Examination of Witnesses (Questions 352
MONDAY 1 JULY 2002
352. Welcome, Mr Massie, Mr Singh and Ms Mellor
to this meeting. Ms Watson, I believe you are the Deputy to Ms
(Ms Watson) That is right, yes.
353. This is the Joint Committee on Human Rights.
As you know, we are conducting an inquiry into the case for a
human rights commission, and over the last weeks we have been
looking very much at trying to identify areas of unmet need. It
is obviously right that the Commissions that you represent and
other public authorities as defined by section 6 of the Human
Rights Act have an obligation to act compatibly with the Convention
on Human Rights. Can you tell us in turn whether the Human Rights
Act has had any impact on the work of your respective Commissions
and, if so, what impact?
(Mr Massie) The Human Rights Act is of tremendous
importance to disabled people and to DRC's work. We see the Human
Rights Act and equality as being linked. You cannot enjoy many
civil rights unless you have human rights. I will explain that
later, but for many disabled people it really is a matter of life
and death. There are some practical difficulties in asserting
your civil rights from a coffin, so to us it is critical. Section
7 of the Disability Rights Commission Act empowers DRC to provide
assistance to individuals only in cases under the Disability Discrimination
Act 1995. That has given us a number of difficulties in our work
because quite often our work touches on people's human rights.
I can give more examples of that later. We were very conscious
in the Commission that we needed to have these rights, and under
the DRC Act through regulations the Secretary of State can give
us those rights. We did ask for it some time ago. We wrote to
David Blunkett in September 2000 and asked him to exercise those
powers. He was rather sympathetically inclined at the time, but
there was some resistance within the Home Office. The view we
got back was that it had to be considered with all the Commissions
together, and so the Government could move forward with all the
Commissions' powers. This is not a line they took later, when
the CRE got public duty powers, so there was a little inconsistency
in the Government's policy. While this Committee is meeting and
considering, and the Government has to respond to whatever the
report might raise, we are still faced with a situation where
we cannot represent people on human rights issues. It would be
very helpful if you could recommend we be given that power until
whatever arrangements come about in future years.
(Mr Singh) It clearly has some impact. It has made
the Commission look at the implications of the Act. It has required
us to train all our staff, which is clearly important, and that
has happened throughout the whole organisation, irrespective of
grade. It has required us to look at the advice which we give
when we are considering section 66 cases under the Race Relations
Act. It has, without a doubt, required us to look at whether there
are any human rights arguments as part of that consideration.
It has also required us to review some of our internal procedures
to ensure that we are compliant with the Act, including decisions
to grant representation. We have sought legal advice from Lord
Lester specifically on that particular matter. Our difficulty,
like that of DRC, is that we are constrained by what we can do
to promote a culture of human rights. That, clearly, is something
which is profoundly important. We are constrained because of powers
that we act under. When Government and Parliament were considering
amendments under the Race Relations Act, we sought additional
powers to enable us to look at human rights cases where race was
also a component. Sadly, for reasons best known to the Government,
that was not forthcoming. That is very similar to the point that
Mr Massie made. That was not granted, but we do believe that that
will be important in the future.
(Ms Mellor) We also took advice from Anthony Lester
in terms of the duty to grant assistance in circumstances where
it is necessary to comply with Article 6(1). I also think it has
got us to examine carefully how to use the Human Rights Act to
extend the types of cases and the arguments that we use, for example
strengthening claims around hours of work; and combining the Sex
Discrimination Act and the Human Rights Act article around the
right to family life. There are other instances like that. Perhaps
the one that we have not used but where there is some potential
is the judgment in Amin, which concerned section 29 of
the Sex Discrimination Act, where statutory functions in the public
sector were considered in that case to be outside the Sex Discrimination
Act, and we think there might be scope for re-interpreting section
29 and disregarding the decision in the light of the Human Rights
Act. There are a number of areas where we can look at extending
arguments and strengthen the submission.
354. Do any of you see that you have a responsibility
to promote human rights post implementation of the Act?
(Mr Massie) At DRC we certainly do because of the
very close connection between the Human Rights Act and disabled
people. The DRC only opened its doors in April 2000. In September
2000, we were looking at the impact of the Human Rights Act on
disabled people. We do try to get over to people what their rights
are, but we are regretful that there is so little that we are
allowed to do.
(Ms Watson) It depends on where you are coming from.
If you consider equality as being a fundamental human rightbecause
the right to be treated equally is a human rightthen you
could argue that in one sense we are all promoting human rights
because we all promote the idea of equality and the right to be
treated equally. What is difficult to do, without changes to a
statutory remit, is to promote the Human Rights Act per se.
That is where we are in the situation that Julie outlined earlier;
we think of how to use it, but it is difficult to promote it.
(Mr Singh) I fully echo that. Whilst one would want
to, the reality is that there are constraints. Therefore, the
full promotion of the Act becomes an impossibility in the limitations.
355. Are you saying that you think that your
organisations, as presently constituted, would be able to pursue
more actively and promote a human rights agenda were it not for
what you describe as constraints?
(Mr Singh) Yes, in relation to those matters which
had a bearing on race, from a race perspective.
356. My question follows on from that discussion.
I apologise in advance because I have to leave quite shortly.
It is no reflection on the quality of the witnesses! I want to
refer you to the single equality commission project, which doubtless
is something that has occupied you to some degree, particularly
in regard to terms of reference. It is my understanding that the
terms of reference refer to the design of a new single equalities
body and that it would take account of "the relationship
between possible new arrangements for promoting equality and those
for promoting and protecting human rights more widely". That
brings the two things together in the way that has been discussed.
What do you understand by those terms of reference? What do they
mean for the body you represent, in terms of requirements on you
and also perhaps opportunities?
(Ms Mellor) The short answer is that we assume it
means that the single equality body project will be considering
whether any body it sets up to deal with equality might be broadened
to deal with human rights.
357. So you would welcome that.
(Ms Mellor) Yes. I think that is where we are getting
to. You will see from our written submissions to this Committee
that at the time all three Commissions said that they supported
the creation of a human rights commission, and that was what the
debate was about at the time that we made our proposals. There
are now several models on the table, and we would support institutional
arrangements that ensured that human rights can be dealt with
in the way we envisaged when we supported the creation of a human
rights commission; that there is a body that can handle the promotion
and some enforcement activity around the broader human rights
agenda. One of the things that we have done around the single
equality body project is to look at the principles we think should
be used to develop and then test models for a single equality
body. In the light of the debate as to where human rights fit
with this, we would like to do something similar around the human
rights element as well. We have not completed our thinking and
would be happy to send on our conclusions when we have developed
some principles. The kind of thing we have been looking at is,
obviously, a separate human rights commission and equality body.
We would need protocols that would enable us to do what we have
just been talking about and give us the ability to take cases
for breach of Article 14. If you were talking about the model
of an equality commission and human rights on a more integrated
basis, there may be some problems about credibility of the stakeholders
and the ability or skills to work with different kinds of stakeholders,
because the bulk of the equality work to date has been socially
and economically, and the stakeholders in terms of employers and
private sector service providers are different to some of the
stakeholders that you need to work with on the broader human rights
agenda. I think there would be issues around how to ensure credibility
across the range that the integrated body had to deal with, and
how to take account of the different scale of work, with the thousands
and thousands and thousands of cases that we now have going through
and the range of equality matters. With the three new strands
we can expect some more, and the scale of different tasks would
need to be taken into account in some way. The one model that
I believe would be less helpful and would not meet some of the
principles we have developed would be the umbrella human rights
model with a loose federation of organisations underneath. One
of the things that I see as a great gain from having a single
equality body is the ability to deal with some of the cross-cutting
issues across the equality field, and some of the multiple identity
issues, where in order to sort out the problem you have to look
at both race and gender, for example. That is something that a
single equality body would enable us to do, so having a loose
federation would not help with those objectives.
(Mr Singh) It is clear that the messages coming out
of Government are less than clear! Is this an exercise that Government
is embarking on to tidy up the anomalies which exist, or is it
meant to be a more radical review of modern 21st century Britain
where we are fundamentally looking at equalities in a more strategic
way, and also looking at human rights and the new strands that
are emerging? My own view is that it is the latter that we should
be looking at, taking a more radical look at how we most effectively
deliver the human rights agenda on the one hand and an equality
agenda at the other end, and at how the two fuse together. Do
not forget that we have one organisation that is 26 years old,
the EOC, and another organisation which two weeks ago celebrated
its 25th birthday, the CRE; and the DRC is clearly much younger.
What are the lessons we have learned? My view is that this provides
an adequate ample opportunity to fundamentally look at where we
are at. I do not get a sense of that. There are all sorts of caveats
that one would have to build in if there were to be a radical
overhaul with a single equality body. Let us look at the extent
to which the law needs to be harmonised. In that context, let
us look at whether we go forward with a single institutional structure
on equalities and human rights, or whether there are two separate
organisations. The CRE's position, which is not beyond being moved,
subject to review, is that at the moment we believe that two separate
organisations are better because we fundamentally need a human
rights culture with a single organisational focus, which will
not easily emerge out of something that is part of a much wider
agenda. There is this belief that equalities could subsume the
human rights agenda within it. That is a belief, and I do not
know whether or not it is true. I think we need to take a slightly
bigger view about it. If, as I also pick up, there is not a sense
that we should have a human rights commission, that it is not
necessary, then I would certainly want my own organisation to
support the notion of an integrated organisation where human rights
were contained within it, if that would save that as a concept.
358. You are making two points. In a way, the
Government's motivation is only one aspect. The vehicle is there
and, if I may say so, it is for you to try to hijack the vehicle
in a way that you wish to see it go. Are you, as organisations,
working together on your response to this project, or are you
taking the view that it is best to have a separate response and
see where that falls out?
(Mr Singh) We devoted a whole day last Friday very
much to this issue, with the three organisations coming together
to see whether there is a commonality of interest. It is our intention
to produce a detailed paper by September, hoping that this will
fit in with the time frame that Government has set. Our more visioned
look at the issue can form part of the debate that will inevitably
start in September or October.
(Mr Massie) There are common areas, but there are
also some differences. Firstly, to DRC, it is critical, not just
in an abstract way, but it affects people every day, and is very
important to us. We think that whatever the terms of reference
mean, whatever the mechanism, not only should it be enforcing
the Human Rights Act but there should be greater promotional work.
We also believe that one of the great threatsand there
are manythat a single equality body presents to disabled
people is that we would lose control of the agenda, that non disabled
people will, yet again, be telling us what is good for us. While
they mean terribly well, they often get it wrong. Some of us who
are disabled have had to fight against the good intentions of
others who have inadvertently prevented us from attaining independence.
If you bundle the whole lot together, disabled people will lose
the policy agenda. Gurbux has spoken about a single equality act.
If the Government passed that and if it implemented the recommendations
of the Disability Rights Task Force, we think that a large part
of the policy agenda will be delivered, and control of that agenda
will be critical to disabled people. We see no indication that
the Government wants a single equality act. We do not even sense
any degree of urgency for them to take forward their own election
manifesto commitments on the Disability Rights Task Force's recommendations.
That is a huge worry to us. Even with DRC fighting, we are losing
some ground against bigger agendas. When it comes to human rights
and a human rights commission, we would prefer to see a separate
body working very closely with whatever body or bodies emerges
from the current debate. Failing that, we do see some value in
the approach of having an overriding human rights commission with
equality strands within it. I hear everything Julie says about
wanting the cross-fertilisation but we think all that can be done
anyway. I do not see major problems, but we believe disabled people
need a protected position to push forward the disability agenda,
and fear that it will be sidelined. Even in the human rights debates
within your House, disability is sidelined into other issues,
and it happens time and time again. There is a danger that that
will happen yet again. It will go forward and everyone will say
it will be wonderful, terrific; but disabled people will be sidelined.
That is my real interest; that we will lose the ground that we
have spent twenty years achieving.
359. Has what has happened with the Equality
Commission in Northern Ireland been looked at, and the drawing
up of the various protocols within the Commission to take account
of bodies that were fused together? Do you think that the fears
that have been expressed by Mr Massie have been overcome in Northern
Ireland by protocols that were used, because all these sorts of
suspicions were there before? Is not what matters the amount of
money, powers, support and resources that you have to enable you
to carry things through, quite apart from what is happening in
the legislation? For example, you have the Human Rights Commission,
Northern Ireland, with a lot of problems, particularly the financial
resources available to it, whereas the Joint Equality Commission
has far more finance and is able to operate therefore with lesser
financial burdens upon it. As an outsider, it seems to have progressed
very successfully, bringing forward all the various issues.
(Mr Singh) As part of our discussions on Friday, the
Human Rights Commission from Belfast and Dublin were both present,
with other senior people from the authorities. We are clearly
learning from the lessons that have emerged from their experiences.
It is clear that a single equality organisation can be set up
that does not jeopardise the situation and create the hierarchy
of oppression that Bert is fearful of.