Joint Committee On Human Rights Sixth Report


A Culture of Respect for Human Rights

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. (Paragraph 9)

There is no vision, no administrative framework and scant guidance reaching public authorities to tell them how a culture of respect for human rights might look or how it can be delivered. (Paragraph 61)

It is clear that, by and large, public authorities do not consider mainstreaming respect for human rights in their policies and practices a priority. We conclude that the Government's 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 forcefully promoted. (Paragraph 62)

The process of putting a culture of human rights at the heart of the work of public authorities needs to be reinvigorated if a consistent human rights message is to have a chance of reaching public authorities. These agents of the state cannot be expected to embrace a human rights culture that they do not know about. (Paragraph 68)

The Case for a Human Rights Commission

The existence of the Joint Committee on Human Rights is no substitute for the establishment of a human rights commission. (Paragraph 74)

We believe a commission could reduce avoidable litigation against public authorities rather than encourage it. On simple grounds of economy, the Government should be prepared to look positively at the idea of a commission. (Paragraph 78)

A Government should be able to look on a commission as a partner (although an independent and when necessary critical one) which can help it achieve some of its more fundamental goals, bringing it solutions, not just problems. (Paragraph 79)

A commission could make a positive contribution to achieving its vision of a new relationship between the citizen and the state—a relationship that could be to the benefit of both parties. (Paragraph 80)

The decision to reorganise the institutional arrangements for the promotion of equality has made it an urgent necessity to consider the institutional arrangements for the promotion and protection of human rights more generally. The Government's decision in principle to establish a new equality commission, which will have to consider human rights issues in the context of its own work, makes it necessary for the Government to now resolve the question of a human rights commission. (Paragraph 84)

Since the Government is serious about 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. Precious time has already passed. The question is whether the means to achieve the ambition are in place. We do not believe they are. An independent commission could provide those means. (Paragraph 88)

There is still a long way to go in establishing the culture of respect for human rights, and the momentum from the Human Rights Act is ebbing. If it is not revived, the loss will detract from or adversely affect the conduct and performance of public services, and consequently the well-being of those who use them. (Paragraph 89)

There is 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. A commission could meet those needs. (Paragraph 93)

We do not find 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. Indeed, we fear that the most recent highwater mark of this culture was between the passing of the Human Rights Act and its coming into effect— in the two years since the Act was brought into effect, the evidence we have gathered suggests the culture may actually have been in retreat. We conclude the resources devoted to this task within Government are insufficient to achieve the goal that the Government desires. We conclude that a commission would be both an effective and an efficient way of developing public awareness. (Paragraph 94)

A commission would give human rights a focus, resources and a degree of institutional stability not found recently in central government. This would provide a base from which there might be a realistic chance of devising and disseminating a more credible culture of respect for human rights in public authorities. (Paragraph 96)

A commission could undertake much of the dissemination and monitoring of human rights with respect to public authorities which is not happening, and shows no likelihood of happening, under the existing arrangements within Government. We believe this work needs to be done. We conclude that in the absence of a human rights commission it will not be done well, or possibly it will not be done at all. (Paragraph 98)

We are persuaded that sufficient unmet needs have been identified for there to be work for a commission to do. The development of a culture of respect for human rights in Great Britain is in danger of stalling, and there is an urgent need for the momentum to be revived and the project driven forward. A culture of respect for human rights cannot be developed through the courts alone and it cannot be developed solely by an agency within Government. We believe an independent commission would be the most effective way of achieving the shared aim of bringing about a culture of respect for human rights. Our advice is that such a commission should be established. (Paragraph 99)

Functions and Powers of the proposed Commission

We start from the position that the powers given to any commission should flow directly from the functions it is required to perform. Its powers should be sufficient for it to do its work, but no more extensive than is necessary. As we have also made clear, we do not envisage creating a body which is principally adversarial and litigious in nature. (Paragraph 104)

A commission would have an important and valuable role to play in improving the quality of understanding of human rights issues in the voluntary and professional advice sectors. It should be able to do this through funding education and research, and funding the development and provision of advice services provided in the voluntary sector rather than to undertake such advice functions directly itself. (Paragraph 113)

Involvement in the reporting processes under the various international human rights instruments would be a valuable function of any human rights commission. We would hope that a commission would also raise awareness of the international instruments more generally, and use them in its work in developing a culture of respect for human rights. (Paragraph 118)

The power to conduct public inquiries on its own initiative would be an essential element of a human rights commission's functions. (Paragraph 128)

We do not think it necessary to duplicate the work of this Committee by imposing a duty on a commission to conduct parallel scrutiny of legislation. (Paragraph 132)

In overseeing the promotion of a culture of human rights, a commission would have to be able to work effectively through regulatory and representative bodies for different sectors of public activity. (Paragraph 135)

The commission we propose should have any adjudicative function in relation to complaints of violation of rights. In respect of Convention rights, these must remain a matter for the courts to determine. In respect of other rights not directly enforceable in law, it would in our view be inappropriate to hand a quasi-judicial function in this way to a body which is not a court, a legislative body or a branch of the Executive. (Paragraph 140)

The commission should have the power to apply to the court for permission to intervene as a friend of the court in order to give advice in proceedings initiated by other parties that involve or are concerned with human rights. As the independent public authority created as a guardian of human rights, it is appropriate for the commission to be able to assist the court in this way. (Paragraph 151)

Since we have no agreed view about the desirability of a power to provide direct legal advice and assistance in strategic cases, we wish to consult more widely on this issue. (Paragraph 154)

The following powers and functions are essential for the human rights commission we propose—

  • to promote understanding and awareness of human rights (including not only the Convention rights but also rights embodied in international human rights instruments binding on the UK );
  • to conduct and commission research and provide financial or other assistance for educational activities in connection with promoting understanding and awareness of human rights;
  • to conduct inquiries into matters of public policy and practice relating to human rights (with the power to have access to information needed for an effective inquiry);
  • to give guidance to, and promote best practice in, public authorities in relation to human rights;
  • to offer guidance and advice to Ministers and to Parliament in connection with human rights;
  • to be able to publish reports on any of the above matters;
  • to assist in the provision of advice and assistance to members of the public on ways to find help to protect or vindicate their rights;
  • to be able to support and promote access to alternatives to litigation in disputes relating to the protection of human rights;
  • to be able to apply to the courts for permission to appear as amicus curiae in proceedings that involve or are concerned with human rights; and
  • to be able to intervene as a third party in legal proceedings relating to questions of principle involving human rights.

We intend to consider further whether the following powers and functions are desirable for a commission—

  • to provide assistance to individuals to take cases relating to human rights questions;
  • to be able to take cases in its own name;
  • to be able to seek judicial review in its own name.

We do not believe that the commission we propose should have any power to adjudicate on individual complaints of violations of rights. We consider it is unnecessary for a commission to have the duty of scrutinising proposed legislation for compliance with human rights. (Paragraph 166)

Equality and Human Rights

This report constitutes our formal input into the Government's consultation on the structure of a single equality body for Great Britain. (Paragraph 173)

The human rights dimension is an unavoidable element of the debate on the single equality body. The question now is not whether there should be arrangements for the promotion and protection of human rights sitting alongside those for the promotion of equality, but how those arrangements should be designed. (Paragraph 188)

A powerful argument for bringing all strands of the human rights agenda into a single body is that this would strengthen the ability to promote a culture that respects the dignity, worth and human rights of everyone. Provided that this were done in a way that did not blunt the cutting edge of the specialised compliance work in tackling unjustifiable discrimination by means of monitoring and law enforcement, we consider that, on balance a single body would be the more desirable of the two options. However, the option of creating two separate bodies that has been used both in Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland, would be a viable alternative, provided that they were closely linked in their work. (Paragraph 203)


We do not intend to look behind the Belfast Agreement and reopen the question of the establishment and structure of the institutional arrangements for the promotion and protection of human rights and equality in Northern Ireland. (Paragraph 208)

Unless the next elections to the Scottish Parliament produce an unpredictable political upheaval, there is going to be a Scottish human rights commission. That is the settled view of the Scottish Executive and the Scottish Parliament and we take that decision into account in the structures we propose for the rest of the UK. (Paragraph 211)

There are special circumstances in Wales, as there are in the different regions of England. But, at least for the foreseeable future, there are not to be separate jurisdictions between Wales and England, and there are no current plans to establish a human rights commission in Wales. We will therefore consider arrangements for the protection and promotion of human rights jointly in England and Wales. (Paragraph 213)

The argument for establishing locally-sensitive but UK-wide arrangements (with respect to the complex inter-relationships between reserved and devolved responsibilities) applies equally to arrangements for the promotion and protection of human rights and to arrangements for the promotion of equality. This is a further argument for making decisions in principle about both at the same time. (Paragraph 217)

The Government should establish, on a non-statutory basis, a UK Human Rights Advisory Council. (Paragraph 219)

The principal function of the Advisory Council we propose 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. (Paragraph 220)

Independence and Accountability

On the whole we would tend to favour a form which requires a duty to consult Parliament on the appointment of commissioners as a guarantee of independence and democratic accountability, so long as this was a statutory duty. (Paragraph 223)

We would not favour any statutory obligation to require the commission's membership to be "representative of all sections of the community"—but we would expect this to be a consideration in making appointments, as it should be for all public bodies. (Paragraph 224)

The main factor which will influence the quality of the people who seek to become commissioners is the perception that the commission is a body with the potential to exercise real influence, and which is to be resourced adequately to do the job it has been set. As a guarantee of independence, Parliament should be directly involved in the setting of any commission's budget. (Paragraph 225)

We do not consider that the standard model of NDPB accountability is a sufficiently outward and visible guarantee of independence from the Government to be appropriate to a national human rights commission (or indeed the proposed single equality body, whether or not integrated with a human rights commission). (Paragraph 230)

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