The Government abandoned its plans to repeal the ‘general duty’ of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) under the Equality Act 2006 (the Act) last week, but insisted upon amendments to the EHRC’s duty to monitor progress on equality and human rights.
The general duty in section 3 of the Act sets out why the EHRC exists and the aims towards which it should be working, namely that it:
shall exercise its functions…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.
Last week the UN Human Rights Commissioner published the draft report of the second Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the UK’s human rights record (draft report here, webcast of the UPR session here). The UPR involves delegations from UN member states asking questions and make recommendations to the UK government on the protection of human rights, which the government will consider before providing its response. The report is extremely wide-ranging, perhaps to its detriment, though many valuable and interesting insights are provided.
The UPR process was established in 2006. It involves a review of all 192 UN member states once every four years. As readers of this blog will know, the protection of human rights has a troubled recent history in the UK, with newspaper campaigns against “the hated Human Rights Act” providing the background to government pronouncements on human rights that veer from the sensible to the ridiculous. In this context, the UPR provides a valuable attempt at a serious assessment of human rights in this country.
The Abu Qatada deadline debacle has once again thrust the European Court of Human Rights – and in particular, its relationship with the UK – into unwanted controversy just as European representatives gathered in Brighton to debate the Court’s future. This new fracas over the deportation of Abu Qatada has acted as a lightning rod for well-rehearsed criticisms of the Strasbourg Court – that it is a ‘meddling pseudo-judiciary’ and the enforcer of a villains’ charter.
A new report for the Equality and Human Rights Commission by researchers at London Metropolitan University and LSE, including myself, addresses these critiques as part of a broad analysis of the relationship between the UK and Strasbourg.
Among those interviewed for the report were the President of the European Court, Sir Nicolas Bratza; the outgoing Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Thomas Hammarberg; and, in the UK, Baroness Hale, Sir John Laws and Jack Straw, along with two members of the Commission on a Bill of Rights, Lord Lester QC and Anthony Speaight QC. The report also conducts a thematic analysis of case law, as well as examining wider literature and the voluminous statistics produced by the Court.
In the midst of all the coverage of the phone hacking scandal and the mounting woes of News Corporation an interesting piece of human rights news from the past week got lost: the announcement by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (“EHRC”) that it is applying to intervene in four cases before the European Court of Human Rights being brought by Christians who claim their Article 9 rights are not being sufficiently protected in UK law.
The applicants are Nadia Eweida, Shirley Chaplin, Lillian Ladele and Gary McFarlane, each of whom has lost claims of workplace discrimination on the grounds of religion and belief in the UK courts over the past couple of years (see our general comment pieces here and here). The EHRC has now said that in its view “Judges have interpreted the law too narrowly in religion or belief discrimination claims” and that “the way existing human rights and equality law has been interpreted by judges is insufficient to protect freedom of religion or belief.”