Joint Committee On Human Rights Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)




  20. Lord Chancellor, can I ask you whether the timescale on the consultation for the single equality commission is going to affect the timescale on which decisions on the Human Rights Commission should be taken?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) I do not think we have a timescale.

  21. I thought the Cabinet Office did have a timescale, and I wondered whether it had shifted.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) First of all, I am not aware-and you may know more than I do—of a timescale ever having been discussed in the context of consultation. I have seen the proposition that the Cabinet Office would not envisage a single equality commission in place for at least five years but that is because what we are doing in our meeting today is trying to broaden out the items. They are talking about a single equality commission. There is no doubt, I would have thought, that if a decision were taken in favour of a single equality commission it could well take that period of time, and I think I see Lord Lester nodding, because it is a very complex matter—probably both legislatively and administratively. The individual commissions are quite large businesses. The CRE is based in London, it has regional offices, its budget last year was £20 million, it has staff in excess of 180. If you take the EOC, its budget over the same period was £8.6 million with a staff of 117, and, if you take the Disability Rights Commission, its budget for the same period was £12.1 million with a staff of 150, each of these commissions sponsored by different departments, and the complexity is made greater if we start talking about a human rights commission, so it is a complex task. But I do not see that there is any impediment to a fruitful role for your Committee in the necessarily rather elongated timetable for a single equality commission with a willingness on their part to consider human rights implications in the greater round.

  22. In view of the fact that you said earlier on that we should have human rights on the inside of the equality commissions, and in view of the fact also that you set out the range of options for different models pretty comprehensively, have you had the opportunity to assess the record of any particular human rights commissions in other nations?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) No, I have not undertaken that.

Mr Woodward

  23. Lord Chancellor, given that you have just made reference to the budgets and the staffing of the EOC, the DRC and so on, and given the importance that your Government have rightly, rhetorically, attached to the importance of establishing a human rights culture, I think I am right in saying that in comparison to the, say, more than 100 staff at the DRC and at the EOC, and we could go on, the combined numbers of staff in your unit is somewhere around 10?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) I never suggested that they were a human rights commission!

  24. Absolutely not and, of course, no equation will be made between numbers of individuals and the work that can be produced but this just leads me to say that in order to establish this human rights culture, it does seem to beg the question of what real advantage was achieved by moving the Human Rights Unit from the Home Office to your Department. What were the advantages of doing that for the promotion of human rights, and to what extent could you answer some people's worries that this has reinforced an idea that human rights is really just for lawyers rather than ordinary people?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) As you know—and I am going to give you a boring reply which happens to be true—machinery of Government changes are for the Prime Minister, and obviously the view was taken by the Prime Minister that the right location for freedom of information, data protection, constitutional matters generally, human rights and so on, was in a single department which might loosely be described as a justice department rather than the Home Office, but I am not sure whether you would have favoured it remaining in the Home Office.

  25. Would not the logic of that be that the equality commissions should come under your jurisdiction too, dealing with justice?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) No. That would be empire building beyond one's wildest imaginings.

  26. It might be empire building, but there is a logic.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) But what you have, for example, in employment law with all its implications is for the DTI. To hive down equal opportunities from employment law and say that it was a human rights matter might be to erect obstacles to the creation of a commission, which I imagine you wish.

  27. But when we interviewed Mr Wills a few weeks ago, it was certainly possible for some of us to take the impression that the staff that you have are doing a terrific job but, in order to achieve the co-ordination across Government departments that one might want to see to foster the creation of human rights, perhaps the staff and its budget were somewhat less than one might want.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) All budgets are less than you want!

  28. Interestingly that was exactly the kind of answer he gave.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) It is true!

  29. But to focus on the critical point, and I go back to your comparisons with the other commissions and the staffing and the resources, do you believe that with the budget you have—and obviously you can only manage with what you have—the resourcing, the publicity and so on, available to the HRU is truly adequate to achieve the end you wish to see to promote a culture of human rights?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) Let me tell you some of the things we are doing and then you can tell me why they are not sufficient. Nothing is sufficient in this area, of course, but let me tell you some of the things we are doing. First of all, when the Act was being launched, a vast amount of guidance, publicity, training and education was undertaken. The memorandum to this Committee by the then Home Secretary, Jack Straw, really does testify to it. £1.2 million was spent on a public advertising campaign: two million copies of the introductory guide for the public were produced: a website was set up with 10,000 hits a week—it is about 8,000 a week at the moment, I think—and overall about 57 hours conducted by the unit to external audiences. We do not need to sustain the same degree of publicity after the Act, I do not think. The Human Rights Act is to some degree self-publicising: I remind you what the Constitution Unit said in 1996—and it is true. Litigation itself can play an important role. "One high profile case covered by the media can be worth several poster campaigns", and perhaps that is a stage in the development of the culture that we are witnessing. Very high profile examples of individuals trying to exercise their rights, such as those of Naomi Campbell or Gary Whitcroft, have generated enormous media coverage but I can say that we are thinking of financing, and that we will finance, a worthwhile new campaign later this year. I think it would be timely to do so. Also there are other things that we are doing. As you probably know, every Government Department has got a human rights contact point and generally the contacts between my Human Rights Unit and these contact points have been bilateral but we are about, I think, to succeed in setting up plenary meetings between my officials and all the departmental contact points and the object would be to collect, to exchange, to promote good practice, to try to get a picture, a map, of concrete examples of what has happened in departments to change policy or procedures or practice due to the Act itself or due to specific decisions of the courts, and I think the idea is to promote a quarterly plenary with the possibility of smaller groupings from that plenary to look at particular human rights issues thrown into focus as a result of the plenary meetings. That seems to me to be progress and, of course, Richard Heaton already has a network of lawyers in all departments and the devolved administrations who meet quarterly to monitor case law, and that has been in place for several years.

  Chairman: We did get a flavour of that from him when Mr Wills came before us, and it was very useful for us in finding out exactly how that information was shared.

Baroness Whitaker

  30. I would like to explore further the fostering of the human rights culture. I remember you addressed the Citizenship Foundation at the Law Society right at the beginning of framing the Human Rights Act when you talked about ushering in a human rights culture. I think it would be helpful to know which bodies you consider are being particularly effective in creating, promoting or furthering the human rights culture in the UK?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) I think all these non-governmental organisations that I mentioned do a cracking job in their own sphere. It is not appropriate for me to give particular plugs for any of them but Liberty, Justice, the British Institute of Human Rights and the People Action Group all deserve congratulation for what they do.

  31. Your Department has obviously been energetic also but do you consider there are tasks in relation to the promotion of the human rights culture which cannot be done by your Department particularly?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) My belief is that we are doing a good job in promoting a human rights culture but that, if I may say so, is a kind of open-ended question. If you tell me something we should be doing that we are not doing, then I will try to be constructive about it.

  32. I was struck when you gave examples of effective bodies. You mentioned the statutory non-governmental bodies and you mentioned NGOs. You did not mention local authorities—
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) No.

  33.—or any other public authorities, and it may be that there are things which your Department is too small in its scope to be able to do which ought to be done by other public authorities and which are not being done?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) It is possible but is that what is being said? What has been drawn to my attention is that a total of 98 per cent of local authorities reported that there had been or would be some specialist training about the Human Rights Act. Only 6 per cent reported that specialist training would be given to all answers but merely a quarter said it would be given to most. Of course, you could do more, I suppose, to pursue that and to follow it up.

  34. Part of the reason for my question is to identify any of these gaps which could be appropriate for a human rights commission to address which is not at the moment being done, so could I invite you to expand in your answer on the tasks which are not at the moment being done?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) I have to signal to you that I think a great deal of successful work has been done. Let me tell you what we have done and then you can tell me if it is not sufficient. There is a core guidance booklet for public authorities. About 10,000 have been issued and it is also accessible on the website. There was an introductory awareness raising guide for public authorities. 200,000 were issued and it is also accessible on the website. There have been regional LCD roadshows so far in Gateshead, Exeter, Canterbury and Bristol. The next one is in Wales on 30 April and further ones are planned for Birmingham, Liverpool and East Anglia. There is a dedicated help desk and a website with 8,000 hits; 30 plus calls or e-mails every week; and sponsoring departments—for example, DTLR and the Local Government Association in association with Justice—have issued special guidance which assists more directly on day-to-day matters, so there is a picture of fairly reasonable activity. Then, if you take our contact with other Government departments in this area, in March contact was made with other Government departments on about 75 separate occasions and contact from other departments on about 56 occasions relating to human rights' matters. It is the opposite of a picture of idleness, frankly.

Vera Baird

  35. Following a little from that, Lord Chancellor, and considering the effort that has gone into propagating a human rights' culture, as you know you are our first witness in the second phase of our inquiry but we took written evidence prior to this phase and we have had a seminar also with oral evidence before this.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) Yes.

  36. We have heard from quite a lot of sources that the Human Rights Act is a low priority with public authorities outside Whitehall.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) I would be very interested in that.

  37. Outside Whitehall.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) Who told you that? I know I am not supposed to ask you questions but it would be very helpful if you would tell me who your informants are?

  38. I guess we could send you a copy of the report of our seminar which was where we had most of this airing.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) I think that might be very helpful, yes.

  39. The view was that there is little evidence of human rights thinking in the mainstream of day to day decision making and more evidence that it is only taken into account on risk avoidance grounds, usually by the public authority lawyers. The District Auditors report is coming out quite soon, which we have seen in draft, which does say there is a lack of attention given to the Act in particular by local authorities. Against that background, can I ask you two things. The visit to Belfast drew attention to the difference between section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act which puts on public authorities a duty to promote equality of opportunity compared with section 6 of our Act which just requires public authorities to act in a way that is compatible with the Convention Rights. Firstly, do you think public authorities here do regard the Act as imposing on them a positive duty to promote human rights? Secondly, is it your experience, without looking for blame, that there is a defensive and reactive attitude once you get outside Whitehall? Without wishing to put blame on it, is that where the culture has to be kick started?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) These questions, of course, also could be put in relation to Whitehall. Some people thought that the Human Rights Act was overnight going to change the world and that every policy and every practice and every procedure that had been ever applied would have to be turned upside down because of the Human Rights Act.

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