It is ten years since the Human Rights Act entered the statute books. To commemorate the anniversary, the campaigning organization Liberty has commissioned ComRes to undertake a poll of public attitudes to human rights. Fieldwork was conducted by telephone between 24 and 26 September 2010 among a sample of 1,000 adults aged 18 and over. The results of this survey appear at:
Respondents were asked about the importance of particular rights in modern Britain. 85% said that it was vital or important to protect freedom of thought, conscience and religion, against 6% who deemed it unnecessary (including, surprisingly, 12% of 18-24 year olds). The highest level of support (90%) was found among those aged 45-54 and the AB socio-economic group.
However, freedom of thought, conscience and religion was not as highly valued as the right to a fair trial (95%), respect for privacy, family life and the home (94%), the protection of property (94%), and the right not to be tortured or degraded (91%). In terms of being vital or important, it was somewhat more prized than freedom of speech, protest and association (84%) and the right not to be detained without reason (81%).
The problem with this survey is that interviewees were not asked to prioritize, or choose between, individual freedoms. From this perspective, it is instructive to look at a Pew Global study in April-May 2007 which asked its sample of Britons which freedom mattered most to them in their personal lives. Even combining first and second choices, only 18% elected for freedom to practice their religion, a long way behind freedom to say whatever they wanted in public (40%), freedom from hunger and poverty (68%), and freedom from crime and violence (71%).
People also have qualified views about the importance of protecting religious freedoms in practice. In the 2008-09 Citizenship Survey of England and Wales 26% actually criticized the Government for doing too much to protect the rights of different religions, with 39% saying it was doing the correct amount and 27% too little. Those aged 16-24 (34%) and UK-born Asians and blacks, Muslims and black Caribbean Christians (more than two-fifths in each case) were most likely to contend that Government was not doing enough.
Churchgoing Christians are also becoming concerned that their rights are being undermined by Government policies and judgments in test legal cases. In a ComRes poll of them in December 2009-January 2010 70% agreed that the Human Rights Act’s protection for freedom of thought, conscience and religion needed more active support from politicians. 44% claimed to know somebody who had been discriminated against on the basis of religion.
Two other ComRes surveys from February 2010, in this instance among the general public, confirmed that the picture on the ground was not as rosy as could be wished. One found that 32% thought that religious freedoms in Britain had been restricted over the past ten years, the other that 44% detected Britain was becoming less tolerant of religion.
Of course, in reality, attitudes in these matters are shaped by personal prejudices and day-to-day experiences. Thus, in the 2008 British Social Attitudes Survey 69% agreed that we should respect all religions but 13% disagreed. More worryingly, only one-half wanted all religious groups in Britain to be accorded equal rights and 23% were opposed. Islamophobia doubtless accounts for many of these reservations.