|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
We currently lack any systematic monitoring, enforcement or promotion of human rights in the United Kingdom. We have bodies such as the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Committee for Racial Equality which have some responsibility for the protection of certain human rights, but their coverage is partial. We need a body which will raise public awareness, promote good practice, scrutinise legislation, monitor policy developments and their impact, provide independent advice to Parliament and advise those who feel that their rights have been infringed.
I am particularly keen to see the promotion of an inclusive human rights culture which builds on the diversity of British society. That would be a key role for any human rights body to play. I hope that my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor will make a commitment to the Government leading a consultation process on the options with respect to the creation of a human rights commission.
Lord Goodhart: Perhaps the noble and learned Lord will allow me to intervene. I rise to support my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill, with whom I have long been associated on the council and executive committee of Justice. I very much regret that on this occasion I must disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Renton, with whom I am in almost complete agreement on most other aspects of the Bill.
Let me put my argument in simple and practical terms. If there is no human rights commission or human rights commissioner, what is to happen to the lay person who believes that his or her convention rights have been breached? They can go to their local citizen's advice bureau, but are unlikely to find anybody there who is sufficiently specialised to be able to give sensible advice. They may go to their local law centre, in the unlikely event that they can find one that operates in their area. They may go to a solicitor, but that will cost money for a totally uncertain future and they will not be able to obtain legal aid.
It would be an enormous help if such a person could go to the human rights commission or commissioner for advice as to their convention rights. And what if they have a serious case for breach of convention rights? It may be that they could agree with a solicitor or barrister a conditional fee agreement. But, in practice, that will not be practicable. Conditional fee agreements work in personal injury cases, but it is extremely unlikely that they can or will work in human rights cases. It would therefore be an enormous help if the victim could go to the human rights commission or commissioner for support in bringing the case before the court or tribunal which can give relief.
I know that problems arise in creating a human rights commission. Should it be a freestanding commission or an umbrella body including underneath it the EOC and CRE? But that is a matter of detail. I know that Rights Brought Home--the White Paper--does not rule out the
If the Government accept a commitment to a human rights commission, I see no problem in including it in another Bill rather than this one. But, if the Government will not accept a commitment to a human rights commission in principle, that refusal needs to be tested in the debate on this Bill.
Baroness Lockwood: I hope the amendments tonight will be regarded as probing amendments. The principles embodied in them are extremely important and need to be looked at in some detail. I support the concept of an equal rights commission in some form, whether it be limited to this Bill and the areas covered by it or whether it is to be a wider commission embracing the other areas that have already been mentioned, such as sex discrimination, race discrimination and, I hope, discrimination on grounds of disability.
However, I think there are two principles that we need to consider. The first is the importance of giving responsibility to a body to administer and help to enforce the Human Rights Bill. I say that as the first chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission, which had the responsibility of administering and enforcing the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. I am very conscious of the important role which that body had in a number of ways in helping individuals to establish their own rights under the law; equally, and perhaps even more importantly, in testing the various sections of the Act so that potential applicants under the Act would be more aware of their own position and of what were their rights; and, just as importantly, in ensuring that those who might inadvertently or advertently contravene the Act would be made aware of the consequences of so doing. In other words, the commission helped to codify the Act by carefully selecting key cases to support and thereby establishing very important case law which was used widely both by individuals and organisations. I do not share the doubts of the noble Lord, Lord Renton, in this respect. I think it is important to have a single body with some responsibility.
That brings me to the second principle, about which the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, spoke, of having a commission which would embrace all human rights and take over the responsibilities of the existing commissions. There is a great deal to be said for that and I think we should give consideration to the noble Baroness's point. I think, too, that we need to consult the existing commissions. Although there is an overlap of responsibilities, they have certain expertise in their own areas which we would not want to lose in a new all-embracing commission. So I feel that there is still a great deal to be discussed in this whole area.
I should like to suggest to my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor that it would be helpful if he would give his agreement to the principle of having a human rights commission and then for us to have a consultative document on how best that might be achieved so as to maximise the full impact of the new
Lord Henley: Perhaps I may briefly give the views of this Front Bench before the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor comes to sum up, which I imagine he wishes to do before the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, does whatever he intends to do with his amendment.
Perhaps I may say to my noble friend Lord Renton that I am in considerable agreement with him that we have doubts about the value of setting up a human rights commission or commissioner. I looked carefully at the arguments put forward by the Government in their White Paper. In paragraph 3.9, they state:
Further, I believe that it was right for the Government to go on to make it clear that more consideration needs to be given as to how a commission would work in relation to the other bodies and to the new arrangements to be established for parliamentary and government scrutiny of human rights issues. Before we set up such a body, it is important that we consider carefully its relationship with the existing Equal Opportunities Commission, with the Commission for Racial Equality and with the Northern Ireland board, whose name I temporarily forget. It should be considered whether those bodies should continue to exist should such a new body come into being.
I have heard Members of the Committee say that it is only £2 million here or there, and what is that between friends. The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, said that anyone in government can always find £2 million. But it is not always that easy. I am pretty cynical about her arguments when she puts forward the idea that money will be saved. I have heard the argument on many occasions that by spending a little here it will save much more money there. I would wish to see considerable evidence before I accepted such arguments. I await with interest to hear what the Government have to say. But for those reasons we on these Benches could not support the idea of a human rights commissioner or a human rights commission.
I am most grateful to all those Members of the Committee who have supported the idea of a human rights commission. There is now overwhelming authoritative opinion in favour of it. Of all the interest groups, naturally I attach particular importance to Justice. But they are unanimous that we need a human rights commission. A parliamentary joint or separate committee might be a useful adjunct, but it would be no substitute.
There are two aspects that particularly attract me in addition to the arguments which have been so forcefully and movingly put today. The first is the one that appealed to the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, and to the two noble Baronesses who have spoken on the government side, namely, that it would be possible to subsume the other bodies such as the racial equality body and the equal opportunities body into a human rights commission. That may well provide substantial economies which would offset any additional expense. Naturally that appeals to me very much.
The second aspect is that the proposition seems to fit in very well with the thinking of my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor about how to deal with legal aid. I know that there are amendments about that, but I hope that they will not be dealt with tonight. We could take up the idea of my noble and learned friend of a special interest fund and allocate part of it to the human rights commission. That would fit in very well with what we heard of his thinking in his speech at Cardiff and in the speech at Second Reading made by the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn.
For all those reasons, I would very much like to press--although not to a Division--the proposal of a human rights commission. I am not wedded to the words of my amendment, nor to those of the noble Lord, Lord Lester. I would be fully content if my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor were to accept the idea in principle and discuss the details further. In the meantime, I beg to move.
Back to Table of Contents
Lords Hansard Home Page