Some questions for the Equality and Human Rights Commission

On the whole, this looks like is a was a reasonably good session for the Chair and Chief Executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (at which I was previously a Director before leaving in June 2011) before the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights.

As the Committee says it will be writing to the Commission with follow up questions I thought I might recommend some issues on which to probe a little deeper:

1. In response to a question from Lord Lester of Herne Hill regarding the use of the Commission’s judicial review powers, Chief Executive Mark Hammond responded ‘We have no wish, as the chair and board have stressed to us in the past
year, to be acting as some sort of organisation that has a lobbying agenda. As I have said to staff quite a lot over recent months, it is not that we have an agenda and use the law to pursue it, our agenda is the law’

This is of course technically correct, but it should be stressed that Parliament voted last year to maintain the Commission’s General Duty at Section 3 of the Equality Act 2006 and this is the law which must form the Commission’s agenda:

The Commission shall exercise its functions under this Part with a view to encouraging and supporting the development of a society in which—

(a)people’s ability to achieve their potential is not limited by prejudice or discrimination,

(b)there is respect for and protection of each individual’s human rights,

(c)there is respect for the dignity and worth of each individual,

(d)each individual has an equal opportunity to participate in society, and

(e)there is mutual respect between groups based on understanding and valuing of diversity and on shared respect for equality and human rights.

The law thus clearly positions the Commission as an agent of social change, not merely a body tasked with enforcing equality and human rights law, and requires that it should direct its efforts – including when promoting and enforcing equality and human rights law – to these ends.  It also provides the Commission with considerable scope to engage with a range of issues, including for example the conduct of elections given their potential to impact on the development of such a society

2. The Committee asked about the Framework Agreement between the Commission and the processes by which the Commission’s budget is agreed.  As I wrote on this blog earlier this year, there remains it seems far too much scope for government to deny the Commission budget based upon its own political aims rather than a transparent and objective assessment of value for money, especially given programme spend is agreed on a project by project basis.  This has meant for example that the Commission’s bid for programme money to support civil society to engage in UN human rights treaty monitoring was declined.   It is difficult to see how this mechanism for agreeing budgets is compliant with the Paris Principles given government could for example decline a request on the part of the Commission to undertake a programme of work to meet its duty under s9 of the Equality Act 2006 to promote understanding of the importance of the Human Rights Act 1998 and the European Convention on Human Rights.

3. The Committee asked about the media and human rights, noting the high levels of myths and misreporting and asking what action the Commission had or planned to take to address this.  This is a perfectly reasonable question given the Commission has core duties under s9 of the Equality Act 2009 to ‘promote understanding of the importance of human rights’ and to ‘promote awareness, understanding and protection of human rights’ (‘Human rights’ in this context refers to ‘the Convention rights within the meaning given by section 1 of the Human Rights Act 1998, and other human rights’).  While I personally agree with Baroness O’Neill’s position that simply seeking to correct journalists is likely to be a fruitless – and quite probably counterproductive task – neither she nor the Chief Executive offered any indication as to how the Commission did plan to discharge its core duties under s9 other than vague reference to a communications strategy.  Given it is highly probable that during the next 12 months the Conservative Party will, with strong support from parts of the Press, announce its plans to repeal the Human Rights Act and potentially withdraw the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights, most likely via a concerted campaign to incite public antipathy towards human rights, it seems highly remiss of the Commission – and perhaps a sign of its weakness and lack of independence – to have not prioritised its duties in this regard.







3 thoughts on “Some questions for the Equality and Human Rights Commission

  1. Because of the EHRC’s woeful failure to defend disabled people from the human rights abuses euphemistically referred to as “welfare reform” it has become, in my eyes, a protector or gatekeeper for human rights abusers. In other words, part of the problem rather than the solution.

    If they were doing their job, they would be encouraging disabled people to report this government for these abuses, advising them on how to take forward complaints and supporting them until they are resolved.

    Instead, disabled people don’t really know what their rights are, how to report abuses, how to progress complaints, etc.

    We only have the illusion of having human rights.

    • Hi Tim

      I think you’re potentially being somewhat unfair to the Commission in this respect. Firstly, it does not have powers to support individual human rights cases. Secondly, as egregious as the impact of welfare reform may be it is unlikely in most cases to amount to specific human rights violations. Thirdly though and importantly the Commission has been active in relation to specific legal cases such as the Burnip case regarding the impact of local housing allowance or the recent case involving the ILF, creatively using its powers in relation to equality and human rights and bringing the CRPD into play. It also conducted an assessment of the 2010 spending review and has announced its plans to carry out a cumulative impact assessment. It has also submitted evidence to various Parliamentary Committees including the JCHR.

      I’m sure there is room for it to do more or for more to be done were it or others to have the powers, but credit where credit is due – it has certainly not turned its back on disabled people as you suggest.

      Best wishes, Neil

  2. It is difficult for disabled people, or advocates of those unable to speak, not to feel abandoned by the law relating to Human Rights, particularly in the week of the ruling of McDonald V Uk. A courageous women who is continent but has to wear pads instead of having nighttime care – not because this is undignified but because one of the wealthiest Boroughs on Europe, Kensington and Chelsea, can demonstrate it cannot afford to pay for the care when it weighs up it’s responsibilities across the Borough. As ordinary people we cannot challenge or collect enough information to challenge the labyrinthine budgets of Governments or Local Authorities. If all national authorities have to say is ‘we cannot afford it’ – and we have now ticked the process box, what hope have we? Interestingly, in a case involving slopping out in prisons in the UK the European Court did not accept the argument that the UK would find it too expensive to put proper toilets in cells.

    There is room to intellectualise regarding the recognition of dignity in the ruling – but the bottom line is still – wear pads and lie in them till help comes in the morning.

    It may be worth linking up with another blogger Chris Hatton – he is an academic with a passion for numbers and is looking for ways academics can help disabled people. Maybe unpacking budgets would be a starting point. I do hope you find Chris’ blog and we can collectively tackle this hurdle.

    I do hope a way is found to engage people in the UN Examination of UK Human Rights as outlined above.

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