Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments Minutes of Evidence

Annex B

Sir Richard Wilson KCB, Secretary of the Cabinet and Head of the Home Civil Service, Cabinet Office, 70 Whitehall, London SW1A 2AS

Human Rights Act: building the culture of rights and responsibilities

  The Task Force set up by the Government to help implement the Human Rights Act has held its last meeting. I am writing to pass on some final recommendations which are relevant to mainstreaming the Act and to building the culture of rights and responsibilities. We shall be pursuing all these at Board level in the Home Office and I hope that colleagues will consider a similar approach.

  2.  There are five main areas:

    —  general aims and commitment

    —  awareness raising in front-line services, subsidiary public authorities etc

    —  formal training

    —  monitoring

    —  role of Inspectorates.


  3.  Task Force members have commented that, inevitably, initial thinking about the Human Rights Act has tended to concentrate on legal questions about compliance. From that narrow perspective, implementing the Act may be seen as complete once the relevant legislation and guidance have been audited centrally, or not impugned by a court. Though it is clearly right that all public authorities should not act incompatibly with the Convention rights, the Act was intended to do more than merely avoid direct violations of human rights. As the senior judiciary have commented in their early judgments on the Act, this is a constitutional measure, legislating for basic values which can be shared by all people throughout the United Kingdom. It offers a framework for policy-making, for the resolution of problems across all branches of government and for improving the quality of public services. From this point of view it is not right to present the Human Rights Act as a matter for legal specialists. The culture of rights and responsibilities needs to be mainstreamed. This requires at least:

    —  developed awareness at all levels of the Convention rights and the associated balances and limitations, as an integral part of public administration and policy-making

    —  frequent practical expression of the positive difference the Convention can and does make, by voluntary good practice as well as by court decision

    —  clear and public demonstration of commitment to the Convention values and principles at the highest levels of government and public authorities

    —  public recognition of the Convention values and principles in delivering quality public services.

  4.  The Task Force recognises that a good start has been made on this agenda, but that there is a lot to be done. A sustained and focused effort over a long time scale is required.


  5.  Task Force inquiries have confirmed that all departments have worked to help their subsidiary public authorities implement the Human Rights Act. This is an ongoing task. Moreover, though members of those bodies need to know that the law and guidance under which they operate has been reviewed for compatibility with the Convention rights, they should also acquire some understanding of the issues involved. The Human Rights Act should not be seen as merely a technical or legal matter, to be addressed by external advisers. The direct relevance of the Convention rights to the service given to the public should not be missed.

  6.  Task Force members are aware that it is not possible to provide dedicated class-room training for every person working for every subsidiary public authority across the UK. But they believe that there are a number of practical steps which can and should be taken to improve levels of understanding and awareness and thus to help build the human rights culture. They are as follows:

    —  Departmental guidance to subsidiary public authorities and front line services should always identify explicitly any Convention rights involved in determining the guidance and should discuss in plain language the balancing issues which may have been addressed. In this way, the Convention rights will be seen in operational context and staff exposure and understanding increased naturally over time.

    —  Departments should consider including in their regular communications special measures to promote awareness of Convention rights which are of particular relevance to individual subsidiary departments, for example by including handbills, posters, aide memoire cards or occasional notes.

    —  Departments should use opportunities presented by invitations to contribute to specialist periodicals, or annual or occasional conferences and seminars, to increase awareness. Staff association or trade union events and journals may also be suitable vehicles.

    —  Departments should avoid presenting the Human Rights Act as a matter of legal, technical compliance. Commitment to the Act as a broad constitutional measure, for the benefit of all, could be emphasised by ensuring that any guidance or advice is seen to come from mainstream departmental sources and is in plain language. Positive references to the value and relevance of the Human Rights Act in Ministerial speeches should be encouraged.

    —  Departments should do everything reasonably possible to help outside agencies and NGOs providing human rights training to subsidiary public bodies, for example by providing speakers, written material and financial assistance.


  7.  The need for continuing formal training and awareness-raising sessions should not be overlooked. Departmental training strategies should ensure that:

    —  adequate basic awareness training is provided on a continuing basis for newly recruited and returning staff, preferably as an integral part of induction training. Consideration could be given to mentioning the Human Rights Act values in recruitment material as the context in which public servants all now work

    —  arrangements are in place to identify and pursue specialised human rights training for particular areas of the Department's business

    —  information about human rights training opportunities is widely disseminated, including to subsidiary public authorities

    —  Human Rights Act training is structured so as to help develop a positive culture and ethical values, as well as to impart basic legal information. The use of external trainers, from appropriate NGOs may be helpful in this area.

    —  feed-back mechanisms are in place to ensure that points highlighting the need for change are carefully considered (see also "Monitoring" below).


  8.  Task Force members felt that more should be done to monitor human rights awareness in subsidiary public bodies and in ensuring that these are kept up to date on developing jurisprudence and best practice. The Task Force was impressed by an initiative from the Department of Social Security which has developed clear lines of communication and a pro-forma monitoring return which all the public bodies use to report the position. The Task Force recognises that public authorities and their relationship with their sponsoring departments vary. They do not want to be too prescriptive about the mechanisms which should be in place. However, they suggest that all Departments should:

    —  consider initiating regular returns from public authorities, covering the extent of training and practical changes in policies and practices

    —  make use of inspection and audit systems to integrate regular monitoring into existing systems (see also paragraph 9 below).


  9.  Task Force members were disappointed that Inspectorates and audit bodies had so far not acquired a clear role in relation to the Human Rights Act. Nor was it clear that all inspectors had themselves acquired a sound grasp of the relevant Convention rights. The Act places a new statutory duty on all public authorities and provides a powerful set of basic standards about relations with the public. Accordingly, inspectors should have regard to levels of awareness about the Convention rights and be open to their role in the development of ethical values and best value. Specifically, inspectors should:

    —  themselves receive some training in the Human Rights Act (the Task Force recommends a minimum of half a day's basic awareness training)

    —  consider including Human Rights Act awareness and HRA standards amongst relevant indices of professional and organisational competence, and develop appropriate performance measures

    —  make active use of relevant Convention rights, for example as a centrepiece for thematic inspections and in promoting quality of service.


  10.  NGO members of the Task Force have also recommended strongly that the Government should set up a statutory Human Rights Commission to carry forward work on building a culture of rights and responsibilities. Ministers have made no decision to pursue this possibility at present; the matter is likely to be addressed by the new Joint Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights and Ministers will consider the outcome of that carefully.

  11.   am copying this to all Permanent Secretaries in charge of Departments, to Jonathan Tross in the Cabinet Office and to David Miliband at the No 10 Policy Unit. A copy also goes to nominated Departmental Human Rights Act contacts.

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