Joint Committee On Human Rights Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 54-59)




  54. Welcome to this meeting of the joint Committee on Human Rights. We welcome you in your ministerial role and also as a former member of this Committee. Perhaps you would like to introduce the member of staff who is with you today?

  (Mr Browne) Can I say it is a pleasure for me to be here today, given that I had the honour to serve as one of the first members of this Committee, and I am particularly pleased to be here. This is my first ever appearance as a Minister before a Select Committee. I am joined today by Kirsten McFarlane, head of the human rights and equality unit in Northern Ireland, and we shall endeavour to assist your inquiries.

  55. Could I ask you a preliminary question as part of our inquiry into the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission? When we met them earlier in the year in February we did promise that we would take evidence from them subsequent to the publication of their annual report, and we are very pleased you have come to see us today, but how would you measure the success of a Human Rights Commission?  (Mr Browne) I think, as you know and your Committee will know, human rights are central to what we are trying to achieve in Northern Ireland and to the Belfast Agreement, not only in the sense that there is a Human Rights Commission, and, indeed, the creation of that Human Rights Commission has its roots in the Belfast Agreement and not only the proposal for a Bill of Rights which also has its roots in the Belfast Agreement instructing that Commission to give us advice in relation to that, both of those are very important to the promotion and protection of human rights, but the other institutions in Northern Ireland have as a central theme running through them a culture of rights. Our view is that, since the Belfast Agreement and the creation of those institutions, although the two important institutions are at the moment suspended for reasons which I think are well known to the public, we believe we have come a long way towards creating a strong culture of human rights in Northern Ireland, but we are also mindful of the fact that there is a lot more to be done, and the Commission makes a significant contribution to that. It has incomplete work in relation to the Bill of Rights and it is a very difficult and challenging task that it has to give advice to the government, and to bring forward that advice in a way in which it is supported and has ownership by the community of Northern Ireland, which is a divided community. It is a particularly challenging and difficult task. I have to say, and I say this at the outset, people are very quick to judge the work they are doing in relation to that, and I think one ought to be careful about judging that because it is incomplete work. My view is that they have taken on that challenge which is a very difficult and unique one very bravely and we are to be judged against where we were rather than where people think we should be going in terms of that work. They also provide a valuable source of advice and guidance to the government. I have to say they will say it is not always advice that we take but that is the nature of the relationship. It is a dynamic one, as I have said on a number of occasions publicly and very recently publicly: we expect to be challenged by them and they do challenge us, and I suppose it is a healthy relationship that they think we do not always rise to the challenge they generate. Our view is, and I have again made this clear in response to their annual report, that they make a significant and important contribution but I think people have to understand where we have been in Northern Ireland and where we hope to get to and understand the perils along that road, and I do not think either the government in relation to its workings with the Commission or the Commission in relation to it working with the community in Northern Ireland ought to be judged against the objective as opposed to against what we have managed to achieve in the time since the Agreement.

  56. It is evident to me that you, if not an enthusiastic supporter, do see the importance of a Human Rights Commission in Northern Ireland and would, I think, wish them fair weather. Do you think that enthusiasm is shared by everybody in the Northern Ireland Office? Do you think they all want it to be a success?  (Mr Browne) I think everybody in the Northern Ireland Office takes their key from the minister who has responsibility in the sponsoring department for the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. I am more than satisfied with the service I get from excellent officials in relation to this work. It is of the nature of the work we do and in particular since there is no template, as the minister for human rights, as the minister for victims in Northern Ireland I was not able to take a book off the shelf and say, "This is how one does the job". I think it is of the nature of that and the divided community that is emerging from conflict that some people are going to want to move at a different pace than others, but in the context of the greater political process we have in Northern Ireland I think people have to understand that sometimes we have to mark time and allow other people in the community to catch up with us, so that the community moves at the same pace and that we do not leave people behind. I think that is a difficult task and there has to be a balance. We try to apply that balance in a fair, honest and transparent fashion. We are not surprised that we get criticised and sometimes from both sides, but that is the nature of the territory, and I think there are some people in this Committee who have a degree of expertise in Northern Ireland politics and they will know fine well that traditionally the Northern Ireland Office is a whipping boy for everybody in Northern Ireland as far as almost every area of social policy is concerned. My experience as a minister is that a lot of that criticism is misplaced, and just as I on occasions defend the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission when I think the criticism is unfair, I shall defend my officials when I think the criticism is unfair too.

  57. In response to the Commission's report under section 69 of the Northern Ireland Act, the Northern Ireland Office noted that the Northern Ireland Humans Rights Commission was one of several bodies with human rights responsibilities in Northern Ireland. In view of that, do you think there is a unique role for the Human Rights Commission in Northern Ireland?  (Mr Browne) It is a very difficult question, I think. I try not, and indeed in the short submission we gave the Committee we deliberately avoided this, to be drawn into qualitative judgments about the Human Rights Commission in the sense that I think they are better left to other people to make, and in particular in relation to my unique role as the minister for human rights in Northern Ireland, I think it would be unhelpful if I was to express opinions in some areas. In answer to the first question, I said that we are trying to create a culture of human rights in Northern Ireland right across the board, so it is implicit in that that all the institutions that are being created under the Good Friday Agreement and that are part of the process of peace in Northern Ireland have to make some contribution to that culture. The particular role that the Commission plays I think, which is unique, is that it uniquely has the duty to advise in relation to the question of the Bill of Rights so it is charged with that responsibility. It has I think by its nature and by the nature of the talents that are brought together in the Commission, and the resources that it has, a unique role in advising in relation to human rights across the board and should be of assistance to some of the other institutions in terms of giving them advice. While it is not the only source of advice about human rights, I think if it has to any extent a unique role, then that is it.

Baroness Whitaker

  58. It is very nice to see you again. You refer to the role of the Human Rights Commission in giving advice and guidance to government. How do you see it as providing that service in effect? What are the forms of advice and guidance to the Government that the Human Rights Commission might give?  (Mr Browne) I have a copy of the 1998 Act at my hand here but rather than bore you with reading out what is in there, there is some guidance in the provisions of the 1998 Act and indeed the schedule to the Act as to the role of the Human Rights Commission. As a matter of fact, it is a matter for the Commission to decide itself what its programme of work is over the course of the year and it does so, and where it chooses to investigate or to report then its advice is heard and listened to by government and I have certainly found its annual report a very valuable tool in relation to some issues. With reference to that I can very quickly point to the areas in which they have sought to carry out work, and in addition to that it is always consulted—consultations of which the Northern Ireland Office carry out a significant number in relation to legislation.

  59. Do you think there are ways in which you could make better use of the Commission's advice? For example, in relation to legislative scrutiny, I believe they said to us they were not always consulted on legislative proposals in time? Am I right?  (Mr Browne) I have to say in my limited ministerial experience in Northern Ireland there is a constant criticism of the length of the time given for consultation. I am in the unique position in relation to some of the areas where I have responsibility, say, for example, criminal justice or electoral law—and I am thinking particularly in relation to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board—I have a duty to consult with the Assembly although the ministers that are directly responsible to the Assembly have no executive powers in this particular area and in a number of areas there is a formalised consultation built into the 1998 Act with the Assembly. It is unique in my experience and I as an executive minister accountable to this Parliament have a formal requirement of consultation with another legislative body that I have no accountability relationship with. That is not, in fact, in my experience the limit of the amount of consultation that goes on in Northern Ireland. There is an extensive amount that goes on with bodies, including sometimes pre legislative consultation and pre publication consultation with political parties in Northern Ireland about proposed legislation. So there is quite extensive consultation that takes place in Northern Ireland in relation to policy decisions by the government, particularly if they are likely to be reflected in legislation. Constantly parties complain that there is not enough time for those consultations but sometimes the necessity of complying, for example, with requirements in relation to a European directive or some other compulsifer limits the time we have. I have heard from the Northern Ireland Humans Rights Commission that on occasions they have had insufficient time to deal with legislation or been insufficiently consulted in relation to that, and we endeavour to take that into account and to improve our capacity to consult with them and others as we proceed.

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