Joint Committee On Human Rights Sixth Report



In its White Paper, Bringing Rights Home, the Government, in anticipation of a parliamentary committee on human rights being established, suggested that that committee might examine whether, following the passing of the Human Rights Act 1998, there appeared to be a need for an independent human rights commission. This report is the response of the Joint Committee on Human Rights to that proposal. In it we conclude that the case for establishing a commission is compelling.

A Culture of Human Rights

It was hoped that the Human Rights Act would help to nurture a "culture of understanding of rights and responsibilities" in the UK. Human rights lay down fundamental standards that may be breached, if at all, only under stringent and clearly specified conditions. It is governments which are bound by the international human rights instruments, and the Human Rights Act places obligations on public authorities, not on individuals. But the obligations of public authorities go beyond non-interference with rights—they are also required to take active steps to protect people's rights against interference by others, and to enhance people's capacity to take advantage of their rights. The idea of such positive obligations is rooted in Article 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which requires every state to secure to everyone within their jurisdiction the rights and freedoms defined in the Convention.

A culture of human rights, therefore, would be one which gave full recognition to this positive concept of rights. It should have two dimensions—institutional and ethical. In such a culture, so far as the institutional dimension is concerned, respect for human rights should shape the goals, structures, and practices of our public bodies. The key to the effective protection of rights lies in creating a culture in public life in which these fundamental principles are seen as central to the design and delivery of policy, legislation and public services. In their decision making and their service delivery central government, local authorities, schools, hospitals, police forces and other organs and agencies of the state should ensure full respect for the rights of all those involved.

In such a culture, so far as the ethical dimension is concerned, individual men and women should understand that they enjoy certain rights as a matter of right, as an affirmation of their equal dignity and worth, and not as a contingent gift of the state. But this understanding should go with a sense of personal responsibility and of social obligation: an acknowledgement that the rights of one person are limited by those of others and need to be exercised with a due regard for the latter, and an acceptance that rights entail obligations on the part of others and require that these obligations should be discharged. For the most part human rights are not absolute: they require a fair balance to be struck and maintained between the individual and his or her fellow human beings and the wider public interest. A culture of human rights is not one which is concerned only with rights, to the neglect of duties and responsibilities, but rather one that balances rights and responsibilities by fostering a basic respect for human rights and dignity, and creating a climate in which such respect becomes an integral part of our dealings with the public authorities of the state and with each other.

Such a culture of respect for human rights could help create a more humane society, a more responsive government and better public services. It could help to deepen and widen democracy. It is a goal worth striving for.

The Case for a Human Rights Commission

In this report we consider the signs which indicate whether that culture of respect for human rights has begun to flourish in the UK since the passing of the Human Rights Act, and the evidence of whether a human rights commission could help it do so.

In the case of a measure such as the Human Rights Act, which is both new and intended to be far-reaching, the legal process does not have a reality unless people know what it is and know how to use it. Spreading knowledge and awareness of the law is an essential part of building a culture. But if it is left only to the courts, the original vision that the Human Rights Act should bring about a cultural change will not be realised. Litigation is an essential last resort in protecting the rights of the individual or groups, but it is not the most effective means of developing a culture of human rights.

Government cannot be the sole advocate of a culture of rights and responsibilities. Rights essentially mediate the relationship between the citizens and the state. A Government cannot be an impartial champion of human rights. In the course of our inquiry we found very broad support for an organisation which stands aside from government, and engages with civil society in a debate about the practical expression of the values embodied in human rights.

Parliament must defend human rights and must stand at the centre of a culture of respect for human rights, but it cannot itself do the work of educating, informing, encouraging and promoting that is needed to establish this culture more widely.

The Paris Principles, as agreed by the General Assembly of the United Nations, exhort all states to establish independent bodies which will raise public awareness of human rights, promote good practice, monitor policy developments and their impact, provide independent advice to Parliament and Government, and help those who feel that their rights have been breached or are threatened with violation. Many countries have already established independent national human rights institutions.

It is insufficient, however, to assert the case for an independent human rights commission in principle alone. It is necessary also to assess whether a commission could have the potential to make a real difference to people's lives.

We have not found evidence of the rapid development of awareness of a culture of respect for human rights and its implications throughout society, and what awareness there is often appears partial or ill-informed. We fear that the highwater mark has been passed, and that awareness of human rights is ebbing, both within public authorities and within the public at large.

We took evidence from a wide range of bodies concerned in the monitoring and regulation of public authorities, and examined more directly the extent to which the growth of a culture of human rights showed itself in the practices and policies of local authorities and NHS bodies.

It is clear to us that, by and large, public authorities, and those who inspect, advise and audit them, do not give a high priority to placing respect for human rights at the heart of their policies and practices. Insufficient energy is being given to communicating a vision to public authorities to help them understand how a culture of respect for human rights might look or how it could be delivered.

There is a need for the active promotion of the understanding that Convention rights impose positive duties on public authorities. In our public services the climate of legal compliance and risk avoidance too often inhibits the development of a human rights culture. Too often human rights are looked upon as something from which the state needs to defend itself, rather than to promote as its core ethical values. There is a failure to recognise the part that they could play in promoting social justice and social inclusion and in the drive to improve public services.

The enthusiasm to make the Human Rights Act come alive as a measure which places positive duties on public authorities, and which should promote a culture of respect for human rights in every aspect of public life, needs to be rekindled. A human rights commission probing, questioning and encouraging public bodies could have a real impact in driving forward the development of that culture by guiding, advising and assisting those involved in the work of public authorities. Such a body could assist the public services by consolidating advice on compliance with rights and complement the courts by preventing breaches of rights occurring through the spread of best practice and greater awareness. Governments should be able to look on a commission as a critical friend which can help them achieve some of their more fundamental goals, including improved delivery of better public services.

Working through regulatory and representative bodies for different sectors of public activity, a commission should be able to give human rights a focus, resources and a degree of institutional stability not found recently in central government. Human rights need a home. This could provide a base from which there would be a realistic chance of devising and disseminating a more credible culture of respect for human rights.

There is evidence of an unmet need for citizens to be assisted in understanding what their rights are, how these rights must be balanced with those of others, and how to assert their rights without necessarily having recourse to litigation.

We have found widespread evidence of a lack of respect for the rights of those who use public services, especially the rights of those who are most vulnerable and in need of protection. Human rights should provide a framework within which people who need to can negotiate with public authorities for better conditions and treatment, both in individual cases and in wider contexts. But the message about what human rights can do for individuals and groups in their relations with the state is at present being only faintly heard. Much of the cause for this state of affairs can be ascribed to the absence of an independent voice able energetically to promote and help to protect human rights in the UK. There is very widespread support for the establishment of a human rights commission which would be able to promote the principles that underlie the idea of a culture of human rights in a way that everyone can understand.

Sufficient unmet needs have been identified to establish that there is essential work for a commission to do. The development of a culture of respect for human rights is in danger of stalling, and there is an urgent need for the momentum to be revived and the project driven forward. Since the Government is committed to developing a culture of respect for human rights it has a duty of leadership. If it wills the end, it must also will the means. The resources devoted to this task are insufficient to achieve the goal that the Government desires. Precious time has already been wasted. The decision to establish an independent body for the promotion and protection of human rights must be taken now.

Powers and Functions

The commission we propose should not be seen as another inspectorate, advisory body, regulatory authority or enforcement agency. Nor should it be a body with an adversarial or litigious approach to its mission.

Its principal purpose should be to foster a culture of respect for human rights through raising awareness of the need to promote human rights in public authorities in the delivery of services, and through making individuals conscious of their rights and guiding them in asserting those rights.

In connection with this function it should be able to conduct and commission research and provide financial or other assistance for educational activities in connection with promoting understanding and awareness of human rights. It would need to offer guidance to, and promote best practice in, public authorities in relation to human rights.

The Commission should have the function of improving knowledge and understanding of human rights issues amongst those who help individuals in asserting their rights. It should be able to do this through close collaboration with non-governmental organisations and those who provide advice services in the voluntary sector and professionally. It should not itself be driven by the task of handling individual complaints.

The Commission should have the power to conduct inquiries into questions of public policy engaging human rights, on its own initiative. It should have the necessary powers to make this role effective.

Alternative dispute resolution procedures might provide a remedy for violations or potential violations of rights in appropriate circumstances. The commission could facilitate the use of such procedures. It could also mediate and conciliate on its own account in situations of broader conflict which engage human rights issues.

The commission should be involved in the reporting processes under the various international human rights instruments. It should also help to raise awareness of the obligations under these instruments more generally.

The commission could play a valuable role in assisting the courts in determining human rights questions. In order to do this we conclude that it will be essential for the commission to have power to act as a friend of the court or as a third party intervener. It may need other powers in relation to litigation, such as supporting strategic cases and seeking judicial review, to underpin its primary promotional function.



The Government's decision to establish a new equality commission makes it necessary to resolve now the question of how arrangements for the promotion of equality and diversity can work together with arrangements for the promotion and protection of human rights. This report constitutes our formal input into the Government's consultation on the structure of a single equality body for Great Britain.

The right to equality of treatment and the enjoyment of other rights without discrimination is a fundamental human right. There is a considerable degree of congruence between the work required for the promotion of equality and that required for the promotion and protection of human rights. There are also divergences. Unjustifiable discrimination needs to be tackled by detailed measures, which may not always be appropriate to the promotion and protection of wider human rights.

However constituted, the new single equality body will be insufficient if there are not more effective arrangements for the promotion and protection of human rights more generally. There are a number of options for the institutional structures relating to equality and for human rights. The proposed new single equality body will almost certainly require a human rights dimension if it is to do its work effectively. But this will not meet all the needs we have identified for arrangements for the promotion and protection of human rights.

There are arguments for and against a separate human rights commission standing alongside a separate single equality body. The practical advantages and disadvantages of the alternatives of a single integrated human rights and equality commission and two separate bodies for equality and human rights require careful consideration. There are strong arguments for moving, over the proposed timescale for the establishment of a single equality body, to the establishment of an integrated human rights and equality commission. This is our preferred option.


There is already a Human Rights Commission in Northern Ireland, and a decision has been taken to establish a Scottish Human Rights Commission. There are also special circumstances in Wales which need to be recognised.

Institutional arrangements for the promotion and protection of human rights need to be locally-sensitive and recognise the special circumstances of the different jurisdictions of the UK. But UK-wide arrangements which can address the complex inter-relationships between reserved and devolved responsibilities are also necessary, and possible. This applies equally to arrangements for the promotion of equality and diversity.

As an interim measure, a UK Human Rights Advisory Council should be established, on a non-statutory basis. Its principal function should be to provide a "light-touch" co-ordination of arrangements for the promotion and protection of human rights (including equality) throughout the UK and, in its first phase, helping prepare the way for the institutional changes which are in view.

Accountability and Independence

The commission must be guaranteed its independence, and sufficient resources. The main factor which will influence the quality of those who seek to become commissioners is the perception that the commission is a fully independent body with the potential to exercise real influence, and which is to be resourced adequately to do the job it has been set.

A requirement to consult Parliament on the appointment of commissioners would act as a guarantee of independence and democratic accountability. Parliament should be directly involved in setting the budget of the commission. The commission should work closely with the Joint Committee on Human Rights.


Human rights are widely misunderstood. They tend to be seen only in terms of offering protection from the worst excesses of anti-democratic and despotic regimes, or as the concern only of those who are fundamentally at odds with majority views in society.

Properly and more widely understood, and made a reality in the practice and policies of public authorities, human rights have the potential to be agents of positive change. There is, however, a danger that this potential will be dissipated in imprecise aspirations and pious hopes, or that human rights will be perceived as marginal to the day-to-day concerns of the UK's citizens.

More work needs to be done to promote human rights as a set of fundamental ethical standards—for the way the state treats its citizens and for all our social relations. We need to build a culture of respect for human rights.

Building such a culture is an ambitious vision, and there are many barriers to achieving it. The greatest of these is ignorance. In such a culture people would be better informed about what their rights were and what they could mean in practice. The most vulnerable would be better protected from violations of their human rights. Government and public authorities would promote and protect human rights standards and treat all people with dignity, fairness and respect. Human rights standards would be generally accepted as those by which we should all strive to treat each other; and people would recognise and value both their own rights and those of others.

We need a human rights commission. That commission must have a clear mission, and it must be given the powers and functions to fulfil that mission. It must have sufficient resources to do the job it has been given, and its budget must be set in an open and transparent way. It must be independent from Government, and be seen to be so. It must belong to the people and be accountable to them through Parliament.


In due course we will invite further evidence on some of the matters raised in this report.

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