Joint Committee On Human Rights Sixth Report


 The Joint Committee on Human Rights has agreed to the following Report:



The Human Rights Act: An Engine of Transformation?


1. The Human Rights Act 1998 was heralded as a measure that would help to inaugurate a gradual transformation of civil society, not simply make a technical adjustment to the statute book. It was hoped that it would not only create domestic legal remedies for breaches of the European Convention on Human Rights by its incorporation into UK law, but that it would also help to change the relationship between the state and its citizens more widely—to bring about more fundamental change and create "a culture of human rights". What might this mean?

2. The claim of human rights to universality springs from a recognition of the common humanity and equal dignity of all human beings, as proclaimed in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These rights are anchored in the UN Covenants, the various specialised international human rights conventions and the European Convention on Human Rights.[1] They are not the property of any one political party, political philosophy, or religious creed.[2] But human rights cannot form the sole basis or define the whole extent of a political culture based on democracy and the rule of law. They do, however, form an integral part of moral and political life and lay down fundamental standards that may be violated, if at all, only under stringent and clearly specified conditions. By a culture of human rights we mean, therefore, not one that is concerned with rights to the neglect of duties and responsibilities, but rather one that fosters basic respect for human rights and creates a climate in which such respect becomes an integral part of our way of life and a reference point for our dealings with public authorities and each other.

3. A culture of human rights has two dimensions—institutional and ethical. So far as the former is concerned, it requires that human rights should shape the goals, structures, and practices of our public bodies. In their decision making and their service delivery, schools, hospitals, workplaces and other organs and agencies of the state should ensure full respect for the rights of those involved. As the Home Office put it to us—

The Act is intended, over time, to help bring about the development of a culture of rights and responsibilities across the UK. This involves looking beyond questions of technical compliance. The Convention rights need to be seen as a set of broad, basic values which are accessible to and can be shared by all throughout the UK—and which are fully integrated into the democratic policy making process.[3]

4. Under the various international human rights instruments, it is the state that has positive duties to secure the effective protection of human rights. After the Human Rights Act had become law, the Government's Human Rights Task Force announced—

The Human Rights Act is one of the most significant pieces of constitutional legislation enacted in the United Kingdom ... [it] places new responsibilities on all of us who work in public authorities ... We all have a vital role to play in building a human rights culture in the UK.[4]

5. The legislature, the executive and judiciary share responsibility for the protection and promotion of human rights. What is essential is that the principles enshrined in human rights are translated into practice. Achieving that requires public authorities to understand their obligations not only to avoid violating the rights of those in their care, or whom they serve, but also to have regard to their wider and more positive duty to "secure to everyone ... the rights and freedoms"[5] which the Human Rights Act and the other instruments define.

6. But making a culture of human rights a reality also requires that individuals are able to understand what their rights are, and are able to seek advice, assistance, redress and protection if they believe that their rights have been violated or are threatened with violation. It also requires that they understand their responsibilities for upholding those rights in their dealings with others.

7. So far as the moral or personal dimension is concerned, a culture of human rights could be characterised as having three components. First, a sense of entitlement. Citizens enjoy certain rights as an affirmation of their equal dignity and worth, and not as a contingent gift of the state. Second, a sense of personal responsibility. The rights of one person can easily impinge on the rights of another and each must therefore exercise his or her rights with care. Third, a sense of social obligation. The rights of one person can require positive obligations on the part of another and, in addition, a fair balance will frequently have to be struck between individual rights and the needs of a democratic society and the wider public interest.

8. That is what is meant by a culture of human rights—or, as we would prefer to term it, a culture of respect for human rights. In the absence of a written constitution, the Human Rights Act, and the various international human rights instruments to which the UK has acceded, may be seen to serve in place of a comprehensive constitutional concept of the positive rights and duties of those who live in this country.

9. A culture of respect for human rights would exist when there was a widely-shared sense of entitlement to these rights, of personal responsibility and of respect for the rights of others, and when this influenced all our institutional policies and practices. This would help create a more humane society, a more responsive government and better public services, and could help to deepen and widen democracy by increasing the sense amongst individual men and women that they have a stake in the way in which they are governed. For these and other reasons we believe a culture of respect for human rights is a goal worth striving for.

10. During the period of the Human Rights Act's gestation there was concern amongst many of its champions that the dissemination of such a culture would not follow the passing of legislation, because the Bill provided for no body to be appointed charged with the duty to promote the Act and to drive forward the "new culture".[6] The Government had indicated, in introducing the Bill, that it was not yet persuaded of the need for such a body. In the White Paper, Rights Brought Home, it noted that—

Bringing Rights Home canvassed views on the establishment of a Human Rights Commission ... The Government's priority is implementation of its Manifesto commitment to give further effect to the Convention rights in domestic law ... Establishment of a new Human Rights Commission is not central to that objective ... The Government's conclusion is that, before a Human Rights Commission could be established ... more consideration needs to be given to how it would work ... and there needs to be a greater degree of consensus on an appropriate model among existing human rights bodies. However, the Government has not closed its mind to the idea of a new Human Rights Commission at some stage in the future in the light of practical experience of the working of the new legislation.[7]

11. The White Paper went on to say—

If Parliament establishes a Committee on Human Rights, one of its main tasks might be to conduct an inquiry into whether a Human Rights Commission is needed and how it should operate. The Government would want to give full weight to the Committee's report in considering whether to create a statutory Human Rights Commission in future.[8]

The Joint Committee on Human Rights met for the first time on 31 January 2001. One of its early decisions was to conduct an inquiry into the case for establishing a human rights commission.[9] When we first met in this Parliament we resolved to continue the inquiry.[10] This report is our response to that challenge to look at whether a human rights commission is needed. In it we will be considering, as a central question, the evidence as to whether that process of cultural change which it was hoped might be inspired by the Human Rights Act has begun, and whether a human rights commission could contribute substantially towards achieving this goal. We trust the Government will give full weight to our findings.


12. We have obtained a substantial quantity of written and oral evidence,[11] and have visited: Belfast, to look at the work of the Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission already established there under the Northern Ireland Act 1998; Edinburgh, to discuss the proposals of the Scottish Executive to establish a Scottish Human Rights Commission and a commissioner for children and young people in Scotland; Cardiff, to discuss attitudes towards a human rights commission for England and Wales, and the role of the new Children's Commissioner for Wales; New Delhi, to look at the work of the Indian National Human Rights Commission and the Rajasthan State Human Rights Commission; Sydney and Canberra, to look at the work of the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission and the New South Wales Equal Opportunities Commission; and Wellington and Auckland, to look at the work of the New Zealand Human Rights Commission and the New Zealand Commissioner for children.[12] We have also benefited from research undertaken specifically on human rights commissions by or on behalf of: the British Institute of Human Rights (funded by the Comic Relief charitable trust); the Commission for Racial Equality; the Commonwealth Institute for Human Rights; the Constitution Unit; the Disability Rights Commission; the Equal Opportunities Commission; the Nuffield Foundation; the Institute for Public Policy Research; and JUSTICE. We have also been able to take into account a wide range of domestic and international research undertaken on the nature and structure of national human rights institutions. We are grateful to all those who have helped us in these different ways, including our Specialist Advisers.[13]

1   And, most recently, the European Charter of Fundamental Rights, currently being considered for inclusion in a constitution defining and limiting the powers of the European Union. Back

2   In the late 1940s the main British protagonists of what became the European Convention on Human Rights were Conservatives such as Winston Churchill, Harold Macmillan, and David Maxwell-Fyfe, and Liberals, such as Lord Layton. It was the Attlee Government that ratified the Convention in 1951, the Churchill Government that ratified its First Protocol in 1953, the Wilson Government that accepted the right of petition in 1966, and the Liberal peer, Lord Wade who campaigned repeatedly for a Human Rights Act, with the support of Conservative jurists, such as Sir Edward Gardner, Lord Broxbourne and Lord Rippon, and Cross-benchers, including Lord Scarman. And it was the Labour Government that introduced the Human Rights Bill in 1998 with Liberal Democrat support. Back

3   Minutes of Evidence taken before the Committee on 14 March 2001, HL Paper 66-i/HC 332-i, p 1, para 6 Back

4   A New Era of Rights and Responsibilities: Core Guidance for Public Authorities, Human Rights Task Force, paras 1 to 4 Back

5   Article 1 of the ECHR Back

6   In this it contrasted with earlier legislative attempts to effect similar transformations, such as the Race Relations and the Sex Discrimination Acts, which established independent commissions to promote their underlying values and to help enforce their provisions. Back

7   Rights Brought Home: The Human Rights Bill, Cm 3782, October 1997, paras 3.8 to 3.11 Back

8   Rights Brought Home: The Human Rights Bill, Cm 3782, October 1997, paras 3.8 to 3.11 Back

9   It issued a call for evidence in April 2001, seeking responses by July. Shortly after the call for evidence was made, Parliament was dissolved for the general election. See Twenty-second Report, Session 2001-02, The Case for a Human Rights Commission: Interim Report, HL Paper 160/HC 1142. Back

10   We began by holding a seminar with a number of experts and practitioners to clarify the scope and nature of the questions we were seeking to answer in our inquiry. The seminar was held on 28 February 2002 at Westminster; those attending are listed in our Twenty-second Report of Session 2001-02, op cit, p 5, footnote 4. Back

11   Much of the written evidence was received in response to our predecessors' call for evidence in April 2001 and was published in our interim report in September 2002, Twenty-second Report of Session 2001-02, op cit. Back

12   We will be reporting separately on the case for a children's commissioner for England in our forthcoming report on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Back

13   Ms Frances Butler, Mr Jeremy Croft and Ms Jodie Reed. We were also assisted informally in our researches by Ms Jane Gordon and Dr Rachel Murray. Back

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