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"Speech at the launch of the White Paper on the Commission for Equality and Human Rights", London 2004

Lord Falconer of Thoroton (Labour)

Location: London

I am very pleased to be here with Patricia launching the White Paper for the new Commission - barely six months after we announced the project. Could I join with Patricia in thanking everyone that has been involved particularly Jacqui Smith.

It's a real milestone - and it's a real testament to the hard work of all the many stakeholders and officials in what has been a structured and collaborative process, from which we can learn.

I am very pleased with the way the project has progressed on human rights and I'd like to say just a few words about that.

The foundation of this Government's approach to human rights is our Human Rights Act. We introduced that Act for two key reasons:

• First, to ensure access to the European Convention on Human Rights in the UK courts; and

• Second, to help bring about a human rights culture.

In general, we can say that we have achieved the first goal. The Human Rights Act has meant that all our courts and tribunals are listening to human rights arguments. It shouldn't worry us, or surprise us, that many arguments have not succeeded. The important point is that people in our country have a fairness guarantee that they can test before our independent judiciary in our courts. On our second aim - to build a human rights culture - there is still a long way to go before we can say that we have achieved our vision.

We never said it would be quick or easy but we are committed to doing all that we can when it comes to delivering for the public.

The Commission is a milestone towards fulfilling our second goal of culture change. The new body's task is nothing less than showing the country how fairness and respect matters to each and every one of us - and how respect for basic rights is the key to true equality.

In my book, respect for basic rights is also the key to thriving society, based on opportunity and fairness for all.

That's why human rights needs to be promoted, not just across the six anti discrimination 'strands' but also in its own right.

Human rights is not going to be the icing on top of the Commission's equality cake. It is the key ingredient.

Clearly, the Commission needs to work closely with the public sector. It will issue guidance and build up good practice based on fundamental rights set out in the Human Rights Act.

But it has also work to do with the private sector and the population generally, to help demystify what a culture of respect for human rights really means.

The White Paper sets out the Government's clear view that the Commission should be able to undertake general investigations into human rights, and advise what steps it thinks are needed to achieve the even higher standards we all want to see.

We are also adamant that the Commission must offer a ‘one stop shop' for advice to people across the whole range of equality and human rights issues - and that it must support vital front line organisations in their dealings with the public.

Overall, we strongly agree with the Joint Committee on Human Rights that the priority is to build a human rights culture, not a litigation culture. So promotion will be the focus of the Commission's human rights role, not court cases. However, as the Disability Rights Commission's work especially has shown us, human rights law is inextricably bound up with anti-discrimination law. We therefore expect the Commission to be using human rights arguments in the course of its anti-discrimination cases, just as the existing Commissions have done.

The White Paper makes it clear that we are also open to the argument that the Commission should, if necessary, be able to continue with such cases, using the human rights arguments alone. I know this is a point which the Disability Rights Commission has made strongly and I believe we must listen carefully to them. I don't think there would be many such cases. The Disability Rights Commission already has an order making power which could allow this to happen, so we are talking about whether something like this should be extended across all six strands.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I urge you to all read what the White Paper says about human rights and how it underpins our new approach to equality. I believe what we have here is a great step forward for equality and a great step forward for human rights. I commend it to you.

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