JCHR Press Notice No. 10

19 March 2003    Session 2002-03

The Case for a Human Rights Commission

The Sixth Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, on The Case for a Human Rights Commission was published on Wednesday 19 March 2003, at 00.01 am.

The Report is the culmination of a two-year long inquiry.  In its 1997 White Paper, Rights Brought Home, the Government suggested any parliamentary committee on human rights which was established after the Human Rights Act was passed might examine whether a human rights commission was needed and how it should operate. The Government undertook to "give full weight" to the Committee's findings "in considering whether to create a statutory Human Rights Commission in the future".

This Report is the response of the Joint Committee on Human Rights.  It believes that the case for establishing an independent body to promote and protect human rights in England and Wales is compelling.

The Committee first considers what might be meant by the "culture of respect for human rights" which it was hoped might develop after the passing of the Human Rights Act 1998, and its coming into force on 2 October 2000.

The Committee concludes -

"A culture of human rights ... would be one which gave full recognition to [a] positive concept of rights ...  In such a culture ... respect for human rights should shape the goals, structures, and practices of our public bodies.  The key to the effective protection of rights lies in creating a culture in public life in which these fundamental principles are seen as central to the design and delivery of policy, legislation and public services."

It adds, however-

"A culture of human rights is not one which is concerned only with rights, to the neglect of duties and responsibilities, but rather one that balances rights and responsibilities by fostering a basic respect for human rights and dignity, and creating a climate in which such respect becomes an integral part of our dealings with the public authorities of the state and with each other."

And it expresses its belief that-

"Such a culture of respect for human rights could help create a more humane society, a more responsive government and better public services.  It could help to deepen and widen democracy.  It is a goal worth striving for."

The Committee examines the evidence for the growth of such a culture over the last two and a half years.  It concludes-

"The development of a culture of respect for human rights is in danger of stalling, and there is an urgent need for the momentum to be revived and the project driven forward.  Since the Government  is committed to developing a culture of respect for human rights it has a duty of leadership.  If it wills the end, it must also will the means ... Precious time has already been wasted.  The decision to establish an independent body for the promotion and protection of human rights must be taken now ... Building such a culture is an ambitious vision, and there are many barriers to achieving it. The greatest of these is ignorance.  In such a culture people would be better informed about what their rights were and what they could mean in practice.  The most vulnerable would be better protected from violations of their human rights.  Government and public authorities would promote and protect human rights standards and treat all people with dignity, fairness and respect.  Human rights standards would be generally accepted as those by which we should all strive to treat each other; and people would recognise and value both their own rights and those of others."

The Report also constitutes the Committee's formal response to the Government's consultation on institutional arrangements for the promotion of equality and diversity in the light of the proposal to establish a new Single Equality Body.  It notes that the right to equal treatment is a fundamental human right, and it examines whether the functions of promoting and protecting human rights which it believes are needed should be integrated with this new equality body.  It concludes-

"There are arguments for and against a separate human rights commission standing alongside a separate single equality body.  The practical advantages and disadvantages of the alternatives of a single integrated human rights and equality commission and two separate bodies for equality and human rights require careful consideration.  There are strong arguments for moving, over the proposed timescale for the establishment of a single equality body, to the establishment of an integrated human rights and equality commission.  This is our preferred option."

The Chair of the Joint Committee, Jean Corston MP comments-

"Human rights are not just about offering those in other countries protection from the worst excesses of anti-democratic and despotic regimes. Nor, despite the occasional spats between judges and ministers, is the Human Rights Act the concern only of those in this country who are fundamentally at odds with society.

People's human rights can be violated every day.  The right to be free of degrading treatment is fundamentally neglected when old people in a residential home are fed their breakfast while sitting on a commode, to suit the convenience of staff, or when a terminally ill patient is denied appropriate pain relief.  The right to a family and private life is breached when children in care are kept hundreds of miles from their siblings, or when an elderly man is left naked in public while undergoing medical procedures.  The right to life is violated by the indiscriminate use of "do not resuscitate" orders, or where traveller children have a mortality rate ten times that of the settled community.  The right to marry and found a family may be unfairly breached when adults with learning disabilities are indiscriminately forbidden from forming intimate relationships.  The right to education may be systematically denied to children from particular backgrounds who are disproportionately subject to exclusions, or where a school fails to protect a child from bullying.  The right to a fair hearing or to receive and impart information may be unjustifiably denied to people suffering from mental illness, or to a deaf person denied an interpreter or interviewed by someone who fails to recognise their needs. The right to peaceful enjoyment of possessions may be threatened if those entitled to state benefits are treated without respect or concern for their individual circumstances. The rights of carers to a family life may be breached by the decisions of  social services providers.

We have found that public authorities, such as local councils and hospitals, do not by and large put respect for human rights at the heart of their policies and practices. They do enough to avoid litigation but no more. But this is not a result of deliberate neglect for the most part.  It is a result of  a lack of leadership and a lack of help.  There is no vision, no administrative framework and scant  guidance reaching public authorities to tell them how a culture of respect for human rights might look or how it can be delivered. Our conclusion is that human rights too need a home and an independent champion.

The role of this champion would be to encourage a respect for human rights among public authorities as a matter of best practice rather than risk avoidance. It would promote an understanding that human rights principles provide a framework within which vulnerable and disadvantaged people can negotiate with public authorities for better conditions and treatment. It would conduct inquiries into systemic problems and it would encourage mediation in situations of conflict. It would participate in public debate and be a beacon and rallying point for the defence of human rights values when commitment to these was weak or under attack-whether from within government or without.  In our view, there is a compelling need for a commission with sufficient powers and independence from government to promote and protect human rights in the UK."

The Report is published by The Stationery Office as House of Lords Paper 67-I/House of Commons Paper 489-I.  A separate volume II which  includes the written evidence will be published next week.  The Report will also be available on the Committee's website at the address below.

A consultation paper on the structure, functions and powers of the proposed commission is issued today as press notice No. 11 from the Committee.