Joint Committee on Human Rights Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-79)


14 JANUARY 2008

  Q60  Dr Harris: Are you not just saying, and I do not mean to paraphrase you wrongly, that the responsibility is the responsibility to stay within the law, not a wider responsibility and, therefore, it is essentially otiose because it is self-evident that you have a responsibility to stay within the law or face the consequences, or would you say it is more than staying within the law?

  Mr Jeary: We are saying exactly that, that it is the responsibility of individuals to stay within the law and the exercise of that responsibility is covered by criminal and civil law.

  Q61  Dr Harris: Do you have anything to add?

  Ms Reed: Our understanding of a Bill of Rights is a statement of human rights and we would have an understanding that human rights apply to all human beings and, therefore, would have some concern about entitlement to human rights being contingent upon compliance with certain responsibilities. However, it is important to note that the debate that has taken place so far around the Bill of Rights and responsibilities is not necessarily very clearly defined. As a membership organisation with the TUC we are continuing to develop our policy on a Bill of Rights and as the Government publishes any future consultation documents and maybe spells out in greater detail what is meant by responsibilities in this context then we will, of course, engage in that wider debate.

  Q62  Dr Harris: Carolyne, your written evidence gives quite a lengthy view about your concerns about this. Without repeating what is in there, because we already have that, do you want to add to your concerns where you say that linking rights and responsibilities is especially dangerous for children?

  Ms Willow: Yes. It is especially dangerous to children but it is not a new debate for us in the children's rights movement because almost as soon as the notion of children being rights holders established international pressure and force then politicians and others started to discuss and put on the table the notion of children also having responsibilities. Just to reiterate: a Bill of Rights tends to be a statement of accepted human rights and human rights are not contingent on behaviour. We can see through the playing out of antisocial behaviour legislation, for example, that even if a parent says, "If you do this, you lose these rights", that is not intentionally defined to hit hard on children but in reality because of their stage of development and particular vulnerability it can disproportionately impact them both in the numbers of children affected and the injurious harm on children. This is why children have their own Human Rights Treaty, the international community have recognised the preciousness of that period of life both in terms that it is very easy to harm development but equally we have the best of chances to really help the positive development and growth of human beings.

  Q63  Dr Harris: The Government in some of its speeches has talked about, at least for citizens, that with rights comes duties and it has got a bit more flexibility when it comes to citizens because one always has extra rights as citizens, such as to vote, for example. How do you feel, particularly for children? Do you think there is a distinction between children being thought of as citizens if, for example, there was a citizenship ceremony for 18-year olds to participate in and do you think that would have an impact on the status of sub-18 year olds who have not gone through that ceremony?

  Ms Willow: It would have an impact on the one-year old that you referred to. The idea that human beings become full members of society at the age of 18 and that ought to be marked with a ceremony immediately raises questions about all the other human beings who are below the age of 18. We have consistently urged caution about the idea of citizenship ceremonies. Whatever individuals or families want to do in their own private lives to mark the passing of particular ages and the acquisition of additional legal rights and responsibilities, we believe that should be left to individuals and families to determine.

  Q64  Dr Harris: Would you object to a coming of age ceremony which was state-sponsored and made compulsory which did not imply citizenship implications but just celebrated or recognised the additional rights that people attain at the age of 18?

  Ms Willow: We cannot see the arguments for it in terms of the benefits for the individuals and for children per se. Our focus is on having political commitment and will and legal enforceability for the rights that are there in the international Human Rights Treaty for Children. It is not evident to us from the Green Paper what the gains or the benefits for individual children or for children collectively are meant to be.

  Q65  Mr Sharma: Can I go to the Prime Minister's famous speech on 6 June to the GMB when he said that it is time to train "British workers for British jobs". What is your view of the human rights implications of the Prime Minister's wish to train "British Workers for British jobs"?

  Mr Jeary: First, it is not for me to interpret what the Prime Minister meant by that phrase. From a Unite perspective, what we are concerned about is a Bill of Rights is about human rights regardless of someone's citizenship or nationality. If somebody is living in the jurisdiction of a Bill of Rights then they should be able to access those rights and be treated with the dignity that those rights give to people. I take the point you are making, but I suspect perhaps the Prime Minister might choose his words differently if he was given a second chance because it is open to misinterpretation and I am sure he did not mean it in the way that some mischievously interpreted it. Nevertheless, from our point of view we are quite clear that a Bill of Rights is about human rights, it is about everybody living within the area that the Bill of Rights covers and that has got nothing to do with being necessarily British, it is to do with living in the United Kingdom.

  Ms Reed: The TUC would certainly share those views. Indeed, we would recognise that many of the individuals in the UK who are perhaps in greatest need of protection under any potential Bill of Rights are asylum seekers and refugees and, indeed, some migrant workers and, therefore, as Roger has already said, our understanding of a Bill of Rights is a Bill of Rights setting out human rights and qualifications for human rights should be the fact that you are a human being.

  Q66  Chairman: Earlier on you mentioned the socio-economic rights, how detailed do you think the rights should be?

  Ms Willow: The Convention on the Rights of the Child, as I am sure you are aware, has very broad requirements in relation to social and economic rights. Our proposal is to incorporate them as they stand, which other countries have done, notably Norway most recently, and then it would be for the courts to determine and interpret the applicability of those rights. We believe that we should not skip from the first generation rights, civil and political rights, straight on to third generation rights, to issues around the environment and so on, without giving proper and serious consideration to social and economic rights. The indivisibility of civil and political and social and economic rights is well-established. The Committee itself in its 2004 report on the international covenant emphasised that nearly a third of Council of Europe Member States have accepted the complaints mechanism for the European Social Charter which indicates growing acceptability, at least among Council of Europe States, and in Central and Eastern European States their revised constitutions have often incorporated social and economic rights. At this point in time we think the debate should be open on social and economic rights for all, although we do think there is a particular strength in the argument around children given the cross-party support to end child poverty. If it is ended by 2020 as the three main political parties want, then what happens in 2021, 2022 and so on? Particularly with this Prime Minister who has made the eradication of child poverty not just a national priority but an international priority it absolutely makes sense at this point in time that that is given serious consideration. I was going to answer some of the arguments against but maybe I should wait for you to give me the arguments against.

  Q67  Chairman: Roger, what is your view on social and economic rights? Do you think we should have them? How detailed do you think they should be? Carolyne earlier on indicated that she felt there should be a separate section for children in a Bill of Rights, do you think there should be a separate section in a Bill of Rights for trade unions?

  Mr Jeary: I will come to that final point in a moment. On the question of economic and social rights, the whole issue of a Bill of Rights is still very much a matter of debate within Unite and within the trade union movement as a whole as to what should be included and what should not. Were it to be decided through debate that there should be the inclusion of such rights as are included in the South African constitution, the right to adequate housing, the right to healthcare, the right to basic education, these are all very much in line with Unite's policies and ones which we would be quite happy to support. A reservation that we might have at this moment in time is the interpretation in law of these rights and how they would be interpreted in law and that is something which through the detailed consultation mechanism which this type of legislation requires would have to be looked at very, very closely before we decided exactly how we might include what all of us in this room, hopefully, would agree are basic human rights. On the issue of whether we should have a separate entity for trade unions, again it is something we have not considered specifically as to whether that should be the case. If the arguments that we have put forward are adhered to in terms of collective rights, some of that clearly reflects very heavily on trade unions rather than other bodies, but the collective rights that we demand in many respects are similar to collective rights that other organisations would want to have in representing the people who belong to their organisations. I am not sure that it is absolutely necessary to have a separate section on trade union rights within this. Again, as I say, this is us evolving our own ideas and policies as we go along and the important thing is to ensure that there is widespread consultation on these aspects of any proposed Bill of Rights.

  Q68  Chairman: One of the key issues is justiciability, which is the one you have just touched on, and I will ask Hannah about this because, on the one hand, the Prime Minister when I put it to him was very concerned about justiciability, and I raised that with him at the Liaison Committee at the end of last year, and, on the other hand, in South Africa they seem to have found a reasonable balance as to the right way to do it if you look at what the Constitutional Court in South Africa has been able to achieve. What are the TUC's views on justiciability?

  Ms Reed: May I start off by saying, if you will give me the time, that the TUC is still having ongoing consultations internally about the content of a Bill of Rights and, therefore, on the scope of which economic or social rights should be included within any future Bill of Rights. As we have already stated, we do believe that there are certain collective rights which may well be defined as social and economic rights which, if there is a Bill of Rights, should be included in a Bill of Rights. Regarding justiciability, first of all as regards collective rights relating to trade unions, we do not believe there is a problem of justiciability in terms of rights to bargain collectively or rights of trade unions to organise. The jurisprudence of bodies such as the ILO and the Council of Europe already demonstrate that those are substantially procedural rights which can be accessed and determined through the courts. We do recognise if you go beyond those rights into other areas of social and economic rights there may be other issues of justiciability which come to the fore but, as Roger has already highlighted and as you have raised, other accession states within Europe and, indeed, South Africa have a very comprehensive Bill of Rights which do include social and economic rights and different legal systems have found ways of adjudicating on such matters. The TUC at this stage is still consulting our affiliates as to which rights, if any other social and economic rights, should be included within a Bill of Rights debate. We will happily return to this issue, including justiciability, at a future point.

  Q69  Chairman: Carolyne, you raised the issue of justiciability, is there anything you would like to add briefly?

  Ms Willow: The principle that the courts should be able to interfere in policy making and in relation to children especially has already been established in terms of the Human Rights Act. If there were to be a very broad public debate and consultation on what ought to be in a Bill of Rights we are absolutely certain that economic and social rights would be high up on people's agendas and if we were to ask for the characteristics and features of what is important to British values and living here in Britain, everybody having a minimum income guaranteed, an adequate standard of living, and for that to be enforceable is the other—

  Q70  Earl of Onslow: What happens if you do not have a minimum income and the money is not there, how do you enforce it?

  Ms Willow: Well, we are the fourth richest country—

  Q71  Earl of Onslow: That was not my question. How do you enforce it? Surely that is a policy objective rather than a Bill of Rights objective.

  Ms Willow: If it was a challenge with a victim rather than a challenge on a piece of legislation that contravened the Bill of Rights then there would be redress and remedy for that individual. If it was a challenge on a piece of legislation that allegedly contravened what was in the Bill of Rights then presumably there would be a process like we currently have with the Human Rights Act, the Declaration of Incompatibility and so on.

  Q72  Earl of Onslow: Surely standards of living and how rich a country is, is not something which is amenable to a Bill of Rights.

  Ms Willow: It is relevant because—

  Q73  Earl of Onslow: If you do not have the money or the wealth to do something, if an Act says you have to have it and it is not there, there is nothing the Act can do about it.

  Ms Willow: I use it as a comparison because debates around economic and social rights in this country are often predicated with, "Well, what about the resource implications?" and it is absolutely relevant that we are an extremely rich country.

  Q74  Earl of Onslow: I understand all of that but you cannot legislate for water to go uphill. You cannot do that, it does not work. That is all I am saying.

  Ms Willow: These minimum standards are already established in Human Rights treaties and instruments that we have ratified. The law of treaties requires that governments that ratify human rights instruments implement them, so there is already a legal and moral obligation on states like the UK to be implementing economic and social rights.

  Q75  Chairman: Would you see them qualified in the same way as the South African constitution, for example, in relation to the availability of resources and future growth of the economy and so on?

  Ms Willow: Like my colleagues here, we are evolving our policy. At this present time our position is that we want full incorporation and there are no get-out provisions within the Convention on the Rights of the Child in relation to resources, in relation to an adequate standard of living, access to health and healthcare services, for example. This is the start of the debate. We have looked at the South African constitution and have seen that is one obvious option that the UK could take.

  Q76  Lord Dubs: Could we turn briefly to the process of how we get there. In other words, how would you like to see the public and, indeed, if I can call trade unions civil society groups, civil society groups involved in formulating a British Bill of Rights? How do we ensure that the ownership is there for your members?

  Mr Jeary: To start with is the need to have the widest possible consultation and the mechanism for that has to be very seriously considered by government. This is such an important area of constitutional law that simply going through the motions of having a website with the opportunity for people to express a view is not good enough, quite frankly. It may be part of the mechanism to engage the wider population but what we would want to see is a properly structured debate which enables representative groups as well as individuals to ensure that a full debate on all the issues, some of which we have touched on today and many more which we have not, are given a full and frank airing and that is open not only to trade unions but all other organisations, collective organisations, alongside the individual right to make representations. Maybe that could be through some form of commission which would provide that opportunity to have detailed evidence presented to it.

  Q77  Lord Dubs: As far as children are concerned, is there any way in which you would envisage children and young people being involved in such a process?

  Ms Willow: Absolutely. It is absolutely essential. We believe that the Equality and Human Rights Commission could take a strong lead here. We think the debate needs to be above party politics to engender trust, openness and the active engagement we are led to believe is wanted. The Children's Commissioners in England, Wales and Scotland could be part of the process because of their good links with children and expertise in producing materials and going out and engaging with children. As a starting point we would want information to the public to set out the bottom lines as they currently stand. We do not think it would be beneficial for the discussion we had right at the beginning to present this as a blank sheet of paper, we want people, and within that children, to be informed of the human rights obligations that the UK currently has accepted and is required to implement as a starting point. That has to be where we travel from. There has to be human rights education as part of this process because it has not happened before.

  Q78  Lord Dubs: My last question is this: I think you would accept that there is a certain amount of media and political hostility in this country as regards human rights legislation, the press and some of the papers are not very sympathetic and so on. Do you think that a full public debate of the sort we have just been discussing, and to which you have given your backing, would lead to enhanced protection for human rights within a Bill of Rights? Would the outcome be positive or is it liable to exacerbate the opposition?

  Mr Jeary: I think a lot depends on how informed the debate is that takes place. There is always a danger in the sort of open debate that we are advocating that it is taken over by vested interests which perhaps are not interested in the broader concept of a Bill of Rights and would see it as an opportunity to attack, as others have already, the effect of the limited Human Rights Act provision that we have in this country currently. I do not think that is a reason not to have the debate. I do think there is a need for this debate and we have got to give the opportunity to responsible people to come forward and take forward, as Carolyne has just said, where we go from where we are. The one thing we have made absolutely clear is the one thing a Bill of Rights should not be doing in any way is undermining those human rights that exist already in this country.

  Q79  Mr Sharma: Carolyne, you would like to see an entrenched Bill of Rights, not easily capable of being amended, but you also see a need to "review and evolve the Bill in recognition of the organic nature of human rights". How would this work?

  Ms Willow: We see that there seems to be a growing consensus that any amendment to a Bill of Rights ought to be supported by two-thirds in each House of Parliament. In our opening position of not only the Convention on the Rights of the Child but all the international treaties that the UK has ratified to be incorporated as part of the Bill of Rights we would see that there could be some provision within that to take into account where treaties and the option of protocols are added, for example, and the interpretations of the human rights monitoring bodies.

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