- To find out more about York as a Human Rights City, visit www.yhrcn.org/