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.