Joint Committee On Human Rights Fourteenth Report


Conclusions and recommendations

Co-ordination with Government

1.  It is unnecessary that the prolonged suspension of the devolved institutions should prevent a memorandum of understanding between the Commission and the Northern Ireland Office being put in place at least on an interim basis, pending the final outcome of the review of the Commission's powers under section 69 of the 1998 Act. We recommend that the memorandum of understanding between the NIHRC and the NIO should embody arrangements for co-operation and information exchange as part of the routine requirements of all UK government departments. (Paragraphs 14 and 15)

Independence and impartiality

2.  In the context of any amending legislation arising out of the review of the Commission's powers and functions under section 69 of the Northern Ireland Act, we recommend the amendment of the Act to include a specific duty on the Commission to act with independence and impartiality. (Paragraph 18)

3.  We recommend that, in preparing its final response to the NIHRC's review of its functions and powers, the NIO give consideration to a role for an independent Commission in the appointment of Commissioners. (Paragraph 21)

4.  In appointing a Commission whose membership from Northern Ireland reflects the composition of the community as a whole, the principal criterion should be that of experience, knowledge and expertise in the field of human rights. To bar the Commission from availing itself of knowledge and skills acquired in the NGO sector would be to debilitate it unnecessarily. (Paragraphs 24 and 25)

5.  Consideration should be given by the Northern Ireland Office to appointing Commissioners from outside Northern Ireland, as happened with the Commission's predecessor, the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights. (Paragraph 26)

6.  The Northern Ireland Office should publish a clear statement of the criteria for appointment of Commissioners under the Northern Ireland Act. (Paragraph 27)

7.  Having decided on appointments to the NIHRC, the NIO must stand by these choices and make clear its support for, and confidence in the impartiality of, the Commissioners it has appointed. We recommend that the NIO be more robust in its support of the Commission, its work, its impartiality and its independence. (Paragraph 30)

8.  We note that at least one external institution has already sought to put pressure on the Commission in carrying out its role. The Commission cannot be expected to tolerate interference in its independence. We strongly recommend that the Commission should be judged by what it does, not by identifying the community background of individual commissioners. (Paragraph 31)

Resources

9.  We welcome the Commission's increased budget, which should remove the most pressing financial threat to the viability of its work. (Paragraph 34)

10.  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 also recommend that the NIHRC is allowed to report at the same time as the NIO each year. (Paragraph 36)

11.  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. (Paragraph 42)

12.  Consideration should be given to establishing a mechanism for an independent assessment of the Commission'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. (Paragraph 43)

Strategic priorities

13.  We welcome the Commission's recognition of the need for more focussed and strategic work, and look forward to seeing the benefits of this in the implementation of the new strategic plan. (Paragraph 50)

14.  We particularly welcome the NIHRC's commitment to raising awareness of human rights amongst public sector bodies. (Paragraph 51)

15.  The Commission's Strategic Plan for 2002-2006 commits it to implementing improvements to its management structure and systems. We welcome this commitment of principle. We also welcome the Chief Commissioner's statement in oral evidence to us that considerable changes to the structure of the organisation were likely to be put in place within the next year, including streamlining of the Commission's system of committees. We look forward to seeing the results of this reorganisation in practical evidence of the Commission's capacity to deliver in accordance with clear strategic priorities. (Paragraph 52)

16.  We recommend that the review of the Commission's functions under section 69 should take account of the need for a strategic casework function, aimed at developing the law and disseminating human rights principles, rather than achieving redress for individuals. (Paragraph 57)

17.  We welcome the intention to address the problems of overlap with the Northern Ireland Legal Aid Department, and recommend that consideration be given to revising the Legal Aid Regulations to ensure that applicants do not suffer detriment as a result. (Paragraph 59)

Powers

18.  We recommend that the proposals for specifying its functions and powers which were made by the Commission in its initial review under section 69 should be revisited in future reviews of the Commission's work. (Paragraph 62)

19.  It should not be necessary for the Commission to bring judicial review proceedings to attempt to obtain disclosure of information necessary for its effective work. In our view the Human Rights Act would itself confer adequate safeguards in relation to any additional investigatory powers granted to the Commission We recommend that the review of the Commission's powers should reflect the Paris Principles, and the powers available to the equality agencies, and should allow the Commission investigatory powers. We support the Commission's recommendations for amendment of the Northern Ireland Act to allow it to compel the production of evidence, and to have access to places of detention for the purposes of its investigatory functions. Such powers should not be lightly or routinely exercised. (Paragraphs 64, 68 and 69)

The Bill of Rights

20.  The meaning of the "particular circumstances of Northern Ireland" is fundamental to the Bill of Rights project. This important issue needs further debate and clarification, as an aid to better understanding of, and agreement on, the terms of any new Bill of Rights. We are, however, conscious of the need for the Commission to be clearly focussed on work that advances the promotion and protection of human rights in Northern Ireland, and to be clear about the opportunity costs and benefits of the various means it has at its disposal for achieving these aims. Success in reaching agreement and securing a Bill of Rights will further underpin the democratic content of the Agreement. (Paragraph 76)

21.  We ourselves intend to consider the desirability or practicality of incorporation of the rights contained in UN human rights treaties further in forthcoming reports, and we therefore welcome the debate taking place in Northern Ireland. (Paragraph 77)

22.  One controversy in the Bill of Rights has been the provisions in the draft Bill protecting "community rights". In our view, these concerns require further debate and clarification and we will keep them under review. (Paragraph 78)

23.  We recognise the legitimacy of the concerns expressed about the relationship between the democratic political process and any Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. However, we do not consider that these consequences need necessarily attach to a Bill of Rights. At its best, a Bill of Rights would not undermine, but support and enrich, democracy. (Paragraph 82)

24.  In our view, it is vital to ensure that the final advice on a Bill of Rights presented to the Secretary of State by the Commission is credible, and grounded in community and political participation. A new consultative structure is necessary to provide a constructive and inclusive means of reaching agreement on proposals for a Bill of Rights. We recommend that this should consist of an independent chair, a wide membership involving representatives of the political parties and civil society, an independent secretariat, and adequate funding. The Commission will need to receive recommendations from this body, and will have to decide how far to transmit them to the Secretary of State in its final advice. The Commission must be seen to be acting independently when submitting its advice to the Secretary of State, and it should, therefore, remain at arms-length from these discussions. (Paragraph 83)


 
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