Joint Committee On Human Rights Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 380 - 399)

MONDAY 1 JULY 2002

MR GURBUX SINGH, MR BERT MASSIE, MS JULIE MELLOR AND MS JENNY WATSON

  380. So where at the moment would domestic violence issues sit? Who picks up domestic violence, or does it sit there as a gap?
  (Ms Watson) In a sense it is a gap. Julie referred earlier to one of the cases, the Amin case, which has been instrumental in defining what we can and cannot challenge, and one of the issues that fell out of that is that it is very difficult for us to challenge things that are to do with statutory provision. So, for example, domestic violence and things that might flow from that, for example prosecution, we could not challenge. Housing—well, we might be able to look at that and that is because of the way the SDA is worded. There are two ways around that: one would be to have the kind of positive duty we have seen through the Race Relations Amendment Act which would mean that public authorities had to consider gender equality when they are providing the services because obviously they would have to address the needs of women who had experienced domestic violence, but I think it is also true to say that a human rights commission would pick up issues around domestic violence. They would pick up things like prosecution and safety of those women and the difficulty, in fact, of getting rehoused. Having worked at victim support in the past I am very aware of the whole gamut of problems that you can experience as a women who needs to find a way out of domestic violence, so there is no doubt that some kind of human rights function, perhaps working with a sex equality function, would be able to move that forward.

  381. Another area we are looking at, again in the context of the government saying it wants to establish a human rights culture, is where do things like deaths in custody or bullying of prisoners sit at the moment? How do people at the moment assert their human rights there—and perhaps your silence says it all, really.
  (Mr Singh) I was trying to think it through. We are currently engaged in conducting a formal investigation into the prison service and I was trying to work out how you would pick that issue up. Clearly the Race Relations Act would cover deaths in custody or, indeed, bullying as was mentioned if there was a race or an ethnicity characteristic attached to it. That would be picked up under race but most certainly we would not be able to pick it up if that was not the case and therefore that would be the gap. In the same way as with bullying in a school environment, or exclusion is another example, if we were talking about exclusions within schools then clearly we would pick up the disproportionate nature of African-Caribbean boys being excluded but not the principle per se as a general rule. I think that is how we would see it.

  382. And, therefore, if you try and put this picture together and if the government in conducting its review to produce, say, a large equalities commission, came up with this recommendation, if the component of a human rights commission was still either not within the equalities commission or without it, what would be your response to the government's claim that it wants to create the human rights culture? Can it do that?
  (Mr Singh) It goes back to the point that there were gaps in the law and that we were seeking as part of the Race Relations Amendment Act process the filling of those gaps which would enable us at the commission and the CRE to try and pick up, under those sorts of circumstances, the human rights elements that we currently cannot pick up.

  383. And if it were not to include that—?
  (Mr Singh) That would be a major weakness.

  384. How major a weakness if you want to create the human rights culture?
  (Mr Massie) If the government said, "We are going to create a human rights culture and we are not going to have any enforcement or promotion mechanism", we would be incredulous surely. We would smile sweetly and that would be about it because it is not going to happen. We know now we have the Human Rights Act on the statute and we know time and time again that when human rights of disabled people are violated we cannot do anything about it. We have to sit back and say, "Well, isn't it sad", and people are going to carry on suffering no matter what the government says, unless there is some enforcement mechanism. It is just not going to happen.
  (Ms Watson) The reason we responded to the consultation around a human rights commission is clearly because the lack of a human rights commission is a gap in the human rights infrastructure and without it we cannot go forward.

  385. The reason I am being provocative in this way, having sat here silently for an hour and twenty minutes before is really to get you to use this as an opportunity for us to gauge just how indifferent or seriously you would take the absence of a human rights commission component to the review that the government is conducting now?
  (Mr Singh) That is why, again, earlier on I said that to achieve the sort of human rights culture that we all want we need a human rights commission. I am absolutely clear. Frankly at the moment, whilst in certain middle class environments there may be a debate about human rights, on the ground where it really matters people do not talk about their "human rights"; they do not understand them; there is no concept of them, and that culture will only come about if there is dedicated activity which delivers that, and it was for that reason that I was trying to suggest that whilst the serious fallback position was really separate institutions, if there was a real risk that a human rights commission was not going to be set up, we most certainly would support a fallback position, and I would seek this, where a human rights component was built into an integrated quality structure, because I think that is profoundly important. Unless we get that, frankly all we have are nice fine words and nice fine statutes.
  (Ms Watson) There are other examples. If the situation is not one of discrimination on the grounds of sex or equality between women and men, we could not consider the complaint. You raise the issue of domestic violence and there are other issues that we are all very conscious of through the press. The trafficking of women for the sex industry is clearly a violation of those women's human rights. There is not a lot we could do about that and a human rights commission could tackle that. There may be issues around the provision of services to people who are carers looking after vulnerable or older dependants. If we had a public sector duty, we might find that was caught up through considering gender in the provision of public services but it is clearly an Article 8 issue because it is around family life. There are issues where the government has already acted around protection of vulnerable witnesses in court, particularly in cases of rape and sexual assault, where there are measures to protect those women giving evidence but also in relation to a whole range of other witnesses who might find it difficult to give evidence in court. Those are human rights issues and are issues which, again, we might not be able to take on. Without a human rights component those things will fall into a gap.

  386. Therefore, to be absolutely precise, if the government wants to create, as I believe it does, a human rights culture, can it do so without now creating a human rights commission and therefore take the opportunity in this review to embrace that? If we do not have a human rights commission, either within or without a single equality commission, can it achieve this objective? Yes or no?
  (Mr Singh) No.
  (Ms Mellor) No.
  (Mr Massie) There are other options.

  387. But the principle of embracing it?
  (Mr Massie) It is not going to happen by ministers' wishes.

Mr McNamara

  388. To change the subject a little, you will be aware that the Committee had before it about three weeks ago a group of young people talking about how they saw their human rights in one way or another. I wonder if I could translate their experience to your three organisations and ask to what extent you are involved in looking at questions of discrimination against young people on the grounds of their age and how this affects, for example, the provision of services to the disabled and the way they are looked at on racial or sexual grounds by the equalities commission? Is there a real issue here of the position of children of which you are aware? Following up on that, would you say that there would be a role within the equalities commission or whatever organisation is set up for a child commissioner, or a commissioner for children?
  (Mr Massie) At the DRC we take the needs of disabled children very seriously. We consulted young people on our strategic plan, and when we were drawing up our education codes of practice we consulted several youngsters through organisations. We are also going to hold a conference later on this year focusing on young people. Our three commissions in Scotland have produced a booklet, An Equal Start, which deals across the various strands. When the DRC was set up, we were fortunate to have as one of the commissioners, Philippa Russell, who is the director of the Council for Disabled Children, so it has been quite an important part of our work from day 1.

  389. And on the child commissioner?
  (Mr Massie) I think what is going to happen is, if this single equality body ever gets off the ground, then people are going to say that it takes on children's issues as well. If the government says it only wants one commission, then there is a whole range of other people which the government have not even thought about, to be honest. Why not bring children as a strand? They certainly face discrimination.
  (Mr Singh) Most certainly children, young people, are very much at the heart of this agenda, and it has to be. Over the last few years, following on from the riots in northern towns and cities, inevitably it is part of any debate about cohesion, young people and the disabled—all of these—must require agencies like the commission to focus on them. Our work in education, looking at schools' attainment, the different patterns of education attainment, the whole issue of exclusion, bullying in schools—that is profoundly important for our work and is a considerable proportion of our work. Young people in the labour market, in employment, patterns of difference within the labour market—considerable evidence and again quite some detailed work. Race violence—who commits race violence on our street? It is young people by and large so what do we do about, how do we bring people together—profoundly important. Guns on our streets is a matter that is, again, hugely important in Britain today, and has serious race implications attached to it, therefore it is work that we are actively engaged in and hopefully trying to do something about. So a substantial plank of the commission's work is about young people—both those at school, those who should be in school, those not in school, those now seeking the employment sector, the labour market—all of that is profoundly important. I happen to believe that we should be supporting the idea of a commissioner for children.
  (Ms Watson) In relation to girls and boys and the discrimination and differences that they encounter at school, we have done work around stereotyping and careers choices and subject choices, they can be pushed very early into paths and it is very much more difficult later in life to get to the career they want, because they are limited by people's assumptions when they are making their subject choices. I am sure that will be a subject of delight to children everywhere that they can freely choose their exam choices! Obviously we have done work on child care although, to be frank, that has been in the context of working parents and what they need in order to be able to balance their home and work responsibilities, and I suspect as we develop our new corporate plan we will consult with stakeholders and I would think that would include a group of young people. In relation to a children's commissioner, I am not sure that we have a formal EOC view. It would seem sensible, as this process is being addressed, for any human rights dimension within or without a new body to consider that. If you were thinking about setting up a separate children's rights commissioner at a time when you were thinking about also creating a new body to do with equalities and human rights issues that might be a difficult working relationship.

  390. I get confused over what is an equality issue and what is a human rights issue. I am not sure where the distinction is in many of these things. Where is bullying in schools?
  (Ms Watson) It could be a discrimination issue, if you are being bullied because of your race or disability or your gender. However, it could simply be, tragically, that you are being bullied just because of who you are and that may not be a discrimination issue. So I would say that could be an equalities issue but it is certainly a human rights issue.

  391. Would that be the general feeling?
  (Mr Singh) Yes.
  (Mr Massie) Yes.

Baroness Whitaker

  392. To turn to another constraint on the architecture of institutions: the constituent nations and the devolved responsibilities. As you all know, equality goes all over great Britain—that is in the system—but human rights are not so devolved, so there could conceivably be a scenario whereby UK citizens in Northern Ireland and in Scotland would have both an equality commission and a human rights commission while people in England and Wales would just have this united equalities commission. What are your thoughts, and really I am asking all three organisations, on how we should contemplate the kind of institutions we want in the context of equalities not being devolved and human rights being devolved? We have just been to Scotland, and we have had it fairly forcefully put that people like to do their own thing.
  (Mr Singh) The CRE currently is clearly Britain-wide so therefore covers England, Scotland and Wales. Clearly there has to be recognition of devolution and therefore in the human rights context the way we view it would be that there has to be recognition of the different legal systems in Scotland, and that therefore brings to bear some consideration about an acceptable arrangement for Scotland as opposed to England and Wales.

  393. So they might have their own human rights commission?
  (Mr Singh) Yes, but we have not gone beyond that thinking. If the CRE were to have a ten-year life cycle we would advise against the fragmentation of a separate and independent CRE for Scotland, but that shows inherent contradiction in our thinking, I think!

  394. Mr Massie?
  (Mr Massie) When the DRC was set up two and a half years ago we opened offices in Edinburgh and one in Cardiff. We have found it enormously helpful both from our London and Manchester offices in being able to support our staff in Scotland and Edinburgh in their work with the Assembly and the executives in Scotland. Also what has been extremely useful to us is how our staff and commissioners, and indeed stakeholders in Scotland and Wales, have contributed towards our Great Britain agenda. It is certainly not England teaching the people in Scotland or Wales: it is very much a two-way process where we learn from each other and that has strengthened the DRC enormously. Our preference would be, if there was going to be a single body, that it should be GB-wide.

  395. Do you mean an equalities commission?
  (Mr Massie) Yes.

  396. But you are not also talking about human rights?
  (Mr Massie) We accept that we would prefer separate agencies but we have a fallback position to include if the government will not create a separate agency. Scotland has already indicated it wants its own human rights commission and, if that is what people in Scotland want, then we will back them in their own desire. What is disappointing, I think, is that the body they are creating will not have all the powers I believe it will require. That then brings us to England and Wales, and I would argue then for one body covering both England and Wales rather than a Wales body and an England body.

  397. Just to round it off, would you contemplate a UK human rights commission which kept some broad international functions, such as dealing with international treaty bodies, but that was nevertheless a national organisation?
  (Mr Massie) We have not really thought that through. Our starting position would be to want to know what the people in Northern Ireland think about it as well before we form a view. I do know that the funding regime in Northern Ireland for the human rights commission has been very tight and that has been a great restraint on what they can achieve. Luckily that could be resolved by giving them more money!

Mr McNamara

  398. Can I ask one point which is rather interesting and important: you said that the Scots are not going quite the way you would like if they set up a statutory Human Rights Commission. Is that because of a restraint on the UK board in relation to you, or is it a question of not wanting to take on some of the powers which you would like them to have which deals with some of the problems we have been discussing earlier?
  (Mr Massie) I think my understanding of how the Scottish legislation is being proposed is that the commission then will not have full enforcement powers, and this keeps coming back to the argument of, "Can you win hearts and minds?". In the disability movement governments have always said, "Well, we can persuade people to act reasonably". Well, some people can, but it takes an awful long time and a lot of persuasion. Once you pass a law then suddenly people are persuaded much more easily. It does not mean to say you have to use the law all the time; it is the fact the law is there. Certainly looking at employers and disability, I remember running conferences when I worked for my previous employer back in the mid-1980s, and trying to get employers to even turn up to discuss disability was a huge task, and the ones who did were committed anyway, so you ended up talking to familiar friends which was agreeable but was not the purpose. The minute you pass a law, suddenly now employers come and talk to us because there is a law they have to obey. Not only that, there is an enforcement mechanism so you can educate and persuade much more effectively when you have legislative powers and you have enforcement powers, and that is why I think the Scottish commission will not be as strong as it would otherwise be.

  399. That is helpful. Those of us who went to Scotland heard the government say that they would stronger enforcement powers. What is the EOC's views?
  (Ms Mellor) I think in terms of the impact so far on devolution it has brought some big and positive changes in terms of progress on equality in both Scotland and Wales, because equality is much higher up the agenda than it was before devolution with a mixture of legal duties, new structures and political leadership drive and change, so it would be much more integrated into public policy in Scotland and Wales than England, or indeed Westminster. In terms of the change in the way we operate, then I think it has given us the chance to focus on the distinctive opportunities for progress in Scotland and Wales within the context of GB-wide goals and priorities, and that has meant we have put increased resources into our Scotland and Wales offices in order to take advantage of these opportunities, and we have been able to learn from the experiences in Scotland and Wales to strengthen our work GB-wide. In terms of what next, then I am afraid I do not want to be conclusive at this stage because we are over the summer consulting our stakeholders in Scotland and Wales about the single equality body project, and do not want to be premature in drawing conclusions from that.


 
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