There has been a two-day conference at Westminster, organised by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, on ‘Redressing the Democratic Deficit in Human Rights’. Today was the second day and I was part of the concluding panel addressing ‘How could the UK Parliament be more involved in debates about human rights?’
My starting point was looking at Parliament’s current strengths in considering human right: in my view, there are two – the Joint Committee on Human Rights (the JCHR), which has done a good job since its inception in 2000, and the House of Lords, which considers the issue more frequently than the Commons. A data set published in a booklet for the conference showed that two-thirds of parliamentary references to JCHR reports were in the Lords and this, according to the research, ‘led to more detailed scrutiny and sustained debate regarding many of the issues raised in JCHR reports in the House of Lords than in the House of Commons’.
I then addressed problems, which I saw in terms of detachment, especially by the Commons: detachment from the JCHR (a tendency to leave human rights issues to the JCHR; in this context, I argued, the very success of the JCHR is also a problem) and detachment from the courts. On the latter, I contended that the creation of the Supreme Court compounded the problem, taking the law lords away from Parliament, making it less likely that parliamentarians would have an appreciation of their work and role.
In terms of addressing the problems, I suggested that the JCHR (or the Commons members) could be empowered to trigger two or three debates a year on human rights – enabling some discussion of issues at an early stage, rather than relying on a reactive mode when legislation comes forward – and the creation of a forum that would enable MPs, peers and judges to come together to discuss broad issues affecting human rights and the process by which they are addressed. These, in my view, could make a modest contribution to creating a greater awareness and engagement on the part of MPs.
In response to the discussion, I emphasised the value of the House of Lords, where the membership and less partisan nature of the House complemented the Commons, MPs necessarily looking at the issue from a different perspective. In many ways, the current system helps contribute to the balance between parliamentary supremacy and the protection of human rights.