Joint Committee on Human Rights Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Letter from the Institute for Public Policy Research to the Chairman of the Committee


  As a member of the Home Office Human Rights Task Force I have taken a keen interest in the implementation of the Act and welcome the opportunity to make some observations on progress so far. IPPR itself has a long involvement in these issues, having published its own proposals on A Bill of Rights for Britain in 1990 and subsequently published two reports anticipating the introduction of the Human Rights Act: A Human Rights Commission: the options for Britain and Northern Ireland (1998) and Mainstreaming Human Rights in Whitehall and Westminster (1999). A short paper was later published: A Human Rights Commission for Scotland? I have also written on the implications of the Act for the new Citizenship curriculum, and will make all these materials available to the Committee.

  Following publication of our report on the options for a Human Rights Commission, the Nuffield Foundation provided funding for IPPR to run a series of seven round table seminars to explore the implications of having such a body in Scotland, in Northern Ireland and in Wales; and the impact for ethnic minorities, women, people with disabilities, children and older people. I look forward to providing evidence at a later stage on these issues.

  Your letter asks for observations on the Government's efforts so far to implement the Act and to build a human rights culture. It is perhaps helpful to see the government's task, as it did itself, as three-fold: to prepare Whitehall, to prepare public authorities—including the private and voluntary organisations with responsibilities under the Act—and to raise awareness among the general public. The initial observations that I would make are these:

  1.   The quality of the general material on the Act prepared by the Home Office Rights Unit was very good. Officials were very open to suggestions from the Task Force during the drafting process and the tone of the guidance material changed from "risk management" (what you need to do in order to avoid challenge under the Act) to a positive, good practice approach. Much thought was also given to presentation and the material is accessible and attractive. I would commend the staff in that small unit who, with minimal resources, produced work to a high standard. I was also impressed by the level of preparation in the Lord Chancellor's Department where staff began detailed work on the implications for the courts at a very early stage in the passage of the Bill.

  2.   The administrative structure that the Government chose for implementing the Act was, however, problematic. First, it established no central, cross-cutting unit with the authority to co-ordinate preparation across Whitehall. The Home Office provided guidance, and asked departments to report back every six months, but had no authority to ensure that the Act was given any level of priority, or implemented with any consistency of approach, across Whitehall. Nor were ministers in each department allocated responsibility for implementation (in the same way, for instance, that there is a "Green Minister" within each department). It was argued that each department would be more likely to take ownership of the issue if entirely responsible for implementation. But the result in practice was differing levels of priority, and of approaches taken, which made it very difficult for the Task Force to assess how much was actually being done.

  3.  The second, and much more problematic, structural problem was the failure to set up an effective system to reach out to public authorities with the information and guidance they need. Each department was advised by the Home Office that it should notify the public authorities within its policy field of the implications of the Act for their work, and that they should, if necessary, produce specialist material—for instance on the implications of the Act for education or for health—to supplement the general material published by the Home Office. In practice, the small human rights units within departments generally had neither the resources nor the means to organise such a major exercise. The Department of Health, for instance, was unable to send out even a general circular to health providers until July 2000, and had not circulated material on the particular issues that could arise in health care by the time the Act came into force. That this was the case is no reflection on the staff concerned, I would suggest, but on the differing levels of importance attached to implementation of the Act by Ministers outside of the Home Office and LCD, given their own competing priorities.

  As a result and in the absence of a Human Rights Commission to fill this gap, preparation in Whitehall was more advanced than in the public authorities up and down the country that provide services to the public. A survey of 60 authorities conducted by IPPR in March—May 2000 to inform the work of the Task Force showed that, at that stage, only a minority of authorities had yet put in motion the audit of their policies and procedures, and the training of staff, that would prepare them for the Act coming into force in October. That said, some organisations, particularly local authorities, had taken on board the need to prepare and begun to take the necessary steps. There were also private companies, like Group 4 and voluntary organisations like the Royal National Institute for the Blind, which understood and welcomed the implications of the Act for the service they provide. Elsewhere, concern was expressed at the lack of available information and guidance. The voluntary organisations on the Task Force also reported that they were inundated with requests for information and training, many of which they were unable to meet. I believe the Committee has already been provided with the two papers that the NGOs wrote for the Task Force raising these issues and suggesting remedies.

  The Home Office did, at this point, set up a valuable telephone hotline service for authorities and the public to answer queries about the Act, and put the contact details of those responsible for human rights within each Whitehall department onto the Home Office's website. But I would suggest that the lack of any facility with responsibility to reach out proactively to public authorities—not least the private and voluntary sector bodies with whom Whitehall departments have least contact—was and is a weakness in the arrangements. This is particularly so if the intention of the Act is to change the culture in public authorities, not only to ensure that their policies and procedures are ECHR compliant. That the LGA provided this service for many local authorities, and ACPO for the police does not alter the general picture that no national service was or is available for the multiplicity of bodies which are expected to comply with the Act, and which, it had been hoped, would incorporate its principles into their policies and practices.

  4.  The extent to which the Home Secretary and the Home Office Human Rights Unit embraced the philosophy that the Act is about changing the culture within pubic authorities, and among the public, was very welcome. Many of us had long argued that the greatest long-term benefit of the Act could come from that cultural shift. The Home Secretary made some powerful speeches about human rights as the new ethic of public service, which helped to counter the negative way in which the Act was being portrayed in the press. But it was striking that it was only the Home Secretary who was promoting that positive message, not those Ministers responsible for the public services in question. The Home Secretary's approach placed the Human Rights Act within two of the Government's key priorities, improving the quality of public services and strengthening public commitment to a balance of rights and responsibilities. The fact that the Home Secretary was, with the exception of the Lord Chancellor, a lone voice in promoting the positive message that the Act is about changing the culture in public bodes significantly weakened the extent to which that message came across.

  5.  As regards change in Whitehall, the Task Force received a series of reports of reforms that had been made in policies and procedures. While the reforms were not necessarily dramatic—for instance changing the appointment procedure and composition of a committee to make it Article 6 compliant—it seemed to us that the changes made in Whitehall departments as a result of their human rights audit were an excellent illustration of the preventative impact which the Act could have and should be better known. There was, however, a reluctance to publicise such changes.

  6.  It is not possible to say to what extent the Act has yet led to changes in policies and delivery of services because, with the exception of the courts, there is no systematic monitoring of the impact which the Act is having. The reports that the Task Force has received have focused on the steps being taken to get the message across, for instance on information being built into training courses. It has been more difficult to get even anecdotal evidence of changes in service delivery because the reports have largely come from Whitehall departments.

  7.  There must be some doubt that the Act has yet begun to achieve the kind of cultural shift hoped for, for instance in young offender institutions or residential homes. The Committee has invited suggestions as to the priorities it should now itself adopt. Amongst them should, I suggest, be consideration of a statutory body with the mandate and resources to promote human rights good practice in public bodies, including those in the private and voluntary sector which are providing a public service. The principles in the Act, like avoiding degrading treatment, protecting privacy and respect for family life, ensuring a fair hearing and avoiding discrimination, are key principles for the delivery of good public services. Spreading good practice throughout the public service could have a major impact on the lives of ordinary people.

  8.  The terms of reference for the Task Force included raising awareness of the Act among the public, "particularly among young people". We were concerned to ensure that awareness of human rights should be included in the new Citizenship curriculum and that view was conveyed to the DfEE. Human rights has indeed been included in the new guidance to schools and the Committee may like to ascertain how this will in practice be implemented. It was IPPR's view that the principles on which the Act is based, for instance the importance of giving others a fair hearing and of respecting their privacy, were valuable ones for children to learn and that human rights should therefore be given some priority within the curriculum, not treated as an optional extra.

  9.  In considering the questions to raise in your consultation document on a Human Rights Commission, may I make two suggestions that arise from the observations above? First, while there will undoubtedly be structural questions that you will want to raise, it is important to find out what individuals and organisations think the functions of the Commission should be, and in particular which functions they consider to be most important. In our research, while we found a considerable degree of consensus on the range of functions which a Commission should have, there was a difference of emphasis between those who focused on its role in providing assistance in taking cases, for instance, and those who emphasised its role in promoting good practice and educating the public.

  Second, it would be valuable to ascertain views on which human rights issues they think most need to be addressed. In our research we have found that some define human rights issues very narrowly, while other recognise the significance of human rights more widely, for instance in the treatment of children or those in psychiatric care. It would be valuable if the way in which the questions are posed encourages a broad range of organisations and individuals to give evidence, not only those who already see themselves as working in the "human rights" field.

Sarah Spencer

Director, Citizenship and Governance Programme

2 March 2001

previous page contents next page

House of Lords home page Parliament home page House of Commons home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 11 May 2001