44. Memorandum from the Children's
Rights Alliance for England
The Children's Rights Alliance for England (CRAE)
welcomes the Joint Committee's call for evidence on a Human Rights
CRAE is an alliance of almost 200 organisations
committed to promoting children's human rights through full implementation
of the United Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). CRAE
is the only England-wide organisation systematically appraising
progress on implementation of the Convention. We see the establishment
of independent human rights institutions as a key element in developing
a human rights culture and ensuring that the UK meets its obligations
under the Convention and other human rights instruments.
In this submission CRAE strongly supports the
establishment of Human Rights Commissions across the UK. It also
reiterates the urgent need, given children's special status and
vulnerability, for independent Children's Rights Commissioners
in the four countries. Both are needed, and the roles are complementary.
These institutions must comply with the principles and standards
for national human rights institutions adopted by the UN General
Assembly in 1993the Paris Principles.
As the Committee notes, a Children's Commissioner
has now been established for Wales, through the Care Standards
Act as amended by the Children's Commissioners for Wales Act 2001.
The Northern Ireland Assembly is committed to establishing a children's
rights commissioner and is proceeding with a consultation. In
Scotland a Committee of the Scottish Parliament has undertaken
an inquiry into establishing a children's rights commissioner
and the Executive has indicated its sympathy for the idea. It
seems inevitable that the Government will accept the case, overwhelmingly
supported by children's organisations, by various national inquiries
and by the public, for a Children's Rights Commissioner for England.
The Labour Party's Manifesto for the recent election noted: "Labour
supports a national children's rights director to act as a champion
for children in need and we will consult on whether to develop
and extend the director's role". The newly-established Children
and Young People's Unit has noted the Government's intention to
review developments in Wales. There have been three attempts to
establish a Children's Rights Commissioner for England through
Private Member's Bills.
1.1 A Human Rights Commission would add
to the current methods of protecting human rights in the UK in
all the ways outlined in the Committee's Call for Evidence.
1.2 A Commission would be well placed to
raise public awareness and provide education in human rights,
because it would focus first on human rights and second on issue
based matters. It could help to develop a culture of rights in
ways that statute alone and periodic reports to international
human rights treaty bodies cannot achieve, promoting public understanding
of human rights not only as a system of protection for those who
suffer gross breaches of their rights, but as the ethical basis
for treating all people with dignity and respect. The Commission
could promote human rights teaching and research programmes, and
could issue guidance to public bodies.
1.3 In addition to ECHR, greater public
awareness is needed of other international human rights instruments
ratified and signed by the UK, for example the UN Convention on
the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant on Civil
and Political Rights. While not enforceable under UK law, these
set out important principles and standards to which the Government
is committed. A Commission could help ensure compliance through
raising awareness within government and the education system,
with the NGO and business sectors, and with the general public.
1.4 In terms of advising and assisting people
who claim to be victims of violations, conducting investigations
and bringing legal proceedings in the public interest, a Human
Rights Commission could litigate test cases, and hold public investigations
into breaches of the rights of groups of vulnerable people not
in a position to make individual complaints.
The role and functions of a Human Rights Commission
would relate closely to those of the Joint Parliamentary Committee.
We see the roles as complementary. It is essential to have a parliamentary
focus on human rights and it appears likely that the Joint Parliamentary
Committee will play a key role in scrutinising proposed legislation;
the Commission might therefore pay less attention to this role.
The Commission could report at least annually to the Committee
and the two bodies would plainly need to co-operate closely on
work planning and on inquiries.
Some main differences would be in the Commission:
Assisting individuals to bring proceedings
that concern the violation of their rights, which is not within
the remit of the Joint Committee of Human Rights.
Promoting conformity of national
law, policy and practices with international as well as national
human rights standards.
Monitoring the fulfilment of the
UK's international human rights obligations.
Having a comprehensive overarching
role in monitoring human rights violations, while the Committee
will analyse topics more selectively.
Therefore having a higher profile,
and being more accessible to the public.
Publishing reports which will complement
those published by the Joint Committee, both of which will add
to the culture of human rights and education in human rights.
Using its legal powers for forms
of advocacy of human rights not available to the Joint Committee.
3.1 It is essential, as confirmed in the
Paris Principles, that independent human rights institutions should
set their own agenda. This would be largely determined, at least
at first, by what the Commission considers to be the most serious
gaps in monitoring, protection and promotion of human rights.
3.2 As for the issue(s) to be given priority,
again these should be decided by the Commission on the basis of
what comes to its attention as most urgent, whether through the
representations of individuals and organisations, or from its
monitoring and scrutiny of law, policy and practice.
4.1 CRAE believes the best UK-wide arrangement
would be the third option suggestedboth a United Kingdom
body and bodies with territorial responsibilities. There needs
to be a single body with overall functions relating to the human
rights obligations arising under all treaties to which the United
Kingdom is a party, including the UN Convention on the Rights
of the Child, and the European Convention on Human Rights.
4.2 But a system which offered the devolved
administrations only regional branches of a central body would
be inadequate and undoubtedly rejected. The Northern Ireland Commission
must continue to exist, and Commissions in Scotland and Wales
will also need sufficient autonomy and powers to deal locally
with relevant UK wide and devolved matters, as well as being visible
and accessible to their populations.
4.3 The regional bodies would also need
to be able to form structural links with other bodies, for example
the Children's Commissioner for Wales, or as in the Northern Ireland
Human Rights Commission's intention to establish a joint committee
with the proposed Human Rights Commission in the Republic of Ireland.
5. The UK-wide body's responsibility would
be to ensure effective co-ordination on UK-wide human rights issues
among the bodies in the four countries. Each Commission must be
able to determine its own agenda and priorities. The powers of
the individual Commissions should enable them to take action over
anything which affects the human rights of people normally resident
in their jurisdictions. The legislation establishing the Welsh
Children's Commissioner provides an inadequate example; it does
not fully comply with the Paris Principles in that it limits the
Commissioner's ability to exercise his powers equally over devolved
and non-devolved matters which may affect the human rights of
children in Wales.
The enabling legislation will need to take account
of the differences and similarities in the legal and administrative
remits of the different bodies.
6.1 A Human Rights Commission could co-exist
with the other Equality Commissions and would complement their
work; of course effective co-operation would be needed. It would
also serve to address gaps, such as age discrimination. Under
European law legislation on this must be enacted by 2006 and an
enforcement body will then be needed. Other examples of gaps are
that religious discrimination is not covered by the Commission
for Racial Equality, and that the Equal Opportunities Commission
is unable to deal with some major issues affecting women such
as domestic violence.
6.2 Alleged rights violations often come
under more than one category, for example disability and race,
or race and gender. A Human Rights Commission would be able to
ensure that all aspects of discrimination and human rights issues
are effectively addressed by the most appropriate body, or through
co-operation between them.
Independence of Government is a key criterion
for national human rights institutions, established under the
Paris Principles. In debates over the need for a Children's Rights
Commissioner for England, the Government has appeared to misunderstand
the role of independent human rights institutions, asserting that
the existence of governmental bodies makes their establishment
unnecessary. The legislation establishing the Children's Commissioner
for Wales regrettably prevents the Commissioner from exercising
a watchdog function over all relevant governmental bodies, including
those responsible for inspection and complaints.
7a) Appointment of a Human Rights Commission's
chair, members and key staff, in line with the Paris Principles,
should "in order to ensure a stable mandate for the members
of the institution, without which there can be no real independence,
be effected by an official act which shall establish the specific
duration of the mandate". The appointments should also "ensure
the pluralist representation of the social forces of civilian
society involved in the promotion and protection of human rights".
The Joint Committee and human rights NGOs could with advantage
be consulted over key appointments.
7b) It is essential that funding be adequate
"to enable (the Commission) to have its own staff and premises,
in order to be independent of the Government and not to be subject
to financial control which might affect its independence"
(Paris Principles). The funding needs to be adequate for the Commission
effectively to carry out the full range of its powers, secured
over a period to allow stability, and agreed by Parliament.
7c) The Commission would be accountable
first to members of the public when acting on their behalf. It
would "submit to the Government, Parliament and any other
competent body, on an advisory basis . . . opinions, recommendations,
proposals and reports" (Paris Principles). A Commission could
have reporting accountability to the Joint Committee. Maintaining
its complete independence should be the main criterion.
8. The experience of some newly established
bodies (for example the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission)
suggests that an inadequate level of staffing deprives the body
of the weight and influence it deserves, and prevents it from
carrying out its broad range of functions successfully. It is
regrettable that the Government's first stated reason for not
being persuaded that a Commission is desirable is that the benefits
accruing from it might not justify the financial expenditure involved.
The importance, and the obvious benefits, of establishing such
an institution should override such objections.
9. See our answer to Question 1 above. A
Commission should be established with the full range of powers
set out in the Paris Principles from the start, taking into account
the related powers vested in the Joint Committee, the Equality
Commissions, Children's Rights Commissioners and other bodies.
6 July 2001