Joint Committee On Human Rights Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

38.  Memorandum from Mind (National Association for Mental Health)


  Mind (NAMH) is the leading mental health charity in England and Wales. We work for a better life for everyone with experience of mental distress by:

    —  Advancing the views, needs and ambitions of people with experience of mental distress.

    —  Promoting inclusion through challenging discrimination.

    —  Influencing policy through campaigning and education.

    —  Inspiring the development of quality services which reflect expressed need and diversity; and

    —  Achieving equal legal and civil rights through campaigning and education.

  We are delighted to have been offered the opportunity to put forward submissions to the Joint Committee as it considers the desirability of a Human Rights Commission. This is an important and timely debate on a matter of real significance for people who have experienced mental health problems.

  In summary, we believe that the creation of a Human Rights Commission would be beneficial to our client group. However, we are conscious that the Disability Rights Commission—with which we have excellent contacts—was only recently established, following concerted pressure by disability organisations including Mind. In our view it would be highly detrimental to what has been achieved so far if the activities of the DRC- and equally the CRE and EOC- were to be in any way reduced or curtailed by the creation of a Human Rights Commission. Instead their roles should be complementary.

  We address the complex question of how this could be achieved in our detailed responses below to the questions posed in the "call for evidence" dated 5 April 2001.

Question 1

  Most of the potential functions of a Human Rights Commission (HRC), which have been well set out in this question, are not currently provided by an existing agency in the United Kingdom. We believe an HRC could usefully encompass all the functions suggested and have no further suggestions to make.

Question 2

  We believe that the HRC should be accountable to the Committee, on behalf of Parliament, and not to a Government minister. (There should also be a line of accountability to the Scottish Parliament for purely Scottish matters: see Question 4 below.) The Committee should have responsibility for reviewing legislation, presenting reports to both Houses, commissioning research and giving strategic direction to the Commission. The Commission should be responsible for operational matters such as decisions on when to bring enforcement proceedings, implementing education initiatives, etc. The Chair of the HRC should present a regular—perhaps quarterly—report to the Committee outlining achievements, trends and current work, which would form the basis for the Committee's report to both Houses.

Question 3

  We accept the suggested functions at Question 1. We would put these in the order (e), (a), (b) and (c). (d)—developing expertise in human rights—should be implicit in all the HRC's work.

  The reason for putting (e) (bringing legal proceedings) above (c) (advice and assistance) is because of Mind's own experience. We receive some 50 requests for legal advice each week, of which a significant and increasing number relate to aspects of the European Convention, especially Article 8. Our callers are often able to obtain initial advice and sometimes have help with taking up matters locally (item (c) in your list). However, the real need is for a body to pursue "test cases" in the public interest for which individuals find it hard to obtain legal or financial support, and for which agencies lack the legal expertise. No-one else is currently able to do this; we see it as a prime function for an HRC, shortly followed by the general role of spreading awareness at (a).

Question 4

  Mind operates in England and Wales only. The Scottish and Northern Ireland Associations for Mental Health (SAMH and NIAMH) may have their own views on these matters.

  In principle we believe that there should be a single HRC for all parts of the United Kingdom, to ensure consistency and to present a united voice. However, we are aware that the enabling human rights legislation is different in England & Wales from in Scotland.

  We therefore imagine that the HRC will inevitably need to have a separate "reporting line" for purely Scottish matters to a similar committee of the Scottish Parliament. We do not feel qualified to comment on how this should operate, nor to say anything about the relationship with the Northern Ireland Assembly.

  The HRC should have some form of relationship with the Welsh Assembly. However, as the primary legislation is the same for both countries we imagine that this will be a matter of devolution protocol, and of respect for the separate identity of the Welsh nation, rather than a constitutional requirement as in Scotland.

Question 5

  We cannot comment on this either and would refer the Committee to the Northern Ireland Association for Mental Health in Belfast.

Question 6

    (a)  We believe strongly that the creation of an HRC should not in any way diminish the vital roles performed by the existing Commissions. In particular we believe that any reduction on the powers of the Disability Rights Commission would risk sending an implicit message to disabled people that their interests are once again regarded as of less significance than other groups. Clearly there will need to be a clear working protocol between the HRC and the other Commissions, but we do not in practice think this will be difficult. Where the prime issue is one of discrimination, on the grounds of gender, ethnicity or disability, the matter should be referred to the specialist Commission even if it also raises concerns about a violation of Convention rights. Where the prime concern is with a violation of a Convention right it should be referred to the HRC, even if it also raises questions of discrimination.

    The Committee should note that a similar relationship exists already between the Mental Health Act Commission and the Health Service Commissioner, who have clearly defined demarcation lines in their responsibilities, a mechanism for passing cases to the other body where necessary and a recognised "appeal" process.

    (b)  It is most unlikely that there will be a neat division between equal opportunity and human rights issues. We believe that the best approach is a protocol as suggested (a) above.

Question 7

  This is a most important question. Given that the Human Rights Act bites exclusively upon "public authorities" (however defined) it is vital that an HRC should be free to challenge central Government decisions without any appearance of bias; moreover, it must itself be clearly seen to comply with Article 6.

    (a)  We suggest that the Chair, members and Chief Executive should be Parliamentary appointments, voted through at the time of the civil list and salaried in line with other senior public servants. The other staff should be civil service appointments, but not answerable to a minister—see below.

    (b)  The salaries for the Chair and Chief Executive, and remuneration for members, should be voted through both Houses as with other senior public appointments. Staff salaries should be according to civil service scales. More importantly, the budget for the HRC should be provided through the Cabinet Office: this would send a clear message that its working was central to the openness of Government itself.

    (c)  We are sure that the Chair of HRC should be accountable to Parliament through the Joint Committee and not to a minister, for the reasons given above. Although we are not experts in constitutional matters we believe that a useful analogy might be the relationship between the Public Accounts Committee and the Comptroller & Auditor General.

    (d)  Answered at Question 4. The HRC must have a line of accountability to a committee of the Scottish Parliament in respect of purely Scottish matters, because constitutionally they will be implementing devolved legislation.

Question 8

  We cannot answer this question. Clearly staffing and budget would depend upon the functions a HRC was required to perform. We would naturally caution against raising public expectations of the body but not resourcing it adequately for its activities.

Question 9

  We believe that an HRC should have all the stated functions.

Question 10

  As the Committee will be aware, the Human Rights Act is of great importance in the field of mental health; it is significant that one of the earliest declarations of incompatibility concerned the Mental Health Act 1983. We would hope that any legislation establishing the remit of a new HRC would set out explicitly that it can review the human rights, among other disadvantaged groups, of those in the psychiatric system.

  This may seem obvious, but the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which covers both physical and mental impairments, nevertheless failed to address mental health conditions adequately in its First Schedule. This has caused considerable difficulties in its interpretation in tribunals. It would be very helpful, we think, if the remit of the future HRC were to be set out as clearly as is needed, to avoid any misunderstanding.

28 June 2001

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