Joint Committee On Human Rights Twenty-Second Report


The Joint Committee on Human Rights has agreed to the following Report:


Background to the Inquiry

1. During the passage through Parliament of the Human Rights Bill in Session 1997-98, a number of proposals were moved to incorporate provisions for a Human Rights Commission to be established.[1] The Government resisted these at the time, instead suggesting that the proposed parliamentary committee on human rights should look at the question and come forward with recommendations.[2]

2. The Human Rights Act 1998 came into effect on 2 October 2000. The Joint Committee on Human Rights was intended to be established pretty much simultaneously, but delays in securing the agreement of the House of Commons to the necessary motion meant that it did not meet for the first time until 31 January 2001.

3. One of the earliest decisions of that Committee was to launch an inquiry into the case for establishing a Human Rights Commission for the UK. The Committee issued a call for written evidence on 5 April 2001. Its text is appended to this report.[3] It asked for responses by 2 July. By that date, of course, a general election had taken place, and the Committee had been dissolved with Parliament.

Work of the Committee in this Parliament

4. When we first met in this Parliament on 19 July 2001, we resolved to continue the inquiry started by our predecessors into the case for a human rights commission. Pressure of other work, particularly scrutiny of legislation before both Houses, has prevented us from making as much progress as we would have wished. However, we have been reviewing the evidence received in response to our predecessors' call, and have undertaken visits to—

We propose to visit other national human rights bodies elsewhere in the world. We have also held a seminar with a number of experts and practitioners to clarify the scope and nature of the questions we will be seeking to answer in our inquiry.[4]

5. We have also begun to take oral evidence. We began with evidence from the Lord Chancellor, to discover whether there had been any change in the Government's overall approach to the question of a commission.[5] We also took evidence from Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, on the wider international context in which any UK proposals should be considered.[6] But before starting to examine the detailed options for the structure of any commission, we wished to examine in particular whether there was evidence of unmet needs in relation to the promotion and protection of human rights in the UK for which a commission could provide a remedy. We decided to examine this in the context of a number of groups in society. Because we are also currently engaged in an inquiry into the UK's second report under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, our oral evidence so far has mainly related to children (including evidence from children themselves[7]), and that evidence is published with this report.[8] We now hope to go on to examine these issues in connection with users of mental health services, refugees, and those held in custody by the state.

Purpose of the Report

6. This interim report has two basic purposes. Its first is to be a vehicle for placing the written evidence we have so far received in the public domain. The initial call for evidence elicited over fifty responses from a wide variety of sources (though not as wide as we would have wished). By publishing them we hope to stimulate further debate and more evidence which will contribute to our inquiry. In particular, we would wish to hear more from those who could benefit, or who represent those who might benefit, from the establishment of a human rights commission. The purpose of our inquiry is not just to examine alternative institutional wiring diagrams for a human rights commission and come up with our own engineering blueprint. We want to know what difference a commission could make to the lives of citizens of the UK, especially those who do not presently enjoy their full human rights. In particular, we wish to gather a greater sense of the practical benefits of having a commission. We will be publishing a consultation document in the Autumn setting out some preliminary conclusions and inviting responses to specific questions. In the meantime, we would be happy to receive further written submissions.

Recent Developments

7. We also need to take account of events which have occurred since our predecessors' call for evidence was issued over a year ago. In Wales, the Children's Commissioner has now been established. The Scottish Executive has announced its intention to establish a Human Rights Commission for Scotland, and is consulting on details. We will need to take this development into account. The UK Government also published, at the end of last year, its consultation paper Towards Equality and Diversity: Implementing the Employment and Race Directives.[9] In it the Government commented—

    We think there are good arguments to move, in the longer term, towards a single Equality Commission. Such a commission could offer support to individuals and business covering discrimination on all aspects of equality.

8. We clearly needed to take account of this proposal in our own deliberations, though we were disappointed to note that the consultation document made no mention whatsoever of a possible human rights commission.[10] Equality is a key aspect of human rights. We took evidence from the Minister responsible for the cross-cutting equality issues, Barbara Roche MP, on 20 May.[11] Shortly before she appeared before us, the Minister had announced the Government's decision that it would move towards the establishment of a single equalities body, and that a project team had been established to work up further proposals. The project team's terms of reference include a requirement to—

    ... to consider the relationship between possible new arrangements for promoting equality and those for promoting and protecting human rights more widely.

9. In the light of this, and the evidence we had heard from both the Lord Chancellor and Mrs Roche, we invited the Chairs of the three existing "equality commissions"(the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Commission for Racial Equality, and the Disability Rights Commission) to give oral evidence on 1 July. It is published with this report.[12]

10. Many different stakeholders are engaged in the feasibility project to consider what should be the powers and functions of GB-wide equality machinery in the future, and what might be the best structure for providing those functions. The project is considering the work of the existing commissions, existing discrimination legislation, and also new legislation on age, sexual orientation and religion. The Government has taken as a starting point that a "do nothing" approach is not feasible. It aims to produce the initial conclusions of the project in the autumn, and set out any future action that will be necessary.

11. We consider that the subject of our inquiry and the question of arrangements for the promotion of equality being addressed by the Government are closely linked, and the evidence we have heard so far has reinforced that conclusion. We conclude that it would be a serious omission for the Government's forthcoming consultative proposals on a single equality body to fail to give full weight to the element of the project's terms of reference relating to the promotion and protection of human rights. If any proposals for measures to protect and promote equalities fail to address the relationship between those powers and functions and arrangements for promoting and protecting human rights, they are likely to be incoherent, incomplete and ineffective.

12. That is not to say that we expect the Government to produce, in its Autumn consultation document, fully developed proposals for new arrangements for the promotion and protection of human rights. Nor would we anticipate a fully worked-out explanation of how any new single equality body will sit alongside them. We hope, however, that the consultation paper will provide evidence that these questions have been seriously addressed, and will come forward with some general principles and options for dealing with any gaps or overlaps in protections that have been identified. We intend to publish our own consultation document to coincide with that of the Government's project, to enable interested parties to consider the two side by side.

Written Evidence Received

Questions addressed

13. In our predecessor Committee's call for evidence, it invited respondents to address nine questions[13]—

    —    The justification for the establishment of a human rights commission.

    —    The relationship between a human rights commission and the JCHR.

    —    The authority and mandate of a human rights commission.

    —    The jurisdiction of the human rights commission.

    —    The relationship between any UK commission and human rights commissions in the constituent nations and possibly regions of the UK.

    —    The relationship between the human rights commission and existing (equality) Commissions, such as the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Commission for Racial Equality and the Disability Rights Commission.

    —    The powers and functions of a human rights commission.

    —    Staffing levels and costs.

Nature of responses received

14. In total, some fifty responses were received to the initial call for evidence. The respondents[14] can be conveniently grouped into the following twelve categories as they are set out in the published evidence attached to this report. These are—

    —     equality agencies and ombudsmen, and public sector inspectorates;[15]

    —    UK human rights NGOs;[16]

    —    Northern Ireland human rights bodies and political parties;[17]

    —    Scottish human rights bodies and political parties;[18]

    —    the National Assembly for Wales and Welsh organisations;[19]

    —    legal institutions and NGOs;[20]

    —    academic institutions;[21]

    —    women's rights organisations;[22]

    —    disability rights organisations;[23]

    —    children's rights organisations;[24]

    —    other representative and regional bodies;[25]

    —    a local authority;[26]

    —    immigration, refugee and race relations groups and organisations;[27] and

    —    private individuals.[28]

15. We publish these submissions with this report, together with the oral evidence we have collected during the current session. We make no attempt here to analyse the evidence in detail—we will do that in our forthcoming consultation paper.

1   See for example HL Deb., 24 November 1997, c 838; 27 November 1997, c 1151; 5 February 1998, c 820 Back

2   See for example HC Deb, 14 December 1998, c 604; HL Deb., 20 May 1999, c 400 Back

3   See Ev 89 to 91 Back

4   The seminar was held on 28 February 2002 at Westminster; those attending included: Sarah Spencer, Director of Citizenship & Governance Programme, IPPR; Brian Burdekin, Special Adviser on National Institutions to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights; Rosemarie McIlwhan, Director, Scottish Human Rights Centre; Gerison Lansdown, Children's Rights Consultant; Rowena Daw, Head of Policy, MIND; Professor Sandra Fredman, Exeter College, Oxford University; Bernadette Livesey, Human Rights Solicitor, Walker Morris, Leeds; Alan Beckley, Consultant, former Chief Inspector West Mercia Constabulary and member of ACPO Human Rights Group; Peter Smith, Executive Manager, Equalities Executive, Local Government Association; Seamus Taylor, Head of Public Sector Policy, CRE; Jenny Watson, Human Rights Consultant and Deputy Chair, EOC; Nick O'Brien, Legal Director, Disability Rights Commission; Professor Brigid Hadfield, Department of Law and Human Rights Centre, Essex University; John Hucker, Secretary General, Canadian Human Rights Commission Back

5   QQ 1 to 71 Back

6   QQ 72 to 103 Back

7   QQ 244 to 276 Back

8   QQ 104 to 181, QQ 244 to 351 Back

9   Cabinet Office, Department of Trade & Industry, Home Office and Department for Work and Pensions, December 2001 Back

10   We visited the new single Equality Commission for Northern Ireland on our visit to Belfast in February Back

11   QQ 182 to 243 Back

12   QQ 352 to 406 Back

13   See pages Ev 89 to 91 Back

14   See list of Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence, Appendices 1 to 54 Back

15   See Appendices 1 to 5, see also Appendices 56 to 69 Back

16   See Appendices 6 to 12 Back

17   See Appendices 20 to 25 Back

18   See Appendices 26 to 29 Back

19   See Appendices 30 to 32 Back

20   See Appendices 14, 33 to 35 Back

21   See Appendices 15 to 18 Back

22   See Appendices 32 and 46 Back

23   See Appendices 38 to 40 Back

24   See Appendices 41 to 44 Back

25   See Appendices 13, 36, 45 Back

26   See Appendix 37 Back

27   See Appendices 47 to 52 Back

28   See Appendices 19, 53 to 55 Back

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