Joint Committee On Human Rights Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


20.  Memorandum from the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission

  As requested, the Commission is responding primarily by addressing the questions set out in the paper published by the Joint Committee on 5 April 2001. But we have added a number of appendices. Appendix 1[55] consists of he UN's Principles Relating to the Status of National Human Rights Institutions (the so-called Paris Principles), which date from 1993. Appendix 2[56] provides a list of the activities which the Commission has engaged in since its inception in March 1999. Appendix 3[57] is the Memorandum of Understanding agreed between the NIHRC and the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland. Appendix 4[58] comprises Background Information on the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and Appendix 5[59] is a copy of a report which the Commission submitted to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on 28 February 2001 in line with its duty to do so under section 69(2) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. (The report examines the adequacy and effectiveness of the powers of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. We are not expecting a formal response from the Secretary of State until the autumn of this year.)

  The Commission stands ready to assist the Joint Committee in whatever further way the Committee might deem helpful. If, for example, members of the Joint Committee would like to visit the Commission we would be only too pleased to host such a visit. We would also, of course, be prepared to supply oral evidence if requested to do so.

QUESTIONS SET OUT IN THE JOINT COMMITTEE'S CALL FOR EVIDENCE

  1.  What (if anything) do you think a Human Rights Commission 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?

  As noted in our answer to question 4 below, the NIHRC is not in favour of a Human Rights Commission being established for the whole of the United Kingdom—we prefer the creation of Commissions within each jurisdiction of the Kingdom. But wherever a Commission is established, we believe that it would add considerably to the current methods of protecting human rights for the society in question by performing the functions listed in (a) to (e) above. We make the following comments in relation to each of them:

  (a)  fostering a human rights culture in the United Kingdom: an "official" body such as a Human Rights Commission can carry more weight in this context than NGOs, however capable and efficient they may be; an official body is more likely to be able to engage with other public bodies when calling for greater adherence to domestic and international human rights standards; through its work in supporting marginalised and vulnerable individuals a Human Rights Commission can also make a contribution to helping people become real players in how society functions;

  (b)  education in human rights; a Human Rights Commission can operate systematically to influence the depth and breadth of human rights education in all walks of life; while the Commission will not by any means be able itself to provide all the education required, it can valuably act as a co-ordinating body lending weight and credibility to the values underpinning the protection of human rights;

  (c)  advising and assisting people who claim to be victims of violations of their Convention rights: there is at present no agency in the UK (apart from ourselves in Northern Ireland) which advises and assists people across the board on Convention rights and other human rights; NGOs such as Liberty are severely strapped for cash and can therefore assist only the most emblematic of cases; more run of the mill violations tend to be ignored in a way which does not happen with, for example, allegations of gender and race discrimination, where the EOC and CRE respectively can and do play a significant role;

  (d)  developing expertise in human rights: while an expertise in certain aspects of human rights has unquestionably developed within existing agencies such as the EOC, the CRE and the Criminal Cases Review Commission, there are still many other aspects of human rights which are not covered by official agencies;

  (e)  bringing legal proceedings on human rights issues in the public interest: again, there is a gap in the current provision in that legal proceedings relating to many human rights issues (such as inhuman and degrading treatment, deprivation of liberty, family life, freedom of assembly, right to peaceful enjoyment of possessions, right to effective education, etc) are not adequately catered for by any public body; a Human Rights Commission could provide a very valuable service in bringing legal proceedings on such matters.

  We would stress that the United Nations' Paris Principles (see Appendix I) set down basic minimal functions which all national human rights institutions are expected to be able to perform.

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

  This would be a matter for a Protocol or Memorandum of Understanding between the two bodies. Obviously it does not make sense for work to be duplicated. The Committee may be better placed to consider the compatibility of draft legislation with human rights standards. The Commission, on the other hand, will be better placed to deal with the bringing of legal proceedings. On other matters, such as promoting awareness of the importance of human rights and conducting inquiries, it would be necessary for agreement to be reached between the two institutions.

  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?

  There is a strong argument for requiring Human Rights Commissions to give a high priority to the function of ensuring Government compliance with international human rights obligations, especially those which have not yet been incorporated into domestic law and which are therefore difficult to enforce through the courts. Commissions within the UK could write reports about the UK Government's performance in this regard for international treaty monitoring bodies such as the UN's Human Rights Committee and Committee on the Rights of the Child. They could also appear before such Committees. The NIHRC, for example, makes a statement every year at the UN's Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. As regards priority issues, the promotion and protection of social and economic rights is particularly worthy of emphasis since they have traditionally been under-valued within the jurisdictions of the UK.

  Appendix 2 to this submission provides an indication of the range of activities which this Commission has been able to undertake in its first 28 months of existence.

  4.  If a Human Rights Commission were to be established, should there be 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).

  The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission is in favour of separate Human Rights Commissions for each legal jurisdiction within the United Kingdom. With the recent devolution of powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, it would be retrogressive to create a single Commission for the whole of the United Kingdom. The Northern Ireland Commission can deal with non-devolved as well as devolved matters as far as the protection of human rights in Northern Ireland is concerned. We think that that is how it should be in the other constituent parts of the United Kingdom also. This Commission has recently responded in this vein to the Scottish Executive's Consultation Paper on a Human Rights Commission for Scotland and we have in the past supported the idea that a Human Rights Commission should be created for Wales.

  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)?

  We are not in favour of a Human Rights Commission being created for the whole of the United Kingdom. If nevertheless one were established, the NIHRC would seek to develop a Memorandum of Understanding with the UK body so that work was not duplicated.

  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 Commission, 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 would they perform in areas where their responsibilities might be expected to develop?

    (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?

  We believe that a Human Rights Commission should and can co-exist with other bodies dealing with the protection of rights. The relationship between the bodies in question should be dealt with by Memoranda of Understanding. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission has agreed such a Memorandum with the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland and (almost) with the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland: a copy of the former is contained in Appendix 3. This Memorandum does not preclude the NIHRC from working on matters which are also of concern to the Equality Commission, but the two institutions liaise closely to avoid duplication of effort. On some matters (eg racism) the Human Rights Commission has decided to do very little work because we know it is one of the core concerns of the Equality Commission.

  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?

  The NIHRC feels that the independence of the Human Rights Commission from government can be preserved by removing from government full control over the appointments process, the financing process and the Commission's internal management processes.

  Accountability can be ensured through requiring an annual report and audited accounts to be provided to Parliament and by subjecting the Commission to oversight by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration (the Ombudsman), and therefore potentially by the Parliamentary Select Committee on Administration.

  We believe that the Chair and members of the Commission should be appointed in accordance with the Nolan principles, with the ultimate selection being made by a panel consisting of representatives not just of the government but also of other Parliamentary political parties and of civic society. The appointment of all members of the Commission's staff should be the sole responsibility of the Commission itself.

  The funding of the Commission should be provided by Parliament, ideally out of the Consolidated Fund—ie beyond the control of any particular government department.

  The appointments process, the funding system and the accountability arrangements should take account of devolution by allowing the local legislative bodies to be involved to a greater or lesser extent in all three respects. In the case of the NIHRC the Northern Ireland Assembly has not to date been involved (we are answerable solely to Westminster), but we could envisage a situation in future where accountability to the Assembly was also required and we would not have a difficulty with that.

  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?

  This is a very difficult question to answer. As explained in Appendix 4 (Background Information) the NIHRC currently has 13 staff posts. The gross annual cost of these posts is £468,600. The Commission's annual budget is £750,000 which we feel is very inadequate to allow the Commission to fulfil its statutory functions effectively. Clearly there would be economies of scale if a Human Rights Commission were to be established for the whole of the UK. We anticipate that a budget of at least £5 million would be required.

  9.  Some Commissions currently operating in the 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 would it have?

  The NIHRC is strongly in favour of a Human Rights Commission having extensive powers, in line with what is required by the UN's Paris Principles, although of course it must exercise them judiciously. Of the powers mentioned in the question, we would argue for the inclusion of all of them in the remit of a UK (or jurisdiction-based) Human Rights Commission, except for the power to issue notices requiring people to cease conduct which the Commission considers to be unlawful. We believe that Human Rights Commissions should not themselves have adjudicative or determinative powers. These should be confined to courts and tribunals. Otherwise the Commission itself could find itself acting in breach of Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the right to a fair hearing).

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

  We would refer the Committee to the report which this Commission submitted to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland earlier this year on whether in its first two years of existence it had found its powers to be adequate and effective (see Appendix 5). We highlight there the difficulties the Commission has encountered with respect to the judiciary in Northern Ireland, especially regarding the Commission's inabilities to apply to intervene as a third party in court proceedings and to serve an amicus curiae. We are currently waiting to hear from the House of Lords whether we have been granted leave to appeal against a decision of the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal in this context.

2 July 2001



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