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Commission presents rights report 10 years after proposal

Resource type: News

by Claire Simpson

MORE than 10 years after a bill of rights was first agreed in the Good Friday Agreement, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission has presented its recommendations on the bill to the British government.

The proposals are the culmination of a long and often fraught process.

The Bill of Rights Forum, set up following the St Andrews Agreement to consult on what the bill should contain, published its report in March.

The commission then drew up a final report on the bill, which it presented to British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Shaun Woodward yesterday.

The report includes a huge number of recommendations, covering the right to equality, access to education, the protection of identity, health, justice and an adequate standard of living.

Among the key recommendations are:

  • Criminals under the age of 18 should not go to prison, except as a “last resort”

  • No child in the criminal justice system should be physically restrained “unless it is absolutely necessary to avoid serious injury to the child or another person”

  • Every murder carried out during the Troubles should be “effectively investigated”

  • People in Northern Ireland should have the right to be accepted as Irish or British or both

  • Public authorities must make sure Irish and Ulster-Scots are protected and promoted

  • Public bodies should take “special temporary measures” to encourage more women to take part in political or public life

  • Everyone has the right to an adequate standard of living “sufficient for that person and their dependents”

  • All workers should have the right to strike, which could mean that police officers, who are banned from taking strike action, would be allowed to do so.

Many of the rights proposed, such as the freedom from unfair discrimination, are already protected in law.

However, others, particularly socioeconomic proposals such as the recommendation that no one should be “allowed to fall into destitution” are not and have provoked controversy, particularly among unionists. Some of the most notable recommendations in the report include those which the commission feels should not be part of any final bill.

The commission has shied away from including any recommendation on the extension of abortion to the north or the rights of the unborn child.
It said although it had heard “forceful” arguments from both sides of the debate, “it would be inappropriate for it to suggest that the matter can be resolved by a bill of rights”.

However, it did suggest that the British government Should “consult widely” on the issue.

An earlier draft report had controversially recommended raising the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 18.

However, the commission’s report does not include any such recommendation in the final bill, only suggesting that the British government should raise it to 12 and consider raising it to 14 or 16.

Other recommendations which the commission said should not be included in the bill are banning smacking by removing the defence of reasonable chastisement and giving prisoners the right to vote.

It also recommended that all prisoners are held in single-sex prisons which would mean that Ash House, the women’s unit at Hydebank Wood Young Offenders’ Centre, would have to close.