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


5  Working practices

Recent changes

73. We published a substantial report on our working practices in July 2006 in which we set out changes intended to focus our work on the most significant human rights issues and enable us to undertake a broader range of activity, including more thematic inquiries.[75] We discussed the implementation of these changes at autumn awaydays in 2007, 2008 and 2009.[76] The main changes in our working practices since 2006 have been reporting on bills before report stage in the first House, the introduction of Committee amendments to bills—discussed in chapter 3 of this report—and the introduction of 'mini-conferences'. These are short seminars attended by a broad range of interested parties including NGOs, specialist advisers, and, where possible, Ministers, to follow-up our reports (or aspects of them) or to discuss issues likely to be the subject of future inquiries.

74. During the 2008-09 session we hosted a mini-conference on 25 February on business and human rights, in order to help develop the terms of reference for our subsequent inquiry. We held a larger conference on 22 April to follow up our 2008 report on a Bill of Rights for the UK, at which Michael Wills MP, the Human Rights Minister, Dominic Grieve MP, Official Opposition Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, and David Howarth MP, Liberal Democrat Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, debated their parties' proposals for a Bill of Rights.[77] Our awayday, on 3 November, also provided an opportunity to discuss human rights issues with NGOs and others. The themes covered this year were social and economic rights in legislation, freedom of expression and court injunctions, and human rights action plans.

75. We intend to hold a mini-conference in the early part of 2010 to follow up our policing and protest reports.

Informal meetings and visists

76. Tables 5 and 6 set out the other informal meetings we held during the year and the visits we undertook. Table 5: JCHR informal meetings, 2008-09
MeetingPurpose
5 May Equality Bill team
13 October International Brotherhood of Teamsters
13 October Councillor Adele Morris, Southwark Council
5 November Professor Alan Millar, Chair, Scottish Human Rights Commission
Table 6: JCHR visits, 2008-09
Overseas visits
DateDestination inquiry
14 - 18 June New York and Washington D.C. Business and Human Rights
UK visits
4 December Lambeth, Met Police Central Communications Command Centre Policing and Protest
21 January Yarl's Wood, Bedfordshire, Immigration Removal Centre Immigration and human rights
Representative capacity visits
27 March Oxford, BILD conference Adults with learning disabilities
23 September Geneva, EHRC Conference n/a

77.

78. Informal meetings with interested parties, at Westminster or on visits within the UK or abroad, are an essential part of our work. They enable the Committee to hear from a broader range of views than is usually possible in oral evidence and offer perspectives which can be difficult or impossible to appreciate from formal written and oral evidence.

79. We are grateful for the assistance we receive in undertaking visits, both in the UK and abroad, from the people and organisations we meet. We particularly appreciate the work undertaken by the parliamentary branch of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the FCO staff in the overseas posts we visited, whose help with our administrative arrangements and in putting together our work programme, as well as support and advice on the ground, were indispensable.

Following-up previous work

80. Several of our reports were explicitly intended to follow up previous work,[78] or built on work we or our predecessors had undertaken.[79] We also continued to follow up earlier reports in correspondence with the Government and others, some of which is published with this report.[80] As mentioned above, we continued to follow up our 2008 report on a Bill of Rights for the UK in a number of different ways.[81]

81. Our predecessors recommended that there should be a cross-departmental task force on deaths in custody, which, amongst other things, would share best practice and make recommendations to the Government.[82] The Government subsequently set up the Forum on Deaths in Custody, which one of our Members, Lord Bowness, attended as an observer. The Forum has now been replaced by a Ministerial Council on Deaths in Custody, on which Lord Bowness has observer status.

Relations with government

82. We deal with most Government departments, some—such as the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office—frequently. In general, we have established good relations with departments. We are appreciative of the depth and quality of the letters and memoranda we usually receive from Government when we raise human rights issues in bills with departments.

83. We do not require the Government to reply to our legislative scrutiny reports, given the timescale in which bills progress through Parliament, but we appreciate those replies we are sent.[83] The Government is obliged to reply to our other reports within two months of the date of publication unless we agree a longer time period with the relevant department. In our 2007-08 report, we criticised the Government for its long and continuing delays in replying to our 2006-07 report on the meaning of public authority under the Human Rights Act and certain recommendations in our 2006-07 report on adverse human rights judgments.[84] Both replies have now been received, although in the former case only after we had complained to the Commons Liaison Committee, which took up the matter with the Leader of the House of Commons.[85]

Informing Parliament

84. We set out above the parliamentary debates for which our reports were relevant,[86] including the debate on our own reports which we initiated as part of our follow up activity.

85. Our Chair, Andrew Dismore MP, again promoted a Private Members' Bill—the Human Rights Act (Meaning of Public Authority) Bill—which sought to implement a solution to the problem concerning the scope of the Human Rights Act on which we have often reported. The Bill did not make progress beyond Second Reading.

86. Our Legal Adviser advised the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee on the human rights implications of the draft constitution proposed for the Cayman Islands, a UK overseas territory. The draft constitution excluded sexual orientation as a prohibited ground for discrimination, included numerous references to "Christian values" and also included an exemption for any claim for discrimination on the grounds of public morality. The Foreign Affairs Committee deplored the omission of reference to sexual orientation as a prohibited ground for discrimination and raised the possibility that the constitution could afford less protection to citizens of the Cayman Islands than they are entitled to under the ECHR. It recommended that in all future discussions with Overseas Territories the FCO insists that no specific religion or faith community be singled out for privileged mention and that anti-discrimination provisions make explicit mention of sexual orientation.[87]

Outreach

87. Our main tool for communicating with the public is the Committee's website (www.parliament.uk/jchr). As with other select committees, our reports and oral evidence can be found online. We also publish our correspondence with Government on bills and in relation to adverse European Court of Human Rights judgments and declarations of incompatibility. We have used the website to seek submissions from interested parties on the draft legislative programme and on specific bills, publishing a list of bills and issues we are scrutinising at an early stage. This year, we published online written evidence relating to our thematic inquiries on children's rights and business and human rights at an early stage in order to raise the profile of the inquiries and generate further evidence.

88. We have worked with our select committee media adviser to promote our reports and gained a significant amount of media coverage during the year, especially for our reports on allegations of complicity in torture and policing and protest.

89. We have sought to extend our contacts with non-governmental organisations concerned with human rights issues, including private sector organisations, for example by inviting them to the Committee's awayday and mini-conferences.[88] We are grateful for the information and assistance we receive from such bodies and would welcome further contact with groups wishing to raise UK human rights issues.

90. An innovation in 2008-09 was the lecture we hosted to mark the 60th anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, on 10 December 2008, which was given by Dame (now Baroness) Nuala O'Loan.[89]

91. Several of our Members and staff have given lectures and presentations over the course of the year, most notably our Chair's speech at a British Institute of Learning Disabilities conference in March about the human rights of adults with learning disabilities.

International dimension

92. Although our remit relates only to the UK, some of our work has an international dimension.

  • We maintain links with the Council of Europe, its Parliamentary Assembly, and the European Court of Human Rights in respect of our work on the Government's response to adverse decisions of the court.
  • We keep under review the work of the EU's Fundamental Rights Agency, following our visit to its headquarters in Vienna in November 2008.
  • Our Chair participated in a seminar organised by the EHRC in Geneva in September at the 12th session of the UN Human Rights Council.
  • Our staff have assisted with training parliamentarians and staff in Macedonia in scrutiny of human rights issues, as part of a programme organised by the International Bar Association.

We also often meet parliamentarians and others from abroad interested in human rights when they visit Westminster.


75   Working practices reportBack

76   The review of the 2006 changes to working practices was discussed in the chapter 4 of 2007 annual report. Also see 2007-08 report, paragraphs 72-74. Back

77   A record of the discussion at this event is published with this report - see Annex 4. Back

78   For example, Demonstrating respect for rights follow upBack

79   For example, 28 days renewal 2009 and Children's RightsBack

80   See written evidence pages; 73; 128-130.  Back

81   See paragraph 49. Back

82   Third Report of Session 2004-05, Deaths in Custody, HL Paper 15-I, HC 137-I, paragraphs 375-376. Back

83   In 2008-09 we received Government replies to scrutiny reports on the following bills: Political Parties and Elections and Borders, Citizenship and Immigration (17th Report); Coroners and Justice (17th Report and Twentieth Report, Legislative Scrutiny: Finance Bill; Government Response to the Committee's Sixteenth Report of Session 2008-09: Coroners and Justice Bill (certified inquests) HL Paper 133, HC 882) and Marine and Coastal Access (Twenty-first Report, Legislative Scrutiny: Marine and Coastal Access Bill; Government Response to the Committee's Thirteenth Report of Session 2008-09, HL Paper 142, HC 918).  Back

84   2007-08 report, paragraphs 68 and 83. Back

85   Government Response to the Joint Committee on Human Rights 31st Report of Session 2007-08. Responding to Human Rights Judgments, Cm 7524, Jan 09; The Human Rights Act 1998: definition of 'public authority' Government response to the Joint Committee on Human Rights' ninth report of session 2006-07, Oct 09; p128 for our letter to Liaison Committee. Back

86   See Table 4. Back

87   Foreign Affairs Committee, Seventh Report of 2008-09, Human Rights Annual Report 2008, HC 557, paragraphs 295-303. Back

88   See paragraph 70. Back

89   We published the lecture with Bill of Rights Government Response, Ev pp33-43. Back


 
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Prepared 15 January 2010