Joint Committee On Human Rights Thirty-Second Report

7  Building a human rights culture

The Human Rights Act and a "human rights culture"

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 country.

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.[100] 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.[101] 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.[102] 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.[103] 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 home.[104]

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.[105] 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.[106] 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.[107] 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. 2. Back

101   Ibid. at para. 9. Back

102   Ibid. para. 19. Back

103   Ibid. para. 238. Back

104   Oral evidence on Human Rights Policy taken on Monday 16 January 2006, HL Paper 143/HC 830-I.  Back

105   Sixth Report of Session 2002-03, op. cit., para. 240. Back

106   Human Rights and Public Authorities, Jeremy Croft, January 2003, Appendix 70 to the Sixth Report of 2002-03, Vol. II. Back

107   See for example Human Rights in the Community, Rights as agents of C. Harvey, Editor, Change, Hart Publishing, 2005. Back

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Prepared 14 November 2006