Memorandum by the Scottish Human Rights
Assessment of the Government's Efforts so far
to Implement the Human Rights Act
That the Government brought about the Human
Rights Act is to be applauded, however there was much that could
have been done that would have made its implementation smoother
and easier for all concerned.
Better public education about the Act would
have been a useful measure, eg increased public awareness before
the introduction of the Act and further dissemination of information
to those who may be affected, in particular those who may be termed
hybrid bodies or those private bodies who perform public functions.
(Both of these categories of public authority under s.6 of the
Act seem to have been neglected by the Government information
The creation of a Human Rights Commission before
the introduction of the Act would also have alleviated many of
the problems by having a well resourced and staff statutory body
which would have been able to advise and support on human rights
issues rather than leaving this to under resourced voluntary organisations
such as the Scottish Human Rights Centre and Liberty.
Training for bodies outside of central government
would also have been beneficial rather than leaving them to fend
for themselves. This would have been best approached in a concerted
and co-ordinated manner rather than being left to the individual
public authorities. The haphazard approach which has resulted
from this lack of co-ordination means that some public authorities
are only becoming aware of the Human Rights Act whilst others
are somewhat prepared.
Assessment of the Governments Efforts to Build
a Human Rights Culture
The passing of the Human Rights Act will not
in itself create a human rights culture in the UK, this will need
more positive action. A good beginning would be for the Government
to counteract the negative publicity which the Human Rights Act
and the ECHR are receiving in the media, indeed a more proactive
approach to this issue would probably leave less scope for the
media to react negatively to it. SHRC understands that there can
be difficulties in combating what is said in the media however
we feel that at least some of these difficulties could have been
alleviated with a proactive, positive lead from central government.
Until members of the public feel that the Human
Rights Act is relevant to them and not just a "criminal's
charter" a true human rights culture will not be able to
develop. For individuals to understand the Human Rights Act they
must be informed and educated about it and made to understand
that it is relevant to them. This would best be done by an independent
Human Rights Commission which they would feel able to trust, however
failing this the duty is on the government to ensure that every
citizen understands what the Human Rights Act is and what it means
to them. Unless citizens are aware of the uses of the Human Rights
Act it will not be used to its full potential which would partially
defeat its purpose of "Bringing Rights Home."
The introduction of an ECHR Compliance Bill
for the UK following an audit of UK government and legislation
would be welcome and would be a proactive step which would assist
in the promotion of a human rights culture in the UK.
The Consequences at National and Local Government
Level both for Policy Formulation and Delivery of Services
In Scotland many areas of local Government are
still trying to prepare and come to grips with the Human Rights
Act with very little support or assistance from national government.
The consequence of this is that those at the forefront of service
delivery are very concerned that they may be doing something which
breaches the Act and thus this impacts on the quality of the service
which they deliver. If they have been properly trained and prepared
before the Act came into force this fear would be less and they
would feel better able to do their job in the knowledge that their
services should be able to withstand a human rights challenge.
If bodies had been made more aware of the Human Rights Act they
would be better placed to understand how it might impact upon
their work and thus possibly foresee potential problems or challenges.
It is still apparent that there is a lack of
knowledge within local government in Scotland about the Human
Rights Act with many local authorities taking a wait and see approach
until cases are decided, this risks them being the test case.
This lack of knowledge also impacts on policy and practice formulation
thus putting them at greater risk of breaching rights if new policies
do not take the Human Rights Act into consideration.
At national government level in Scotland there
is a growing awareness of the implications of human rights. The
Scottish Executive has recently completed its own audit and produced
the ECHR Compliance (Scotland) Bill. This Bill in the most part
shows good understanding of human rights although that this eight
part bill addresses all that the Scottish Executive found wanting
after their audit is of concern.
Impact of HRA on Everyday Life
So far the impact of the Human Rights Act on
everyday life has been limited. As stated above until citizens
are fully aware of the Act they cannot utilise its full potential.
Thus so far the major impact of the Act has been in the criminal
justice field. The lack of public information about human rights
has made it much easier for the public to believe that the Human
Rights Act is a "criminals charter" rather than knowing
that it will be of benefit to everyone within society. This could
have been counteracted by making information easily available
in libraries or other public establishments or by disseminating
an information booklet to all households, rather than the one
launch event and short lived media information campaign.
In Scotland the ethos of the Act is filtering
through all aspects of public society slowly encouraging better
openness and accountability within that society.
Due to the absence of a Human Rights Commission
or organised dissemination of information about human rights cases
are being taken or are coming up only because the client has read
about human rights in the media or because their lawyer advises
them to raise a human rights point. This is not the best way for
the law on human rights to develop. Indeed it would be better
for the human rights culture for cases to be settled out of court
rather than becoming reliant on litigation which makes the Human
Rights Act seem more like a "criminal's charter". This
artificially limits the impact which the Human Rights Act can
have on public life. The more people who are aware of the Act
and its implications the less need there will be for litigation.
How would we advise direction of efforts in the
medium-term and why?
SHRC would suggest that the committee begin
by considering where human rights in the UK are now, eg by inviting
Jack Straw MP and other members of the Human Rights Taskforce
to speak to them about what they have achieved. It may also be
beneficial for them to visit Scotland and talk to the Scottish
Executive, some public bodies and perhaps the Scottish Human Rights
Centre and Amnesty International. (SHRC would be happy to visit
the committee in London or would welcome it or individual committee
members in Scotland).
The committee should consider the promotion
of human rights through dissemination of best practice between
public authorities and through training and public education.
Whether the committee itself undertakes to provide these services
or contracts them out would be for it to discuss (The committee
might like to provide education on human rights for MP's if not
others or might like to supervise some form of human rights education
for MP's). Obviously these would be roles that would be best undertaken
by a Human Rights Commission in the longer-term.
Investigation into the feasibility of a UK Human
Rights Commission and promotion of the idea would be beneficial
for the reasons outlined above, thus should be considered and
acted upon as soon as possible.
An audit of central government (preferably an
independent audit) for human rights compliance followed by an
ECHR Compliance Bill as has been introduced in Scotland should
also be given consideration in the medium-term. This would be
a proactive way of addressing human rights problems before they
are taken to court, and is the most responsible way of addressing
these issues. It would also go some way to fostering public confidence
about the ECHR/Human Rights Act and the government's commitment
SHRC is concerned that the impact of the Human
Rights Act will be limited and its full uses will be missed if
we rely on the courts for implementation. A true human rights
culture must be founded on best practice as well, otherwise authorities
may fall back into bad habits after a few years if implementation
is not thorough and proper.