Human Rights and Public
In 2001, the Joint Parliamentary Committee on
Human Rights launched an inquiry into the case for establishing
a human rights commission for the UK. This report has been commissioned
by the committee as part of the inquiry in order to examine how
public authorities are addressing human rights issues and their
responsibilities under the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA).
Since the HRA came into force, much has been
written about the case law and studies have been conducted on
the impact of the Act on central government and voluntary organisations1.
Little information is available, however, on how the mass of public
authorities, outside central government, have prepared for and
implemented the HRA. This is the subject matter of this report.
The report addresses three questions:
what steps have been taken by public
authorities to meet their obligations under the HRA;
do public authorities have unmet
needs in the field of human rights which could be fulfilled by
a human rights commission; and
what difference could a human rights
commission make in assisting public authorities to meet their
human rights obligations in serving the community.
The report examines the existing arrangements
under which human rights are being mainstreamed from central government
into public authorities. It considers the "human rights message"
that is being conveyed to these authorities. It examines how human
rights matters are being handled in three sample areas of local
government, health care and social housing. It looks at the part
being played by regulatory and representative bodies for these
sectors and considers what specific contributions a human rights
commission could make in helping to meet human rights obligations
in each of these sectors.
Finally, the report draws on the findings from
the three sample sectors, the experience of Scotland and the existing
equality commissions to consider:
what unmet human rights needs exist
in public authorities; and
how these needs might be addressed
by a possible human rights commission.
Research for this report was conducted over
the period September 2002January 2003. The report cannot
pretend to provide a complete picture of what is happening in
public authorities nor does it have a firm statistical basis (other
than where such work has already been carried out by other parties).
Interviews were held with a wide range of informants in central
government, representative and regulatory bodies, human rights
NGOs, law firms and public authorities. Interviews were conducted
on the understanding that individual public authorities would
not be identified (unless information was already in the public
domain). Even so, it has been a feature of this research that
it has been very difficult to find contacts in public organisations
who are willing to talk about human rights. This may be attributed,
in part, to unease about being featured in a parliamentary inquiry.
However, as will quickly become clear from the content of the
report, the main reason is that few public authorities have much
of a story to tell on how they are fulfilling their human rights
obligations under the HRA.
Two major questions are not addressed in detail
in this report. It does not distinguish between different models
for a human rights commission nor enter into the debate over whether
such a commission should be a free-standing body or part of the
single equalities body now being consulted on by Government. The
term "human rights commission" as used in this report
may be taken to encompass either possibility. Secondly, the report
does consider the specific question of the relationship between
a human rights commission for the UK and the existing commission
in Northern Ireland and the planned commission in Scotland.
The focus of this report, therefore, is on identifying
and addressing the needs in public authorities that could be met
by a human rights commission. It offers a reference point in determining
the need for a human rights commission and, if that decision is
taken, the priorities, functions and structure required to help
fulfil the human rights obligations of public authorities.