GPs must stand up against erosion of human rights and inequality, says Liberty director

General practice should use its trusted position in society to stand up against inequality and the erosion of human rights, Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti told the RCGP annual conference on Friday.

Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti
Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti

The campaigning lawyer used her keynote speech at the RCGP annual conference 2015 in Glasgow to hit out at government plans to replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights.

She pointed to concerns with the sharing of GP patient records for research and other purposes, making clear that GPs are 'perfectly within your rights' to tell patients they can opt out of sharing data.

Watch the full speech on video here

She told GPs they did not have to be party political to have concerns about the erosion of human rights, in speech that prompted most of the hall to rise for a standing ovation.

Ms Chakrabarti told the conference: 'To people who say privacy doesn’t matter and it’s a bourgeois luxury like net curtains - I say life without privacy would be a life without intimacy, or dignity, or trust between people.

GP-patient confidentiality

'You as GPs know how important patient confidentiality is, and without it how would you enjoy the sacred trust you have in consulting rooms. Of course there’s been massive debate about the secondary use of patient data. A balance has to be struck, between research and effective health provision and that trust.'

Responding to a GP in the audience who raised concerns about pressure on practices to share patient data, Ms Chakrabarti said: 'You should not be guilted into anything.'

She said that - like GP organisations - she believed patients should have to opt in to having their data shared, rather than see the data used automatically unless they opt out.

'You are supposed to hand over data to be used for secondary purposes. You can have the debate about whether the purposes are proportionate or not, but they weren’t the purposes for which the data was given. You are perfectly within your rights to tell your patients that they can opt out. Any agency that then wants to take the data can then be resisted because your patient has dissented.'

Health inequality

Asked about what GPs could do to tackle health inequalities, she said: 'Inequality is everywhere and it is chronic. This college and other professionals have an ethical duty to speak up about their experiences. They have a duty to reflect on the divided country they live in. I hope this college will form policy at its council on the Human Rights Act. You have a trusted voice and should not be afraid to use it.'

The Liberty director said the govenment had talked about 'removing human rights for trivial cases'. 'I wonder what that means. Perhaps Rosa Parks should have gone to the back of the bus. What was her problem?'

Quoting former UK supreme court president Lord Bingham, who she called 'perhaps the greatest jurist of our times', Ms Chakrabarti said of plans to remove the Human Rights Act: 'Which of these rights would you wish to discard? Are any of them unnecessary, superfluous, un-British? There may be some who wish to live in a country where these are not protected but I am not of their number.'

Photo: Gevi Dimitrak

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