Joint Committee On Human Rights Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

21.  Memorandum from Equality Commission for Northern Ireland

  The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland welcomes the opportunity to contribute to the consideration by the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights on whether there should be a UK Human Rights Commission.

  The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland was established in October 1999 with responsibility for the anti discrimination legislation on gender, fair employment, race and disability. The Commission co-exists in Northern Ireland with the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. The two Commissions have a co-operative relationship sharing information, engaging in joint work and keeping each other advised of matters of mutual interest. The relationship is regularised by a Memorandum of Understanding which aims to clarify for the public how the two Commissions function and to enhance the effectiveness of both.

  Incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law and the consequent query as to a Human Rights Commission has important implications for the existing discrimination Commissions in Great Britain, the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality, and in Northern Ireland, the Equality Commission. The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland was established by the Northern Ireland Act 1998 which made new provision for the government of Northern Ireland as a consequence of the agreement reached at multiparty talks.

  Equality is a major human rights issue and the present inquiry by the Joint Parliamentary Committee must consider if discrimination enforcement provisions and structures are sufficient or if enhancements and alternatives are required to ensure adequate provision for the whole range of human rights issues.

  The Equality Commission believes that a Human Rights Commission would add to the current methods of protecting human rights in the United Kingdom.

  A Human Rights Commission would have a number of roles. The statutory role of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission is to review the adequacy and effectiveness of law and practise relating to the protection of human rights. A Human Rights Commission whether for the whole of the UK or separate jurisdictions will also:

    —  promote awareness of human rights and their enforcement;

    —  enforce human rights through legal action;

    —  help individuals by way of advice and assistance to secure legal redress; and

    —  clarify the legal provisions by taking test cases.

  If a Human Rights Commission were established, its role and functions would be to protect and promote human rights in the United Kingdom.

  The most likely overlap with the Joint Committee on Human Rights would be in connection with the review of legislation and policy. A Human Rights Commision, operating independent of Government, could conduct reviews of legislation and advise the legislation of any measures which ought to be taken to protect human rights.

  The Equality Commission considers that it would be inappropriate for it to identify the likely priorities for a UK Human Rights Commission. The prioritisation of issues should be determined by a Human Rights Commission within its statutory responsibility.

  The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission should continue to exist. Furthermore devolution to Scotland and Wales may create pressure for separate provision in those countries and local need and circumstances may further make this desirable. However, the overarching effect of the European Convention on Human Rights will require comparability in functions and duties and other options such as Commissioners for Scotland and Wales working within a UK framework may be considered.

  If there were to be a Human Rights Commission with responsibilities for the whole United Kingdom and separate Commissions in Northern Ireland and elsewhere there would be a requirement to avoid duplication and to enhance resources by working co-operatively. In relation to key matters such as raising the profile of human rights it is apparent that each could enhance the work of the other. In relation to such matters as scrutinising government there is a clear need for the Commissions to work together to enhance their contribution.

  The Joint Committee also asks if a Human Rights Commission were established, how should its work relate to that of other bodies with special responsibility for particular rights.

  Our experience in Northern Ireland is that it is possible for a body dealing with issues relating to equal opportunities to co-exist effectively in a jurisdiction with a Human Rights Commission. The majority of work of the two bodies does not presently overlap. The Equality Commission has extensive responsibilities to work for the elimination of discrimination and to promote equality of opportunity on grounds of religion and politics; gender, disability and race. The Equal Treatment Directive requires additional grounds of age and sexual orientation to be protected and these too are likely to become the responsibility of the Equality Commission. Importantly too the Equality Commission has a responsibility to oversee the statutory duties to promote equality and good relations on public authorities. Given the differences in the remit of the Equality Commission and the Human Rights Commission the majority of functions are performed independently of each other. There is a recognition that a possibility of a conflict of interest could occur and the Memorandum of Understanding was drafted with such a recognition in mind.

  The Joint Committee also asks if a Human Rights Commission were to be established how should its independence of Government be preserved whilst ensuring an appropriate type and level of accountability.

  The Commission considers that the present public appointments system regulated by the Commissioner for Public Appointments has improved the system of appointments and has built public confidence. The "results" of the system must be open to public scrutiny in assessing if a quality outcome is achieved. The Commission notes the requirement to the NI Act to:

    As far as practicable secure that Commissioners, as a group are representative of the community in Northern Ireland.

  As with the present discrimination Commissions accountability should be ensured by requiring an annual report and accounts to be provided to the appropriate legislature. The management of the Commission, including staff appointment, should be independent of Government. Devolution arrangements will determine whether oversight is by a devolved administration or Westminster.

  The Equality Commission has not concluded that either one Commission for the whole UK or separate bodies for England, Scotland and Wales are preferred. We have restricted our comments to our existing experience that it is possible for a discrimination Commission and a Human Rights Commission to co-exist and to function co-operatively.

  In relation to the powers of a Human Rights Commission the Equality Commission notes the UN's Paris Principles. Within the general duty, set out in statute, a Commission should have a wide range of advisory and inquisitorial functions.

  There are no other matters the Commission would refer to at the present time.

11 July 2001

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