Joint Committee on Human Rights Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Letter from the President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons to the Chairman of the Committee


  Thank you for your letter of 8 February. Following discussions between officials, I am responding by letter, rather than providing a formal Memorandum. Set out below are the main areas in my Department where I consider the Human Rights Act to have had an impact.

The Privy Council Office "Secretariat"

  My Department provides a Secretariat to the Privy Council (both to Her Majesty in Council and to the Privy Council acting without The Queen). The end products are usually Orders in and of Council, some made under statutory powers and others under the Royal prerogative. Under statutory powers a significant role is played in regulating the health professions and higher education in particular. In almost all cases, the primary policy interest in the Orders I have mentioned lies elsewhere in other Government Departments.

  Similar considerations apply to the various chartered bodies (largely, certain Universities and professional institutes, amendments to whose Charters and Statutes or Bye-laws require Privy Council approval under the Royal prerogative). Though some of these amendments deal with the private concerns of these bodies, others are of a regulatory character, which might well be regarded as public functions. We consider primary responsibility for compliance with the Act should lie with the bodies concerned but with an onus on relevant Departments (mainly DfEE and DTI) to include the requirements of the Act when advising us on such bodies' affairs. Nonetheless, we have specifically drawn the Act to bodies' attention when they are considering relevant issues, such as rules of discipline.

My role as a University Visitor

  Those Universities that have Royal Charters commonly also have a Visitor. I am, on behalf of Her Majesty the Queen, the Visitor for 17 Universities, and act as a final resort whom aggrieved University staff or students can petition when they have exhausted intro-University remedies. At present, I am receiving some two dozen Petitions each year. In making my decisions as Visitor, I aim to comply with the principles of natural justice and of the Act (though a recent ECHR judgement seems to indicate that University and Visitorial appeals are outside the scope of Article 6 of the Convention). One innovation we have introduced is that, since Spring 1999, reasoned decisions have been issued in these cases. We continue to keep the Visitor system under review, to ensure that it is operated fairly.

The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council

  The part of my Department called the Judicial Committee (JC) is a court. The Human Rights Act (HRA) applies to it only in part, because the greater part of its work comes from independent Commonwealth countries where the HRA does not apply. But for the purposes of managing the JC no distinction is made between cases to which the Act applies and those to which it does not. JC staff are mindful of the Convention requirements of fairness and expedition when applying the rules of procedure and practice of the JC, but it has not so far been found that any great modification of those rules has been necessary.

  Last year, two senior members of JC staff attended a HRA Awareness Seminar for court staff organised by the Lord Chancellor's Department. Because the HRA does not apply to most of the JC's work, the Act has had little impact so far on the law that has to be applied by the JC. But the indications are that it will be relied upon in some of the currently pending appeals from decisions of committees of the bodies that control the medical and other health professions.

Personnel issues within the Department

  The Civil Service Code already takes account of the requirements of the Human Rights Act. My Department's staff handbook is currently being updated and reviewed. The review will pay specific regard to the Act's requirements, for example with references to disciplinary matters.

Margaret Beckett

5 March 2001

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