Joint Committee On Human Rights Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

3.  Memorandum from the Equal Opportunities Commission

  The Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) is grateful for the opportunity to submit written evidence for consideration by the Joint Committee on Human Rights.

  Sex Equality is a fundamental human right. Women and men in Britain are entitled to equal treatment regardless of their gender and to live in a society free from discrimination, where that right to equal treatment is respected. The EOC believes that women and men in Britain should also enjoy the protection of the broad range of human rights set out in the European Convention on Human Rights, and in other international human rights instruments to which the UK is a signatory. The promotion and protection of these basic human rights is essential for the healthy development of individuals and society.

  The EOC welcomed the enactment of the Human Rights Act 1998, which by incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights creates important, positive rights and, to a lesser extent, creates improved rights against discrimination. In addition, the EOC has consistently supported the establishment of a Human Rights Commission to promote and enforce these rights.

  The EOC's response to this Consultation is determined by several key principles:

    —  The principles endorsed by the UN General Assembly in 1993, covering the mandate and independence of national human rights bodies (the Paris Principles).

    —  There should be a consistent legal framework across equality and human rights issues in terms of the nature and scope of rights and the institutions to support their delivery.

    —  Full account should be taken of devolved governmental structures while ensuring minimum standards across the UK.

  As requested by the Joint committee, this submission has been prepared using the questions set out in the consultation paper as a structure.


  1.1  There are a number of public bodies which have responsibility for promoting and enforcing human rights standards, for example, the Equality Commissions, Ombudsmen, the Police Complaints Authority in England and Wales, the Data Protection Commission etc. In Northern Ireland alone, there is a free-standing Human Rights Commission. In addition, there are voluntary organisations which make an important contribution to promoting human rights. However, each of these bodies and organisations is restricted either by its statutory terms of reference to a single issue or by its lack of statutory underpinning.

  1.2  When the Human Rights Act 1998 was enacted, it was not accompanied by an independent statutory body with a clear remit to exercise functions in connection with the protection of human rights. The nearest such body is the Joint Committee on Human Rights itself, whose remit includes the responsibility to consider and report to each House of Parliament on matters relating to human rights.

  1.3  Whilst the Joint Committee will undoubtedly make an important contribution by informing Parliament at a general level on human rights developments, the EOC believes that the Joint Committee itself will not be able to carry out the vital ongoing tasks necessary to protect and promote human rights in the UK.

  1.4  The EOC considers that there is a clear need to create a purpose-designed organisation with responsibility, powers and resources to enable it to fulfil vital tasks to foster a human rights culture in the UK, such as raising awareness in human rights through promotion and education, advising and assisting people who claim to be victims of violations of their Convention rights, providing guidance to public authorities to ensure they comply with human rights principles in their activities, developing expertise in human rights, and bringing legal proceedings on human rights issues in the public interest.

  1.5  Whilst existing organisations, statutory and non-statutory, make an important contribution to these tasks, they do so inevitably in an ad-hoc and limited way, whereas what is required is a comprehensive framework and strategy which the EOC believes can only be addressed through the establishment of a new organisation.

  1.6  In accordance with the Paris Principles we believe that a Human Rights Commission should have the following functions:


    (i)  To keep under review the adequacy and effectiveness in the UK of existing law and practice relating to the protection of human rights.

    (ii)  To advise Parliament of legislative and other measures which would need to be taken to protect human rights.

    (iii)  To examine proposed legislation and to advise Parliament whether a Bill is compatible with human rights obligations.

    (iv)  To make submissions to the appropriate Government Department in relation to the reports that the UK Government is required to submit to international bodies and committees pursuant to human rights treaty obligations.


    (v)  To consult with national or international bodies or agencies having knowledge or expertise in human rights.

    (vi)  To facilitate and conduct investigations or inquiries on its own initiative or at the request of others into situations where there may have been a violation of human rights, and to have the power to summon witnesses and obtain any information or documents necessary for assessing these situations.

    (vii)  To conduct alternative methods of dispute resolution where appropriate.

Promotion, Education and Research

    (viii)  To promote understanding and awareness of the importance of human rights throughout the UK, and to make provision for appropriate research and educational activities to fulfil this duty.

    (ix)  To provide guidance to public authorities on complying with human rights standards.

    (x)  To publish its advice and the outcome of its research and investigations.


    (xi)  To consider complaints from individuals or groups of people where it is alleged that there has been a breach of human rights.

    (xii)  To give assistance to individuals or groups of people who apply to it for help in relation to proceedings involving law or practice concerning the protection of their human rights.

    (xiii)  To bring proceedings involving law or practice concerning the protection of human rights.

    (xiv)  To intervene in legal proceedings to bring relevant principles of international law to the attention of the court.


  2.1  We believe there is a need for the Joint Committee to strengthen the scrutiny of legislation and to provide an overview at Parliamentary level of the United Kingdom's protection and promotion of human rights. It would be for the Human Rights Commission and the Joint Committee to determine for themselves the precise nature of their relationship, but we believe their co-existence and collaboration would create a powerful partnership.


  3.1  We do not consider that it would be appropriate to arrange the functions of a Commission in any order of priority. This is not an arrangement, for example, which obtains in respect of the Equality Commissions. We believe it is for the organisation itself to determine its priorities from time to time according to its overall strategy. In arriving at its strategy, the Human Rights Commission would no doubt wish to inform itself of the views of interested parties, and also pay particular regard to views and guidance which the Joint Committee might offer.


  4.1  The UK Government is responsible, under international law, for ensuring that international human rights standards are met throughout the UK. The Government must therefore ensure a degree of uniformity in the protection of human rights in all parts of the UK. Minimum standards must be met and the Government must report to international bodies on the way in which it has fulfilled its obligations for the country as a whole.

  4.2  We consider that a Human Rights Commission should be established with a jurisdiction extending to all parts of the UK. However, we recognise that the Northern Ireland Act 1998 makes provision for a Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, and we acknowledge the legitimate desire for and claim to separate human rights bodies in England, Scotland and Wales. We consider that a Human Rights Commission needs a structure which reflects the new devolved governmental structures while taking into account the need to ensure minimum standards across the whole of the UK. It should ensure that human rights developments are effectively co-ordinated; take responsibility for initiatives which needed to be organised at the national level; and be primarily responsible for representing the UK in international fora.


  6.1  Equality and anti-discrimination are key components of all human rights instruments and it will be particularly important for the Human Rights Commission to establish strong working relationships with the equality bodies.

  We believe the overriding consideration should be comprehensive coverage of human rights issues. The aim should be sensible co-existence with a view to avoiding duplication. Where some overlap is unavoidable, to ensure that no issues are overlooked, we believe sensible protocols worked out between the Human Rights Commission and the other organisations would be achievable. Such protocols already exist between the existing Equality Commissions.

  Further, the Chairs and Chief Executives of the three Equality Commissions meet regularly, and they come together with the Northern Ireland Equality and Human Rights Commissions and with the Equality Authority in Ireland on a quarterly basis. An agreement has recently been reached that a Commissioner from each of the Equality Commissions attends each meeting of the Commissions. Officials of the Equality Commissions exploit opportunities for joint and collaborative working on issues of mutual interest. In this way, a good working relationship has been fostered without the need for formal regulation.

  6.2  It is not envisaged that a Human Rights Commission would take over the roles of any of the existing bodies but would be expected to work in close co-operation with them for the promotion and protection of human rights.

  In situations where it was felt that there had been a violation of human rights in addition to discrimination under any of the Equality statutes, it would be expected that the Human Rights Commission would work jointly on the case with the relevant Equality Commission, as is currently the case between the Equality Commissions.

  In cases where there is discrimination which contravenes an international human rights instrument but does not contravene any of the Equality statutes, it is expected that the Human Rights Commission would be able to deal with the case, but this would be carried out in consultation with the appropriate Equality Commission.

  Although workable solutions can be found which would not require any change to the remit of the Equality Commissions, a re-examination of their remits and their relationship with the Human Rights Commission would be necessary at some point, given in particular the possibility of the ratification of Protocol 12 to the European Convention and the probability of further legislation stemming from Article 13 of the amended Treaty of Rome.

  6.3  Article 13 provides the legal base for EU legislation to combat discrimination based on sex, racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation. Protocol 12 would create a free-standing right not to be discriminated against on these and other grounds. Clearly Parliament will need to consider how these additional rights can be secured in the UK.

  6.4  To ensure comprehensive coverage of the issues, particularly when responding to allegations from individuals of violations of human rights, we believe the remit of the Equality Commissions should be extended to proceedings under the Human Rights Act 1998.


  7.1  We believe the Human Rights Commission should be a statutory body established by primary legislation setting out its powers and responsibilities. We believe its powers and responsibilities should be no less than those of the existing Equality Commissions. In accordance with the Paris Principles we believe that the Human Rights Commission should have sufficient independence to enable it to fulfil its functions without direction or interference. The members of the Human Rights Commission should be appointed by the Crown but with the approval of Parliament and should be dismissible only by both Houses of Parliament on specific grounds. The Government could ask the Human Rights Commission to look into particular issues but the Human Rights Commission should not be subject to any direction by Government in the way in which it fulfils its functions, other than for its financial probity. Within the overall remit agreed by Parliament, it should be able to determine the allocation of its resources.

  7.2  The EOC envisages a close relationship between the Human Rights Commission and Parliament. The Commission could be called upon to advise Select Committees, in particular the Joint Select Committee, and report regularly to that Committee on its work and priorities.


  8.1  An assessment of resources would depend on the breadth of the powers and responsibilities to be allocated to the Human Rights Commission. It will be essential for the effectiveness and credibility of the Commission that it should be adequately resourced from the outset.


  9.1  We believe that the Human Rights Commission should have a range of powers at least at the level of the Equality Commissions. It should 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 bring legal proceedings; to issue Codes of Practice; to promote understanding and awareness of the importance of human rights; to conduct research and to engage in a range of activities designed to heighten awareness of issues within its remit.


  We believe the case is overwhelming for the creation of a Human Rights Commission which should co-exist with the Equality Commissions. It should be given the widest possible remit designed to promote and enforce human rights standards throughout the UK.

July 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 2002
Prepared 2 September 2002