Human rights and how to uphold them here

Lord Irvine seems unlikely to support a UK commission on human rights, but Alison Laferla finds the idea still has powerful supporters

When the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, publicly confirmed the Government's commitment to human rights recently, he was cagey on the issue of a human rights commission.

A commission, he said, might be one way of promoting human rights, but “we have to weigh up the potential benefits and decide whether these justify the creation of a new body with the expense that would entail, or whether to postpone that for future consideration until after a time in which the benefits from the new system can be evaluated”.

The creation of a commission on human rights was proposed by the Labour Party in a pre-election policy document, alongside the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into UK law.

There have been many suggestions for the role of a commission, including helping people take cases based on the ECHR, taking test cases itself and educating the public about human rights.

But although Irvine has promised a white paper on ECHR incorporation this autumn, many feel that he is not keen on the idea of the commission, and that it will not be created by the forthcoming incorporation bill.

One reason for this may be that incorporation of the ECHR will affect many different government departments, from the Home Office to the Department of Health. A commission's remit would also overlap with other bodies, particularly the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) and the Data Protection Registrar (DPR). The difficulties of setting up such an over-arching organisation, which did not tread on any toes, would be formidable.

Another factor that might make the Government think hard is the cost of creating a commission, which is estimated at about £142,000, with a further £2.8m for the first year of operation.

Despite these barriers, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), which has been researching the issue since September, predicts that a commission will come into operation by 2000.

It wants to see the creation of a London-based UK human rights commission (HRC), with separate member commissions in Northern Ireland and in Scotland, which would be accountable to Parliament.

The HRC would advise individuals on taking human rights cases, take test cases itself, conduct inquiries into possible breaches of human rights, monitor proposed legislation for conformity to international human rights standards, promote awareness of human rights and contribute to the development of human rights internationally.

The IPPR favours an umbrella model that would incorporate the CRE, the EOC and the DPR, with the heads of these bodies as commissioners.

But these organisations are wary of relinquishing their territory to a HRC and are also concerned that the alternatives may be ruled out without adequate consideration.

Kamlesh Bahl, chair of the EOC, said it warmly welcomed incorporation of the ECHR but was not convinced that a commission would be the best model to uphold the rights it conveyed.

She added that she was unclear as to what added value the IPPR's model HRC would bring to the EOC's successful track record. “We would have to demonstrate, in terms of any linkages with a commission, that there were clear advantages in getting rid of an approach we know works,” she said.

But although there is debate about various aspects of a commission, including to what extent it should scrutinise draft legislation, many legal pressure groups, such as Liberty and Justice, are in favour of such a body.

Anne Owers, director of Justice, said: “There is a consensus. It is very much a necessity alongside incorporation – we need an independent expert body and we hope it comes earlier rather than later.”

Speaking at a conference on a Bill of Rights for the UK recently, Lord Lester QC said people could be worse off after incorporation unless there was some user-friendly machinery to promote access to justice.

He called for the creation of a commission from the outset of incorporation and said: “Without a commission to promote and enforce ECHR rights, the impact of incorporation is unlikely to touch the lives of most people. That would be a lost opportunity.”