Joint Committee on Human Rights Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


APPENDIX 10

Memorandum by the Department of Social Security

1.  THE EFFORTS THE DEPARTMENT HAS MADE SO FAR TO IMPLEMENT THE ACT AND, IN PARTICULAR TO BUILD A "HUMAN RIGHTS CULTURE"

  Preparations for the Human Rights Act were co-ordinated by a Departmental steering group chaired by the Departmental Solicitor. Each of the Department's business units were represented on that group.

  Thorough and systematic reviews of policy, legislation and procedures were carried out across the Department led by a number of project teams in the various business units. These reviews were systematic and detailed, across all benefit areas and processes reviewing a vast body of legislation and practice which stretches back over many years to make sure that the policy justifications for particular measures were still appropriate for the year 2000.

  As a result of these comprehensive reviews, a number of internal personnel procedures were clarified and some minor procedural changes to benefit handling were made. Although these changes have been minor, the reviews have raised the profile of human rights issues considerably, and their consideration has become, more than ever, an integral part of the way the Department conducts its business, including policy information.

  Another major aspect of the co-ordinated preparations was that all members of staff in the Department have received training in the Human Rights Act. The nature of this training has varied according to the role that people carry out. Everyone in the Department and its agencies has had at least a basic awareness training. This has been based around a video that was specially produced by the Benefits Agency. The video has also been used in the rest of the Department.

  Many members of staff have had far more extensive training to equip them properly for the jobs they do. For example, the staff that carried out the reviews received specialist training very early on to enable the reviews to commence. Similarly, but necessarily later in the programme of preparations, those staff dealing with appeals have had specialist training so as to be equipped for dealing with human rights points that customers might wish to raise.

  There have been other ways in which we have been building on human rights culture in the Department. Detailed standing guidance has been placed on the Department's intranet so staff have a constant reference source ready to hand. There have been a number of articles in Department and Agency publications. At the end of September 2000 staff had an insert in their payslips to remind them again about the imminent coming into force of the Act.

2.  HOW THE ACT HAS AFFECTED THE DEPARTMENT'S APPROACH TO HUMAN RIGHTS ISSUES AND WHAT THE CONSEQUENCES HAVE BEEN FOR POLICY FORMATION AND THE DELIVERY OF SERVICES

  In part, this is addressed above, but the question prompts two additional important points.

  In one sense, the Department's approach to human rights issues has not changed at all. The Convention has been with us for many years so it has always been appropriate for it to be a central part of our work. That said, the Human Rights Act, and the extensive work that has gone into preparing for it, has quite properly raised the profile of human rights in the way that was intended in passing the Act.

  One of our central aims is modernising the social security system. It is pleasing to emphasise that the Human Rights Act has had positive consequences for policy formation in that is has dovetailed precisely with what we have been doing in making progress on modernising the system with an appropriate balancing of rights and responsibilities.

3.  THE IMPLICATIONS FOR THE DEPARTMENT OF ANY COURT JUDGEMENTS ON HUMAN RIGHTS MATTERS SINCE THE HRA CAME INTO FORCE.

  A Scottish case (Starrs and Chalmers) concerning judicial appointments and ECHR Article 6 has potential implications for the whole of Government. However, this was not an issue specific to social security. We have been studying the case law emerging from the courts since the Human Rights Act came into force but there has not been any judgement under the Act in the field of social security.

4.  THE IMPACT THE ACT HAS HAD ON EVERYDAY LIFE IN THE DEPARTMENT

  Both at the centre of the Department, and in the Agencies dealing directly with the public, consideration of human rights is an integral part of the way business is conducted. How it impacts varies according to the part of the Department's work in question. Staff responsible for working on policy issues constantly bear the Convention Rights in mind. Staff who deal with enquiries from customers have become increasingly used to being asked whether aspects of the Department's business are consistent with human rights legislation. However, such enquiries have been limited in number and are usually very general without any specific complaint being made that a particular Convention Article is an issue.

5.  HOW THE DEPARTMENT HAS ADDRESSED THE DUTY TO MAKE STATEMENTS OF COMPATIBILITY UNDER SECTION 19 OF THE ACT

  Since section 19 came into force, officials and lawyers in the Department have carefully considered all new legislation in order to advise Ministers about the compatibility of the proposed provisions. However, this is not something added on at the end of the policy developed process but is an integral part of it. All new policies are developed with the Act very much in mind. Therefore, being in a position to make statements of compatibility under section 19 flows naturally from that.

March 2001


 
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