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Olivia Colman backs social housing campaign as UK human rights ‘under threat’

Amnesty has launched a short film based on the real-life experiences of a young mother whose baby died.

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Olivia Colman and Adrian Lester appear in a short film for Amnesty (ShapeHistory/PA)

The Crown star Olivia Colman has warned human rights in the UK are under threat as she appeared in a short film about the plight of a young mother whose baby died due to poor social housing conditions.

The Amnesty International UK ambassador said human rights violations are “happening right on our doorstep” as she backed the organisation’s campaign highlighting the “broken housing system”.

The death in December 2020 of Awaab Ishak, who suffered from a respiratory condition caused by prolonged exposure to mould at his housing association flat in Rochdale, Greater Manchester, caused outrage and calls for change.

It prompted the passage of Awaab’s Law last year as part of the Social Housing Act, which requires landlords to fix reported hazards in social housing, such as mould, in a “timely fashion” or rehouse tenants in safe accommodation.

Amnesty referred to a report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for households in temporary accommodation, published in January last year, which said there had been 34 cases of children who died between April 2019 and the end of March 2022 where homelessness and temporary accommodation were recorded by an independent child death overview panel as factors that may have contributed to the child’s vulnerability, ill health or death.

Now the charity has launched the short film, Before Our Eyes, starring Colman alongside Hustle actor Adrian Lester and based on the real-life experiences of a mother who wanted to remain anonymous.

It tells the story of Anna who watches on helplessly as her baby daughter Grace’s health deteriorates in the poor conditions of the temporary accommodation they are placed in.

The child ultimately dies and when the council denies all responsibility, Anna turns to ex-lawyer and ally Mary, played by Colman, for help.

Lester plays a disillusioned council worker and the story exposes what Amnesty described as a “broken system where people like Anna and Grace fall through the cracks, and people like Mary are silenced”.

Of the campaign, Colman, said: “It’s easy to feel like we do enough, that human rights are for someone else to handle.

“We’re so accustomed to seeing human rights violations in other countries across the world that many of us believe these abuses are far away and have nothing to do with us.

“But in reality, they are happening right on our doorstep – human rights in the UK are under threat, and I hope this film will spur people on and encourage them to tune in and take action.”

Lester, who is an Amnesty International supporter, said the story told on screen is “painfully common in the UK” but that most people do not realise “this kind of thing is going on”.

He said: “We often look outside our borders when we think of human rights and don’t realise that access to housing, healthcare, food and more is deteriorating in our own country.

“And even when we do recognise this, we don’t connect it to violations of human rights happening before our eyes, on our doorstep. But that’s what it is.

“There is such blatant inequality in the lives of people here in the UK. We need to find ways to talk about these problems so that things can change.”

The film will play in cinemas and form part of adverts in train stations, the London Underground and billboards across the country “to make people aware that human rights in the UK are under threat and there is an urgent need for action”, Amnesty said.

Sacha Deshmukh, the organisation’s chief executive, said: “We hope the film will be a catalyst for people across the UK to join the fight for rights and say that safe housing, enough healthy food, good and timely healthcare aren’t ‘nice to-haves’ – these are basic human rights which we expect our own Government to protect.

“We need new, firm commitments from political leaders across all parties to protect people’s basic rights and effective ways to enforce those commitments.

“It’s not just the right thing to do to protect our own citizens, it is critical to protecting the UK’s global position as a leader in rights and standards in law, and a country that the world believes practices what we preach.”

A Government spokesperson said: “Temporary accommodation helps to ensure that families are not left without a roof over their head, but councils must ensure it is suitable, and families have a right to appeal if they think it does not meet their household’s needs.

“That’s why we have given councils £1 billion over three years to help them tackle homelessness, targeted to areas where it is needed most.

“Tragic cases such as that of Awaab Ishak must never happen again, which is why we’ve introduced Awaab’s Law to force social landlords to address hazards such as damp and mould within strict timeframes.”

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