Taken before the Joint Committee on Human Rights
on Monday 15 September 2003
Jean Corston, in the Chair
Bowness, L Mr Shaun Woodward
Witnesses: MR BILL RAMMELL, a Member of the House of Commons, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, MR JON BENJAMIN, Head of the Human Rights Policy Department, and MS HELEN UPTON, Assistant Legal Advisor, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, examined.
Q1 Chairman: Welcome, Minister, and welcome to your officials, Mr Benjamin and Ms Upton. The Joint Committee on Human rights decided some time ago that each year it would look at the Government's compliance or otherwise with an international instrument, as part of the reporting process, but that we would not play any part until the concluding remarks had been published. This year, we decided to look at the international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights, which of course has been binding on us in international law since 1976. Judicial observations were made last year. I am sure you are aware that the purpose of our session today is to look at issues of broad compliance with the ICESCR and the structure, the way in which information is disseminated throughout Whitehall about compliance, and the way in which the Foreign and Commonwealth Office discharges its responsibility as the lead department; and also to look at ways in which it melds not just with Whitehall, but also with the legal system in this country. It is important for people to realise that we are not here concerned with the particular rights which are guaranteed or conferred under the covenant. I will start with the purpose of the reporting process because for the scrutiny of the Convention to be worthwhile the results of the process need to be given serious attention and consideration by government. The experience will only have any benefit if it is integrated with the development of domestic law and policy, as part of the implementation by government. Therefore, I would like to know, as a preliminary, how you ensure departmentally that there are tangible benefits from the reporting process under the Convention, and what steps the Department takes to ensure that lessons are learned from the reporting process and that they are conveyed back into the development of government policy.
Mr Rammell: Thank you very much for that. I welcome the fact that you are conducting this exercise. It does throw light on what we are doing and forces us to sharpen up our act. We are
keen to see that the UK/UN reporting obligations add value to our human rights policies, and I think that your inquiry will help in that respect. A key mechanism for ensuring that lessons are learned is the Department of Constitutional Affairs ministerial forum, which has now just had its fifth meeting over the summer, and so it has been in existence for quite some time. A new development is to have a sub-committee of the forum which looks explicitly at how the UN recommendations are followed up; and I think that that would be a very helpful and positive development. Clearly, we co-ordinate at the moment on this particular convention, but it is down to individual departments to judge exactly how they use the process to develop their policies. One thing that has struck me, in undertaking preparation for this evidence session today, is that I think it is arguable that we need a more formalised structured procedure for analysing and responding to recommendations, department by department. That is something that you inevitably focus on when you have this kind of investigation. I have been thinking whether we need to have an annual letter from the FCO to each of the departments and the lead officer, saying, "these were the recommendations that we told you about; feed back to us what you are doing"; or whether at official level annually there needs to be a meeting. Looking at the time sequences, there can be something like a three-year gap between the recommendations being concluded and the first occasion when, within the current structure, the Head of the Human Rights Department within the FCO will write again to departments saying, "we have got the next stage coming up". A number of elements are being undertaken at the moment, and certainly this inquiry has forced me to focus on how we can sharpen that up.
Q2 Chairman: Is it right that the sub-committee that you referred to has had one meeting?
Mr Rammell: Yes. The overall DCA ministerial forum has met five times since 2001, but it has had one meeting over the summer of the sub-committee.
Q3 Chairman: What steps do you take to ensure dissemination? Some of them are very congratulatory, like the passing of the Human Rights Act, and some are critical, for example on human rights education in schools. How does your department deal with those welcome developments and the criticisms?
Mr Rammell: When concluding recommendations are reported on by the UN committee, we make that available on the FCO website, and it is made available similarly on the UN website. We write to each of the departments that have been involved in the process, saying, "the report is now concluded; this is what it says specifically in respect of your department; and when we come to look at the next periodic review, these are the issues that perhaps you should address either by saying 'yes, we have addressed them and we have responded' or 'for all sorts of reasons, we do not accept the recommendations'."
Q4 Chairman: I presume that is generally down to the official level rather than ministerial level.
Mr Rammell: Yes.
Q5 Baroness Prashar: I want to probe a little bit further the responsibilities for the reporting process. Who do you consult? Which department do you consult? Is there a departmental committee that gets involved? Do you consult the statutory bodies such as the equality commissions? Do you talk to local authorities, and who takes the lead in the devolved administrations? What process do you go through to get the report ready?
Mr Rammell: Certainly we consult each of the relevant departments, and you can judge which those will be by going through the various articles of the covenant. Obviously, the Department of Health is for health and there are the education ones. The equality commissions we do not directly consult at the moment. It is something we may wish to reflect upon for future occasions. Similarly, we have not until now consulted local authorities. I know from the experience with my own local authority that sometimes they are overburdened by communications from central government, but I think there is an argument that they need to be appraised of this process. One of the initiatives that I intend to take as a result of this inquiry is to consult the Local Government Association about what would be the best way to involve local government in that process. Clearly, the devolved administrations are key within the process. If you look back at the timescale of when this inquiry was being undertaken, it was in the very early days of devolved administration, and they clearly have developed their thinking since then. For example, in the Scottish Executive there is now a human rights remit. Clearly, we would consult that body, and, in the absence of that, the most appropriate department within the structure. Our efforts are very much directed at consulting as widely as possible.
Q6 Baroness Prashar: Do you have a cross-departmental ministerial committee?
Mr Rammell: No, we do not. I referred to that earlier: as a result of this inquiry focussing our thinking, I would certainly say that if the FCO maintained responsibility for co-ordinating, I would take the view that there needed to be an annual letter to departments as a reminder of the issues that were raised and asking what they were doing about them. There is also an argument that once a year there should be an official-level meeting. Arguably, I would want to reflect more of that in a ministerial meeting.
Q7 Baroness Prashar: On the issue of over-burdening local authorities, it seems to me that if you were to have a similar arrangement of an annual letter, there would be a system whereby you could do a similar thing with local authorities and the equality commissions.
Mr Rammell: I am simply making the point that I think I would want to consult more on the best and least burdensome way of doing that. Again, as a result of preparing for this inquiry, we have been undertaking some brainstorming and discussion within the Department, and thinking about how we can tighten this up.
Q8 Baroness Prashar: Moving on to the question of the consultation and dissemination outside government, the evidence we have received shows that there really was not much consultation with outside agencies, whether trade unions, NGOs or employer bodies, in the preparation of the report. Can you say whether there was wide consultation?
Mr Rammell: We do not spell out to individual departments within our co-ordinating role how they should compile their contribution to the report. We do, as a general rule, involve NGOs and human rights NGOs. They are involved directly within the process in that they can submit directly to the UN committee. Indeed, the day before the committee meets, they can go and give their views on the way that we are implementing the covenants. I have also referred to the fact that we are now taking the view that on an ongoing basis the sub-committee of the ministerial forum within the Department for Constitutional Affairs will be directly involved within that process. I think that that is a positive development. Once this inquiry is complete, the Foreign Office plans to hold its own forum for NGOs, which will focus on your inquiry's recommendations. We do have a very strong practice within the FCO of involving NGOs through debt penalty panels, freedom of expression panels, and certainly in the run-up to the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, both before and afterwards, I personally was involved in detailed discussions with human rights NGOs. There is certainly a willingness on that front to do it. Whether we should consult more widely, with business and trade unions explicitly, that is something that we would consider.
Q9 Baroness Prashar: Given the fact that most of the sharp end delivery happens at local level, how do you make sure you keep in touch with what is happening on the ground? It seems to me that the process is quite inadequate.
Mr Rammell: Can you give me a specific example?
Q10 Baroness Prashar: If you take housing and health education, these are things that are being delivered at local level, so how do you ensure that you get that kind of input from local authorities?
Mr Rammell: I am acknowledging that input from local authorities is an area that we need to consider improving on. In terms of what we are doing across the board and the way we are benchmarking our progress in implementing the covenant, one of the criticisms that this Government takes on a regular basis is that we have a tad too much benchmarking and target-setting, but through the process those targets very firmly exist in all the areas that come under the remit of the covenant. That is a fairly rigorous process.
Q11 Baroness Prashar: What about dissemination? What happens once the report is compiled? What steps do you take to publicise it apart from the UN committee itself?
Mr Rammell: As I indicated, all the parties that have been involved in the compilation of the report, have its conclusions drawn to their attention, and similarly for the direct areas we are responsible for within the Foreign Office, principally the overseas territories. We go through a departmental process of looking at those recommendations and deciding how to respond to them.
Q12 Baroness Prashar: It does not really go to the NGOs and local authorities at this stage.
Mr Rammell: It does not, and that is one of the issues, again, if we are going to involve local authorities in the compilation of the report. Clearly, we would follow that through and communicate with them after the event, following the conclusions of the Committee. In my experience, we do not have a problem with NGOs because they are following the process very closely, and inevitably follow up as part of regular dialogue.
Q13 Baroness Prashar: It seems to me that you need to broaden the base of the people you consult on how you compile the report, to have better input.
Mr Rammell: At the level of human rights NGOs, I would not accept that we need to do more. Certainly within the FCO we have a very strong dialogue.
Q14 Baroness Prashar: I am talking about employers and local authorities.
Mr Rammell: Local authorities, I am acknowledging as a result of preparation for this Committee, we have thought whether we need to involve them, and probably we do. I think that the trade unions would come under that banner as well, arguably.
Q15 Chairman: Minister, given the remit and responsibility of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, has your preparation for today caused you to see any difficulty in the office having responsibility for a report which is almost exclusively concerned with domestic policy; and do you see any further reconsidering of the prospective roles of your department in the new Department of Constitutional Affairs?
Mr Rammell: If I might say so, it is an exceedingly pertinent question, Chair. I will be blunt with you, that there is something of an anomaly that the FCO leads on preparing this report since we do not lead on any of the explicit policy areas apart from being in respect of the overseas territories. There are discussions taking place at the official and ministerial levels between the FCO and the DCA. So far, those discussions are inconclusive, but I think clearly, given the new DCA's domestic focus of its human rights unit, there is clearly a strong logic to the DCA playing a central role. Those discussions are ongoing, but clearly we would welcome your views on that as well.
Q16 Chairman: You said earlier on that you had arranged a consultation before the hearing in Geneva. Has any consideration ever been given to attendance by ministers?
Mr Rammell: That has not been viewed as the appropriate way forward in the past. Other countries are almost exclusively represented by officials. Indeed, we have never been asked by the UN committee to have ministerial representation. It is not something that I would rule out, but I am struck by the fact of looking into this issue in some detail when we gave the evidence in a 9-hour session of the committee, involving an extraordinary degree of technical detail. The historical view has been until now that that is not best undertaken by a minister. The reason for that as much as anything is the time constraint. We actually engaged a former FCO legal advisor to work on this in the run-up to the Committee hearing, and then to undertake the work at the hearing as well; and literally for weeks in advance of the hearing he was doing nothing but this work. I am honestly not convinced. I am not for a minute suggesting that this is not high priority, but I am not convinced, given that specifically focussed amount of time that one would have to give, and given the other workload constraints, that that would be the best way forward.
Q17 Chairman: I am not suggesting, obviously, that the minister should be the only representative, but, as you say, some countries, for example the Republic of Ireland, have had ministerial representation at hearings on periodic reports. It may be that some ministerial representation or input might just move this up the scale, because that it was put to us as part of our preparation for this inquiry that, in a sense, the separation of civil, political, economic and social and cultural was a product of the Cold War, where civil and political rights were the particular focus of the West and the economic, social and cultural association with former countries of the Former Soviet Union. The melding of the two is extremely important, and if ministers were seen to be much more involved in this, it might help to move this agenda along.
Mr Rammell: I think that that is arguably the case. I will be blunt with you: in comparing for this Committee, we had a quite vigorous debate about what is the most appropriate level of representation. Certainly, if ministerial attendance were in addition to the official, that is something that we would be prepared to look at. I would also, however, want to be quite robust in relation to our current reporting mechanisms. Indeed, the Committee's concluding observations in 1997 on our third report specifically welcomed the presence of a large and high-level delegation from the UK. I noted that the very high qualify of the dialogue was enhanced by the presence of a specialist to deal with virtually every article under the covenant. What we are doing at the moment I think does work, but arguably ministerial representation is something that we should consider. I wholly agree with you that the marrying of the civil and political rights with economic, social and cultural rights is an important thing for us to be doing. It is something that I explicitly referred to when I spoke at the Commission on Human Rights in Geneva back in March.
The Committee suspended from 5.17 pm to 5.27 pm for a division in the House of Commons
Q18 Baroness Whitaker: Minister, we have dealt thoroughly with the report. I would like to turn to the concluding observations of the Committee. We have some evidence that the Government had not done much to implement or otherwise the observations, and therefore I would like to check this with you. You did say that you made the observations available on the website and wrote to the Department, pointing out to them what they needed to deal with. Does your letter go so far as to request an action plan or targets, and do you monitor the progress which the department might make between the receipt of your letter and preparation of the next report? Do you keep a record of what the departments answer to you?
Mr Rammell: At the moment, no. We point out the conclusions and recommendations that are pertinent to that department, although as I said previously, one of the learning exercises for me from preparing for this evidence session is that I think we do need to be a bit more structured in the way we follow up. These are just ideas at the moment, but I am suggesting that as a result of taking this evidence session that I am thinking about, maybe we need an annual follow-up with a letter, saying "this is a reminder; this is what you were asked to look at", and maybe an annual meeting of officials and/or ministers to have a roundtable discussion on the responses. I think it is worth underlining that the explicit responsibility for implementing the covenant is a department by department responsibility.
Q19 Baroness Whitaker: There is no problem with that, and I am sure we would welcome you dealing more rigorously with the observations. Who actually has the responsibility for co-ordination between the departments as to their responsibility? Is it one of your officials?
Mr Rammell: Yes, that is undertaken by Jon, as Head of Human Rights Department.
Q20 Baroness Whitaker: Do you see perhaps more action on the part of Mr Benjamin with his opposite numbers in departments? Do you see how they have been getting on with the recommendations?
Mr Rammell: Is it permissible if I ask Jon to respond directly on that point?
Mr Benjamin: One of the ideas to tighten up our procedures is to have at least an annual meeting at official level, both to remind departments of this process and the previous recommendations, and to have a stock-take on where they have got in implementing the recommendations.
Q21 Baroness Whitaker: If the observations are on the website, presumably they are equally available to local government and to the independent statutory bodies, and you would expect them to pay attention. Do you also write to them?
Mr Rammell: That is what I was referring to earlier. At the moment we do not, but it is one of the things I am going to do from this hearing. I am going to write to the Local Government Association asking their advice on the most appropriate and least burdensome way.
Q22 Baroness Whitaker: Do you see merit in combining the departmental roundtable meetings with local government and independent bodies, or do you think they ought to be kept separate?
Mr Rammell: That is something, if I am honest, I would want to reflect upon. Clearly, in terms of the state's responsibility - and that is what it comes back to, to implement the covenant - there is a much more direct responsibility on the part of national government departments, and I would want to ensure that we are getting that right. Beyond that, the way in which we involve local government is up for consideration. I am honestly not sure, given that we want government departments to be focussing on how they are implementing, to involve local government in the same roundtable process, which would perhaps be the best way forward. Having said that, I would like to reflect on that. I think that is my instinctive response.
Q23 Baroness Whitaker: It is something we shall hear more about, no doubt. You are going to focus on an annual stock-take, in the words of Mr Benjamin. Do you see that as including targets and milestones? It is one thing to ask what they have been doing, but it is another to ask them if they have reached the point they said they would reach.
Mr Rammell: I think that that process is undertaken separately through the PSA targets process. If you go through each of the articles and areas of responsibility under the covenant, in each of those - and, as I said earlier, it is something the Government is often criticised, often unfairly, for - there are very stringent, robust targets in place for progressively enhancing and realising the rights that come under the covenants. That certainly does take place.
Q24 Lord Bowness: The Committee seemed to be saying that the provisions of the covenant amount to legal obligations. The Government's position seems to be that they constitute principles and objectives, rather than legal obligations. How do you reconcile those two views - or perhaps they are irreconcilable?
Mr Rammell: I think that in conclusion they probably are irreconcilable. I think this is one of the most important questions that you are considering as part of your inquiry. I think there are differences between the ways that the Treaty has set out civil and political rights on the one hand, and economic, social and cultural rights on the other. I think that the two sets of rights neither can nor should be implemented in precisely the same way. I would not want it to be interpreted from that that because we are not treating them in exactly the same way that we give any less importance to economic, social and cultural rights. Indeed, I referred earlier to the speech that I made at the UN Committee on Human Rights where I stressed the importance of both sets of rights being mutually reinforcing. We certainly do stand by our view that the rights set out in the covenant constitute principles and objectives. If you look at the detailed wording of the covenant, that backs it up. It talks about progressive realisation with a view to achieving things progressively. It recognises that all the rights in the covenant could be implemented immediately so that states are required to undertake steps to achieve them. It talks about things like the "highest attainable standard", which suggests an ongoing commitment. Having given this issue some detailed consideration in advance of the hearing today, I genuinely do not believe that incorporation of domestic law would improve on the existing legal framework. I think it is worth underlining that the covenant does not explicitly require or recommend such incorporation. The UN Committee has said that it is for each state to decide the manner of justiciability. I think it is the case that the Committee has asked more than the covenant actually requires. There are several significant areas notwithstanding that within the covenant that do currently have legal body. For example, the Sex Discrimination Act, the Race Discrimination Act, Disability Discrimination Act and the Equal Pay Act give legal body to a number of the elements within the overall covenant. What I am saying, I hope very clearly, is that I think there would be real difficulties with full legal incorporation. To give you a flavour of what I mean by that, if you look at the rights of adequate food, clothing and housing, these are issues for which there is no absolute standard, and are rightly the business of governments and their electorates through general elections, to determine what standard we should achieve. I think that there is a significant risk that if we were to incorporate, and the courts were to look at one of those issues in isolation, that could potentially have profound and adverse consequences on expenditure in other areas. For example, if the court took a decision on health, in terms of the adequate standard, and you had recently had a party that had been elected on a platform to privatise education expenditure, I think people would ask serious questions and have concerns about the process that was being undertaken. Finally, it is also the case that the wording of some of the articles under the covenant is sufficiently loose and imprecise that if you simply incorporated this, then the courts would end up making policy decisions that are properly the responsibility of government. It is our existing practice, and having looked at this long and hard I am reinforced in that view.
Q25 Lord Bowness: I can understand what you are saying; that you can sign up to these things in principle, but it is for each state to decide how to implement it. Do you think therefore that the Committee were wrong when they said that the state party is under an obligation to comply with it and to give it full legal effect in the domestic legal order? Do you think that they are going too far in that statement and were not correct?
Mr Rammell: I have to say that I read their conclusions very carefully, and that phrase is not familiar to me. The phrase that I was focussed on was under D11 of their conclusions, where they said that they deeply regretted that although the state party had adopted a certain number of laws in the field of the covenant, the covenant had still not been incorporated into the domestic legal order. I referred to that issue in my introduction by saying that I think they were asking for something that the covenant does not require us to do.
Q26 Lord Bowness: I am advised that it is in their general comment rather than their concluding observations.
Mr Rammell: Can you repeat what they said?
Q27 Lord Bowness: "The state party is under an obligation to comply with it and give it full legal effect in the domestic legal order."
Mr Rammell: We certainly do comply with the covenant, and I would argue strongly that that is the case. I think the dispute is whether you comply by administrative means in some areas or by full legal incorporation. What I am clearly saying on behalf of the Government is that there is nothing within the covenant that calls on us to incorporate legally.
Q28 Lord Bowness: This was not meant to be any kind of trick question. You are in effect saying to me that the Government do not agree with that statement.
Mr Rammell: No, we do not.
Q29 Lord Bowness: Presumably, all these principles could be legislated for. Are you resisting that really as a matter of policy, rather than the difficulty of carrying it into effect?
Mr Rammell: I have tried to say that in some areas we do legislate, and I referred to the Race Discrimination Act and the Sex Discrimination Act. However, in some of these areas the wording is so imprecise, and you are talking about the progressive realisation of rights, which inevitably leads to a debate about the relative importance of expenditure on different areas of government policy, that I simply conclude that that is something within our governmental and political structure that is properly a matter for government and the general electorate rather than the courts.
Q30 Lord Bowness: Can I take it a stage further? All these things are capable, one way or another, of being incorporated into legislation. As you say, the wording is not perfect. Presumably, we could legislate if we were so minded. Has anybody made an assessment of what that would mean for the UK? We are advised that in South Africa and elsewhere, these rights are actually provided for. If there has been an assessment of the effect, what is it; and, if there has not been an assessment, how can we be so sure that we ought to resist it in the way you have suggested?
Mr Rammell: Firstly, I think I need to re-state the position that the covenant does not require full and direct incorporation into domestic law. It is difficult to comment on the situation in other countries with different legal systems. You quote the example of South Africa: I think it would be more appropriate for incorporation, given their legal and constitutional structure, than with our own common law system, arguably. In terms of whether we have undertaken a detailed assessment of how, in what way and with what consequences we could legally incorporate, no, we have not undertaken that exercise. Maybe it is something we should consider, and we can look at that. For a number of these areas, it is not just an assessment of how and in what way you would do it; I think there is a principled response that says that if you go down the road of incorporation in those areas, you will end up with the courts determining relative government policies with respect to specific social policy priorities, in a manner that is properly the responsibility of government and the electorate.
Q31 Lord Bowness: Turning to the Charter of Fundamental Rights, do you take the view that even if it is incorporated and actually made justiciable by a treaty, that that will have a direct impact on the UK law or do you consider that the wording of the Charter is sufficiently robust to restrict it to what it is intended to be restricted to, namely the EU institutions and Member States implementing EU legislation; or do you take the view, as some people do, that all that is in the Charter is going to be incorporated anyway? In that case, our discussion would to some extent become academic.
Mr Rammell: That is something that is currently under discussion and is part of the governmental conference resulting from the Convention. We have expressed repeatedly our concern that the Charter of Fundamental Rights, as presently drafted, would present difficulties if it were incorporated legally. As a charter of aspirations that we strive to achieve collectively and individually, as Member States within the European Union, that is one thing, but to go from there to say that it should be incorporated does present difficulties. That has been our consistent view, which we have put forward.
Q32 Lord Bowness: It is currently part 2 of the draft constitution. If that were approved, the question really, Minister, is this: are you satisfied that if that happened it would only be applied to EU institutions, and the Member States would implement EU legislation, or do you think it would apply to the Member States? There are two views. I have my own view about it, but two views are being expressed.
Mr Rammell: I am genuinely not trying to be difficult, but we are in a process of negotiation at the forthcoming IGC, and we have a clear position that there is genuine difficulty with incorporation. I am not going to go down the road of speculating what might happen if we end up with a different government policy. That is our view and it is one that we are holding to.
Q33 Baroness Whitaker: These are very interesting issues. I want to return for a different purpose to South Africa. Although it has got a written constitution, it is not intrinsically different, I think, to our country. Do you have any evidence of judicial reallocation of resources there, against the political will of the people, as it were? We understand your arguments of principle, but we would like to know if it has proved a problem in practice.
Mr Rammell: In terms of judicial redistribution of resources, no, I have not got evidence to hand for that; but if you look at the way the covenant has been incorporated legally into the South African constitution, the major progress has been on non-discrimination issues. It is very arguable that the non-discrimination legislation that we already have within the UK is amongst the most robust in the advanced world. I am not sure that the analogy with South Africa is one that you can get a direct read-across from.
Q34 Baroness Whitaker: Have they not got rights to various economic groups in their constitution?
Mr Rammell: It is difficult to go into the detail, but my understanding is that in South Africa they have incorporated broadly the covenant.
Q35 Baroness Whitaker: You have not heard that they have come up against -----
Mr Rammell: I do not have evidence to that effect.
Q36 Baroness Whitaker: I would like to fill out one other bit, and that is the onward process that the Government asks for. You mentioned milestones: is that how you say that we would achieve the full realisation of the rights and the covenants? This is Article 2.1 of the covenant where it asks for onward achieving progressively over the realisation of rights. How do we have a process which does that incrementally better, year after year?
Mr Rammell: I have acknowledged that we need to tighten up our procedures of implementation, so that we would probably look at these issues on an annual basis, waiting for the next periodic review to come round. I come back to the point that if you look at the PSA targets - and I went through each of the articles and each of the areas that government policy covered - there is within every one of those areas significant and robust PSA targets; so there is a process of benchmarking that is ongoing. When you talk about how we ensure that we get to the full realisation of these rights, I think that it is a moving feast in that it is a constantly ongoing process.
Q37 Mr Woodward: Even though the Vienna Declaration recommends that States should have a national power of action for human rights protection, you will be aware that the CESCR expressed deep concern that the UK has not drawn up a plan of action. Do you agree with their deep concern?
Mr Rammell: This is a matter that is the responsibility of the Department for Constitutional Affairs. I am sure this Committee would agree that the Government has made real progress in embedding human rights culture into our legislative policy framework. We do consider that the concrete steps being taken are as valuable as any within a human rights plan of action; but in terms of whether we should go further than that, and explicitly a human rights plan of action, that is something that the Department of Constitutional Affairs will have to address.
Q38 Mr Woodward: Let me be absolutely clear about this. I am not going to describe it as passing the buck, but you are saying that the drawing up of a national plan of action has nothing to do with your department and is only to do with the Department of Constitutional Affairs.
Mr Rammell: No, I am not saying that because, clearly -----
Q39 Mr Woodward: What would be your recommendation?
Mr Rammell: In terms of the progress that has been made in establishing human rights and embedding that within the constitutional culture and governmental make-up, we have moved significantly, and I would want to see that bed down for some considerable time before we moved further on that issue. I think we need to look and respond and learn lessons from the way that that is being implemented before we go a stage further.
Q40 Mr Woodward: What sort of lessons?
Mr Rammell: I am sure you are aware that the manner in which the Human Rights Act is implemented, accessed and used throws up all sorts of questions about the manner in which that is happening. I think we want to see that properly bed down to see that work.
Q41 Mr Woodward: Minister, forgive me, because very few people of this Committee would disagree with the steps taken and progress that the Government has made; but when you say you want to see how it beds down and how it is working out, there is not any formal mechanism at the moment for reviewing that, is there?
Mr Rammell: Not that I am aware of. It may be something that the Department of Constitutional Affairs -----
Q42 Mr Woodward: Some people are concerned that, in a sense, having made this huge milestone of human rights integration, in a sense it is a bit like the absence of a human rights commission - actually in a sense bedding down equals "let us not do anything for a bit and see how it works out". That is quite different from a formal mechanism to review it with a commitment to meet the kind of things stated in the Vienna Declaration, whereby there is a national plan of action for the enshrinement of the protection of human rights. That is very different. With respect, you have said that it is up to the DCA, and when I press you, you rightly say that it is not really just up to them. I come back to this: do you share the deep concern expressed by this Committee that in fact there is a need to have a national plan of action?
Mr Rammell: No, at the moment I do not. I think the Human Rights Act has been a significant step forward. I think we need to look at how that is working before taking further steps. At this stage, I am not of the view that a human rights plan of action would enhance the situation significantly.
The Committee suspended from 5.52 pm to 6.00pm for a division in the House of Lords
Q43 Mr Woodward: Am I right in thinking that you would not recommend to government or, if it was to be passed to the Department of Constitutional Affairs, that there should be a national plan of action?
Mr Rammell: At the moment, given that the Human Rights Act - there has been a huge departure in inculcating a human rights culture into policy-making and delivery - I do not think at the moment it would be appropriate to have a human rights action plan.
Q44 Mr Woodward: Despite the Vienna Declaration.
Mr Rammell: Yes. You are asking me for my view.
Q45 Mr Woodward: This is not a trick question, but the reason I am slightly puzzled when you say that is that if we go back to the 2001 Durban conference on racism, the outcome of that was that there should be a national plan of action to deal with racism. What makes racism different from sexism and the other areas that one might encounter in terms of the protection of human rights? What justifies a national plan of action there but not elsewhere?
Mr Rammell: I think there were particular issues and a particular focus put forward at Durban that meant that on balance we reflected that that was appropriate. To do it comprehensively across the board, a relatively short time after we have introduced the Human Rights Act - and I am giving you my honest view - would not be the appropriate way forward at the moment. You also said earlier - and I can see where you are coming from in saying that I was buck passing to the DCA - I genuinely do not believe that that is the case, in that the vast bulk of any proposals that would come forward for an action plan would affect domestic departments, and that is rightly the responsibility of the DCA. In my view, I do not think it would be appropriate at the moment.
Q46 Mr Woodward: You are aware, for example, that a lot of NGOs that deal with these issues would fundamentally disagree with your assessment and are saying that with all the credit you get for bringing in the Human Rights Convention - and nobody is taking that away from the Government for one moment - and many other things - that nonetheless, out there, in the field of people working in these areas of human rights, it has been some years now and there is a need for some action.
Mr Rammell: That is why in answering your question I did not give a judgment for ever and a day. We do engage in active and ongoing dialogue with NGOs about these issues.
Q47 Lord Bowness: Minister, the Committee has said that we should take an economic but social rights approach to legislation policy development. Do you think that the civil service obligations to comply with our treaty obligations are sufficient to address this point? Do you think that people within the civil service are sufficiently aware of these obligations for it to have any major impact?
Mr Rammell: It is certainly an important and legitimate question. In any structure where you are trying to get people who work for the organisation to follow on policy, you constantly need to be asking yourself how effectively you are doing that. The Foreign Office, the Department of Constitutional Affairs and the Civil Service College all provide training in terms of the UK's international obligations. In the Foreign Office, which is the area I am responsible for, each year around 200 FCO officials attend a one-day human rights training course, and around 30 FCO officials attend a far more intensive two-week human rights training course each year. It is something that we are focussed on and conscious of. If we do go down this road of starting to have an annual meeting at either official or ministerial level, in terms of how we are implementing the recommendations from the UN Committee, then we would consider whether that awareness-raising is sufficient.
Q48 Lord Bowness: Are you using the human rights in that reply as the shorthand for human rights in terms of the Act and the economic and social rights that we are talking about this afternoon?
Mr Rammell: Both are covered within our training course.
Q49 Lord Bowness: Is there judicial training that covers both as well?
Mr Rammell: I would want to see advice on that.
Mr Benjamin: There is judicial training on implementation of the Human Rights Act, but for more detail we would need to consult our DCA colleagues.
Q50 Lord Bowness: Do you know whether the public are educated about this element of the economic and social rights? You may think they are very aware of most of them.
Mr Rammell: It is interesting. Not everybody takes that view. When the UK was being examined by the UN Committee, the Daily Telegraph ran an editorial saying, "what business is it of the UN to be delving into these matters?" I have to say that that is a view we flatly reject. We are keen to promote awareness of all human rights. At the FCO last year - and we have done it for a number of years - we had an open day on human rights, and 2,500 people attended. The documents relating to these issues on the FCO's website attract over 30,000 hits per year. Particularly with the work that is being done through the Department of Education and Skills, bringing citizenship education into the National Curriculum, is another mechanism whereby young people can be informed about these issues. We are looking at that responsibility seriously.
Q51 Chairman: Minister, finally can I ask whether the experience of looking at the issues arising out of this covenant, perhaps in preparation for today's session, have led you to see that there is scope for an independent human rights body in this country to add impetus and value to this process?
Mr Rammell: I think that is an argument that has a certain level of attraction. It could add to the work that we are doing. We would need to think through very carefully how it would work and how it would interrelate with the work that we are undertaking to implement the covenants. At one level, clearly it could be argued that that could alter the situation.
Chairman: Thank you very much, Minister, for appearing before us today. We also thank your officials.