The singer in the prison cell

Observations on human rights

Human rights, which are now so exciting both government and opposition, to say nothing of the lawyers, are funny things: there is nothing quite like them for making life wretched. The other day, in the prison in which I work, I discovered a man who, mentally disturbed, was making a terrible racket. He was singing at the top of his very loud voice, and he was banging on the door of his cell so that the entire building shook. The noise was far louder than any that would be permitted in an industrial establishment. It was the kind that drives you to distraction immediately; he had been at it for a day and a half, night and day.

The man was clearly unwell, but refused all medication to calm him. The prison officers were at their wits' end, and the other prisoners nearby were suffering sleepless nights. The question naturally arose of treating him against his will, by injecting him with a tranquilliser, both for his own sake and for the sake of all those around him. But human rights, as the law stands, forbade it. They require that no one may be treated against his will in prison, except in cases of dire emergency, but must first be transferred to a hospital. Alas, this was not a dire emergency, and there were no hospital beds to which to transfer him, at least in less than a few weeks or months.

In the name of human rights, therefore, both prisoners and prison officers had to endure what most people would find unendurable. And even the person supposedly enjoying the exercise of his rights was not benefiting by it: not only might he eventually exhaust himself, but he might fracture the bones of his hands, arms or legs against the door that he was striking with such ferocity. I have seen this happen more than once.

Furthermore, one could foresee that a prisoner, or even a prison officer, might take legal action against the prison for having made him endure such intolerable conditions. There is the matter of health and safety, the vengeful twin deities of our age. Surely, any noise that leaves you with tinnitus for a time must be injurious?

The conception of human rights under which this prisoner could not be treated against his will would have been all right if all men were islands, entire of themselves: if they were isolated inhabitants of rocks, to be precise, in the Outer Hebrides, each with no connection to any other. But this is not how men live.

I telephoned a lawyer. Was there anything I could do about this man? He said I should take such practical measures as I could to reduce the noise. What did he suggest? A padded cell? Padded cells have been outlawed - as an infringement of human rights.

This article first appeared in the 30 August 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Bush, the working class hero

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.