Joint Committee On Human Rights Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


36.  Memorandum from Trades Union Congress (TUC)

INTRODUCTION

  The TUC welcomes the Committee's inquiry and the opportunity to submit evidence on whether a Human Rights Commission should be established for the UK.

  The TUC represents 75 affiliated unions with a total of nearly 6.8 million members. TUC affiliates range greatly in size, and cover a wide variety of industries, sectors and occupations. Some unions have members within the public sector who are directly affected by the provisions of the Human Rights Act, whilst others are working to foster a human rights culture in workplaces across the UK.

  The TUC welcomed the enactment of the Human Rights Act, which for the first time enabled UK workers to enforce rights established under the European Convention on Human Rights in the domestic courts.

  The TUC supports the establishment of a free-standing and independent Human Rights Commission to promote and protect human rights. The remit of the Commission should include promoting and strengthening the "human rights culture" within the UK and in monitoring the impact of the Human Rights Act and other human rights treaties in workplaces and throughout the wider society. In undertaking this, the Commission should work alongside, and in collaboration with, existing statutory bodies including Equal Opportunities Commission, the Commission for Racial Equality, the Disability Rights Commission and the Information Commission Office. The TUC would not currently support the amalgamation of the equality commissions or the Information Commission Office with the Human Rights Commission for the reasons outlined below.

  1.  Why a Human Rights Commission and what functions should it perform?

  There are a number of public bodies which have responsibility for promoting and enforcing human rights within the United Kingdom, notably the equality commissions and the Information Commissioner. Northern Ireland also has a free standing Human Rights Commission, as well as one Equality Commission. In addition to these statutory bodies, there are voluntary sector organisations which promote human rights. Trade unions recognise that they have an important role to play in encouraging and strengthening the "human rights culture", through collective bargaining and campaigning and on occasions, where other courses have been exhausted, by representing their members' Convention rights through the courts.

  When the Human Rights Act 1998 was enacted it was not accompanied by an independent statutory body with a remit to promote or protect human rights. While existing statutory and voluntary organisations have already made an important contribution to fostering a human rights culture within their respective fields, their roles are necessarily limited by their statutory terms of reference or non-statutory basis.

  The TUC supports the proposal for the establishment of an independent Human Rights Commission and would welcome the opportunity to work closely with a Commission in advancing human rights in the workplace. The closest which the UK comes to such a body is the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which is responsible for considering and reporting to both Houses of Parliament on human rights matters. While the Joint Committee makes a important contribution to informing Parliament of human rights developments, the TUC takes a view that it is not in a position to carry out the important tasks of promoting and educating the public on human rights issues beyond Westminster. The TUC therefore supports the proposal for the establishment of a free-standing, independent and adequately resourced body responsible for promoting and protecting human rights.

  We believe that the Human Rights Commission should have similar functions and powers to that of the equality commissions and the Information Commissioner. These functions could include:

    (i)  Promotion, Education and Research

    —  To promote understanding and awareness of human rights, including both individual and collective rights.

    —  To carry out and publish research and provide educational activities and training.

    —  To provide advice to public authorities and statutory bodies on complying with human rights.

    —  To consult with national and international bodies and agencies having knowledge or expertise in human rights.

    (ii)  Scrutiny

    —  To monitor the effect of the Human Rights Act and other human rights legislation.

    —  To review the adequacy and effectiveness of existing UK law and practice on the promotion of human rights and to advise Parliament of any legislative changes or other measures necessary to protect human rights.

    —  To make submissions to the Government in relation to reports which the UK Government is required to submit to international committees and bodies pursuant to human rights treaty obligations, including the ILO and the Council of Europe.

    —  To examine proposed legislation and to advise the UK Government on whether it is compatible with all human rights obligations.

  In addition, the Commission could be granted powers, similar to the equality commissions, to facilitate or carry out investigations or inquiries where there may have been a violation of human rights and to give assistance to individuals or groups seeking legal redress for alleged violations of human rights law through the courts or tribunals. These powers however should be limited to providing support to individuals or groups of individuals and not to companies or corporate bodies.

  The TUC was disappointed that during the Parliamentary consideration of the Human Rights Bill, the Government rejected our proposals that trade unions should be granted locus standi and be enabled to bring representative actions on behalf of individuals who consider that their Convention rights have been violated in the workplace. The TUC would ask the Joint Committee to consider calling on the Government to revise the current legal regulations in order to assist in the more effective protection of human rights at work.

  2.  Relationship between the Joint Committee and the Human Rights Commission

  As already noted, the TUC recognises that the Joint Committee on Human Rights has an important role to play in the scrutiny of legislation and in providing a Parliamentary overview on human rights issues. We believe that the role of a Human Rights Commission, as outlined above would complement the work of the Committee and strengthen the promotion of human rights in the UK.

  3.  What priority should be given the functions of the Commission?

  We do not consider that it would be appropriate to arrange the functions of the Commission in any order of priority. The TUC does recognise however that the Human Rights Commission would have a critical role in promoting understanding and awareness of human rights throughout the UK through research and provide educational activities and training.

  4 & 5.  Single jurisdiction or devolved structures?

  The Commission could have an important role in ensuring that minimum human rights standards are observed and that a consistent and co-ordinated approach to human rights is adopted across the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, the structure of the Human Rights Commission should also reflect the newly devolved governmental structures.

  6.  Relationship between the Human Rights Commission and other Bodies

  As noted earlier, while the TUC supports the proposal for the establishment of a free standing and independent Human Rights Commission, we would not currently support the amalgamation of the equality commissions or the Information Commission with a Human Rights Commission.

  We believe that the Human Rights Commission should be responsible for developing a comprehensive and co-ordinated strategy for the promotion of human rights in partnership with existing bodies; taking lead responsibility for those aspects of the Convention rights not covered by existing agencies; and ensuring a consistent approach to human rights is adopted throughout the UK.

  We are concerned that if the equality commissions were to be subsumed into a Human Rights Commission, it would have the effect of reducing the level of priority and funding provided for promoting work on tackling discrimination and promoting equality in the respective areas covered by the various equality commissions.

  Current practice demonstrates the effectiveness of collaborative working practices between the equality commissions. We leave open the question of whether at any point in the future there might be changes to the "equality infrastructure", eg an amalgamation of existing equality commissions and extensions to their remits. In any event, we would favour a free-standing Human Rights Commission, working alongside the equality commission(s). We believe that the promotion of equality and human rights issues could be best achieved by close working relations between a Human Rights Commission and the equality commissions. Joint working between the Human Rights Commission and the various equality commissions will be particularly important if Protocol 12 of the European Convention is ratified.

  7.  Independence of the Human Rights Commission

  In order to ensure its effective working, it is essential that the independence of the Commission should be protected and that it should be able to carry out its functions without interference or undue influence.

  The TUC takes the view that the Commission should be a statutory body, with its powers and duties determined by primary legislation. While the Government may request the Commission to investigate any alleged violation of human rights, the Commission should not be subject to the direction of Government. Further the Commission could be required to report to the Joint Human Rights Committee as opposed to a Government department.

  The members of the Commission should be appointed by the Crown, subject to the approval of Parliament. Commissioners should only be dismissible by both Houses of Parliament. Commissioners should be drawn from different sections of the community which have an interest and which are particularly concerned with human rights issues. Given the potentially wide-ranging application and impact of Convention rights to the workplace, we would argue that both trade unions and employers should be represented on the Commission as is the case on the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission.

  8.  Resources

  It is important that from the outset the Commission is adequately resourced in order to perform the functions outlined above.

  9.  Range of Powers

  As outlined above, the TUC considers that the Commission should be granted similar powers to those of the equality commissions.

August 2001



 
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