Work of the Committee in 2008-09 - Human Rights Joint Committee Contents

2  The state of human rights in the UK

13. A summary of positive human rights developments in the UK in 2008-09 and areas for concern can be found in annex 2.

14. As in previous years, the Government has taken a number of steps to enhance the protection and promotion of human rights during the year. International conventions on human trafficking and the rights of disabled people have been ratified, for example, and longstanding reservations to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child have been withdrawn. We have welcomed provisions in a number of Government bills intended to enhance human rights, including:

  • the Child Poverty Bill, which will establish a strategy for reducing child poverty;
  • the Equality Bill, which will simplify and enhance anti-discrimination legislation;
  • the introduction of the new positive duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in the discharge of immigration, asylum, nationality and customs functions, in the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Bill;
  • provisions in the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill concerning education for detained young offenders and the obligation to record the use of force on pupils;
  • the explicit reference to human rights in the NHS constitution; and
  • numerous detailed reforms of the coroners system in the Coroners and Justice Bill;

15. Nevertheless, significant problems remain. Our biggest concern is that the UK may have been complicit in the torture of terrorism suspects carried out overseas after the attacks of 9 September 2001. There are now numerous allegations of complicity in torture, with a number of features in common. It is alleged that the UK provided questions to put to suspects tortured or badly treated in Pakistan and elsewhere; that UK agents interviewed suspects immediately before or after periods of torture or mistreatment and cannot have been unaware that suspects were being abused; and that the UK routinely received information from countries using torture, turning a blind eye to how the information was gathered. As we reported in August,[5] the Government has sidestepped parliamentary scrutiny of these issues but valuable information has emerged in court proceedings and the police are currently investigating whether there has been criminal wrongdoing in at least one case. Serious, sustained allegations that the UK has received information from countries which routinely use torture, or has been more actively complicit in torture carried out by others, puts the UK's international reputation as an upholder of human rights and the rule of law on the line.

16. Throughout the current Parliament we have scrutinised closely the Government's attempts to tackle terrorism within the framework for human rights protection set by the ECHR. The Government's task has been far from easy and we have fully supported its aim of protecting the right to life of people in the UK from terrorist attack. We have been fiercely critical of proposals which patently would not be consistent with the ECHR, such as the extension of the maximum period of pre-charge detention to 42 days, and welcomed moves to make it easier to prosecute terrorism suspects. We have consistently argued that the system of control orders, by which the activities of terrorism suspects who have not been prosecuted can be regulated and curtailed, is bound to lead to breaches of the ECHR, particularly because people subject to control orders are not given the details of the case against them. In a series of judgments during the session, the courts have reached broadly similar conclusions, culminating in decisions of the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights and the House of Lords, which have caused the whole system to unravel.[6] We note also that the control order system is expensive - over £8 million was spent by the Home Office on legal costs between April 2006 and October 2009, not including legal aid costs and the costs incurred by HM Courts Service.[7]

17. We have also continued to question whether the continued renewal of the power to detain terrorism suspects for up to 28 days before charge is justified, in view of the lack of use made of the power and the inadequate procedural safeguards which accompany it. We expect to report further on control orders and other aspects of the Government's counter-terrorism policy before the end of the Parliament.

18. Children's rights have been another source of concern to us and our predecessors and we published a report in November following a report by the UN Committee which monitors the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) which made over 100 recommendations.[8] There have been several positive developments in recent years, such as the introduction of the Children's Plan in England, the appointment of Children's Commissioners and the withdrawal of the UK's reservations to the UNCRC but the UK was recently ranked 24th out of 29 European countries in an assessment of children's well-being. There is clearly a long way to go before the UK can be regarded as an exemplar of good practice in respecting children's rights and, in our view, some of the Government's policies are taking the UK in the wrong direction. The increasing criminalisation of children is particularly worrying, given the high level of child deaths and self-harm in custody and the restricted life chances likely to be available to children drawn into the criminal justice system at a young age.

19. A consistent theme of our work since 2005 has been to emphasise how the Human Rights Act could and should be used by public bodies as a tool to focus service provision on the needs of service users.[9] For this to happen, the Government must take the lead in showing public bodies how human rights are relevant to their work. Although there have been some steps in this direction - such as the project undertaken by the Department of Health and the British Institute of Human Rights to introduce a human rights approach in Primary Care Trusts - we have generally been disappointed by the Government's failure to provide a more positive and consistent lead. This issue was raised again recently in the report of the EHRC's human rights inquiry.[10]

20. A related issue is the scope of the Human Rights Act, on which we have often reported.[11] Although the Government has legislated to ensure that the protections offered by the Human Rights Act are available to publicly funded residents of private sector care homes, it has dragged its feet in relation to considering this issue in other contexts, such as the provision of social housing. This is not an abstruse legal point: human rights belong to everyone and protect the most vulnerable in particular. In contracting out public sector functions to the private sector, the human rights protections to which service users are entitled should not be diminished. The Government is, of course, to be commended for introducing the Human Rights Act; but too often subsequently there has been a lack of leadership to use the Act to its full potential, ensure that public bodies promote human rights as well as do the minimum necessary to comply with the legislation, and respond to court judgments which have narrowed the scope of the Act from what Parliament originally intended.

21. Human rights are likely to feature in the forthcoming general election campaign because all three major parties are committed to changing the UK's human rights landscape by introducing a new Bill of Rights. We are concerned that human rights will again become a political football, with serious debate on the choices facing the UK kept on the touchline in favour of noisy recitals of the myths and distortions with which we are so familiar. Politicians on all sides must be clear about what they intend to do and the practical impact of their proposals. We would oppose any suggestion that rights encompassed in the Human Rights Act should no longer be protected or should not be enforced in UK courts, or that the UK need not fully comply with judgments of the European Court of Human Rights.

22. Parliament is central to the Human Rights Act. Ministers must report on the human rights compatibility of every bill and it is Parliament, not the courts, which must decide how to deal with legislation which is not compatible with the Act. We and our predecessors have undertaken the lion's share of Parliament's scrutiny of the Government's performance on human rights issues, publishing over 200 reports since the Joint Committee was first set up in 2001. We were grateful for the compliment recently paid to us by the Master of the Rolls, Lord Neuberger of Abbotsbury, who described our work as "consistently excellent".[12] Whatever decisions are taken on the shape of the human rights framework in the UK, we are of the view that Parliament, Government and the people we serve will continue to benefit from a dedicated human rights committee with an unflinching focus on whether human rights are being protected and promoted sufficiently in the UK.

5   Twenty-third Report, Allegations of UK Complicity in torture, HL Paper 152, HC 230 (hereafter Allegations of Complicity in Torture). Back

6   A and others v UK, Application No. 3455/05 [GC], judgment of 19 February 2009 and Secretary of State for the Home Department v AF and others [2009] UKHL 28.  Back

7   Letter from David Hanson MP, Minister of State, Home Office, to Andrew Dismore MP, Chair, JCHR, 27 Nov 09, see written evidence page 115; and uncorrected oral evidence from David Hanson MP, 1 Dec 09, HC 111-i, Qq75-80. Back

8   UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, Concluding Observations: United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, 20 October 2008, CRC/C/GBR/CO/4 and see paragraph 62. Back

9   For example, see Eighteenth Report of session 2006-07, The Human Rights of Older People in Healthcare, HL Paper 156-I, HC 378-I, chapter 3. Back

10   Report of the EHRC Human Rights Inquiry, Jun 09, chapter 6. Back

11   For example, Ninth Report of session 2006-07, The Meaning of Public Authority under the Human Rights Act, HL Paper 77, HC410. Back

12   2009 Denning Lecture, 23 Nov 09, paragraph 34. Back

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