Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20
MONDAY 22 APRIL 2002
QC, MR MARK
20. Lord Chancellor, can I ask you whether the
timescale on the consultation for the single equality commission
is going to affect the timescale on which decisions on the Human
Rights Commission should be taken?
(Lord Irvine of Lairg) I do not think we have a timescale.
21. I thought the Cabinet Office did have a
timescale, and I wondered whether it had shifted.
(Lord Irvine of Lairg) First of all, I am not aware-and
you may know more than I doof a timescale ever having been
discussed in the context of consultation. I have seen the proposition
that the Cabinet Office would not envisage a single equality commission
in place for at least five years but that is because what we are
doing in our meeting today is trying to broaden out the items.
They are talking about a single equality commission. There is
no doubt, I would have thought, that if a decision were taken
in favour of a single equality commission it could well take that
period of time, and I think I see Lord Lester nodding, because
it is a very complex matterprobably both legislatively
and administratively. The individual commissions are quite large
businesses. The CRE is based in London, it has regional offices,
its budget last year was £20 million, it has staff in excess
of 180. If you take the EOC, its budget over the same period was
£8.6 million with a staff of 117, and, if you take the Disability
Rights Commission, its budget for the same period was £12.1
million with a staff of 150, each of these commissions sponsored
by different departments, and the complexity is made greater if
we start talking about a human rights commission, so it is a complex
task. But I do not see that there is any impediment to a fruitful
role for your Committee in the necessarily rather elongated timetable
for a single equality commission with a willingness on their part
to consider human rights implications in the greater round.
22. In view of the fact that you said earlier
on that we should have human rights on the inside of the equality
commissions, and in view of the fact also that you set out the
range of options for different models pretty comprehensively,
have you had the opportunity to assess the record of any particular
human rights commissions in other nations?
(Lord Irvine of Lairg) No, I have not undertaken that.
23. Lord Chancellor, given that you have just
made reference to the budgets and the staffing of the EOC, the
DRC and so on, and given the importance that your Government have
rightly, rhetorically, attached to the importance of establishing
a human rights culture, I think I am right in saying that in comparison
to the, say, more than 100 staff at the DRC and at the EOC, and
we could go on, the combined numbers of staff in your unit is
somewhere around 10?
(Lord Irvine of Lairg) I never suggested that they
were a human rights commission!
24. Absolutely not and, of course, no equation
will be made between numbers of individuals and the work that
can be produced but this just leads me to say that in order to
establish this human rights culture, it does seem to beg the question
of what real advantage was achieved by moving the Human Rights
Unit from the Home Office to your Department. What were the advantages
of doing that for the promotion of human rights, and to what extent
could you answer some people's worries that this has reinforced
an idea that human rights is really just for lawyers rather than
(Lord Irvine of Lairg) As you knowand I am
going to give you a boring reply which happens to be truemachinery
of Government changes are for the Prime Minister, and obviously
the view was taken by the Prime Minister that the right location
for freedom of information, data protection, constitutional matters
generally, human rights and so on, was in a single department
which might loosely be described as a justice department rather
than the Home Office, but I am not sure whether you would have
favoured it remaining in the Home Office.
25. Would not the logic of that be that the
equality commissions should come under your jurisdiction too,
dealing with justice?
(Lord Irvine of Lairg) No. That would be empire building
beyond one's wildest imaginings.
26. It might be empire building, but there is
(Lord Irvine of Lairg) But what you have, for example,
in employment law with all its implications is for the DTI. To
hive down equal opportunities from employment law and say that
it was a human rights matter might be to erect obstacles to the
creation of a commission, which I imagine you wish.
27. But when we interviewed Mr Wills a few weeks
ago, it was certainly possible for some of us to take the impression
that the staff that you have are doing a terrific job but, in
order to achieve the co-ordination across Government departments
that one might want to see to foster the creation of human rights,
perhaps the staff and its budget were somewhat less than one might
(Lord Irvine of Lairg) All budgets are less than you
28. Interestingly that was exactly the kind
of answer he gave.
(Lord Irvine of Lairg) It is true!
29. But to focus on the critical point, and
I go back to your comparisons with the other commissions and the
staffing and the resources, do you believe that with the budget
you haveand obviously you can only manage with what you
havethe resourcing, the publicity and so on, available
to the HRU is truly adequate to achieve the end you wish to see
to promote a culture of human rights?
(Lord Irvine of Lairg) Let me tell you some of the
things we are doing and then you can tell me why they are not
sufficient. Nothing is sufficient in this area, of course, but
let me tell you some of the things we are doing. First of all,
when the Act was being launched, a vast amount of guidance, publicity,
training and education was undertaken. The memorandum to this
Committee by the then Home Secretary, Jack Straw, really does
testify to it. £1.2 million was spent on a public advertising
campaign: two million copies of the introductory guide for the
public were produced: a website was set up with 10,000 hits a
weekit is about 8,000 a week at the moment, I thinkand
overall about 57 hours conducted by the unit to external audiences.
We do not need to sustain the same degree of publicity after the
Act, I do not think. The Human Rights Act is to some degree self-publicising:
I remind you what the Constitution Unit said in 1996and
it is true. Litigation itself can play an important role. "One
high profile case covered by the media can be worth several poster
campaigns", and perhaps that is a stage in the development
of the culture that we are witnessing. Very high profile examples
of individuals trying to exercise their rights, such as those
of Naomi Campbell or Gary Whitcroft, have generated enormous media
coverage but I can say that we are thinking of financing, and
that we will finance, a worthwhile new campaign later this year.
I think it would be timely to do so. Also there are other things
that we are doing. As you probably know, every Government Department
has got a human rights contact point and generally the contacts
between my Human Rights Unit and these contact points have been
bilateral but we are about, I think, to succeed in setting up
plenary meetings between my officials and all the departmental
contact points and the object would be to collect, to exchange,
to promote good practice, to try to get a picture, a map, of concrete
examples of what has happened in departments to change policy
or procedures or practice due to the Act itself or due to specific
decisions of the courts, and I think the idea is to promote a
quarterly plenary with the possibility of smaller groupings from
that plenary to look at particular human rights issues thrown
into focus as a result of the plenary meetings. That seems to
me to be progress and, of course, Richard Heaton already has a
network of lawyers in all departments and the devolved administrations
who meet quarterly to monitor case law, and that has been in place
for several years.
Chairman: We did get a flavour of that from
him when Mr Wills came before us, and it was very useful for us
in finding out exactly how that information was shared.
30. I would like to explore further the fostering
of the human rights culture. I remember you addressed the Citizenship
Foundation at the Law Society right at the beginning of framing
the Human Rights Act when you talked about ushering in a human
rights culture. I think it would be helpful to know which bodies
you consider are being particularly effective in creating, promoting
or furthering the human rights culture in the UK?
(Lord Irvine of Lairg) I think all these non-governmental
organisations that I mentioned do a cracking job in their own
sphere. It is not appropriate for me to give particular plugs
for any of them but Liberty, Justice, the British Institute of
Human Rights and the People Action Group all deserve congratulation
for what they do.
31. Your Department has obviously been energetic
also but do you consider there are tasks in relation to the promotion
of the human rights culture which cannot be done by your Department
(Lord Irvine of Lairg) My belief is that we are doing
a good job in promoting a human rights culture but that, if I
may say so, is a kind of open-ended question. If you tell me something
we should be doing that we are not doing, then I will try to be
constructive about it.
32. I was struck when you gave examples of effective
bodies. You mentioned the statutory non-governmental bodies and
you mentioned NGOs. You did not mention local authorities
(Lord Irvine of Lairg) No.
33.or any other public authorities, and
it may be that there are things which your Department is too small
in its scope to be able to do which ought to be done by other
public authorities and which are not being done?
(Lord Irvine of Lairg) It is possible but is that
what is being said? What has been drawn to my attention is that
a total of 98 per cent of local authorities reported that there
had been or would be some specialist training about the Human
Rights Act. Only 6 per cent reported that specialist training
would be given to all answers but merely a quarter said it would
be given to most. Of course, you could do more, I suppose, to
pursue that and to follow it up.
34. Part of the reason for my question is to
identify any of these gaps which could be appropriate for a human
rights commission to address which is not at the moment being
done, so could I invite you to expand in your answer on the tasks
which are not at the moment being done?
(Lord Irvine of Lairg) I have to signal to you that
I think a great deal of successful work has been done. Let me
tell you what we have done and then you can tell me if it is not
sufficient. There is a core guidance booklet for public authorities.
About 10,000 have been issued and it is also accessible on the
website. There was an introductory awareness raising guide for
public authorities. 200,000 were issued and it is also accessible
on the website. There have been regional LCD roadshows so far
in Gateshead, Exeter, Canterbury and Bristol. The next one is
in Wales on 30 April and further ones are planned for Birmingham,
Liverpool and East Anglia. There is a dedicated help desk and
a website with 8,000 hits; 30 plus calls or e-mails every week;
and sponsoring departmentsfor example, DTLR and the Local
Government Association in association with Justicehave
issued special guidance which assists more directly on day-to-day
matters, so there is a picture of fairly reasonable activity.
Then, if you take our contact with other Government departments
in this area, in March contact was made with other Government
departments on about 75 separate occasions and contact from other
departments on about 56 occasions relating to human rights' matters.
It is the opposite of a picture of idleness, frankly.
35. Following a little from that, Lord Chancellor,
and considering the effort that has gone into propagating a human
rights' culture, as you know you are our first witness in the
second phase of our inquiry but we took written evidence prior
to this phase and we have had a seminar also with oral evidence
(Lord Irvine of Lairg) Yes.
36. We have heard from quite a lot of sources
that the Human Rights Act is a low priority with public authorities
(Lord Irvine of Lairg) I would be very interested
37. Outside Whitehall.
(Lord Irvine of Lairg) Who told you that? I know I
am not supposed to ask you questions but it would be very helpful
if you would tell me who your informants are?
38. I guess we could send you a copy of the
report of our seminar which was where we had most of this airing.
(Lord Irvine of Lairg) I think that might be very
39. The view was that there is little evidence
of human rights thinking in the mainstream of day to day decision
making and more evidence that it is only taken into account on
risk avoidance grounds, usually by the public authority lawyers.
The District Auditors report is coming out quite soon, which we
have seen in draft, which does say there is a lack of attention
given to the Act in particular by local authorities. Against that
background, can I ask you two things. The visit to Belfast drew
attention to the difference between section 75 of the Northern
Ireland Act which puts on public authorities a duty to promote
equality of opportunity compared with section 6 of our Act which
just requires public authorities to act in a way that is compatible
with the Convention Rights. Firstly, do you think public authorities
here do regard the Act as imposing on them a positive duty to
promote human rights? Secondly, is it your experience, without
looking for blame, that there is a defensive and reactive attitude
once you get outside Whitehall? Without wishing to put blame on
it, is that where the culture has to be kick started?
(Lord Irvine of Lairg) These questions, of course,
also could be put in relation to Whitehall. Some people thought
that the Human Rights Act was overnight going to change the world
and that every policy and every practice and every procedure that
had been ever applied would have to be turned upside down because
of the Human Rights Act.