Joint Committee On Human Rights Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)




  1. Professor Dickson, thank you very much for coming today to give evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, we are very pleased to welcome you and your team. So that everybody in the room is aware, we are obviously pleased to welcome Ms Paddy Sloan and Professor Tom Hadden but we notice that Mrs Patricia Kelly is not here today, however we are very pleased to welcome Mr Patrick Yu. We did come over earlier in the year, as you know, and we had an informal meeting with members of the Commission. At that stage we gave an undertaking that we would come back later in the year for you to give evidence to our Committee, which I recall you were very keen to do. We are very pleased that we were able to fit in a visit to Belfast and you have been able to come before us today. I would like to start by asking you about how you see the role of the Human Rights Commission. You have now been in operation since 1999 and I think it would be universally acknowledged you have been promoting human rights in an exceptionally difficult environment but also in a region where human rights have the potential to transform a divided society. What is your sense of that potential now in the light of your experience?

  (Professor Dickson) Can I, first of all, welcome the Committee. We are very pleased to have the opportunity today to present evidence to you and we welcome the inquiry. I think the short answer to your question is that the potential for human rights to have a transforming effect in a divided society still very much exists here. The Commission has been able to do something to promote and protect human rights during our short existence but of course a lot more remains to be done. I think it has to be realised that the protection of human rights does not operate in a vacuum, certainly not in a political vacuum, and that while the protection of human rights is a sine qua non to a democratic and peaceful society the Human Rights Commission cannot ensure that all of a divided society's problems are solved. There remain, and will continue to be, problems in this divided society and in others which are not amenable, unfortunately, to a solution by a human rights approach. We are very conscious of how important the Human Rights Commission is as an institution set up under the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement and we very much want to operate in that context together with our sister organisation in the Republic, the Irish Commission, with which we have already established a joint committee and which committee is already engaged in work on an all-Ireland basis, both with a Charter of Rights for the Island and on racism issues. We look forward to continuing that collaboration.

  2. You just said that the Commission could do something to promote human rights in a divided society. It would be interesting to hear an example of that and also to acknowledge that while many of your Commission's aims in creating a human rights culture in Northern Ireland may be long term, do you have any sense of change resulting from some of the work which the Human Rights Commission has already done?
  (Professor Dickson) I think probably the most outstanding example of how our Commission is able to work towards the healing of division in this society is our Bill of Rights work, which I know your Committee possibly want to come on to later this afternoon. We do feel our very deep and wide consultation on that, which the minister recently expressed enormous admiration for, has had an effect in helping to heal divisions. A lot more needs to be done. Our proposals did not meet with universal acclaim, nor did we expect them to, it was very much a consultation document and we hope in the next phase of that project to make it more of a consensus document. The second part of your question was?

  3. What was distinctive about the Human Rights Commission and what sense do you have of a real change which your Commission has achieved?
  (Professor Dickson) Of course it is hard to measure that. In the very extensive contact that we have had with a very high number of public authorities in Northern Ireland, for example the Police Service, also many government departments and other NDPBs, we have noticed a willingness to engage with us on human rights issues that I think was not there prior to our existence. A preparedness to proof their policies, plans and legislative ideas against human rights standards, which we use. We make it clear in our contact with all of those organisations that our standards go beyond those in the European Convention on Human Rights. Very often we are citing, for example, the UN Convention on the Rights of a Child to various public authorities or other UN soft law standards, as they are called, as regards policing issues. We have had some success in getting policy documents changed because of our reference to those international standards. Generally, I think, there is a heightened awareness across the public sector of the importance of human rights.
  (Professor Hadden) I would just like to add that the main change that I notice is that the people we are consulting with on the Bill of Rights project and other human rights issues have a much better understanding of the underlying human rights issues, because of the way in which our education team has been able to get out to the schools, to the public, to the community organisations and assist them in training on human rights documents and understanding the issues which arise both in relation to existing human rights standards, the European Convention and other international documents. and also in relation to the issues of the proposed Bill of Rights here. The level of engagement, expertise and sensible comments which we are getting now is far and away more helpful and better than the initial comments we got when we launched the Bill of Rights process. I think throughout society, not just in the public sector, there is now a much greater understanding of the issues and some of the possible resolutions. Perhaps it has taken two or three years for members of the public generally to become aware of those issues, to learn the language and to be able to contribute more effectively to the discussions on the Bill of Rights. I think that is a significant change throughout society.

  4. Thank you. We have noted your draft strategic plan for 2002 to 2006, which was published earlier this year, and your five strategic goals and your seven core values. Trying to distil those, could you tell us what you see as your strategic priorities for the next two years and how you intend to achieve them?
  (Professor Dickson) Yes. We considered all of the submissions that were made to us on that draft plan, which was out for consultation for four months, and in the light of those submissions and our deliberations we have altered the strategic goals into the following six. If I may just outline them for you, and I should say these are in no particular order: We wish to identify serious human rights violations; we wish to protect vulnerable groups; we wish to deliver the Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland; we wish to engage in international monitoring and in developing relationships with treaty bodies; we wish to promote awareness of human rights and of the Commission itself. Finally, we want to ensure compliance with the Paris Principles, which govern national human rights institutions. For each of those goals we will have specific objectives and performance indicators in our strategic plan and business plans which are in the course of preparation and should be publicly available shortly after Christmas.

  5. They do sound very general. Do you have any specific Northern Ireland issues that you would want other people to use as a test of your effectiveness over the next two years?
  (Professor Dickson) The Bill of Rights is a Northern Ireland specific project and we would like that to be a model for other jurisdictions to follow, both in the process by which it was obtained and in the content. In the international work we do we hope that we have been able to raise awareness of the importance of international standards, awareness within government circles but also in the civic society in Northern Ireland. I think we are in the forefront of the work being done by national human rights institutions around the world in that area. We are just about the most active of any national human rights institution when it comes to engaging with the international treaty monitoring bodies and other UN mechanisms. In our work for the vulnerable sectors of society, the protection of economic and social rights, for example, taking the commitment further in our first strategic plan we worked on behalf of marginalised groups, I would again hope we would be a model for other jurisdictions to follow.
  (Professor Hadden) I think on more specific issues, I am the Chair of the Investigation and Research Committee of the Commission and we have a number of very specific projects which form part of the strategic plan. One of the most important ones is the Article 2 issue arising from the decision of the European Court in Jordan, and other cases. We want to expand the focus of Article 2 issues to cover not only the question of inquests but also the question of police investigations, prosecution practice and decisions so that we can come out with recommendations for complete compliance with the Article 2 requirements of the European Court. That is one of the issues on which we are currently engaged. Another of the issues on which we are about to produce a report is the issue of baton rounds. We have commissioned a study on that and we are focusing on a number of important issues in relation to, first of all, the balance between police use and army use of these baton rounds and, secondly, on the technical qualities and effects of the baton round, which has been introduced. In particular we are concerned about the high level of misses. One of the arguments for the introduction of the new baton round is that it would be more accurate. The information we have is that quite a considerable number of these rounds which are fired are missing the initial target. We are very concerned that something unpleasant may happen as a result of that. Those are a couple of examples of the specific implementation of the kind of general principles that Brice has been talking about. Each of other committees could give you examples; the victims and Education Committees, and the precise way in which we are working on specific targets.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

  6. It just seems to me that looking at those six goals, that are not ranked in any particular order, as you said, that is a huge agenda even for a United Kingdom body. I just wonder whether having so many different objectives with such slender resources means that, instead of concentrating on protecting vulnerable groups or dealing with gross violations of human rights, you find yourself distracted by other goals which may be very worthy but will blunt your cutting edge as a Human Rights Commission, given your resources? Should you not refine your priorities in order to sharpen your cutting edge?
  (Professor Dickson) We are very conscious through you, Chair, that there have been very high expectations of the Human Rights Commission since we were first established in March 1999. I think we would admit we set ourselves a very ambitious plan for the first two or three years with the result that we were not able to do as much follow-up work on particular issues as we might have hoped. That kind of consideration has weighed very heavily with us in our recent consideration of the next strategic plan. When we come to put flesh on the bones of those goals, when we come to set particular objectives and particular performance indicators and time scales associated we will certainly be less ambitious than we were and more realistic about what can be achieved with the resources available to us. It will mean that we will have to say on some issues we are not able to do much, if any, work while focusing on other issues. We accept your point, Lord Lester, but it does not mean that we want to cease to be the very effective institution which the Good Friday Agreement requires us to be.

Baroness Whitaker

  7. Chief Commissioner, I was very interested in your Harry Street lecture that you kindly copied to us all and in your account of the potential value added to society by human rights commissions, but this is only on the basis that they are independent organisations, impartial organisations. In your environment here, of course, the Commission's political impartiality is constantly questioned, that is the situation you are in. I would like to ask you, what support do you need from the Government to ensure that the Commission's impartiality is made clear to the general public, first of all?
  (Professor Dickson) Firstly, we would expect the Government to be more defensive of the appointment process to the Commission. We in the Commission have had to answer or try to answer or deflect a barrage of criticism about the appointments to the Commission, which are none of our concern, they are the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Office. That is not to say we do not have views on what kind of skills mix we need on the Commission, we are certainly alive to that. The responsibility for appointing people and the selection process is that of the Government. I would have liked the Government to have been more vocal in explaining the appointments process and how objective and competitive it was, both in 1999 and last year. Secondly, I would have hoped that the Government would have been more willing to correct some of the inaccurate statements made about the Commission and about individual commissioners. We ourselves can do that, of course, but I think it is appropriate for the Government to defend such a key institution as the Human Rights Commission against its detractors, especially if they are making inaccurate statements, as they have on many occasions, both in Parliament and out of Parliament. Thirdly, I think I would have liked a little bit more recognition, in fact a lot more recognition, of the achievements of the Commission and the difficulties we have faced in getting to those achievements. In the last 6 months, or so, there have been more positive statements from the Government about the work of the Commission and the challenges we have faced and met. Certainly in the first two or three years of our life the Government tended to stand back too much from the work we were doing and they did not support us in the way, for example, they have supported other institutions created by the Good Friday Agreement. That is regrettable.

  8. You say the Government stood back. I also wondered if you have ever had direct or indirect pressure from the Government or officials not to pursue a case or a threat to withdraw funding or anything which is, perhaps, not standing back enough?
  (Professor Dickson) We certainly have pressure put upon us to explain in more detail why we would wish to have funding for a particular project, our chief executive might well want to come in and supplement me on this. We do feel our independence is put seriously at risk by the fact that our core budget is so small, it really only covers our salaries and our running costs and therefore for all our programme costs in effect we have to apply for supplementary funding and that permits Government to attach strings to the funding and say, "you can have this money if you do the project this way". That is obviously unacceptable to an independent commission.

  9. That is certainly an example of pressure. How about pursuing particular cases, have you had pressure on you in that respect, or not pursuing cases?
  (Professor Dickson) I cannot recall any Government department putting pressure on us not to pursue litigation, no.

Mr McNamara

  10. Can we take that question a little further, has there ever been any pressure put upon the Commission to withdraw funding from cases it has undertaken from other bodies?
  (Professor Dickson) As is already public knowledge, there was a letter sent to us by the then Chief Constable in relation to a particular case that we were involved in. That is currently sub judice and I am not sure it would be appropriate to go into the details of that, Chairman, but that is already public knowledge.


  11. Thank you.
  (Ms Sloan) On a more general point, not specifically tied to the cases: we have had Government officials telling us we were not to undertake an independent evaluation which we had commissioned from a consultant, independent of Northern Ireland and the Commission, from Peter Hosking, formally of the New Zealand Human Rights Commission. Peter came to follow up on our review of powers with an independent evaluation of our effectiveness. The officials did not like our selection and said they would not give us the money to pay for that evaluation. Subsequently we have had to secure that funding from within our core budget. The fact that we have had a communications strategy approved in principle but we do not have the terms of reference approved yet by the Government to undertake that communications strategy development and implementation within this year—it is a very important element of our future strategy—we get approval in principle but because we have to get the details and the terms of reference approved by the Government—it means we have not been able to take that forward. Similarly with a couple of major investigations we have approval in principle but we do not have the terms of reference approved and because we are working on supplementary funding, Treasury guidelines it means this level of detail is with officials for their control. That is the problem, 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 approximately 90% of our running costs, so we have no room to manoeuvre. It means that virtually every piece of work that we do is subject to scrutiny by NIO officials. We have been working through it with the Minister and with officials to try to improve that situation. I do not think there is as much anxiety on the part of officials now as there was in the early days of the Commission to continue in that vein but we have actually had the kind of restriction that you referred to, not in casework but on our evaluation. That is a great frustration for us in terms of how we take forward our work and how we follow up our work; as we always have to wait for permission.

Baroness Whitaker

  12. Thank you. Other colleagues will go on to the Hosking Report. I would like to continue with the relationship between the Northern Ireland Office and yourselves, but before I do that can I just ask one question about the appointment of commissioners. I think you mentioned in your Report to the Secretary of State the possibility of appointments of commissioners either by Parliament or by Letters Patent. Is that something that you would still recommend or are there any other changes to the process of appointment or the criteria which you would recommend?
  (Professor Dickson) In recommending that we were relying on what the Paris Principles say about the appointments process, which is that it ought to be as independent of government as possible. Clearly in the current system it is the Secretary of State who appoints. Even though there is an open and competitive selection process prior to that, it means that the outcome could be described by some as not being as independent as it should be. Ideally it would be preferable for another body—be it Parliament, be it the Government together with opposition MPs or other representatives of civic society—it would be better if that kind of organisation appointed the members of the Commission. It is essential that they be independent and are perceived to be so. As regards the skills required, I think it is essential that commissioners have not just a commitment to the protection of human rights but a knowledge of human rights and they be prepared to be trained in human rights issues once they are appointed if they do not have the requisite knowledge at that point.

  13. Thank you. You also note in your Report that memoranda of understanding are being prepared between the Commission and the Northern Ireland Office and with the Office of the First Minister, that was before suspension. Can you give an outline of what these memoranda would deal with?
  (Professor Dickson) Yes. In fact the position is that for some time now we have had three memoranda of understanding, one with the Equality Commission, one with the Police Ombudsman and one with the Legal Aid Department of the Law Society, and all of them are kept under review. We are in the very final stages of completing memoranda of understanding with the Court Service, with the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister and the Police Service of Northern Ireland. We are about to negotiate with the Assembly Ombudsman another memorandum of understanding. The Policing Board has refused to enter into a memorandum with us on the basis that they did not think it was necessary. As regards the Northern Ireland Office we are very disappointed at the lack of progress on that. There was a delay caused by ourselves at one point, over a year and a half ago, even longer, but there was a much, much longer delay caused by the Northern Ireland Office. Despite several letters from myself to officials this has still not being progressed. That is regretful, because the advantages such a memorandum could bring, to get to the gist of your question, would mean we would as a result, I hope, get earlier access to proposed policy and legislative initiatives and we would have a healthier exchange of views about such initiatives. If I can give you one practical example, very recently we had a productive and interesting meeting with Government on the so called "on-the-runs" question. We were assured that the Government had not come to any conclusion on this issue and they were anxious to get our view on this before they made up their minds on that kind of issue. That was very much welcomed. That is how the process should operate and that is the first time the Government has opened itself up to us in advance of deciding what its policy on a certain issue is going to be. A memorandum of understanding would, I hope, enable that opening up to take place much more frequently.

  14. Do you think when this memorandum is completed it will help good working relationships with other United Kingdom Government departments? Do you see that it would have a role there?
  (Professor Dickson) I very much hope that it would. Our experience on that front has not been too happy. The Home Office and other Whitehall based government departments tend to forget that we exist. We do not receive copies of very important documents that have human rights implications, we have to go looking for these rather than being sent them. We were not consulted in advance on the legislative reaction to 11 September events last year. The Northern Ireland Office could be the channel by which we more effectively communicate with other United Kingdom government departments and vice versa, and we hope that the memoranda will achieve that.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

  15. Chief Commissioner, I would like to ask you a few questions about your functions and your powers, if I may. When you carried out your statutory review you recommended that your functions should be clarified by legislation in several respects. For example, it should be made clear that you would have a duty to advise the Secretary of State on compliance with international human rights instruments, you would clarify that you have the power to comment on Government reports to treaty bodies and that you would have a function of keeping the Human Rights Act and the Bill of Rights, if you have one, under review. As I understand it, you have withdrawn from advocating some of those recommendations and I would like to ask you why, if that is the case, you have done so, and why clarity in this area would not be desirable?
  (Professor Dickson) You are correct, Lord Lester, to say that we have withdrawn some of the recommendations. That is for two reasons, firstly the reasoning behind the House of Lords decision in June of this year, which we took over the issue of whether we had the right to apply to intervene in court cases or to be an amicus in court cases. The reasoning of that judgment was that the Commission should have all the powers that are reasonably incidental to or consequential upon the expressed powers that we have been given. When we applied that reasoning, that ratio decidendi, if you like, to our recommendations we concluded that a lot of the recommendations we had put in ex abundanti cautela, if I may say so.

  16. I do not think you are allowed to say so because we have been forbidden to use Latin in English courts. We better have it in plain English.
  (Professor Dickson) I beg your pardon, I was going to provide a translation, for the avoidance of doubt we inserted those recommendations. The reasoning of that case makes those recommendations superfluous. Secondly, the Government has accepted in its response to our Report that there should be a clause in the Act saying that we expressly have all of the powers that are reasonably incidental to or consequential upon the express powers, so that would be legislative back-up for the court's reasoning. On a more specific recommendation we made as regards the right of access to premises to search and seizure, to search for and seize documents, we withdrew that recommendation at the time because we felt we were not equipped to exercise that right. It would entail a lot of training and resources on our behalf, and itself carries human rights implications, so we withdrew that, at least temporarily, but we may return to it.

  17. Thank you. If I can ask you another question about your lack of powers. I know that one of the matters that the Commission has repeatedly emphasised is that you would like to have more investigative powers, and you have pointed to the Paris Principles, which say that you should have the power to compel the disclosure of relevant information and you point out that you are handicapped by not having that power. I am puzzled by that, if I may say so, because in my experience the Commission for Racial Equality and Equal Opportunities Commission in Great Britain, which do have powers to compel the disclosure of information in certain circumstances, have hardly ever found it necessary to use them. The question I would like to ask is, can you tell our Committee of practical instances in which you have been attempting to obtain information for your work and you have been thwarted by a refusal to cooperate so as to show what difference it would make in practice if you had wider powers?
  (Professor Dickson) Yes. The experience of Human Rights Commissions and other anti-discrimination bodies is that mere existence of these powers is itself enough to ensure the production of the information that is being sought and therefore the powers themselves rarely, if ever, have to be used. They have a tremendous psychological effect by their mere existence. The report that we did for the Government on our powers in February 2001 gives examples of the obstacles we faced in many quarters when seeking information. For example we sought a copy of the early Stevens' Reports into alleged collusion, including security forces and loyalist paramilitaries. We were told we could not see them. We sought information from the Northern Ireland Office during the investigation into Juvenile Justice Centres in Northern Ireland and we did not succeed in getting that information. At the moment we are in the process of further testing our powers, and we have been doing this for the last nine months, or so, in one way or another, for over a year we have been putting pressure on the Ministry of Defence to be given a copy of the guidelines used by the Army when firing baton rounds. I know a number of other organisations and Parliamentarians were putting pressure on the MoD likewise and as a result of that united pressure the Minister did release those guidelines recently. We have been seeking to obtain from the Prison Service a copy of a report into the death of a prisoner, because we would like to check that the investigation into that death was human rights compliant. We have been seeking further information from the Government on the so called Key Persons Protection Scheme, about which we have some doubts as to whether it is compliant with Article 2 of the European Convention. We have just embarked, again, on a further attempt to get more information from the Director of Public Prosecution's Office about why he decides not to take certain prosecutions. If we have to go to judicial review, in the way that the Government suggested that we should, to test the willingness of the authorities to give us those bits of information, we will do so. We are currently working towards that by seeking to obtain the information through normal, non-litigious methods. We will go to court if we have to and test whether or not we have this power.

  18. If you did a judicial review and you lost, I suppose the costs would run into many thousands of pounds, do you have the resources to be able to mount a judicial review challenge of that kind where you would presumably be alleging that the public authority was abusing its powers by not giving you relevant information? Is that something that you have the resources to do and you would contemplate doing?
  (Professor Dickson) We would certainly rather not do that litigation, it is extremely expensive and, as you are well aware, our budget in general, our casework budget in particular is very, very small indeed. That would, in a sense, be wasted money, just like we would say the money spent in going to the House of Lords was ultimately wasted, but that did not come out of our own budget, I am glad to say, at the end of the day. We also think that we would probably lose any such judicial review because under the current Wednesbury standards it would not be unreasonable for a public authority to refuse to give information to a Commission which does not have the power to compel the production of that information.
  (Mr Yu) I will try and make my point about the powers and functions of investigation. Our Commission, unlike other commissions in Northern Ireland, does not have investigative powers under formal legislation. Lord Lester, you drafted the law and know very well how effectively you can use that law. Our Commission, according to our law under the Northern Ireland Act 1998, we do not have that power. What our Commission would like is to have that power now. I think it is very important and more effective. Politically it is more important that we have the power, it does not mean that we will use it all of the time. Once we have a case concerning human rights we will talk to the department, talk to the public body and we would try to use cooperation, as usual. If they are not cooperative then the Commission can apply to the court to get an order and they will start the formal investigation process. Their powers should be written into the law so that it equips the Commission to be more effective to investigate human rights violations in Northern Ireland.

  19. Would I be right, Chief Commissioner, in summing up the situation as this: the Government has advised you to go for a judicial review in the cases where you feel you should have powers, but the Government are not prepared directly, specifically to give you money for that purpose, and that in any case you are of the opinion from your own legal background that to pursue the course which the Government is advocating would be nugatory?
  (Professor Dickson) I think that is a fair summing up, except that it is not just my own personal legal view, it the Commission's view that legally we would fail in a judicial review. It is also the case that the Government is saying that only in relation to our demand for the power to compel the production of information, they are not saying we need to go to judicial review in relation to other powers. It is certainly their view in relation to investigation. It is very unfortunate.

previous page contents next page

House of Lords home page Parliament home page House of Commons home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2003
Prepared 15 July 2003