Joint Committee On Human Rights Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60 - 71)



  60. Well, perhaps if we had an expanded role it might be possible. Certainly we found our work cut out looking into questions of compatibility and the whole question of section 19 and legislation. That is quite a big role for a Parliamentary Committee as it is but—
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) I have been trying to encourage you today to move in the direction of lesser detail but grander causes which is the human rights commission, its relationship to a single equality commission. Now, if you like, it will be heaping more work upon you if you accept it because I do really believe that an intelligent and informed dialogue, perhaps through the media of your Committee, your Committee, if you like, being in the van, so as to promote greater understanding across Government and across the individual commissions themselves of the direction in which we should be moving. I am not in any way shy about encouraging you to undertake even more work.

  61. The implication of some of what you said was that there was quite an important not just public education but fact finding role. Earlier today a number of Members of this Committee met the Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission for India.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) Really.

  62. He told us that during the recent disturbances in Gujarat, as the Chairman of the Human Rights Commission, he travelled to the area with the knowledge and consent and approbation of the Prime Minister and was seen as an independent watchdog of human rights and in his view that has played a very important part in the resolution of those issues. Now it strikes me that given what has happened in some of our Northern cities, Burnley is an example, this could be a very important role for a human rights commission, a body which is seen to be independent of Parliament, which has a statutory power, which can go in and be trusted by all parties to look at the human rights' implications of what had happened and to make recommendations.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) Before we have even got a human rights commission you are asking me whether a human rights commission should have a major role in relation to inquiries.

  63. Yes.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) I am not persuaded that international parallels lend great support to the idea that a power to conduct inquiries is a must for a human rights commission. We have in this country a pretty well established framework for the holding of inquiries, statutory and otherwise. Would a human rights commission conduct the same kind of inquiry as the MacPherson inquiry undertook following the death of Stephen Lawrence? Is not the experience also from Australia that their Commission undertook inquiries that really swamped the resources available to it? I think you have to be very careful.

Mr Woodward

  64. You raise a very interesting question with the Stephen Lawrence inquiry.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) Yes.

  65. Because, of course, it is a sad part of my memory that I was in the party, although not elected at the time, which refused to give that inquiry.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) Yes.

  66. The problem about the work of the human rights commission being, as it were, acted out in the Human Rights Unit in your Department or even, as it were, if it was right to put it within the remit of this Committee, the problem is it is not independent. It does seem to me that one of the great virtues of human rights is the independence of human rights. You pose the question and so I am replying to your question, would it have helped the Stephen Lawrence inquiry? My view is actually yes and it would have come earlier and it would have made a difference and it would have had a big impact on the culture of human rights in this country. I am answering your question.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) I understand that point of view. I think, however, it is a very large proposition to say that Government should surrender its power to decide when the public interest indicates that there should be an inquiry and when the public interest is contrary to having such an inquiry to a human rights commission. I do not rule it out. I think that there is a lot of international experience which I would like to know a great deal about before I would commit myself to a concluded view. I do know that the Australian Commission did score some notable successes but as far as I know—and I am being almost anecdotal I think—what I have heard from Australia is that the extent of its inquiry into homeless children, which did have a huge impact on the development of policy, really rather drained its resources for anything else over a substantial period of time. Therefore I think you have to be aware of giving such a large responsibility and so resource intensive to a human rights commission but I am thinking aloud.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

  67. Could I just suggest this to you, Lord Chancellor. Your dream of what this Committee might or might not do was quite an ambitious and expansive one and our problem is that we are precisely swamped—to use your words—by the need to ensure as best we can the Statute Book in the making is going to be compatible with human rights. We have to give a high degree of priority to our scrutiny role.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) You have to determine your own priorities.

  68. Of course. What I was going to say was that it would be quite impossible for a part-time Parliamentary Committee to perform a really significant independent fact-finding role on pressing issues of public importance. Would it not be sensible to think of a human rights commission acting in partnership with a Parliamentary Committee in the sense that they could establish the facts as they saw them and then give evidence to us rather than this kind of role having been performed through a Parliamentary Select Committee with other pressing matters as well.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) I have never suggested that your Committee was necessarily a substitute for a human rights commission.

  69. Of course not.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) I have never suggested that and of course you could not be but you can play a significant role in persuading others of what you have just said, that is to say the need for a human rights commission and to some extent you can undertake limited fact finding of the kind that I suggested to you at the outset of my evidence so as to see where the thinking is going. The particular forum you have here is perhaps likely to be successful in drawing out the thinking of other players.


  70. Lord Chancellor, can I thank you very much for appearing before us today. It has been very useful to us in providing a framework for an inquiry which you will appreciate is going to take a lot of time and is going to involve quite a lot of new evidence. You have kicked us off in a very constructive way. We are grateful to you for what has been a very useful exposition and also for what you have described as thinking aloud which we have found very useful.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) It is very dangerous.

  71. Thank you very much.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) Thank you.

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