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


4  Thematic inquiries and other work

Core task 1: examination of policy proposals

48. As discussed in the preceding chapter, a central element of our work is the examination of policy proposals in Government bills to assess their compatibility with the ECHR and the UK's international human rights obligations.

UN CONVENTION ON THE RIGHTS OF PERSONS WITH DISABILITIES

49. We published two reports during the session on the Government's proposal to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which we strongly supported. In the first report we recommended that the UK ratify the Convention without delay and were critical of the lack of transparency of the process by which the Government was considering reservations.[57] Our second report considered the four reservations and the interpretive declaration proposed by the Government. We expressed concern that the Government's approach to reservations had been unduly cautious and concluded that two of the reservations were unnecessary. Our report was agreed four weeks after the Convention was formally laid before Parliament and was published before relevant debates in both Houses.[58]

Core task 2: emerging policy

50. Our thematic inquiries have generally dealt with areas where human rights concerns have not been adequately taken into account in the development of policy, such as, in previous years, the treatment of asylum seekers and the human rights of adults with learning disabilities.

BUSINESS AND HUMAN RIGHTS

51. During this session we looked at business and human rights, including the role the Government should play in ensuring that UK businesses respect human rights wherever they operate. This inquiry also provided an opportunity to follow up our previous work on the extent to which private sector providers of public functions are within the scope of the Human Rights Act. Our report was published in December 2009.[59]

UK BILL OF RIGHTS

52. We followed up our report on a Bill of Rights for the UK by publishing a short report on the Government's reply to our work and its Green Paper, in January.[60] We also took oral evidence on the issue from Jack Straw MP, the Secretary of State for Justice, and Michael Wills MP, the Human Rights Minister, and from the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, and held a conference on the issue.[61]

POLICING AND PROTEST

53. We published two reports on policing and protest.[62] In the first report, we concluded that, in general, legislation relating to protest was consistent with the UK's human rights obligations. One major exception related to protest around Parliament where we added our voice to the demand for the relevant sections of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 to be repealed in favour of amendments to the Public Order Act 1986 which, while maintaining access to Parliament, would be less restrictive on protest. The Government accepted our recommendations and we are currently scrutinising the amendments to the Public Order Act brought forward in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill. We drew attention to problems with policing training and practice and emphasised the need for dialogue between protesters and police to facilitate protests and minimise conflict.

54. Our second report followed up the Government reply to our earlier report and also analysed some of the lessons which could be learnt from the way in which the police handled the G20 demonstrations in London in April. We examined in detail the containment tactic used during the G20 protests and which had been subject to a legal challenge following the May Day demonstrations in 2001. In our view, this tactic may be legitimately used in some circumstances to prevent people suspected of causing disorder from dispersing but it must be used in a proportionate manner and with due regard to the human rights of the people contained. We have continued to follow the debate on these matters and plan to host a mini-conference with the police, HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and other interested parties in the new year.

FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION

55. We also responded to a letter from the Chairman of the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee for our advice on human rights matters relating to that Committee's inquiry into press standards, privacy and libel.

Core task 3: draft bills

56. Our pre-legislative scrutiny work is dealt with in paragraphs 25-27 above.

Core task 4: specific output from the department

57. We pay close attention to the work of the human rights division of the Ministry of Justice and the minister in that department with responsibility for human rights policy. We took oral evidence from the Human Rights Minister on 20 January and, in the current session, on 2 December.[63]

PRISONER TRANSFER TREATY WITH LIBYA

58. We are routinely sent treaties which raise human rights implications, prior to ratification, and decided to scrutinise a prisoner transfer treaty with Libya which was laid before Parliament on 27 January. We raised a number of questions including, for example, about the treatment, conditions and monitoring of prisoners transferred to Libya. Unfortunately, the Secretary of State for Justice refused to agree to defer ratification of the treaty until we had time to consider his response to our questions and publish a report. We published the correspondence on 15 April along with a short report which concluded that "when a select committee intends to scrutinise a treaty, ratification should be delayed until the committee's inquiry has concluded".[64] We will return to this matter in our scrutiny of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, which will place parliamentary scrutiny of treaties on a statutory footing.

Core tasks 7 and 8: scrutiny of relevant public bodies and major appointments

59. Our predecessors in the last Parliament led the campaign for the establishment of the EHRC and we have taken a close interest in its work since it was launched in 2007. Concerns have been expressed in recent months about the leadership and governance of the Commission and about its work priorities, particularly in relation to human rights. We are currently inquiring into these matters and expect to report in the new year.

60. We have also maintained close links with the Northern Ireland and Scottish Human Rights Commissions. We took oral evidence from both bodies this year, on a UK Bill of Rights and business and human rights respectively, and also held an informal meeting with Professor Alan Miller, the Chair of the Scottish Commission.

Core task 9: implementation of legislation and major policy initiatives

61. Much of our work has been concerned with the implementation of the ECHR in specific areas or the impact of particular legislative provisions which have raised human rights concerns.

UN CONVENTION AGAINST TORTURE

62. In August we published a report on allegations that the UK had been complicit in the torture of terrorism suspects in Pakistan and elsewhere.[65] This followed up our 2006 report on UK implementation of the UN Convention against Torture (UNCAT)[66] and sought to examine the veracity of the allegations and whether, if true, they indicated that the UK had been complicit in torture under the terms of Article 4 of UNCAT and the general principles of State responsibility for internationally wrongful acts. Regrettably, ministers refused to give oral evidence on this subject and we devoted a chapter of our report to the "woefully deficient" system for ministerial accountability for security and intelligence maters.[67] We returned to this issue in oral evidence with David Hanson MP, Minister of State at the Home Office, early in the current session.[68]

63. One issue we pursued was whether the receipt of intelligence information from a country known to practise torture amounted to complicity in torture. We concluded that:

    If the UK is demonstrated to have a general practice of passively receiving intelligence information which has or may have been obtained under torture, that practice is likely to be in breach of the UK's international law obligation not to render aid or assistance to other states which are in serious breach of their obligation not to torture.[69]

In its reply to our report, the Government said "the receipt of intelligence should not occur where it is known or believed that receipt would amount to encouragement to the intelligence services of other states to commit torture".[70] This formulation of the Government's view, which we had not previously encountered, does not assuage our concern that the UK may be in systematic and regular receipt of information obtained by torture overseas and may, as a result, be "complicit" in torture as that term is defined in the relevant international standards. An overseas security agency may well use torture without being encouraged to do so by the fact that the information thereby obtained ends up in London. In any event, it is unlikely that the UK Government would come to know or believe that its receipt of such information was acting as an encouragement to torture.

64. The main conclusion of our inquiry was that there should be an independent inquiry into the numerous allegations of UK complicity in torture. We remain firmly committed to this view.

CHILDREN'S RIGHTS

65. Our inquiry into children's rights looked at the extent to which the UK had implemented the UNCRC and focused on areas on which we had previously reported during the Parliament, including children in the criminal justice system and asylum-seeking and trafficked children, and followed up a report on implementation of the UNCRC by our predecessors.[71] We welcomed a number of positive developments, such as the Government's withdrawal of reservations to the UNCRC on immigration and the detention of children alongside adults, but also expressed concern where action to implement the Convention is not being taken, such as with the Government's continuing defence of the criminalisation of child prostitution.

UK LAW ON GENOCIDE, TORTURE AND RELATED CRIMES

66. In examining UK law on genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and redress for torture victims, we assessed whether the patchwork of UK legislation relating to these matters fully implements relevant international conventions.[72] We found that there were inconsistencies and gaps in the law which could allow international criminals to visit and even stay in the UK without fear of prosecution. The Government amended the Coroners and Justice Bill to reflect some of our concerns, although our recommendations aimed at enabling victims of torture overseas to claim redress from those responsible for their treatment in the UK court were rejected.

ADVERSE COURT JUDGMENTS

67. Our scrutiny of the Government response to adverse judgments by the European Court of Human Rights, as well as declarations of incompatibility under the Human Rights Act by domestic courts, has continued throughout the session. We expect to publish our third report on this work, considering the Government response to specific cases as well as how action to respond to and implement adverse judgments is co-ordinated across Whitehall, in the new year.

COUNTER-TERRORISM POLICY AND HUMAN RIGHTS

68. We continued our long-running scrutiny of UK counter-terrorism policy and human rights by publishing reports on the annual renewal of control orders legislation and of the extension of the maximum period of pre-charge detention for terrorism suspects from 14 to 28 days.[73] Both of these reports, our fourteenth and fifteenth of the Parliament on counter-terrorism, were used in debates in both Houses. We intend to return to the issue of counter-terrorism policy before the end of the Parliament.

Core task 10: debates in the House

69. Occasions on which our reports were listed on the House of Commons Order Paper as relevant to a debate are set out in table 4 below.Table 4: House of Commons debates to which JCHR Reports and other material was 'tagged' to indicate relevance
DateDebate JCHR Report etc "tagged"
9 FebruaryPolitical Parties and Elections Bill: Consideration 4th Report 2008-09
3 MarchMotion to approve the draft Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005 (Continuance in force of sections 1-9) Order 2009 5th Report 2008-09
5 MarchWestminster Hall debate on report on adults with learning disabilities 7th Report 2007-08
23 and 24 MarchCoroners and Justice Bill: Consideration 8th Report 2008-09
5 MayApprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill: Consideration 14th Report 2008-09
19 MayPolicing and Crime Bill: Consideration 10th and 15th Reports 2008-09
2 JuneBorders, Citizenship and Immigration Bill [Lords]: Second Reading 9th Report 2008-09
23 JuneMarine and Costal Access Bill [Lords]: Second Reading 11th Report 2008-09 and correspondence
25 JuneWestminster Hall debate on Bill of Rights report 29th Report 2007-08
1 JulyParliamentary Standards Bill: Committee and remaining stages 19th Report 2008-09
8 JulyFinance Bill: remaining stages 20th Report 2008-09
9 JulyMotion to approve the draft Terrorism Act 2006 (Disapplication of Section 25) Order 2009 18th Report 2008-09
14 JulyBorders, Citizenship and Immigration Bill [Lords]: Consideration 9th and 17th Reports 2008-09
12 OctoberHealth Bill [Lords]: remaining stages 11th and 14th Reports 2008-09
3 and 4 NovemberConstitutional Reform and Governance Bill: Committee Correspondence

70.

71. As the table shows, our reports on the human rights of adults with learning disabilities and a UK Bill of Rights were debated in Westminster Hall during the year.

72. Our reports are frequently listed on the House of Lords Order Paper as relevant to debate on the stages of bills and were frequently cited in debate. Our second report on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was debated in Grand Committee in the House of Lords on 28 April, along with a statutory instrument relating to the ratification of the Convention.[74]


57   First Report, The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, HL Paper 9, HC 93. Back

58   Twelfth Report, UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities: Reservations and Interpretative Declaration, HL Paper 70, HC 397. Back

59   First Report of session 2009-10, Any of our business? Human rights and the UK private sector, HL Paper 5-I, HC 64-I. Back

60   Third Report,A Bill of Rights for the UK? Government Response to the Committee's Twenty-ninth Report of Session 2007-08, HL Paper 15, HC 145 (hereafter Bill of Rights Government Response). Back

61   Ev 1; Ev 18; Ev 32 Back

62   Seventh Report, Demonstrating respect for rights? A human rights approach to policing protest, HL Paper 47-I, HC 320-I and Twenty-second Report, Demonstrating Respect for Rights? Follow-up, HL Paper 141, HC 522 (hereafter Demonstrating respect for rights follow up). Back

63   Ev 32 Back

64   Thirteenth Report, Prisoner Transfer Treaty with Libya, HL Paper 71, HC 398. Back

65   Allegations of Complicity in TortureBack

66   Nineteenth Report of Session 2006-07, The UN Convention Against Torture (UNCAT), HL Paper 185-I, HC 701-I, particularly paragraphs 38-67. Back

67   Allegations of Complicity in Torture, paragraph 56. Back

68   Uncorrected oral evidence with David Hanson MP, 1 Dec 09, HC111-i, available at www.parliament.uk/jchr. Back

69   Allegations of Complicity in Torture, paragraph 42. Back

70   Allegations of UK Complicity in Torture: the Government Reply to the Twenty-third Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Cm 7714, p3. Back

71   Twenty-fifth Report, Children's Rights, HL Paper 157, HC 318 (hereafter Children's Rights). Our predecessors' report was the Tenth Report of Session 2002-03, The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, HL Paper 117, HC 81. Also see paragraph 15. Back

72   Twenty-fourth Report, Closing the Impunity Gap: UK law on genocide (and related crimes) and redress for torture victims, HL Paper 153, HC 553. Back

73   Control orders renewal 2009 and 28 days renewal 2009Back

74   HL Deb, 28 Apr 09, c19-50GC. Back


 
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