Joint Committee On Human Rights Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 352 - 359)




  352. Welcome, Mr Massie, Mr Singh and Ms Mellor to this meeting. Ms Watson, I believe you are the Deputy to Ms Mellor.

  (Ms Watson) That is right, yes.

  353. This is the Joint Committee on Human Rights. As you know, we are conducting an inquiry into the case for a human rights commission, and over the last weeks we have been looking very much at trying to identify areas of unmet need. It is obviously right that the Commissions that you represent and other public authorities as defined by section 6 of the Human Rights Act have an obligation to act compatibly with the Convention on Human Rights. Can you tell us in turn whether the Human Rights Act has had any impact on the work of your respective Commissions and, if so, what impact?
  (Mr Massie) The Human Rights Act is of tremendous importance to disabled people and to DRC's work. We see the Human Rights Act and equality as being linked. You cannot enjoy many civil rights unless you have human rights. I will explain that later, but for many disabled people it really is a matter of life and death. There are some practical difficulties in asserting your civil rights from a coffin, so to us it is critical. Section 7 of the Disability Rights Commission Act empowers DRC to provide assistance to individuals only in cases under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. That has given us a number of difficulties in our work because quite often our work touches on people's human rights. I can give more examples of that later. We were very conscious in the Commission that we needed to have these rights, and under the DRC Act through regulations the Secretary of State can give us those rights. We did ask for it some time ago. We wrote to David Blunkett in September 2000 and asked him to exercise those powers. He was rather sympathetically inclined at the time, but there was some resistance within the Home Office. The view we got back was that it had to be considered with all the Commissions together, and so the Government could move forward with all the Commissions' powers. This is not a line they took later, when the CRE got public duty powers, so there was a little inconsistency in the Government's policy. While this Committee is meeting and considering, and the Government has to respond to whatever the report might raise, we are still faced with a situation where we cannot represent people on human rights issues. It would be very helpful if you could recommend we be given that power until whatever arrangements come about in future years.
  (Mr Singh) It clearly has some impact. It has made the Commission look at the implications of the Act. It has required us to train all our staff, which is clearly important, and that has happened throughout the whole organisation, irrespective of grade. It has required us to look at the advice which we give when we are considering section 66 cases under the Race Relations Act. It has, without a doubt, required us to look at whether there are any human rights arguments as part of that consideration. It has also required us to review some of our internal procedures to ensure that we are compliant with the Act, including decisions to grant representation. We have sought legal advice from Lord Lester specifically on that particular matter. Our difficulty, like that of DRC, is that we are constrained by what we can do to promote a culture of human rights. That, clearly, is something which is profoundly important. We are constrained because of powers that we act under. When Government and Parliament were considering amendments under the Race Relations Act, we sought additional powers to enable us to look at human rights cases where race was also a component. Sadly, for reasons best known to the Government, that was not forthcoming. That is very similar to the point that Mr Massie made. That was not granted, but we do believe that that will be important in the future.
  (Ms Mellor) We also took advice from Anthony Lester in terms of the duty to grant assistance in circumstances where it is necessary to comply with Article 6(1). I also think it has got us to examine carefully how to use the Human Rights Act to extend the types of cases and the arguments that we use, for example strengthening claims around hours of work; and combining the Sex Discrimination Act and the Human Rights Act article around the right to family life. There are other instances like that. Perhaps the one that we have not used but where there is some potential is the judgment in Amin, which concerned section 29 of the Sex Discrimination Act, where statutory functions in the public sector were considered in that case to be outside the Sex Discrimination Act, and we think there might be scope for re-interpreting section 29 and disregarding the decision in the light of the Human Rights Act. There are a number of areas where we can look at extending arguments and strengthen the submission.

  354. Do any of you see that you have a responsibility to promote human rights post implementation of the Act?
  (Mr Massie) At DRC we certainly do because of the very close connection between the Human Rights Act and disabled people. The DRC only opened its doors in April 2000. In September 2000, we were looking at the impact of the Human Rights Act on disabled people. We do try to get over to people what their rights are, but we are regretful that there is so little that we are allowed to do.
  (Ms Watson) It depends on where you are coming from. If you consider equality as being a fundamental human right—because the right to be treated equally is a human right—then you could argue that in one sense we are all promoting human rights because we all promote the idea of equality and the right to be treated equally. What is difficult to do, without changes to a statutory remit, is to promote the Human Rights Act per se. That is where we are in the situation that Julie outlined earlier; we think of how to use it, but it is difficult to promote it.
  (Mr Singh) I fully echo that. Whilst one would want to, the reality is that there are constraints. Therefore, the full promotion of the Act becomes an impossibility in the limitations.

  355. Are you saying that you think that your organisations, as presently constituted, would be able to pursue more actively and promote a human rights agenda were it not for what you describe as constraints?
  (Mr Singh) Yes, in relation to those matters which had a bearing on race, from a race perspective.

Norman Baker

  356. My question follows on from that discussion. I apologise in advance because I have to leave quite shortly. It is no reflection on the quality of the witnesses! I want to refer you to the single equality commission project, which doubtless is something that has occupied you to some degree, particularly in regard to terms of reference. It is my understanding that the terms of reference refer to the design of a new single equalities body and that it would take account of "the relationship between possible new arrangements for promoting equality and those for promoting and protecting human rights more widely". That brings the two things together in the way that has been discussed. What do you understand by those terms of reference? What do they mean for the body you represent, in terms of requirements on you and also perhaps opportunities?
  (Ms Mellor) The short answer is that we assume it means that the single equality body project will be considering whether any body it sets up to deal with equality might be broadened to deal with human rights.

  357. So you would welcome that.
  (Ms Mellor) Yes. I think that is where we are getting to. You will see from our written submissions to this Committee that at the time all three Commissions said that they supported the creation of a human rights commission, and that was what the debate was about at the time that we made our proposals. There are now several models on the table, and we would support institutional arrangements that ensured that human rights can be dealt with in the way we envisaged when we supported the creation of a human rights commission; that there is a body that can handle the promotion and some enforcement activity around the broader human rights agenda. One of the things that we have done around the single equality body project is to look at the principles we think should be used to develop and then test models for a single equality body. In the light of the debate as to where human rights fit with this, we would like to do something similar around the human rights element as well. We have not completed our thinking and would be happy to send on our conclusions when we have developed some principles. The kind of thing we have been looking at is, obviously, a separate human rights commission and equality body. We would need protocols that would enable us to do what we have just been talking about and give us the ability to take cases for breach of Article 14. If you were talking about the model of an equality commission and human rights on a more integrated basis, there may be some problems about credibility of the stakeholders and the ability or skills to work with different kinds of stakeholders, because the bulk of the equality work to date has been socially and economically, and the stakeholders in terms of employers and private sector service providers are different to some of the stakeholders that you need to work with on the broader human rights agenda. I think there would be issues around how to ensure credibility across the range that the integrated body had to deal with, and how to take account of the different scale of work, with the thousands and thousands and thousands of cases that we now have going through and the range of equality matters. With the three new strands we can expect some more, and the scale of different tasks would need to be taken into account in some way. The one model that I believe would be less helpful and would not meet some of the principles we have developed would be the umbrella human rights model with a loose federation of organisations underneath. One of the things that I see as a great gain from having a single equality body is the ability to deal with some of the cross-cutting issues across the equality field, and some of the multiple identity issues, where in order to sort out the problem you have to look at both race and gender, for example. That is something that a single equality body would enable us to do, so having a loose federation would not help with those objectives.
  (Mr Singh) It is clear that the messages coming out of Government are less than clear! Is this an exercise that Government is embarking on to tidy up the anomalies which exist, or is it meant to be a more radical review of modern 21st century Britain where we are fundamentally looking at equalities in a more strategic way, and also looking at human rights and the new strands that are emerging? My own view is that it is the latter that we should be looking at, taking a more radical look at how we most effectively deliver the human rights agenda on the one hand and an equality agenda at the other end, and at how the two fuse together. Do not forget that we have one organisation that is 26 years old, the EOC, and another organisation which two weeks ago celebrated its 25th birthday, the CRE; and the DRC is clearly much younger. What are the lessons we have learned? My view is that this provides an adequate ample opportunity to fundamentally look at where we are at. I do not get a sense of that. There are all sorts of caveats that one would have to build in if there were to be a radical overhaul with a single equality body. Let us look at the extent to which the law needs to be harmonised. In that context, let us look at whether we go forward with a single institutional structure on equalities and human rights, or whether there are two separate organisations. The CRE's position, which is not beyond being moved, subject to review, is that at the moment we believe that two separate organisations are better because we fundamentally need a human rights culture with a single organisational focus, which will not easily emerge out of something that is part of a much wider agenda. There is this belief that equalities could subsume the human rights agenda within it. That is a belief, and I do not know whether or not it is true. I think we need to take a slightly bigger view about it. If, as I also pick up, there is not a sense that we should have a human rights commission, that it is not necessary, then I would certainly want my own organisation to support the notion of an integrated organisation where human rights were contained within it, if that would save that as a concept.

  358. You are making two points. In a way, the Government's motivation is only one aspect. The vehicle is there and, if I may say so, it is for you to try to hijack the vehicle in a way that you wish to see it go. Are you, as organisations, working together on your response to this project, or are you taking the view that it is best to have a separate response and see where that falls out?
  (Mr Singh) We devoted a whole day last Friday very much to this issue, with the three organisations coming together to see whether there is a commonality of interest. It is our intention to produce a detailed paper by September, hoping that this will fit in with the time frame that Government has set. Our more visioned look at the issue can form part of the debate that will inevitably start in September or October.
  (Mr Massie) There are common areas, but there are also some differences. Firstly, to DRC, it is critical, not just in an abstract way, but it affects people every day, and is very important to us. We think that whatever the terms of reference mean, whatever the mechanism, not only should it be enforcing the Human Rights Act but there should be greater promotional work. We also believe that one of the great threats—and there are many—that a single equality body presents to disabled people is that we would lose control of the agenda, that non disabled people will, yet again, be telling us what is good for us. While they mean terribly well, they often get it wrong. Some of us who are disabled have had to fight against the good intentions of others who have inadvertently prevented us from attaining independence. If you bundle the whole lot together, disabled people will lose the policy agenda. Gurbux has spoken about a single equality act. If the Government passed that and if it implemented the recommendations of the Disability Rights Task Force, we think that a large part of the policy agenda will be delivered, and control of that agenda will be critical to disabled people. We see no indication that the Government wants a single equality act. We do not even sense any degree of urgency for them to take forward their own election manifesto commitments on the Disability Rights Task Force's recommendations. That is a huge worry to us. Even with DRC fighting, we are losing some ground against bigger agendas. When it comes to human rights and a human rights commission, we would prefer to see a separate body working very closely with whatever body or bodies emerges from the current debate. Failing that, we do see some value in the approach of having an overriding human rights commission with equality strands within it. I hear everything Julie says about wanting the cross-fertilisation but we think all that can be done anyway. I do not see major problems, but we believe disabled people need a protected position to push forward the disability agenda, and fear that it will be sidelined. Even in the human rights debates within your House, disability is sidelined into other issues, and it happens time and time again. There is a danger that that will happen yet again. It will go forward and everyone will say it will be wonderful, terrific; but disabled people will be sidelined. That is my real interest; that we will lose the ground that we have spent twenty years achieving.

Mr McNamara

  359. Has what has happened with the Equality Commission in Northern Ireland been looked at, and the drawing up of the various protocols within the Commission to take account of bodies that were fused together? Do you think that the fears that have been expressed by Mr Massie have been overcome in Northern Ireland by protocols that were used, because all these sorts of suspicions were there before? Is not what matters the amount of money, powers, support and resources that you have to enable you to carry things through, quite apart from what is happening in the legislation? For example, you have the Human Rights Commission, Northern Ireland, with a lot of problems, particularly the financial resources available to it, whereas the Joint Equality Commission has far more finance and is able to operate therefore with lesser financial burdens upon it. As an outsider, it seems to have progressed very successfully, bringing forward all the various issues.
  (Mr Singh) As part of our discussions on Friday, the Human Rights Commission from Belfast and Dublin were both present, with other senior people from the authorities. We are clearly learning from the lessons that have emerged from their experiences. It is clear that a single equality organisation can be set up that does not jeopardise the situation and create the hierarchy of oppression that Bert is fearful of.

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