Joint Committee On Human Rights Sixth Report



12. WHY IS THERE NO HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION TO ACCOMPANY THE HUMAN RIGHTS ACT?

  The best time for a human rights commission to be established would have been when the HRA was being introduced. This was partially recognised through the decision to establish a Human Rights Task Force, pooling expertise from outside the Government, to assist the preparation process for the Act.

  The position now is more akin to that of the Disability Discrimination Act and the Disability Rights Commission where the latter followed four years later on the change of government. The Disability Discrimination Act was likened to a "car without an engine" in the debates leading up to the creation of the Disability Rights Commission. The Human Rights Act has one engine (in the form of the courts) but does it need a second?

  This brings us to what is it that the Government wishes to achieve in relation to the Human Rights Act and how this influences its attitude towards a human rights commission. Through the HRA the Government requires that public authorities act in a manner that is compatible with the ECHR. It maintains that this should be done as part of a "human rights culture" in which rights and responsibilities become a facet of every aspect of public activity and community life.

  The Government has given human rights an extremely powerful enforcement mechanism and a non-existent promotional tool. In other areas of equality legislation, data protection and freedom of information, the government has established statutory bodies to assist and advise public authorities, employers and the public on the discharge of these responsibilities. What does the absence of a human rights commission say then about the government's purpose in relation to human rights—that it does not view human rights as more than a compliance issue? Whether or not this is the intention, this belief is reflected in the actions and priorities of virtually every government department and public authority. The obligation to comply with the ECHR is recognised and addressed. The idea of promoting human rights is ignored. Other "cultures" were espoused in the first term of the new Labour government which have not survived into the second term. This is the reality for human rights. There is no political will now within government to build a "human rights culture" and, therefore, no need for a vehicle by which to do so. The DTI's consultation paper on the structural arrangements for a single equalities body recognises that "one of the Human Rights Act's aims is to drive cultural change, placing obligations on public authorities" but no case is put forward for this to be a function of such a body. Instead, the consultation paper refers to the civil and political roots of human rights as something distinct from the social and economic protection provided by equality legislation (a conception of human rights of the nineteen fifties and sixties not the twenty-first century). 35 Add to this the inevitable costs and complexities of creating such a human rights commission (either as part or separate to a single equalities commission) and who would wish to champion such a move within government or in the funding allocation exercises. Is the government receptive to the notion of having a human rights commission?

  On a related cautionary note, is it certain, in the post September 2001 environment, that opening the Human Rights Act to amendment to accommodate a human rights commission would not also lead to other, less favourable, changes in the operation of the human rights legislation. Opposition concerns highlighted in the parliamentary debate of 28 October 2002 and evident unease in parts of government over the impact of the Act is having on immigration and asylum policies, give pause for thought about the wisdom of pursuing a human rights commission through amendment to the HRA.

  Within public authorities, themselves there are mixed views on the need for a human rights commission. Some consider that two years is too short a period to judge whether the operation of the HRA requires the support of such a commission especially when they are generally content with the low key manner in which matters are progressing. On a slightly different take, there is also a belief that the time for such a commission has passed. It would have served a purpose at the time of the introduction of the HRA but compliance with the HRA and ECHR is not now a problem and the promotion of human rights is not an issue. Treating human rights as a matter of legal compliance is all that is required and this can be done without a human rights commission.

  There are the expected concerns that:

    —  a human rights commission will pose an additional burden on public authorities especially if it is one of a multiplicity of commissions each pressing their own agenda; and

    —  public authorities are already over-regulated and do not need additional "watchdogs".

  Those working with public authorities have different fears, that the existence of a human rights commission might allow public authorities to wait to be "spoonfed" and dispense with any real consideration of human rights matters on their own account.

  All of these concerns need to be drawn out in any future consultation exercise.


 
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Prepared 26 March 2003