The price of rights
The NI Human Rights Commission was established following the Good Friday Agreement and remains a powerful force for individual rights to this day.
The Chief Commissioner, Les Allamby, is one of the most prominent figures in NI civic society and under his remit the Commission (NIHRC) has been at the forefront of several of the most passionately-argued debates in modern Northern Ireland.
What many people might not know is that NIHRC has achieved much of this under enormous financial pressure.
As a National Human Rights Institutionit is bound by the Paris Principles which means, amongst many things, the it needs to be adequately funded by the state in order fulfil its remit.
However, the NIHRC is walking a fine line with its finances. The organisation cited a lack of resources as a major, ongoing concern in its annual report published in July.
The purse strings are so tight that, while still able to perform its core duties, several of its important functions are severely curtailed or dormant.
In his foreword to the annual report, Mr Allamby said: “The Commission delivers high-quality work within further diminishing financial resources. As a statutory public body we are obliged to live within our means, nonetheless it would be remiss of me not to highlight the difficulties we face in fully meeting our mandate.”
The gap between support that would allow NIHRC to function in full and the resources it currently works with are massive.
NIHRC first opened its doors in 1999. Two years later there was a mandatory review to establish what comprises adequate funding. That review found the organisation required a minimum budget of around £1.6m.
Following almost ten years of consecutive cuts, the Commission’s annual budget is now just £1.074m – or around £900k, by the standards of 2001. Adjusted for inflation, the required budget for the Commission, based on a 2001 annual spend of £1.6m should be in excess of £2m as a minimum.
Many people might be surprised at the scale of an organisation that does such high-profile work. The Commission was always relatively small; it had 32 staff in 2009. Ten years on, the sheer scale of the cuts is demonstrated by a staff team that has been reduced to 14.
Powers on hold
NIHRC has the ability to hold inquiries into matters related to human rights. It has powers to compel witnesses, order the provision of information or documents, and to enter any place of detention.
However, right now it would not be possible for the Commission to conduct an inquiry because it lacks the resources.
This is despite the fact that the last time it held a full inquiry – into emergency care in Northern Ireland, with a report published in 2015 – it did so at a cost of around £100k.
At the same time, NIHRC’s legal budget for this year was staggeringly £5,000 (yes, five thousand pounds) at the start of the 2019 financial year.
This is a significant reduction on even last year. Over the past three years NIHRC spent £250k –a remarkably low figure given market rates – on taking the abortion case to the Supreme Court.
That case featured a surprise ruling by the Supreme Court which has caused another issue for the Commission. The 2007 Justice and Security Act was designed to give the organisation the power to bring a court case on the basis of law (i.e. without a victim, or specific person making a challenge in an extant case).
The Supreme Court ruled that the Act failed to bring this into effect and the Commission does not have such a power. In effect, the court ruled the 2007 Act was poorly constructed and failed to legally enact its own purpose.
This is something NIHRC wants to see remedied as soon as possible, in the best interests of the organisation and those it seeks to protect (people, in short).
Despite the strains they are under, NIHRC maintains that its doors are very much still open. No-one will be turned away purely so the organisation can save some money.
It remains willing to take financial risks in pursuit of a good cause – a statement of intent that will not change, Scope understands.
There are two ways for any organisation to increase its output. Either it gets more help, or it becomes more efficient.
Only one of these options appears open to the Commission, which believes it currently delivers extreme value for money. There is no fat to trim. Current resources go as far as they possibly can. A higher budget is necessary.
The organisation is hopeful this will happen.
Unlike other rights-based organisations in NI, the Human Rights Commission is accountable to the Northern Ireland Office and funded from Westminster. This means that it has not been protected from the austerity policies of the Tory/Lib Dem coalition and subsequent Conservative governments the same way NI has been, in general.
In its recent annual report, under the heading Key Risks facing the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, the organisation states:
“The Commission is no longer in a financial position to exercise its investigatory powers through initiating a human rights public inquiry. Given the resource implications and budget available in 2018-19 this power is now severely compromised.
“In addition, the Commission will need to seek business case approvals from the Northern Ireland Office in an attempt to secure additional resources before supporting legal cases that challenge human rights violations. This raises concerns regarding institutional independence and presents practical difficulties such as ensuring time limits imposed for issuing judicial review proceedings are adhered to.
“The decisions the Commission has made to enable its continued operation in 2019-20 were taken reluctantly. We remain acutely aware that the requirement to meet further budget cuts raises fundamental concerns regarding our effectiveness, maintaining independence and ability to realise the institution’s purpose first envisaged in the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement.”
NIHRC plays a vital role in our society. It exists by mandate but to rely simply on this as an argument in its favour would sell it short – it has been a fair and powerful voice for individuals in difficult circumstances.
However, it appears hamstrung.
As we leave the EU, the importance of NIHRC will only grow. It must be supported to fulfil its many purposes. Hopefully Government recognise this and acts accordingly.
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