Joint Committee On Human Rights Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


30.  Memorandum from the Government of the National Assembly for Wales

  1.  There has been very little debate within Wales about whether we need a Human Rights Commission and the role that such a body might play here. The National Assembly for Wales has never formally discussed the issue. There has been no press campaign in favour of it—in contrast to the very strong Welsh media lobby to have the 2001 Census form altered. As far as we are aware, the only public discussion was a seminar in Cardiff in January 2001, organised by the Institute of Public Policy Research, which brought together various interested parties, including Assembly Members, and representatives from equality organisations and advice/consumer groups. Given the nature of the participants, it is not perhaps surprising that the mood of the seminar was broadly in favour of establishing an HRC. However, apart from this there does not appear to be (as yet) a substantial body of public opinion in Wales in favour of a Human Rights Commission. Assembly Ministers are, therefore, inclined to follow the Government in keeping a genuinely open mind on this issue.

ROLE OF A HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION

Question 1

  2.  As the JCHR suggests, the additional value of a Human Rights Commission (HRC) would lie in having an independent statutory body that could focus exclusively on fostering a human rights culture. It could do this by:

    —  Advising UK ministers and the devolved administrations of legislative and other measures that ought to be taken to protect human rights.

    —  Scrutinising legislative proposals to ensure their compatibility with the Human Rights Act. This could include assisting government departments and the devolved administrations in "human rights proofing" policy proposals.

    —  Monitoring the impact of the Human Rights Act.

    —  Promoting understanding and awareness of human rights by, for example, undertaking or commissioning research or educational activities, and through publications.

    —  Advising and assisting individuals who claim to have had their human rights violated. This could include bringing "test cases".

Question 2

  3.  The relationship of a Human Rights Commission to the JCHR is dealt with under Question 7 (on accountability).

Question 3

  4.  The functions listed above (Question 1) are in broad order of priority.

SCOPE/STRUCTURE

Question 4

  5.  If a Human Rights Commission is to be established, we believe there are strong arguments in favour of establishing one body covering England, Wales and Scotland (accepting that there are separate arrangements in existence in Northern Ireland). Firstly, the HRA itself covers the whole of the UK, providing a common legislative framework. Secondly, the Act and the values it enshrines are part of the "glue" that binds our multi-cultural and increasingly diverse society together. This commonality is particularly important following devolution, which has seen the development of increasingly divergent public authority cultures has seen the development of increasingly divergent public authority cultures in the four constituent parts of the UK. Establishing a common Human Rights Commission would help to emphasise the shared nature of HRA values, and would maximise the opportunities for joint working and for sharing information and good practice.

  6.  The way any Human Rights Commission is structured would, however, need to reflect the post-devolution context. The existing equality commissions provide a useful model, having separate offices in Wales and Commissioners with special responsibility for Wales. The Commission would have a specific role in scrutinising the Assembly and public authorities in Wales. It would need to have a Welsh presence to command the confidence of the people of Wales if it were to succeed in promoting a human rights culture within Wales. Moreover, there are potential human rights issues in relation to the Welsh language and culture that are specific to Wales and to which the Commission would need to bring an indigenous understanding. A single commission with an office in Wales would be likely to be more cost-effective than a separate commission for Wales.

Question 5

  7.  There will, of course, need to be maximum dialogue between a Commission and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, which must continue to exist as a result of the Good Friday Agreement. Close co-operation between the two bodies would acknowledge the commonality of the value enshrined in the HRA across the whole of the UK.

RELATIONSHIP WITH OTHER BODIES

Question 6

  8.  There is probably little to be gained in amalgamating the existing equality commissions (EOC, CRE and DRC) with a Human Rights Commission. Despite possible economies of scale, this could result in a lack of focus and the blurring of priorities. This approach is also unlikely to find favour with the existing equality commissions. The DRC in particular has not yet had time to establish itself properly. The Northern Ireland experience of establishing a Human Rights Commission alongside other statutory bodies that have a role to play in upholding human rights could provide a useful model for the rest of the UK, and give clues to what kind of relationships work well and which less well.

  9.  The three commissions find it easy to work together in Wales, and the National Assembly also enjoys a good working relationship with them. We would hope that a new Human Rights Commission could establish similarly constructive relationships. In Wales, the Human Rights Commission would also need to establish close links with the Welsh Language Board, and with the new Children's Commissioner for Wales.

  10.  The Human Rights Commission would be able to pursue discrimination cases under the HRA which the other commissions cannot bring because of the limits of the legislation under which they operate—for example, cases concerning discrimination in residential care. This is one example of the way in which a HRC could complement the work of the existing commissions.

ACCOUNTABILITY

Question 7

  11.  The existing equality commissions provide a model for the Human Rights Commission, especially where the balance between independence and accountability is concerned. The Commission must be regarded as being independent of Government (and the Assembly). We therefore suggest that appointments might follow the model of Ombudsmen. It would report to Parliament but be accountable in financial terms only to it.

  12.  We would expect the Assembly to be able to make recommendations for the appointment of a Commissioner/s with responsibility for Wales.

Question 8

  13.  We have no particular views on the level of staffing for such a Commission. This would need a good deal of more detailed discussion within and between the Government departments concerned.

Question 9

  14.  We suggest that the Commission should have the same four powers as the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, namely:

    —  to assist individuals who apply to it for help in relation to proceedings in human rights law or practice;

    —  to bring proceedings involving human rights law or practice;

    —  to conduct such investigations as it considers necessary or expedient;

    —  to publish its advice and the outcome of its research and investigations.

Question 10

  15.  There are no other issues or considerations that we wish to add.

17 July 2001



 
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