Joint Committee On Human Rights Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


THE CASE FOR A HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION FOR THE UNITED KINGDOM

A CALL FOR EVIDENCE

INTRODUCTION

  The Joint Committee on Human Rights was established in January 2001. Its remit includes the responsibility to consider and report to each House on matters relating to human rights in the United Kingdom. The Committee has decided that one of its early activities will be to consider whether it would be desirable for a Human Rights Commission to be established to exercise functions in connection with the protection and promotion of human rights in the United Kingdom. The Committee wishes to make it clear that it has an open mind about the case for establishing a Human Rights Commission and that the process of reaching a conclusion on this matter will involve extensive consultation and deliberation. Interested persons and bodies are invited to submit written evidence for consideration by the Committee by 2 July 2001. This paper identifies the questions in relation to which the Committee would particularly welcome evidence, although this should not inhibit submissions on other matters which might be relevant. It would be helpful if written evidence could be drafted using the questions set out in this paper as a structure.

REASONS FOR CONSIDERING THAT A HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION MIGHT BE DESIRABLE

  1.  There have been a number of pieces of legislation protecting particular human rights in the United Kingdom. Several of them have established bodies to exercise functions such as monitoring the impact of the legislation, enforcing it, supporting victims of alleged violations of the law in seeking redress through courts or tribunals, bringing legal proceedings in their own name against public or private bodies who seem to have violated the law, educating the public in the importance of the rights in question, and seeking to affirm respect for rights in both public and private sectors. For example, the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 established the Equal Opportunities Commission. The Race Relations Act 1976 established the Commission for Racial Equality. The Data Protection Act 1984 established the Data Protection Registrar, subsequently renamed the Data Protection Commissioner under the Data Protection Act 1998, and now carrying added responsibilities as the Information Commissioner under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. The Disability Rights Commission Act 1999 set up a body to oversee the operation of the Disability Rights Act 1995. In Northern Ireland, a Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights was established under the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973. Since devolution took effect under the Northern Ireland Act 1998 there have been two commissions in Northern Ireland: an Equality Commission and a Human Rights Commission. The Children's Rights Commissioner for Wales Bill, currently before Parliament, would create the post of Commissioner with particular responsibility for the rights of children in Wales.

  2.  Alongside the United Kingdom legislation, several pieces of European Community law have advanced rights, including freedom of movement for workers and their families, freedom of establishment, equal pay, and freedom from discrimination on the grounds of sex. Most recently, the EU Framework Directive on Discrimination[1] has extended protection against discrimination to a wide range of people and groups. These rules are enforced by the relevant authorities in Member States, assisted by the European Commission and subject to judicial control by the European Court of Justice. Finally, the Council of Europe in 1999 appointed a Human Rights Commissioner to engage in dialogue with States and institutions to raise awareness of human rights standards within the 41 Member States of the Council of Europe.

  3.  However, there is no single body in the United Kingdom with responsibilities in respect of the various human rights arising under treaties to which the United Kingdom is a party, or in respect of the whole range of civil and political rights arising under the European Convention on Human Rights and the United Kingdom's Human Rights Act 1998.

  4.  When the Human Rights Bill was before Parliament in 1997-98, a number of people and bodies proposed that the Act should create a Human Rights Commission for the United Kingdom. It was suggested that a purpose-designed body would be able to exercise a number of generic functions in respect of human rights which would not easily be discharged by the various existing official bodies and voluntary organisations with a focus on particular human-rights issues or with very limited resources. These functions were said to include scrutinising government, raising the profile of human rights among the population as a whole and advancing a human-rights culture in the United Kingdom by initiating or contributing to programmes of education and training, investigating allegations that human rights were being violated, advising individual victims of alleged violations, supporting or initiating legal action in respect of alleged violations of human rights, and monitoring the impact of the Human Rights Act 1998 and making proposals for amending it as necessary.

  5.  The Government has stated that it is not persuaded that this is desirable. It has given two principal reasons. First, it would have to be shown that the benefits accruing from a Human Rights Commission would justify the financial expenditure which would be involved. Secondly, the relationship between the remit and powers of such a Commission and those of the existing equality Commissions would have to be considered carefully. Nevertheless, the Government has indicated that it is open to persuasion on the issue, and awaits the views of the Joint Committee on Human Rights.[2]


THE QUESTIONS

  Question 1. What (if anything) do you think a Human Rights Commission[3] might add to the current methods of protecting human rights in the United Kingdom? In particular, are there useful functions in connection with protecting human rights and developing a culture of human rights which do not fall within the remit of any existing agency in the United Kingdom, such as:

    (a)  fostering a human rights culture in the United Kingdom;

    (b)  education in human rights;

    (c)  advising and assisting people who claim to be victims of violations of their Convention rights;

    (d)  developing expertise in human rights;

    (e)  bringing legal proceedings on human rights issues in the public interest?

  Question 2. If a Human Rights Commission were established, how should its role and functions relate to those of this Committee?

  Question 3. In what order of priority would you arrange the functions of such a Commission? If you think that a Commission should examine a range of issues, to which issue or issues do you think that the Commission should give priority?

  Question 4. If a Human Rights Commission were to be established, should there be a single body with a jurisdiction extending to all parts of the United Kingdom, or separate bodies for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, or both a United Kingdom body and bodies with territorial responsibilities? (The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission must continue to exist, as this is one of the requirements of the United Kingdom's agreement with Ireland about the future of Northern Ireland.)

  Question 5. If there were to be a Human Rights Commission with responsibilities for the whole United Kingdom (whether or not it operated alongside other bodies with responsibility for just one part of the United Kingdom), what relationship should there be between its work in respect of Northern Ireland and the work of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (and similar Commissions in Scotland and Wales if they are established at some time in the future)?

  Question 6. If a Human Rights Commission were established, how should its work relate to that of other bodies with special responsibility for particular rights, such as the Information Commissioner, the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Commission for Racial Equality, the Disability Rights Commission, and the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland? In particular:

    (a)  should a Human Rights Commission perform functions now performed by existing specialist Commissions, or should it co-exist with them? If they were to co-exist, what roles should they perform in areas where their responsibilities might be expected to overlap?

    (b)  if a Human Rights Commission were to co-exist with the existing equality Commissions, should issues relating to equal opportunities be excluded from the remit of the Human Rights Commission and be given to the Equality Commissions?

  Question 7. If a Human Rights Commission were to be established, how should its independence of Government be preserved while ensuring an appropriate type and level of accountability? In particular:

    (a)  how should its Chair, members and key staff be appointed?

    (b)  how should its funding be provided?

    (c)  to whom should it be accountable (for example, to a parliamentary body)?

    (d)  how should the matters mentioned in (a), (b) and (c) take account of devolution to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales?

  Question 8. In the light of your answers to Questions 1 to 7, what is your estimate of the level of staffing which would be required by the body or bodies you propose and what the annual cost might be?

  Question 9. Some Commissions currently operating in fields related to human rights have a range of powers. For example, they might be empowered to conduct investigations; to require people to provide information; to issue notices requiring people to cease conduct which the Commission considers to be unlawful; to conduct legal proceedings; to assist other parties to legal proceedings; to issue Codes of Practice; to conduct research; and to engage in a range of activities designed to heighten awareness of issues within their remits. If a Human Rights Commission were to be established, what powers should it have?

  Question 10. Are there other relevant issues or considerations which have not been covered in answers to the earlier questions?



1   EU Council Directive 2000/78/EC of 27 November 2000 establishing a general framework for equal treatment in employment and occupation, brought forward under Article 13 of the EC Treaty as amended by the Amsterdam Treaty of 1997. Back

2   See the White Paper, Rights Brought Home: The Human Rights Bill, Cm. 3728 (1997), paras 3.9-3.11; Lord Irvine of Lairg LC and Lord Williams of Mostyn (then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Home Office) on Second Reading in the House of Lords, Official Report, House of Lords, 3 November 1997, vol 582, cols 1233 and 1309 respectively; Lord Williams of Mostyn during the Committee Stage, Official Report, House of Lords, 24 November 1997, vol 583, cols 849-851 and 27 November 1997, vol 583, col 1153; Mr Mike O'Brien MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Home Department, during the Committee Stage in the House of Commons, Official Report, House of Commons, 24 June 1998, vol 314, cols 1087-1088; Lord Bassam of Brighton, during a debate in the House of Lords on compatibility of statutory instruments with Convention rights, Official Report, House of Lords, 10 January 2000, vol 608, col 485. Back

3   In these questions, the term "a Human Rights Commission" should generally be taken to include the possibility that more than one Commission might be established: see Question 3. Back


 
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