10. Memorandum from the Institute
for Public Policy Research
IPPR is convinced that a Human Rights Commission
is needed, not only to ensure access to justice for those whose
rights are infringed but to promote a culture in which such infringements
are far less likely to occur.
There are significant gaps in the protection
provided by existing agencies.
There are a broad range of human rights problems
in the UK, listed in an Appendix.
The purpose of the Human Rights Act is not only
to provide remedies in the courts but to promote a change in culture
in public bodies, to avoid the need for litigation. That will
not happen without a statutory body to be the engine for change.
We have the Actthe Commission would be responsible for
The Commission should be strategic, enabling,
expert and authoritative, professional, accessible and accountable.
Its functions should be to:
provide information and guidance
to public authorities, including private and voluntary bodies,
on their responsibilities under the HRA;
promote awareness of human rights
and the responsibilities to others they entail;
monitor the extent to which human
rights are respected and advise government and parliament on the
adequacy of existing law, policy and practice;
refer individuals to appropriate
external legal advisors; support individuals in court proceedings;
bring proceedings itself; and intervene as an amicus curiae;
conduct public inquiries; and
assist the UN in scrutinising the
UK's record on human rights.
Priority issues should include violence and
degrading treatment in institutional settings; violence within
the family; discrimination on grounds not covered by the equality
commissions; treatment of asylum seekers; and deaths in custody.
A UK wide body, steered by the separate national
commissions, is needed to provide some common services, with the
authority to speak on human rights for the UK as a whole.
The Commission would complement the work of
the equality agencies, working closely with them where appropriate.
The long-term debate about the future role and structure of those
agencies should not delay the establishment of an independent
Human Rights Commission.
The Commission should have the power to act
on its own initiative; have access to officials and information
for its inquiries; and report to the Joint Committee.
It should have a small number of full time executive
commissioners. Non-executive commissioners should provide guidance
and expertise, but not be involved in day-to-day decisions.
Commissioners should meet regularly, in public,
with a large advisory board with a broad membership, to maintain
regular dialogue with those with direct experience of human rights
issues on the ground.
Institute for Public Policy Research
IPPR is a registered charity established in
1988 to contribute to public understanding of social, economic
and political questions through research, discussion and publication.
Under the auspices of its then Human Rights Programme it conducted
research on the possible role and functions of a Human Rights
Commission, published in 1998 as A Human Rights Commission;
the Options for Britain and Northern Ireland (Spencer/Bynoe).
It subsequently published a report on the implications of the
Human Rights Act 1998 for Parliament and Whitehall, Mainstreaming
Human Rights in Whitehall and Westminster (Bynoe/Spencer 1999),
and a briefing A Human Rights Commission for Scotland (Spencer/Chauhan,
1999). Sarah Spencer engaged with the Crick advisory committee
on citizenship education and published on the implications of
the Human Rights Act for citizenship education. She also paid
brief visits to the Human Rights Commissions in Australia, New
Zealand, Canada and South Africa.
The Nuffield Foundation funded IPPR to run a
series of seven round table seminars to explore the implications
of a Human Rights Commission for Northern Ireland (prior to the
1998 Act), in Scotland, and Wales; and the implications for ethnic
minorities, women, people with disabilities, children and older
people. Those seminars were instrumental in the growing recognition
among those working on separate human rights issues of the added
value that a Human Rights Commission could provide to the work
of the existing statutory and voluntary agencies.
In December 1999 the Home Secretary appointed
Sarah Spencer as a member of the Human Rights Act Task Force and
she contributed to its work until it met for the last time in
April 2001. This evidence draws heavily on that experience, and
on a survey IPPR conducted among public authorities to inform
the work of the Task Force, in the months prior to the Act coming
IPPR's starting point is that the protection
of human rights is vital not only to protect the most vulnerable
from the abuse of power, but to the quality of life of every individual
and to the cohesion of our communities. Human rights are not only
a matter of law, essential though that protection is, but a code
of ethics which requires us to treat each other with dignity and
respect. The avoidance of degrading treatment, respect for privacy
and family life, and tolerance of the views of those with whom
we disagree, are obligations that impinge on the lives of us all,
adult and child. Respect for the human rights of others is, in
our view, the essence of social responsibility, of our mutual
obligations, be it to those for whom we provide public services
for or our neighbours and family.
It is in that context that IPPR is convinced
that a Human Rights Commission is needed, not only to ensure access
to justice for those whose rights are infringed but to promote
a culture in which such infringements are far less likely to occur.
As Lord Woolf, then Master of the Rolls, wrote in the foreword
to our report A Human Rights Commission.
"For me, the most important benefit of a
Commission is that it will assist in creating a culture in which
human rights are routinely observed without the need for continuous
intervention by the courts. Human rights will only be the reality
when this is the situation."
We also agree with the former Home Secretary,
Jack Straw, when he argued that the need for a human rights culture
goes beyond public bodies to the public at large:
"Consider the nature of modern British society.
It's a society enriched by different cultures and different faiths.
It needs a formal shared understanding of what is fundamentally
right and fundamentally wrong if it is to work together in unity
and confidence. . . The Human Rights Act provides that formal
We take each of the questions in the Call for
Evidence in turn.
1. What do you think a Human Rights Commission
might add to the current methods of protecting human rights in
the United Kingdom? Are there useful functions in connection with
protecting human rights and developing a human rights culture
which do not fall within the remit of any existing agency?
There are significant gaps in the protection
provided by the statutory agencies which already play some role
in relation to particular human rights (albeit that they are rarely
defined, nor see themselves, as having a human rights mandate).
The remit of the Equal Opportunities Commission to protect women,
for instance, excludes issues such as domestic violence, forced
marriages or the treatment of women in the criminal justice system.
The remit of the Commission for Racial Equality similarly excludes
many human rights issues affecting black and minority ethnic people
such as the right to family life, degrading treatment or religious
The enactment of the Human Rights Act 1998 was
an acknowledgement that greater statutory protection was needed
for human rights in the UK, beyond that provided by existing legislation.
The Act provided access to a wide range of rights for which individuals
had hitherto to seek a remedy in Strasbourg. The vast majority
of those provisions, from the right to life through the right
to a fair trial, right to family life and freedom of assembly,
do not fall within the remit of any existing Commission.
The UK is not only signatory to the ECHR but
to a range of international human rights standards which offer
valuable guidance, like the UN Convention on the Rights of the
Child and the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
Although these Conventions are binding, their provisions are not
enforceable in the UK, relying on public awareness to ensure compliance.
In reality, even within the relevant parts of the public and voluntary
sectors, few are aware of these instruments and the commitment
the UK has made to respect the standards they set.
In the Appendix to this paper we have listed
some of the wide range of human rights issues of concern in the
UK. The list undermines any complacency that a Human Rights Commission
would be under-employed. It relies almost entirely on official
data, and relates to a very significant number of people throughout
the country. For some, if they can get access to the courts, a
remedy may be available under the Human Rights Act or other legislation.
But many of the issues raised reflect systemic problems for which
an individual remedy in the courts may not be the most effective
means to achieve change.
The purpose of the Act itself is not simply
to ensure access to ECHR rights within our domestic courts but
to promote respect for rights within public authorities, to avoid
the need for litigation. But there is no statutory agency with
responsibility to ensure that public authoritiesincluding
the private and voluntary organisations with public functionscarry
out the necessary audit of their policies and practices to ensure
that respect for human rights is built into their decision-making
and treatment of the public.
Significantly, in contrast to the Race Relations
(Amendment) Act 2000, the Act itself does not require public authorities
to take any specific steps (for instance to conduct an audit of
its policies and procedures) nor has any audit or inspection body
been mandated to ensure that such steps are taken. IPPR recently
conducted a day's training session on the HRA and RR(A)A for public
officials. The weakness of the HRA provisions was forcefully brought
home to us by the fact that the officials focused all of their
questions on the RR(A)A because they needed to know precisely
what steps it required them to take. In this situation it is all
the more important that a statutory human rights body has a mandate
to drive change in the public sector, if we are not to rely on
litigation alone to be the unpredictable motor for reform.
During the passage of the Human Rights Bill
through Parliament the then Home Office Minister Lord Williams
of Mostyn QC said:
"Every public authority will know that its
behaviour, its structures, its conclusions and its executive actions
will be subject to this [human rights] culture. It is exactly
the same as what necessarily occurred following the introduction
of, for example, race relations and equal opportunities legislation.
Every significant body, public or private, thereafter
had to ask itself with great seriousness and concern `Have we
equipped ourselves to meet our legal obligations?' That has caused
a. . . transformation in certain areas of human rights. The same
is likely to follow when this Bill becomes law."
We doubted then whether this transformation
would happen if, in contrast to the race and sex equality legislation,
there is no statutory body with the responsibility to bring it
about; an engine for change. That view was confirmed by our experience
on the Human Rights Task Force. In the absence of an HRC to provide
guidance to public authorities on their responsibilities under
the Act, it was left to Whitehall departments to contact the public
bodies in their areas of work. It was evident from the written
and oral reports that they gave to the Task Force, and from subsequent
meetings between sub-groups of Task Force members and the staff
responsible, that their focus was on preparing their own department,
with few resources allocated to raising awareness among public
authorities. Departments have neither the means nor internal mandate
to reach out to public bodies and provide the guidance they need,
nor to monitor any resulting change in policies or practices.
In a survey of public authorities completed
in June 2000, IPPR found one third of authorities either had no
information on the Act or had wrongly concluded that it did not
apply to them. Only one in six had begun to take the steps that
would ensure they were adequately prepared for the Act coming
into force. While those who had seen the general guidance material
provided by the Home Office were complimentary, many were critical
that they had received no information, or guidance on the particular
implications for their area of work. IPPR recommended that substantially
greater effort should be made to ensure that public bodies had
guidance on complying with the Act and on implementing good practice
measures, and that compliance should be monitored.
At the July meeting of the Task Force, the non-governmental
members argued, in a written paper, that the demand on NGOs for
training, consultancy and detailed advice "far exceeds the
capacity to provide it". Many smaller organisations were
not in a position to pay for the training they needed and "we
all receive a constant stream of requests for information and
advice with no official body to whom callers can readily be referred".
It noted that the need to inform public authorities, and to raise
public awareness, would be even more important after the Act came
into force, and set out reasons why government was not the most
appropriate source of that advice. It concluded that an independent,
statutory Human Rights Commission is needed to provide guidance
to public authorities, to be a source of authoritative information
on the law, to promote awareness of the importance of human rights
principles and the responsibilities they entail, particularly
among young people ("a task which the Task Force has scarcely
been able to address") and to monitor compliance:
"The Human Rights Act needs support. In
order to develop a culture of human rights, the government needs
to create an institution whose job it is to promote such a culture.
The danger is that without a Commission, developing a culture
will be left to lawyers and the courtsnot an optimistic
IPPR endorses this view. Before listing the
functions we think a Human Rights Commission should have, it is
important to say what kind of body we think is needed. To be effective
in fulfilling the functions we outline, we envisage a body that
strategictargeting its resources
on issues and approaches that will deliver results;
enablinga catalyst, mobilising
the resources and drawing on the expertise of others;
expert and authoritative in content
professional in approach;
accessibleto those who need
help or information; and
We suggest that the functions of a Human Rights
Commission should be:
(i). To provide information and guidance
to public authoritiesincluding the private and voluntary
bodies fulfilling public functionson compliance with human
rights standards and implementing good practice.
The Commission should be proactive, working
with the relevant national bodies to ensure that all public bodies
have available to them information and guidance on the implications
of human rights standards, particularly the Human Rights Act,
for their area of workwhether it be the provision of health
or residential care, looking after young offenders, policing or
any other public service. The aim is to create a human rights
sensitive environment, a human rights culture, in which staff
ask themselves as a matter of routine whether their decisions
or actions may infringe a right, whether they could avoid doing
so, or whether their actions are proportional. A culture in which
avoiding degrading treatment, respecting privacy and providing
a fair hearing, are the norm not the exception. This approach
is not one of risk management, focusing narrowly on compliance
with the law, but one of mainstreaming human rights principles
as a matter of good practice.
(ii) To promote awareness and understanding
of human rights and the responsibilities towards others that they
The greatest challenge for the Commission is
to promote a human rights culture among the public. It should
do this by being an authoritative voice in public debate on the
human rights implications of national and local issues; by working
with the curricula authorities to ensure that human rights are
appropriately covered in the citizenship curriculum in schools;
through advertising (where it can obtain coverage at no cost through
donations in kind); through its website and the provision of materials.
(iii) To monitor the extent to which human
rights standards are respected in the UK and to advise Parliament
and the Government of the adequacy and effectiveness of law and
practice relating to the protection of human rights.
The Commission should be an authoritative source
of information for the Committee and Government (Scottish Parliament
and National Assembly) on the extent to which human rights are
respected in different settings throughout the country. Through
its networks in the public, private and voluntary sectors, and
academia, through monitoring requests for assistance and subsequent
casework, through research and public inquiries, the Commission
should be the most informed and impartial source of knowledge
on human rights practice and should advise on any changes in legislation
or policy that may be needed.
(iv) To assist individuals whose human rights
have been infringed to receive legal advice by referring them
to appropriate external legal advisors; to promote knowledge and
expertise in the advice sector; to support individuals in court
proceedings; to bring proceedings itself and to intervene as an
We do not envisage the Human Rights Commission
having the resources to provide legal advice to all those who
may feel their rights have been infringed, cases that will cover
the full range of public and private law. Indeed, we feel it more
appropriate that the Commission should see its role as promoting
expertise throughout the advice sector, and to refer individuals
to those most equipped to provide the advice they need. Where
it judges it to be in the public interest, the Commission should
have the means to support an individual in taking proceedings,
as the CRE and EOC may do, and to be able to initiate proceedings
in its own name. The statute must provide a specific power to
intervene as an amicus curiae as the Northern Ireland Human
Rights Commission, despite assurances during the passage of the
Northern Ireland Act 1998 that it would be able to fulfil this
role, has been prevented by the courts from so doing because that
power is not written into the statute.
(v) To conduct public inquiries where there
is evidence of systemic abuse or a serious incident that merits
an inquiry on human rights grounds.
The Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunities
Commission has found that initiating a public inquiry, with public
hearings held around the country, has been its most effective
means both to collect evidence on an issue but also to raise the
awareness of the public and elected representatives of the need
for reform. The Northern Ireland HRC has found its ability to
conduct inquiries has been hampered by its lack of a complementary
power to have access to documentation and to question individuals
within an organisation, a power which is required by the UN's
Paris Principles for national human rights institutions.iv
(vi) To contribute to the scrutiny of the
UK's compliance with United Nations and other international human
The Commission should assist the UN and Council
of Europe supervisory bodies in their scrutiny of the UK's record
in relation to international human rights standards. The Commission
would not represent the UK but be present as an independent expert
body, a role envisaged by the UN's Paris Principles and already
familiar to such bodies as the Data Protection Commissioner at
a European level. The Commission would help to ensure that the
public, and public authorities, are better informed about the
UK's position in relation to international standards, and could
assist the Parliamentary Committee in its scrutiny of the UK's
2. If a Human Rights Commission were
established, how should its role and functions relate to those
of the Committee?
We attach considerable importance to the role
of the Committee in Parliament. The Commission will have some
functions which are distinct from those of the Committee (eg advice
to individuals and guidance to public bodies) and some which are
complementary (monitoring and inquiry). The Commission will want
to use its resources strategically and might therefore be expected,
for instance, to play only a minor role in scrutinising proposed
legislation if the Committee gives a significant focus to that
area of its work. The Commission should report annually to the
Committee (or to the Scottish Parliament or National Assembly,
as appropriate) on the exercise of its functions, and be a source
of information and expertise for the Committee when it conducts
its own Inquiries. In practice, we would envisage regular informal
communication between the chair of the Committee and chair of
the Commission to ensure a constructive, complementary working
3. In what order of priority would you
arrange the functions of such a Commission?
All of the consultation that we have done on
this issue leads us to argue that the promotion of a human rights
culture within public bodies and the wider public should be the
Commission's first priority; but that its role in securing access
to justice, and its legal powers, will be absolutely vital to
its authority and influence.
To which issues do you think the Commission should
The Commission must judge the issues to which
it gives priority according to the extent to which the human rights
of individuals are being infringed, and the number of people affected,
when it is established. However, many issues are enduring:
violence and degrading treatment
within institution settingsnot least in young offender
institutions and in residential care for vulnerable peoplechildren,
the elderly, people with disabilities and those with mental health
abuse within the family, given the
known scale of violence against women and older people, and of
discrimination on grounds of sexual
orientation, religion and age, unless or until such time as those
issues are within the remit of an equality commission.
the treatment of asylum seekers.
4. Should there be a single body with
jurisdiction extending to all parts of the UK or separate bodies
for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, or both a UK
body and bodies with territorial responsibilities?
There is already a HRC in Northern Ireland and
it seems likely that such a body will be established in Scotland.
Provision will therefore be needed for England and Wales. The
status and degree of independence of the Welsh body needs to reflect
the strong sense in Wales that it has its own distinct problems,
despite sharing a legal system with England, and the importance
of people in Wales feeling a sense of ownership of the body and
the human rights awareness it promotes.
It will be unsatisfactory to have three or four
Commissions that are entirely independent of each other, with
no voice with the authority to speak on human rights for the UK
as a whole. A UK wide umbrella body of some kind is needed, whether
light touch co-ordination or, as we would advocate, providing
some common services. The chair of the UK Commission could rotate
among the chief commissioners of the national commissions, but
the demands on the UK body could make that infeasible in practice,
given the travel involved.
5. If there were to be an HRA with responsibilities
for the whole UK, what relationship should there be between its
work in respect of Northern Ireland and the work of the Northern
Ireland HRC, and similar Commissions in Scotland and Wales, if
Each Commission should have the authority to
determine its priorities for its own area. The UK wide body should
be steered by those bodies and undertake work on issues relevant
to the whole of the UK, thus ensuring an appropriate balance between
uniformity of approach across the UK and locally diverse priorities.
6. How should the work of an HRC relate
to that of other bodies with special responsibility for particular
The HRC would complement the work of those bodies,
in building a human rights culture from which they would benefit
and in fulfilling particular functions, such as advising a disabled
person on a human rights issue that fell outside the discrimination
remit of the DRC. The equality commissions increasingly work together,
for instance in providing joint guidance material, and the HRC
should equally work closely with them where appropriate. It should
consult them where its broad responsibility, eg for promoting
human rights awareness, touches on equality issues.
There is a long-term debate whether the equality
commissions should one day be brought together within a single
Equality Commission, as in Northern Ireland. The possibility that
a HRC could be part of such a structure, potentially along with
other bodies such as the Information Commissioner has been raised
by IPPR and others. We are firmly of the view that that possible
long-term agenda should not interfere with the urgent need to
establish a Human Rights Commission now, to fulfil the functions
we have outlined. The HRC should then contribute to that long-term
debate on the optimal relationship between the bodies when it
is clearer what role the Government envisages they should play.
There are major issues to be resolved, not least whether the equality
commissions will be enforcing a duty on public authorities to
promote equality on grounds of gender and disability, as the CRE
now does on race; what kind of enforcement body will be needed
for the new legislation on discrimination on grounds of age, sexual
orientation and religion, not due on the statute book until 2003-06;
and the long-term implications of devolution for the structure
of the EOC, CRE and DRC. Those issues require extensive consultation
and debate, cannot be resolved immediately and are beyond the
terms of reference of Committee's current inquiry. They should
not impede its progress.
7. How should the independence of the
HRC from Government be preserved, while ensuring an appropriate
level of accountability?
The UN guidance on national institutions states
that "Independent legal status should be of a level sufficient
to permit an institution to perform its functions without interference
or obstruction from any branch of government or any public or
The Commission must have the right to act on
its own initiative, without direction from Government, although
a Minister might invite the Commission to advise on a particular
issue. It should report to Parliament, in effect the Committee,
and be accountable to its parent government department only for
probity in relation to its financial affairs. It should appoint
its own staff (although some secondment from other public bodies
may be a valuable way to attract particular expertise).
The chair and members of the Commission should
be appointed under Nolan procedures. It would be desirable for
the Committee to be consulted. The main criteria for appointment
should be expertise. The statutory advisory board (see below)
and staff appointments can all assist in complying with the condition
in the Paris Principles that the Commission reflect the diversity
within the population. We advocate a small number of full time
executive commissioners, with non-executive commissioners who
would give guidance on strategic direction but not be involved
in day-to-day matters.
A positive working relationship with key government
departments will be essential, and the Commissioners and staff
will need to find the right balance between independence and influence
in managing that relationship on a day to day basis. The approach,
authority and tone the Commission adopts will be vital to the
success of that relationship.
8. What is your estimate of the level
of staffing that would be required by the body or bodies you propose
and what annual cost would that entail?
At the time of our original research for a Human
Rights Commission we asked a recently retired senior official
at the Home Office to calculate the potential cost of the Commission
in its first year (1999-2000), based on an estimate of its activity
in relation to legal advice, scrutiny of legislation, public inquiries,
research and promotion. His answer was a modest £2.8 million,
in part because of the fact that, in its first year, the Commission
would be developing parts of its strategy (test cases, public
inquiries) rather than implementing it. However, we also underestimated
at that stage the importance of its role in providing guidance
to public authorities and, with hindsight, the number of experienced
staff needed for the Commission to have expertise on a sufficiently
broad range of issues. We are not in a position to re-do the calculation.
Were we to do so we would estimate on the basis of a more streamlined
body than, say, the Commission for Racial Equality, with an emphasis
on paying for expertise on legal, policy and external affairs;
on resources to take test cases and conduct inquiries; and for
targeted promotion. We note that the budget of the Northern Ireland
Human Rights Commission is grossly inadequate for it to fulfil
the expectations of that body.
The Commissions must be permitted to raise funds,
from the provision of training, conferences and publications,
and from charitable and private sources (eg free advertising space)
if there is no potential conflict of interest. It should have
an incentive to raise its income in order to be able to expand
its activities. Officials at the Northern Ireland Office said
prior to the Northern Ireland HRC being established that it would
be able to do this but we understand it has in practice been prevented
from doing so by government financial regulations. There are examples
of Human Rights Commissions abroad charging some organisations
for provision of training and the Commission should, where it
considers it appropriate, be allowed to do this so that it does
not subsidise organisations that would otherwise pay for training
9. What powers should an HRC have?
The Commission needs the power to:
exercise its functions in relation
to human rights, not narrowly in relation only to the Human Rights
to undertake research or inquiries
on its own initiative, and to publish their findings and recommendations;
to have access to documents, premises
and people. As the Paris Principles puts it to "hear any
person and obtain any information and any documents necessary
for assessing situations falling within its competence";
to support or initiate legal proceedings
if it considers it in the public interest to do so.
10. Are there other relevant issues or
The questions have not raised the issue of the
Commission's relationship with stakeholdersall the public,
private and voluntary bodies that will have an interest in its
work, and members of the public. It is important that the Commission
is not only called to account by Parliament but listens to those
with direct experience on the ground. Commissions can all too
easily become inward looking and we need the HRC not only to listen
but also to mobilise others to help deliver its agenda. In A
Human Rights Commission we recommended a statutory advisory
board with a broad membership, meeting in different parts of the
country, with whom commissioners would meet regularly. Non-members
should be able to attend as observers, to increase transparency.
We should not forget the importance that the
United Nations places on each member state having a national human
rights institution, and the extent to which the voice of the UK
in promoting human rights abroad would have greater authority
were it seen to have established an effective Commission(s) in
i. "Building a human rights culture".
Address to Civil Service College seminar, 9 December 1999.
ii. Second Reading Human Rights Bill, House
of Lords, 3 November 1997 col 1308.
iii. "The role of the Task Force and
the need for a Human Rights Commission. Paper by NGO Task Force
members. HRTF (00) 12.
iv. General Assembly Resolution 48/134,
v. National Human Rights Institution. A
Handbook. 1995 (para 70).