Joint Committee on Human Rights Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum by the Scottish Human Rights Centre


Assessment of the Government's Efforts so far to Implement the Human Rights Act

  That the Government brought about the Human Rights Act is to be applauded, however there was much that could have been done that would have made its implementation smoother and easier for all concerned.

  Better public education about the Act would have been a useful measure, eg increased public awareness before the introduction of the Act and further dissemination of information to those who may be affected, in particular those who may be termed hybrid bodies or those private bodies who perform public functions. (Both of these categories of public authority under s.6 of the Act seem to have been neglected by the Government information service).

  The creation of a Human Rights Commission before the introduction of the Act would also have alleviated many of the problems by having a well resourced and staff statutory body which would have been able to advise and support on human rights issues rather than leaving this to under resourced voluntary organisations such as the Scottish Human Rights Centre and Liberty.

  Training for bodies outside of central government would also have been beneficial rather than leaving them to fend for themselves. This would have been best approached in a concerted and co-ordinated manner rather than being left to the individual public authorities. The haphazard approach which has resulted from this lack of co-ordination means that some public authorities are only becoming aware of the Human Rights Act whilst others are somewhat prepared.

Assessment of the Governments Efforts to Build a Human Rights Culture

  The passing of the Human Rights Act will not in itself create a human rights culture in the UK, this will need more positive action. A good beginning would be for the Government to counteract the negative publicity which the Human Rights Act and the ECHR are receiving in the media, indeed a more proactive approach to this issue would probably leave less scope for the media to react negatively to it. SHRC understands that there can be difficulties in combating what is said in the media however we feel that at least some of these difficulties could have been alleviated with a proactive, positive lead from central government.

  Until members of the public feel that the Human Rights Act is relevant to them and not just a "criminal's charter" a true human rights culture will not be able to develop. For individuals to understand the Human Rights Act they must be informed and educated about it and made to understand that it is relevant to them. This would best be done by an independent Human Rights Commission which they would feel able to trust, however failing this the duty is on the government to ensure that every citizen understands what the Human Rights Act is and what it means to them. Unless citizens are aware of the uses of the Human Rights Act it will not be used to its full potential which would partially defeat its purpose of "Bringing Rights Home."

  The introduction of an ECHR Compliance Bill for the UK following an audit of UK government and legislation would be welcome and would be a proactive step which would assist in the promotion of a human rights culture in the UK.

The Consequences at National and Local Government Level both for Policy Formulation and Delivery of Services

  In Scotland many areas of local Government are still trying to prepare and come to grips with the Human Rights Act with very little support or assistance from national government. The consequence of this is that those at the forefront of service delivery are very concerned that they may be doing something which breaches the Act and thus this impacts on the quality of the service which they deliver. If they have been properly trained and prepared before the Act came into force this fear would be less and they would feel better able to do their job in the knowledge that their services should be able to withstand a human rights challenge. If bodies had been made more aware of the Human Rights Act they would be better placed to understand how it might impact upon their work and thus possibly foresee potential problems or challenges.

  It is still apparent that there is a lack of knowledge within local government in Scotland about the Human Rights Act with many local authorities taking a wait and see approach until cases are decided, this risks them being the test case. This lack of knowledge also impacts on policy and practice formulation thus putting them at greater risk of breaching rights if new policies do not take the Human Rights Act into consideration.

  At national government level in Scotland there is a growing awareness of the implications of human rights. The Scottish Executive has recently completed its own audit and produced the ECHR Compliance (Scotland) Bill. This Bill in the most part shows good understanding of human rights although that this eight part bill addresses all that the Scottish Executive found wanting after their audit is of concern.

Impact of HRA on Everyday Life

  So far the impact of the Human Rights Act on everyday life has been limited. As stated above until citizens are fully aware of the Act they cannot utilise its full potential. Thus so far the major impact of the Act has been in the criminal justice field. The lack of public information about human rights has made it much easier for the public to believe that the Human Rights Act is a "criminals charter" rather than knowing that it will be of benefit to everyone within society. This could have been counteracted by making information easily available in libraries or other public establishments or by disseminating an information booklet to all households, rather than the one launch event and short lived media information campaign.

  In Scotland the ethos of the Act is filtering through all aspects of public society slowly encouraging better openness and accountability within that society.

  Due to the absence of a Human Rights Commission or organised dissemination of information about human rights cases are being taken or are coming up only because the client has read about human rights in the media or because their lawyer advises them to raise a human rights point. This is not the best way for the law on human rights to develop. Indeed it would be better for the human rights culture for cases to be settled out of court rather than becoming reliant on litigation which makes the Human Rights Act seem more like a "criminal's charter". This artificially limits the impact which the Human Rights Act can have on public life. The more people who are aware of the Act and its implications the less need there will be for litigation.

How would we advise direction of efforts in the medium-term and why?

  SHRC would suggest that the committee begin by considering where human rights in the UK are now, eg by inviting Jack Straw MP and other members of the Human Rights Taskforce to speak to them about what they have achieved. It may also be beneficial for them to visit Scotland and talk to the Scottish Executive, some public bodies and perhaps the Scottish Human Rights Centre and Amnesty International. (SHRC would be happy to visit the committee in London or would welcome it or individual committee members in Scotland).

  The committee should consider the promotion of human rights through dissemination of best practice between public authorities and through training and public education. Whether the committee itself undertakes to provide these services or contracts them out would be for it to discuss (The committee might like to provide education on human rights for MP's if not others or might like to supervise some form of human rights education for MP's). Obviously these would be roles that would be best undertaken by a Human Rights Commission in the longer-term.

  Investigation into the feasibility of a UK Human Rights Commission and promotion of the idea would be beneficial for the reasons outlined above, thus should be considered and acted upon as soon as possible.

  An audit of central government (preferably an independent audit) for human rights compliance followed by an ECHR Compliance Bill as has been introduced in Scotland should also be given consideration in the medium-term. This would be a proactive way of addressing human rights problems before they are taken to court, and is the most responsible way of addressing these issues. It would also go some way to fostering public confidence about the ECHR/Human Rights Act and the government's commitment to it.

  SHRC is concerned that the impact of the Human Rights Act will be limited and its full uses will be missed if we rely on the courts for implementation. A true human rights culture must be founded on best practice as well, otherwise authorities may fall back into bad habits after a few years if implementation is not thorough and proper.

March 2001

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