Equality and Human Rights Commission - Human Rights Joint Committee Contents

2   The EHRC's human rights work


8. The EHRC formally came into existence on 18 April 2006, following the enactment of the Equality Act 2006. Trevor Phillips was appointed as Chair of the Commission on 11 September 2006. Twelve other commissioners were appointed on 4 December 2006 and further appointments were made in 2007.[6] Nicola Brewer took up her appointment as chief executive in March 2007. The Commission assumed its new powers and took on the responsibilities of the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Disability Rights Commission on 1 October 2007.

9. The organisation's formal launch also marked the beginning of a six-month "build-up phase", in which it sought to build a credible and independent Commission and identify strategic priorities for future work. The EHRC was accredited by the UN as a national human rights institution in January 2009.[7] A strategic plan for 2009-12 was published in June 2009 which identified five strategic priorities for the organisation:

  • "secure and implement an effective legislative and regulatory framework for equality and human rights;
  • create a fairer Britain, with equal life chances and access to services for all;
  • build a society without prejudice, promote good relations and foster a vibrant equality and human rights culture;
  • promote understanding and awareness of rights and duties - deliver timely and accurate advice and guidance to individuals and employers; and
  • build an authoritative and responsive organisation."

Key performance indicators were specified for each priority.

10. The EHRC launched an inquiry in April 2008 to "assess progress towards the effectiveness and enjoyment of a culture of respect for human rights in Great Britain" and "consider how the human rights framework might best be developed and used".[8] The inquiry was described as "a crucial part of the Commission's developing strategy on human rights".[9] It involved three research projects, a national survey of public perceptions of human rights, and written and oral evidence from nearly 3,000 people.[10] The inquiry's report was published in June 2009. Its recommendations included 15 aimed at the Commission itself, including to:

  • assume a leadership role in raising public awareness of the importance of human rights and the Human Rights Act;
  • produce updated guidance on human rights and legal developments related to the Human Rights Act;
  • use every available opportunity to explain publicly the purpose, value and benefits of human rights and the Human Rights Act to our society; and
  • assist public authorities to develop mechanisms to integrate positive obligations under the Human Rights Act with their work on public sector duties.[11]

11. Neither the strategic plan nor the report of the human rights inquiry recommended that the Commission should produce a stand-alone human rights strategy. The strategy published on 10 November 2009 is discussed below.[12]

12. Writing in the Guardian in September 2009, Mr Phillips summarised the main achievements of the EHRC since its launch:[13]

    300 legal actions, new rights for six million carers, better access to banks for disabled people … forcing the government to guarantee proper protection for soldiers on the front line … £10m distributed to grassroots groups fighting everyday discrimination and prejudice … guidance for small businesses facing recession, so far taken up by over 100,000 users … [and] the threat of judicial review - our "nuclear option" against the government's illiberal proposals on pre-charge detention.

A fuller summary of the EHRC's work to date was published by the Commission in October 2009.[14]

Human rights vision

13. Our predecessor Committee concluded in 2003 that "there was an unmet need for citizens to be assisted in understanding what their rights are, how these rights must be balanced with those of others, and how to assert their rights without necessarily having recourse to litigations".[15] It was concerned that the development of a human rights culture "may … have been in retreat" since the "highwater mark" of the coming into effect of the Human Rights Act in 2000.[16] Consequently, it concluded that:

    A commission would give human rights a focus, resources and a degree of institutional stability not found recently in central government. This would provide a base from which there might be a realistic chance of devising and disseminating a more credible culture of respect for human rights in public authorities.[17]

It was largely on this basis that the Committee recommended the establishment of a national human rights commission.

14. In our view, this vision of what a national human rights institution can achieve in the UK remains as valid today as it did in 2003. We have undertaken several inquiries during this Parliament into how a human rights based approach to service delivery can deliver real benefits to service users - for example in healthcare for older people and services for adults with learning disabilities.[18] In general we have found isolated examples of good practice amidst a general reluctance on the part of public authorities to regard human rights as anything more than a set of minimum legal standards. We remain far from embedding a culture of respect for human rights in the UK public sector.

15. The EHRC's human rights inquiry reached essentially the same conclusion. It found that "much remains to be done to give effect to the internationally agreed standards and values to which everyone is entitled" but expressed the view that adopting a human rights approach "should facilitate rapid improvement in public services".[19] We agree with the main findings of the EHRC's human rights inquiry. As several of our previous inquiries have concluded, embedding a culture of human rights in public authorities in the UK would drive service improvements which would benefit people who use them. The Commission has a major role to play in leading this process. Our concern is with whether the EHRC is doing enough to devise and disseminate a culture of respect for human rights in public authorities, the main aim our predecessors identified for the Commission.

Assessments of the EHRC's human rights work

16. We received memoranda from several NGOs which drew attention to positive achievements of the EHRC. Race on the Agenda, for example, noted that the EHRC's involvement in legal cases had "made a significant contribution to equality and human rights".[20] It also commented on the "real leadership" the Commission had shown on the Equality Bill.[21] The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) praised some of the EHRC's reports[22] and the British Institute of Human Rights welcomed the EHRC's June 2009 human rights report and said that it was "vital that the EHRC uses the momentum of the report to further develop and improve its approach to and work on human rights".[23] The Equality and Diversity Forum listed what it considered "real achievements" including new research on "relatively neglected topics" such as discrimination against Gypsies and Travellers as well as "a thoughtful approach" to policy issues such as how HIV is addressed in the EHRC's disability work.[24]

17. A number of critical notes were also sounded, however. Race on the Agenda said "very little has been done by the Commission to promote good relations through the social dimension of equality and human rights".[25] It criticised the resources devoted to "collecting evidence that was already available" during the EHRC's human rights inquiry.[26] The Equality and Diversity Forum expressed concern that the human rights inquiry was "the only visible work EHRC has done that is explicitly concerned with fulfilling its duty to promote respect for human rights".[27] PCS listed human rights debates from which it said the Commission was absent due to a "failure to communicate its role effectively".[28] Lord Low of Dalston complained that briefings for parliamentarians on disability issues had "almost completely dried up" and said:

    At times one has almost been tempted to think of the EHRC as a failing organisation.[29]

Liberty said:

    We have … watched the turbulent history of the EHRC with some disappointment … The EHRC has a vital statutory duty [to defend human rights] and notwithstanding considerable staffing and other resources, this is a duty which it is yet to fulfil.[30]

18. Professor Klug argued that the EHRC was "not providing us with a credible vision of what human rights are, how they can add value in everyday life" and asked "why is the Commission not addressing some of the misinformation on human rights"?[31] Ben Summerskill stated that "the Commission has not got a sense of itself as a human rights commission" and that, given its level of funding, the EHRC "should be doing significantly more".[32] Baroness Campbell said "the Commission's human rights work was marginalised due to the Chair's constant consistent lack of appreciation of the importance and effectiveness of the Human Rights Act".[33]

19. Professor Klug served as a member of the human rights inquiry team during 2008-09 and suggested that the work was "almost entirely" aimed at promoting human rights within the EHRC.[34] Sir Bert Massie argued that "there was nothing in the human rights report about the Commission that we could not have done earlier" and suggested that the inquiry had been "set up to delay things".[35] Dame (now Baroness) Nuala O'Loan chaired the inquiry and said the report:

    identified the areas in which significant activity is required, most particularly of the Commission itself. It will be important that the momentum is not lost, and that the Commission does not shy away from the work which is required. The governance processes and the ethos of the Commission will be fundamental to its ability to deliver on its statutory remit. My experience was that there was a need for development in these areas, if the EHRC is to function effectively as a national human rights commission.[36]

20. Trevor Phillips and John Wadham, the EHRC's Group Director Legal, strongly defended the EHRC's record of human rights work. Mr Phillips described the human rights report as "important" and argued that the inquiry process contributed to the EHRC's accreditation as a national human rights institution.[37] He said:

    I think that a balanced account of what we have done would say that we have done a great deal. We would have liked to have done more … We have written and published a simple guide to human rights called Ours to Own. We have campaigned on a series of issues and we have … pursued a number of key cases, for example the Jason Smith case which guaranteed protection for our troops on the frontline.[38]

Mr Wadham said "we are delivering on our remit" and cited interventions in legal cases, scrutiny of Government policy in relation to international human rights treaties, and other policy work in support of his assertion.[39]

Human rights strategy

21. The human rights strategy is intended to show how the EHRC will use its powers to discharge its human rights duties in the 2009-12 period and also responds to the recommendations of the human rights inquiry.[40] It identified five key outcomes which the Commission wishes to achieve by 2012:

  • no regression in law from the levels of human rights protection and mechanisms for enforcement under the Human Rights Act and other ratified human rights treaties;
  • widespread awareness and accurate understanding of human rights at all levels of society, including how they can be used by individuals and applied by public, private and voluntary organisations;
  • human rights mainstreamed into the work of at least five of the most significant regulators, inspectorates and complaints handling bodies;
  • to have developed a credible and widely utilised measurement framework for human rights and to have reported against this framework in the Commission's triennial report to Parliament about the state of equalities and human rights in the UK; and
  • to have clearly influenced the concluding observations of the bodies monitoring compliance with the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the UN Convention Against Torture and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.[41]

22. At the heart of the strategy lies a human rights programme for 2009-12 consisting of 46 items of work. Some of these are expressed in very general terms: for example, "we will identify and promote good practice in the public sector" and "we will build business and public awareness of the key human rights issues in the private sector". Others reflect work which is already underway, such as the commitment to respond to the Government's Bill of Rights and Responsibilities Green Paper, which was published in March 2009. Some of the commitments - such as the EHRC's sponsorship of Guardian newspaper roundtables to explore the findings of the human rights inquiry - are likely to make a relatively minor contribution to the strategy's overall aims.

23. The strategy contains few indications of timescales, milestones or measures of success or effectiveness. It is also unclear how the strategy relates to the EHRC's overall strategy for 2009-12: the two strategies appear to be unconnected and it is hard to see how they feed into each other. We note that several human rights objectives and key deliverables which were included in the overall strategy for 2009-12, such as the mapping of legal advice provision on human rights issues in order to identify service gaps and reference to ensuring greater respect for human rights in the prison system, are not mentioned in the human rights strategy.

24. We asked why it had taken so long since the EHRC was set up to publish such a vague list of human rights work priorities. Mr Phillips suggested that the decision to proceed with a long inquiry into human rights priorities before a strategy was drawn up was due to the need to ensure that the board worked together on this issue.[42] Mr Wadham said that the inquiry had been necessary to tap a "rich seam of evidence" about the desirability of embedding human rights in public sector work, which was now reflected in the strategy.[43] He argued that the strategy built on the recommendations of the human rights inquiry and "sets out our overall high level vision of the future about what we are going to do".[44]


25. Kay Carberry, a continuing EHRC commissioner, asserted that the Commission has been responsible for a "great list of achievements".[45] We do not fully share this view. We have sometimes been frustrated at the EHRC's lack of engagement in major human rights debates. We heard nothing from the Commission on policing and protest, for example, an issue with which we were engaged for a calendar year from June 2008 and which was the subject of considerable public debate, particularly after the G20 protests in April 2009. We were also critical of the evidence we received from the EHRC during our business and human rights inquiry, because it was limited to equality matters, indicating a broader failure to integrate effectively equality and human rights work.[46]

26. As we indicated earlier, a key role for the EHRC is to drive the creation of a human rights culture in the UK public sector. This will inevitably be a long process: the EHRC cannot possibly have been expected to transform the way in which public services are delivered within the first two or three years of its existence. In our view, however, the report of the EHRC's human rights inquiry shows that the Commission had not begun systematically to address this issue. The publication of a human rights strategy is evidence that the EHRC is seeking to approach its responsibilities for human rights matters on a more systematic basis than hitherto; but, in our view, the Commission is not yet fulfilling the human rights mandate set out in the Equality Act.

27. We note that the Human Rights Minister, Michael Wills MP, is also sympathetic to this point of view. He told us on 1 December 2009 that:

    I do not think [the EHRC] are doing enough to promote human rights and the Human Rights Act.[47]

He also criticised the EHRC's human rights strategy as being "too full of aspiration and too light on what I would call concrete goals that can be delivered within a specified time frame".[48] These are strong criticisms from the Minister specifically charged with overseeing human rights across Government and we entirely agree with him.

28. Recently, we have noticed signs of improved performance by the EHRC. We received a helpful memorandum in response to our call for evidence on our legislative scrutiny priorities and the EHRC has been more active than before in commenting on current human rights issues, such as the retention of DNA information by the police and allegations that the UK has been complicit in the torture of terrorism suspects overseas. We welcome these signs that the EHRC is getting its house in order and becoming a more consistent and authoritative contributor to debates on human rights matters. There is a long way for the EHRC to go, however, and an important next step will be for the human rights strategy to be redrafted to make it, as the Minister said, less aspirational and more concrete. The Commission could also usefully engage with the public in asking what its views are on human rights priorities, which would help raise the EHRC's profile and target its work on the most important issues. We recommend that the EHRC redraft its human rights strategy so that it is more focused and includes timescales, milestones and indicators of success. A revised strategy should clarify how a stand alone human rights strategy relates to the EHRC's overall strategy for 2009-12. The Commission should ask for public views on the existing strategy now and aim to launch its revised strategy later in 2010.

6   EHRC 22, section 4. Back

7   Our human rights strategy and programme of action 2009-12, EHRC, Nov 09 (hereafter Human rights strategy) p4. National human rights institutions are seen by the international human rights monitoring bodies as being of particular importance in the national implementation of human rights standards agreed amongst states at the international level (the Paris Principles).There is a formal system of accreditation of national human rights institutions and a minimum set of criteria, including independence from Government, which an institution must fulfil in order to be recognised as such. Back

8   Human Rights Inquiry: Report of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, June 09 (hereafter Human rights inquiry) p13. Back

9   Ibid, p12. Back

10   Ibid, p15. Back

11   Ibid, pp144, 146 and 148-49. Back

12   See paragraph 21. Back

13   Guardian, 5 Sep 09. Back

14   Two Years Making Changes, EHRC, October 2009. Back

15   Case for a Human Rights Commission, paragraph 93. Back

16   Ibid, paragraph 94. Back

17   Ibid, paragraph 96. Back

18   Eighteenth Report, Session 2005-06, The Human Rights of Older People in Healthcare, HL Paper 156-I, HC 378-I and Seventh Report, Session 2007-08, A Life Like Any Other? Human Rights of Adults with Learning Disabilities, HL Paper 40-I, HC 73-I. Back

19   Human rights inquiry, p150. Back

20   Ev 93, paragraph 3.1. Back

21   Ev 94, paragraph 4.1. Back

22   Ev 90, paragraph 7. Back

23   Ev 73, paragraph 3. Back

24   Ev 76, paragraph 5. Back

25   Ev 93, paragraph 3.2. Back

26   Ev 94, paragraph 3.10. Back

27   Ev 76, paragraph 6. Back

28   Ev 90, paragraph 10. Back

29   Ev 86. Back

30   Ev 86, paragraphs 2-3. Back

31   Q8. Back

32   Qq 6, 24. Back

33   Ev 70. Back

34   Q45. Back

35   Q46. Back

36   Ev 87. Back

37   Qq171-88. Back

38   Q171. Back

39   Qq 173, 175. Back

40   Human rights strategy, p3. Back

41   Ibid, p6. Back

42   Q189. Back

43   Qq 189-90. Back

44   Q187.  Back

45   Ibid. Back

46   First Report, 2009-10, Any of our business? Human Rights and the UK private sector, Hl Paper 5-I, HC 64-I, chapter 9, especially paragraph 280. Back

47   Second Report, 2009-10, Work of the Committee in 2008-09 (hereafter Annual Report 2008-09) Q (2.12.09) 18. Back

48   Ibid, Qq (2.12.09) 30-34. Back

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