Wednesday, 24 October 2012
Human Rights and Equality Commission
To ask the Minister for Justice and Equality if he is satisfied that his plans to nominate the Director of the new Human Rights and Equality Commission are in line with best international practice and in particular with the Belgrade Principles. [46419/12]
I am entirely satisfied that all the elements of my proposals in relation to the establishment of the new Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, IHREC, as set out in the general scheme published last June, are fully in accordance with the Paris Principles, which are the set of rules or standards that relate to the accreditation of national human rights institutions for UN purposes. These principles include that commissions should be free to recruit their own staff. The general scheme provides that for the future, the new commission will be free to recruit its own staff but recognises that we are in a merger situation with two existing bodies, whose staff will transfer across to the new Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission. This includes the one existing person at CEO level, who will become the director of the new body. The person involved is not my nominee but is the person in situ in a merger situation. The Government and the new commission would be subject to justifiable criticism were the cost of a duplicate CEO director post to be incurred. Lest there be any doubt, I am completely satisfied that the person in question will do an excellent and independent job in the role. The decision to continue with the existing CEO during the initial transitional phase as we set up the new body is a rational one which is supported by the emphasis in the working group's report on the need for change management and continuity during this phase. The person concerned was recruited by the Equality Authority, not by my Department, using the services of the Public Appointments Service. She is an employee of the authority for the duration of her contract and not of the Department. She is not on secondment from the Department, that is, her salary is paid by the Equality Authority. She does not report to or take instructions from the Department. Likewise, she will become an employee of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission. If the Equality Authority CEO post, rather than the Human Rights Commission post had become vacant, the exact same process would have been followed, subject to the person involved also becoming an employee of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission.
There are no specific references to staffing issues in the Belgrade Principles, which relate to the relationship between national parliaments and national human rights institutions and cover such issues as parliamentary oversight of the selection process for recruiting commissioners. I am entirely satisfied that every thing we are doing and the very helpful and productive involvement of the Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Equality and Defence in reviewing the general scheme of the Bill and in meeting with members of the selection panel has been entirely positive and in line with the spirit of the Belgrade Principles.
I thank the Minister for his response. The UN office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights had concerns about the whole approach here. I attended the committee meeting where the selection panel made its presentation and would certainly have no issue with the five members of that panel. Their contribution to public life speaks for itself. I have no doubt about their integrity and the fact they will recommend a very capable commission when the time comes. However, concerns arise - this echoes somewhat the earlier discussion we had on judicial appointments - when the Minister has the ability to appoint people and does not give that task to an independent body. The process by which the five panel members were selected was criticised for a lack of independence. Again, I must reiterate that I have no issue with the five panel members. Their capacity is obvious but the Minister knows that there has been criticism of its selection. Indeed, the members of the panel stepped aside voluntarily for a period. They then appeared before the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality. As a member of that committee, I am happy to assist the process towards its completion but I urge the Minister to reconsider the way in which this matter was approached. We must ensure that the independence of the commission, as required by the Belgrade Principles, is not in question. Human rights commissions must be clearly separated from governments and fearless in their defence of human rights.
There has been some ill-informed and misinformed criticism of our proposals which has resulted in some individuals and some sections of the media being misled. It was always our intention, as announced, that a group of individuals, clearly independent of Government, would be appointed as a selection panel and they were so appointed. I do not know what other procedure the Deputy is suggesting. We cannot have independent people emerging from the ether and self-appointing themselves. Somebody, at some stage, has to have some accountability for the way we conduct public affairs. A selection panel was selected, whose members, as the Deputy acknowledges, are unimpeachable in their independence. Indeed, the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality recognised them as being unimpeachable so I cannot work out why the process should be the subject of criticism of any description, other than because there are some individuals who feel compulsively required to criticise everything.
I thank the Deputy for reminding me that we took an initiative. It was our initiative to write to the Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights to seek her advice on the heads of the Bill because of the important role her office has in providing the secretariat to the international co-ordination committee that deals with the accreditation of national human rights institutions. There was some confusion created about the status and contents of her response to a letter which I received. However, I can inform the Deputy that the confusion has now been completely dispelled and we are back on track with the process of selecting members of the new commission, with advertisements to invite applications expected to appear in the next week or two.
Regarding the letter from the Deputy High Commissioner and the paper that accompanied it, my Department provided a very comprehensive paper in response to the points raised and I can also inform the Deputy that a group of officials, led by the Secretary General of my Department, met the Deputy High Commissioner and some of her officials on 8 October in Geneva. This was a very positive meeting. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights considers that we have engaged in a good process in the development of the new commission and has full confidence that the Irish Government is approaching the issue in the right way. The OHCHR hopes that it can continue to use our approach as a best-practice model for other member states. In reply to questions as to whether there were any matters in the Department's paper responding to the OHCHR's observations that struck them as being problematic in the context of the future re-accreditation process or if there were any remaining issues they would have concerns about, the OHCHR said there were none. That answer could not be clearer. Far from potentially causing confusion or inadvertently limiting the powers of the commission, the approach in the heads of the Bill, of having two definitions of human rights, which led to some very uninformed comment, is an approach which the OHCHR says it now regards as a best-practice model and one that other states should be encouraged to adopt.
I thank the Deputy for giving me the opportunity to address this issue because there have been some extraordinarily inaccurate reports published in a number of outlets, and in one obsessively, about this process. We will have an enhanced, independent human rights commission in place, dealing with human rights and equality issues, following a best-practice approach with an appointments system that is superior to that which previously applied to the human rights commission and with a direct relationship between that commission and the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality, something that does not exist under the current legislation and which did not apply to the outgoing commission.
I thank the Minister for his comprehensive response, particularly his assurances regarding the OHCHR. The fact that the UN is now content with the process is critical for public confidence. There was some confusion around the process, as the Minister said.
When does the Minister expect that the process of the panel recommending the new commission and the new commission being appointed will be completed? What is the timeframe for that? Will the Minister accept the recommendations of the selection panel? The understanding is that the Government will accept the recommendations of the panel for the members of the new commission.
I was personally disappointed that the panel did not commence its work earlier. It was appointed in mid-July. I welcomed that the individuals who we requested to sit on the selection panel agreed to do so. I appreciate that it was a great burden for them and I was grateful to them for taking up the position. Unfortunately, instead of commencing their work and advertising in September as I originally hoped and expected, they raised some issues as a result I think of misinformation that was made available to them and they postponed proceeding with the work we had asked them to undertake. I met with those individuals in September. We cleared the air entirely of any misunderstandings that had arisen. It was important that they were also given an opportunity to meet members of the Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality so that committee would be fully assured through a public and transparent process that the individuals are appropriately qualified and independent. I originally thought the advertisement might be in the newspapers and other media this week but I understand they will be advertising next week. A period of time will be provided for those who are eligible to apply and the panel will ultimately make recommendations to the Government regarding the individuals who are to be appointed.
Under the process for these panels in the past there was no particular assurances from the Government regarding who would be appointed and previous Governments appointed some but not all of those recommended to them. I hope I am accurate in that. I do not want to mislead the House in any way. We have given a commitment that we will appoint those who are recommended unless some unexpected and exceptional circumstance arises. Should that apply to some individual reasons will be given to the panel as to why a certain individual should not be appointed. I envisage in circumstances where the panel might recommend individuals in good faith that some information could emerge before the Government formally made its appointment which indicated for some reason which the panel was unaware of that an individual was unsuitable. It is very unlikely that such an issue would arise because we are anxious that the process is seen to be completely independent. Should it arise, reasons will be given and the panel will be asked to nominate an alternative individual. I am not anticipating that we will get into that difficulty.
I hope we will have the appointments to the new commission before Christmas. We cannot formally establish the new commission without the legislation. The intention is that the same individuals will be appointed under existing legislation to the Human Rights Commission and the Equality Authority and that they will work together in moving to the creation of the single body because the new legislation will not be enacted until next year.