Examination of Witnesses (Questions 380
MONDAY 1 JULY 2002
380. So where at the moment would domestic violence
issues sit? Who picks up domestic violence, or does it sit there
as a gap?
(Ms Watson) In a sense it is a gap. Julie referred
earlier to one of the cases, the Amin case, which has been instrumental
in defining what we can and cannot challenge, and one of the issues
that fell out of that is that it is very difficult for us to challenge
things that are to do with statutory provision. So, for example,
domestic violence and things that might flow from that, for example
prosecution, we could not challenge. Housingwell, we might
be able to look at that and that is because of the way the SDA
is worded. There are two ways around that: one would be to have
the kind of positive duty we have seen through the Race Relations
Amendment Act which would mean that public authorities had to
consider gender equality when they are providing the services
because obviously they would have to address the needs of women
who had experienced domestic violence, but I think it is also
true to say that a human rights commission would pick up issues
around domestic violence. They would pick up things like prosecution
and safety of those women and the difficulty, in fact, of getting
rehoused. Having worked at victim support in the past I am very
aware of the whole gamut of problems that you can experience as
a women who needs to find a way out of domestic violence, so there
is no doubt that some kind of human rights function, perhaps working
with a sex equality function, would be able to move that forward.
381. Another area we are looking at, again in
the context of the government saying it wants to establish a human
rights culture, is where do things like deaths in custody or bullying
of prisoners sit at the moment? How do people at the moment assert
their human rights thereand perhaps your silence says it
(Mr Singh) I was trying to think it through. We are
currently engaged in conducting a formal investigation into the
prison service and I was trying to work out how you would pick
that issue up. Clearly the Race Relations Act would cover deaths
in custody or, indeed, bullying as was mentioned if there was
a race or an ethnicity characteristic attached to it. That would
be picked up under race but most certainly we would not be able
to pick it up if that was not the case and therefore that would
be the gap. In the same way as with bullying in a school environment,
or exclusion is another example, if we were talking about exclusions
within schools then clearly we would pick up the disproportionate
nature of African-Caribbean boys being excluded but not the principle
per se as a general rule. I think that is how we would see it.
382. And, therefore, if you try and put this
picture together and if the government in conducting its review
to produce, say, a large equalities commission, came up with this
recommendation, if the component of a human rights commission
was still either not within the equalities commission or without
it, what would be your response to the government's claim that
it wants to create the human rights culture? Can it do that?
(Mr Singh) It goes back to the point that there were
gaps in the law and that we were seeking as part of the Race Relations
Amendment Act process the filling of those gaps which would enable
us at the commission and the CRE to try and pick up, under those
sorts of circumstances, the human rights elements that we currently
cannot pick up.
383. And if it were not to include that?
(Mr Singh) That would be a major weakness.
384. How major a weakness if you want to create
the human rights culture?
(Mr Massie) If the government said, "We are going
to create a human rights culture and we are not going to have
any enforcement or promotion mechanism", we would be incredulous
surely. We would smile sweetly and that would be about it because
it is not going to happen. We know now we have the Human Rights
Act on the statute and we know time and time again that when human
rights of disabled people are violated we cannot do anything about
it. We have to sit back and say, "Well, isn't it sad",
and people are going to carry on suffering no matter what the
government says, unless there is some enforcement mechanism. It
is just not going to happen.
(Ms Watson) The reason we responded to the consultation
around a human rights commission is clearly because the lack of
a human rights commission is a gap in the human rights infrastructure
and without it we cannot go forward.
385. The reason I am being provocative in this
way, having sat here silently for an hour and twenty minutes before
is really to get you to use this as an opportunity for us to gauge
just how indifferent or seriously you would take the absence of
a human rights commission component to the review that the government
is conducting now?
(Mr Singh) That is why, again, earlier on I said that
to achieve the sort of human rights culture that we all want we
need a human rights commission. I am absolutely clear. Frankly
at the moment, whilst in certain middle class environments there
may be a debate about human rights, on the ground where it really
matters people do not talk about their "human rights";
they do not understand them; there is no concept of them, and
that culture will only come about if there is dedicated activity
which delivers that, and it was for that reason that I was trying
to suggest that whilst the serious fallback position was really
separate institutions, if there was a real risk that a human rights
commission was not going to be set up, we most certainly would
support a fallback position, and I would seek this, where a human
rights component was built into an integrated quality structure,
because I think that is profoundly important. Unless we get that,
frankly all we have are nice fine words and nice fine statutes.
(Ms Watson) There are other examples. If the situation
is not one of discrimination on the grounds of sex or equality
between women and men, we could not consider the complaint. You
raise the issue of domestic violence and there are other issues
that we are all very conscious of through the press. The trafficking
of women for the sex industry is clearly a violation of those
women's human rights. There is not a lot we could do about that
and a human rights commission could tackle that. There may be
issues around the provision of services to people who are carers
looking after vulnerable or older dependants. If we had a public
sector duty, we might find that was caught up through considering
gender in the provision of public services but it is clearly an
Article 8 issue because it is around family life. There are issues
where the government has already acted around protection of vulnerable
witnesses in court, particularly in cases of rape and sexual assault,
where there are measures to protect those women giving evidence
but also in relation to a whole range of other witnesses who might
find it difficult to give evidence in court. Those are human rights
issues and are issues which, again, we might not be able to take
on. Without a human rights component those things will fall into
386. Therefore, to be absolutely precise, if
the government wants to create, as I believe it does, a human
rights culture, can it do so without now creating a human rights
commission and therefore take the opportunity in this review to
embrace that? If we do not have a human rights commission, either
within or without a single equality commission, can it achieve
this objective? Yes or no?
(Mr Singh) No.
(Ms Mellor) No.
(Mr Massie) There are other options.
387. But the principle of embracing it?
(Mr Massie) It is not going to happen by ministers'
388. To change the subject a little, you will
be aware that the Committee had before it about three weeks ago
a group of young people talking about how they saw their human
rights in one way or another. I wonder if I could translate their
experience to your three organisations and ask to what extent
you are involved in looking at questions of discrimination against
young people on the grounds of their age and how this affects,
for example, the provision of services to the disabled and the
way they are looked at on racial or sexual grounds by the equalities
commission? Is there a real issue here of the position of children
of which you are aware? Following up on that, would you say that
there would be a role within the equalities commission or whatever
organisation is set up for a child commissioner, or a commissioner
(Mr Massie) At the DRC we take the needs of disabled
children very seriously. We consulted young people on our strategic
plan, and when we were drawing up our education codes of practice
we consulted several youngsters through organisations. We are
also going to hold a conference later on this year focusing on
young people. Our three commissions in Scotland have produced
a booklet, An Equal Start, which deals across the various strands.
When the DRC was set up, we were fortunate to have as one of the
commissioners, Philippa Russell, who is the director of the Council
for Disabled Children, so it has been quite an important part
of our work from day 1.
389. And on the child commissioner?
(Mr Massie) I think what is going to happen is, if
this single equality body ever gets off the ground, then people
are going to say that it takes on children's issues as well. If
the government says it only wants one commission, then there is
a whole range of other people which the government have not even
thought about, to be honest. Why not bring children as a strand?
They certainly face discrimination.
(Mr Singh) Most certainly children, young people,
are very much at the heart of this agenda, and it has to be. Over
the last few years, following on from the riots in northern towns
and cities, inevitably it is part of any debate about cohesion,
young people and the disabledall of thesemust require
agencies like the commission to focus on them. Our work in education,
looking at schools' attainment, the different patterns of education
attainment, the whole issue of exclusion, bullying in schoolsthat
is profoundly important for our work and is a considerable proportion
of our work. Young people in the labour market, in employment,
patterns of difference within the labour marketconsiderable
evidence and again quite some detailed work. Race violencewho
commits race violence on our street? It is young people by and
large so what do we do about, how do we bring people togetherprofoundly
important. Guns on our streets is a matter that is, again, hugely
important in Britain today, and has serious race implications
attached to it, therefore it is work that we are actively engaged
in and hopefully trying to do something about. So a substantial
plank of the commission's work is about young peopleboth
those at school, those who should be in school, those not in school,
those now seeking the employment sector, the labour marketall
of that is profoundly important. I happen to believe that we should
be supporting the idea of a commissioner for children.
(Ms Watson) In relation to girls and boys and the
discrimination and differences that they encounter at school,
we have done work around stereotyping and careers choices and
subject choices, they can be pushed very early into paths and
it is very much more difficult later in life to get to the career
they want, because they are limited by people's assumptions when
they are making their subject choices. I am sure that will be
a subject of delight to children everywhere that they can freely
choose their exam choices! Obviously we have done work on child
care although, to be frank, that has been in the context of working
parents and what they need in order to be able to balance their
home and work responsibilities, and I suspect as we develop our
new corporate plan we will consult with stakeholders and I would
think that would include a group of young people. In relation
to a children's commissioner, I am not sure that we have a formal
EOC view. It would seem sensible, as this process is being addressed,
for any human rights dimension within or without a new body to
consider that. If you were thinking about setting up a separate
children's rights commissioner at a time when you were thinking
about also creating a new body to do with equalities and human
rights issues that might be a difficult working relationship.
390. I get confused over what is an equality
issue and what is a human rights issue. I am not sure where the
distinction is in many of these things. Where is bullying in schools?
(Ms Watson) It could be a discrimination issue, if
you are being bullied because of your race or disability or your
gender. However, it could simply be, tragically, that you are
being bullied just because of who you are and that may not be
a discrimination issue. So I would say that could be an equalities
issue but it is certainly a human rights issue.
391. Would that be the general feeling?
(Mr Singh) Yes.
(Mr Massie) Yes.
392. To turn to another constraint on the architecture
of institutions: the constituent nations and the devolved responsibilities.
As you all know, equality goes all over great Britainthat
is in the systembut human rights are not so devolved, so
there could conceivably be a scenario whereby UK citizens in Northern
Ireland and in Scotland would have both an equality commission
and a human rights commission while people in England and Wales
would just have this united equalities commission. What are your
thoughts, and really I am asking all three organisations, on how
we should contemplate the kind of institutions we want in the
context of equalities not being devolved and human rights being
devolved? We have just been to Scotland, and we have had it fairly
forcefully put that people like to do their own thing.
(Mr Singh) The CRE currently is clearly Britain-wide
so therefore covers England, Scotland and Wales. Clearly there
has to be recognition of devolution and therefore in the human
rights context the way we view it would be that there has to be
recognition of the different legal systems in Scotland, and that
therefore brings to bear some consideration about an acceptable
arrangement for Scotland as opposed to England and Wales.
393. So they might have their own human rights
(Mr Singh) Yes, but we have not gone beyond that thinking.
If the CRE were to have a ten-year life cycle we would advise
against the fragmentation of a separate and independent CRE for
Scotland, but that shows inherent contradiction in our thinking,
394. Mr Massie?
(Mr Massie) When the DRC was set up two and a half
years ago we opened offices in Edinburgh and one in Cardiff. We
have found it enormously helpful both from our London and Manchester
offices in being able to support our staff in Scotland and Edinburgh
in their work with the Assembly and the executives in Scotland.
Also what has been extremely useful to us is how our staff and
commissioners, and indeed stakeholders in Scotland and Wales,
have contributed towards our Great Britain agenda. It is certainly
not England teaching the people in Scotland or Wales: it is very
much a two-way process where we learn from each other and that
has strengthened the DRC enormously. Our preference would be,
if there was going to be a single body, that it should be GB-wide.
395. Do you mean an equalities commission?
(Mr Massie) Yes.
396. But you are not also talking about human
(Mr Massie) We accept that we would prefer separate
agencies but we have a fallback position to include if the government
will not create a separate agency. Scotland has already indicated
it wants its own human rights commission and, if that is what
people in Scotland want, then we will back them in their own desire.
What is disappointing, I think, is that the body they are creating
will not have all the powers I believe it will require. That then
brings us to England and Wales, and I would argue then for one
body covering both England and Wales rather than a Wales body
and an England body.
397. Just to round it off, would you contemplate
a UK human rights commission which kept some broad international
functions, such as dealing with international treaty bodies, but
that was nevertheless a national organisation?
(Mr Massie) We have not really thought that through.
Our starting position would be to want to know what the people
in Northern Ireland think about it as well before we form a view.
I do know that the funding regime in Northern Ireland for the
human rights commission has been very tight and that has been
a great restraint on what they can achieve. Luckily that could
be resolved by giving them more money!
398. Can I ask one point which is rather interesting
and important: you said that the Scots are not going quite the
way you would like if they set up a statutory Human Rights Commission.
Is that because of a restraint on the UK board in relation to
you, or is it a question of not wanting to take on some of the
powers which you would like them to have which deals with some
of the problems we have been discussing earlier?
(Mr Massie) I think my understanding of how the Scottish
legislation is being proposed is that the commission then will
not have full enforcement powers, and this keeps coming back to
the argument of, "Can you win hearts and minds?". In
the disability movement governments have always said, "Well,
we can persuade people to act reasonably". Well, some people
can, but it takes an awful long time and a lot of persuasion.
Once you pass a law then suddenly people are persuaded much more
easily. It does not mean to say you have to use the law all the
time; it is the fact the law is there. Certainly looking at employers
and disability, I remember running conferences when I worked for
my previous employer back in the mid-1980s, and trying to get
employers to even turn up to discuss disability was a huge task,
and the ones who did were committed anyway, so you ended up talking
to familiar friends which was agreeable but was not the purpose.
The minute you pass a law, suddenly now employers come and talk
to us because there is a law they have to obey. Not only that,
there is an enforcement mechanism so you can educate and persuade
much more effectively when you have legislative powers and you
have enforcement powers, and that is why I think the Scottish
commission will not be as strong as it would otherwise be.
399. That is helpful. Those of us who went to
Scotland heard the government say that they would stronger enforcement
powers. What is the EOC's views?
(Ms Mellor) I think in terms of the impact so far
on devolution it has brought some big and positive changes in
terms of progress on equality in both Scotland and Wales, because
equality is much higher up the agenda than it was before devolution
with a mixture of legal duties, new structures and political leadership
drive and change, so it would be much more integrated into public
policy in Scotland and Wales than England, or indeed Westminster.
In terms of the change in the way we operate, then I think it
has given us the chance to focus on the distinctive opportunities
for progress in Scotland and Wales within the context of GB-wide
goals and priorities, and that has meant we have put increased
resources into our Scotland and Wales offices in order to take
advantage of these opportunities, and we have been able to learn
from the experiences in Scotland and Wales to strengthen our work
GB-wide. In terms of what next, then I am afraid I do not want
to be conclusive at this stage because we are over the summer
consulting our stakeholders in Scotland and Wales about the single
equality body project, and do not want to be premature in drawing
conclusions from that.