Joint Committee On Human Rights Sixth Report

Human Rights and Public Authorities


  In 2001, the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights launched an inquiry into the case for establishing a human rights commission for the UK. This report has been commissioned by the committee as part of the inquiry in order to examine how public authorities are addressing human rights issues and their responsibilities under the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA).

  Since the HRA came into force, much has been written about the case law and studies have been conducted on the impact of the Act on central government and voluntary organisations1. Little information is available, however, on how the mass of public authorities, outside central government, have prepared for and implemented the HRA. This is the subject matter of this report.

  The report addresses three questions:

    —  what steps have been taken by public authorities to meet their obligations under the HRA;

    —  do public authorities have unmet needs in the field of human rights which could be fulfilled by a human rights commission; and

    —  what difference could a human rights commission make in assisting public authorities to meet their human rights obligations in serving the community.

  The report examines the existing arrangements under which human rights are being mainstreamed from central government into public authorities. It considers the "human rights message" that is being conveyed to these authorities. It examines how human rights matters are being handled in three sample areas of local government, health care and social housing. It looks at the part being played by regulatory and representative bodies for these sectors and considers what specific contributions a human rights commission could make in helping to meet human rights obligations in each of these sectors.

  Finally, the report draws on the findings from the three sample sectors, the experience of Scotland and the existing equality commissions to consider:

    —  what unmet human rights needs exist in public authorities; and

    —   how these needs might be addressed by a possible human rights commission.

  Research for this report was conducted over the period September 2002—January 2003. The report cannot pretend to provide a complete picture of what is happening in public authorities nor does it have a firm statistical basis (other than where such work has already been carried out by other parties). Interviews were held with a wide range of informants in central government, representative and regulatory bodies, human rights NGOs, law firms and public authorities. Interviews were conducted on the understanding that individual public authorities would not be identified (unless information was already in the public domain). Even so, it has been a feature of this research that it has been very difficult to find contacts in public organisations who are willing to talk about human rights. This may be attributed, in part, to unease about being featured in a parliamentary inquiry. However, as will quickly become clear from the content of the report, the main reason is that few public authorities have much of a story to tell on how they are fulfilling their human rights obligations under the HRA.

  Two major questions are not addressed in detail in this report. It does not distinguish between different models for a human rights commission nor enter into the debate over whether such a commission should be a free-standing body or part of the single equalities body now being consulted on by Government. The term "human rights commission" as used in this report may be taken to encompass either possibility. Secondly, the report does consider the specific question of the relationship between a human rights commission for the UK and the existing commission in Northern Ireland and the planned commission in Scotland.

  The focus of this report, therefore, is on identifying and addressing the needs in public authorities that could be met by a human rights commission. It offers a reference point in determining the need for a human rights commission and, if that decision is taken, the priorities, functions and structure required to help fulfil the human rights obligations of public authorities.

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Prepared 26 March 2003