The Human Rights Act and a "human
138. The events leading up to the DCA and Home Office
reviews of the HRA, and some of the proposals which have come
out of them, have underlined for us the work which still remains
to be done in order to build a true human rights culture in this
139. In its 2003 Report on The Case for a Human Rights
Commission, our predecessor Committee made a number of observations
about the nature of the Human Rights Act which we find equally
compelling today. It reminded Parliament that the stated aspiration
of the Government at the time the Act was introduced was that
the Human Rights Act would be more than a merely technical instrument,
creating domestic legal remedies for breaches of the European
Convention on Human Rights, but would also bring about a gradual
but fundamental transformation of the relationship between individuals
and the state, a shift towards "a culture of human rights".
We are of course aware that the aspiration of building a "human
rights culture" in the UK has its critics, particularly those
who consider that such a culture is necessarily at odds with a
culture of responsibility.
140. Our predecessor Committee anticipated this critique
of the desirability of a human rights culture as a goal. It said
that by a culture of human rights it meant, 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 dealing with public
authorities and each other.
Properly understood as a culture in which there is a widely
shared sense of entitlement to human rights, of personal responsibility
and of respect for the rights of others, and in which all our
institutional policies and practices are influenced by these ideas,
the Committee considered that a culture of respect for human rights
was a goal worth striving for.
We agree and we consider that the events of the last six months
have demonstrated the need for renewed urgency in this task.
141. However, the Committee rightly warned that this
laudable goal would not be realised if the protection of human
rights were regarded as the exclusive responsibility of the courts.
Litigation is an essential tool to protect the rights of
the individual or groups, but is not an effective means of developing
a culture of human rights.
The building of a human rights culture over time would depend
not just on courts awarding remedies for violations of individuals'
rights, but on decision-makers in all public services internalising
the requirements of human rights law, integrating those standards
into their policy and decision-making processes, and ensuring
that the delivery of public services in all fields is fully informed
by human rights considerations. We endorse these important observations
about the nature of the Human Rights Act and what is required
to bring about the cultural transformation which was envisaged
at the time the Act was passed. We see the DCA Review as an
important milestone in this bringing about of a human rights culture.
We emphasise the importance of consistent positive leadership
by Ministers towards this objective.
142. Analogies can be made with the legislation on
race and sex discrimination introduced in the 1970s. That legislation
provided an important spur for changes in public perceptions about
the acceptability of discriminatory behaviour, but legal enforcement
of it was only one, albeit important, aspect of effecting long
term social transformation. In our view, shifts in public perception
about the acceptability of sex and race discrimination have been
at least as important in bringing about social and cultural change
as the law itself. The challenge for those who would wish to see
the firm and enduring establishment of a culture of human rights
is to build on the legal basis provided by the Human Rights Act
in such a way as to take concepts of human rights beyond the legal
sphere and into the currency of everyday life.
143. Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC MP, the Minister of
State at the Department for Constitutional Affairs, expressed
such an objective very clearly when she gave evidence to us in
January on the Government's human rights policy. She told us that
in its third term in office the Government was intending to:
take the human rights issue beyond policymakers,
lawyers and the courts. The acknowledgement of and respect for
human rights should not be just in police stations and prisons
but also in care homes, in hospitals, social services departments.
Human rights protection is important for all who are vulnerable,
not just where they are so by virtue of being a suspect in a police
station or a criminal in prison but also if they are vulnerable
because they are elderly or because they are elderly in a care
These commendable objectives appear to us to be consistent
with the achievement of a successful culture of human rights as
envisaged by the previous JCHR.
144. Our predecessor Committee concluded that much
of the cause of the public's ignorance about what human rights
can do for ordinary people in their everyday lives was due to
the absence of an independent voice to promote and help protect
human rights in the UK.
Its recommendation that there be a human rights commission has
now of course been accepted and implemented by the Equality Act
2005. Until the new Commission comes into being in 2007, however,
the problems caused by the absence of a Commission, identified
by our predecessor Committee, remain.
The need for evidence
145. As we have said above, court judgments only
tell a very small part of the story. We are all aware anecdotally
of a number of examples of public authorities changing their policies
in order to make them human rights compatible, or reversing a
decision in order to avoid a possible legal challenge on Human
Rights Act grounds. There have been a number of press reports,
for example, about an elderly couple who had lived together for
their entire 60 years of married life, relying on the Human Rights
Act to persuade their local authority that they should not be
separated but should both be admitted to a nursing home at the
same time. There are other reports of important guidance being
circulated which is designed to achieve greater human rights compatibility
in the delivery of public services, for example, to hospitals
concerning how to ensure that older patients are treated with
dignity and respect.
146. But we are also keenly aware that there is very
little evidence publicly available of such examples of the beneficial
influence of the Act across the range of public authorities to
which it principally applies. Certainly research commissioned
by the previous JCHR and published in March 2003 as part of its
inquiry into the case for a human rights commission seemed to
show that the Act had not at that time, just over two years after
it came into force, had sufficient practical impact on delivery
of crucial public services to substantiate claims that it had
brought about a culture of human rights.
Since that time, some further important research has been undertaken
to examine the extent to which the Act has had an impact on the
lives of ordinary people.
However, with the establishment of the Commission for Equality
and Human Rights impending, as well as the tenth anniversary of
the passing of the Act, there remain fundamental and unresolved
questions about the benefits brought by the Act, and the extent
to which a positive culture of human rights is developing throughout
British society as a whole. These are crucial questions which
we consider will continue to exercise us over the range of our
work during the remainder of this Parliament.
100 Sixth Report of Session 2002-03, The Case for
a Human Rights Commission, HL Paper 67-I/HC 489-I, at para.
Ibid. at para. 9. Back
Ibid. para. 19. Back
Ibid. para. 238. Back
Oral evidence on Human Rights Policy taken on Monday 16 January
2006, HL Paper 143/HC 830-I. Back
Sixth Report of Session 2002-03, op. cit., para. 240. Back
Human Rights and Public Authorities, Jeremy Croft, January
2003, Appendix 70 to the Sixth Report of 2002-03, Vol. II. Back
See for example Human Rights in the Community, Rights as
agents of C. Harvey, Editor, Change, Hart Publishing, 2005. Back