Joint Committee On Human Rights Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


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 Commission.

  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.

BACKGROUND

  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 1993—the 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.

Question 1

  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.

Question 2

  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.

Question 3

  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.

Question 4

  4.1  CRAE believes the best UK-wide arrangement would be the third option suggested—both 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.

Question 5

  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.

Question 6

  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.

Question 7

  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.

Question 8

  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.

Question 9

  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



 
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