Joint Committee On Human Rights Fourteenth Report


4. Resources

33. How a human rights commission is funded is fundamental to its effectiveness in carrying out its mandate. Adequate resources are also an important guarantee of independence and effectiveness. As the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights has noted in relation to the Northern Ireland Commission: "Independence is an indispensable characteristic of an effective human rights institution. Financial autonomy and an adequate level of funding are among the means to guarantee such independence."[26]

Levels of funding

34. In its first three years, the Commission had a basic annual budget of £750,000 in core funding. The Commission was able, in each year of its operation, to add to this through applications to the Northern Ireland Office for supplementary funding for specific projects. For the last financial year (from April 2001-March 2002) supplementary payments increased its budget to £1.3 million. It has now been agreed with the Northern Ireland Office that the Commission's core annual funding should be set at £1.3 million for the next two financial years, rising to £1.35 million in the third year.[27] We welcome the Commission's increased budget, which should remove the most pressing financial threat to the viability of its work.

35. We also welcome the Minister's recognition in his evidence to us of the importance of enabling the Commission "to carry on and do its work independently, reacting to contingencies as they arise over the course of the year." The increased level of funding agreed will greatly assist the Commission in doing this. We note that the £1.3 million of annual funding which is promised falls short of the recommendation of the Hosking Report, which estimated that the Commission needed a core annual budget of £1.5 million to operate effectively. However, it is probable that, even with increased funding, the Commission will continue to struggle to perform its statutory functions. This means that it is likely to remain necessary to supplement the Commission's funding with project-specific applications to the NIO. We consider the problems associated with this below.

36. It should also be noted that the funding of the Northern Ireland Commission remains low by international standards. The Hosking Report pointed out that the Commission's funding levels were out of line with those of human rights commissions in other jurisdictions. We recommend that the NIO continue to monitor and review the adequacy of the funding available to the Commission, and reports to this Committee on an annual basis the conclusions of its monitoring. We note that asking the NIO to report without allowing the NIHRC to do the same would be unusual, considering that the NIO is responsible for funding the NIHRC in the first place. We also recommend that the NIHRC is allowed to report at the same time as the NIO each year.

37. There is potential for the Commission to obtain funds from other sources. In its review report, the Commission recommended that it should have the power to accept grants from non-government bodies or raise funds through the provision of services. The NIO has provisionally rejected this. In particular, it has pointed out that power to receive grants from non-government bodies or through provision of services, without prior approval of the NIO, might lead to duplication in funding. In our view, such difficulties would not be insurmountable, and should in part be addressed by the Commission's obligation to submit its annual accounts for scrutiny.

Systems of funding

38. The Commission's institutional independence from the Northern Ireland Office depends to a large extent on funding arrangements. For its first three years, given its relatively low baseline funding, the NIHRC has secured much of its funds through project-specific funding applications to the NIO. Although this has enabled the Commission to function in its first three years, it has been highly unsatisfactory for an organisation for which independent policy strategies and decisions are the key to its credibility. The Chief Executive of the Commission told us that—

… we may be receiving in total a budget in the region of 1.3 million but our actual core budget over which we have total control only meets 90 per cent of our running costs, so we have no room for manoeuvre. It means that every piece of work that we do is subject to scrutiny by NIO officials.[28]

39. A system which requires the NIHRC to present detailed proposals for a particular project for which it seeks additional funding allows for at least the potential for the Northern Ireland Office to withhold funding from projects on the basis of policy disagreements, or to influence the character of the project in the course of funding negotiations.[29] Although we have not received evidence to suggest that the NIO has sought to do this, evidence from Professor Christine Bell and Dr Inez McCormack cited correspondence between the Commission and the NIO which demonstrated detailed discussion of the terms of a Commission inquiry for which funding had been sought.[30]

40. We accept that all expenditure of public money must be subject to proper scrutiny. However, the Commission is already subject to the normal procedures for ensuring such accountability.[31] It should be possible for such allocations to be made on the basis of full information as to the Commission's projected work programme, but without detailed negotiation of the terms of particular projects, or to the manner in which such projects will be undertaken.

41. The Commission's formal, if not actual, independence from government is clearly compromised by the current funding system, which has the potential to be perceived as a restriction on the Commission's freedom to carry out important programmes of work, and to diminish its credibility with the public as an independent body. A sufficiently high level of baseline funding would, of course, eliminate the need for supplementary applications. But the current level of baseline funding, although increased significantly, will nevertheless continue to require the Commission to make individual funding applications to the NIO. The 1991 Paris Principles on the Status of National Human Rights Institutions, which have been adopted by resolutions of the UN Human Rights Commission and the General Assembly, state that a national human rights institution shall—

Freely consider any questions falling within its competence, whether they are submitted by the government or taken up by it without referral to a higher authority ... [32]

42. We recommend that the system for considering supplementary funding bids by the Commission to the NIO should be reviewed to ensure full compliance with the Paris Principles. This matter should be addressed, through the proposed Memorandum of Understanding or an alternative means, as a matter of priority.

Independent oversight of funding

43. Although the extent of the Commission's under-funding is now no longer critical, our inquiry has made it clear to us that, in the Commission's first three years, the level of core funding available to it has significantly hampered its effectiveness and credibility. In the light of the difficulties experienced in its early years, there is a strong case for some independent supervision of funding allocations. In our report on the Case for a Human Rights Commission for Great Britain, we have recommended that, as a guarantee of independence and accountability, Parliament should be directly involved in the setting of a human rights commission's budget. Consideration should be given to establishing a mechanism for an independent assessment of the NIHRC's needs. We recommend that, in its response to this report, the NIO sets out clear criteria against which it proposes to assess the core funding of the NIHRC in future years.


26   Opinion 2/2002 of the Commissioner for Human Rights, Mr Alvaro Gil-Robles on certain aspects of the review of powers of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, Strasbourg, 13 November 2002, Comm DH(2002) 216, para15 Back

27   NIO Press Release, 11 February 2003 Back

28   Q 11 Back

29   Q 75 Back

30   Appendix 4, Ev 36 Back

31   Under Schedule 7 of the Northern Ireland Act. Back

32   Commission on the Human Rights resolution 1992/59 of 3 March 1992; General Assembly Resolution 48/134 of 20 December 1993. The Principles are not binding in international law. The full text is set out in our Sixth Report of Session 2002-03, op cit., Annex 1 Back


 
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