CIVIL LIBERTIES: Rights Watchdog to Check Police, Schools and Hospitals ; Parliamentary Inquiry Uncovers Evidence of Widespread Abuses and Calls for Commission to Be Given Greater Powers

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POLICE FORCES, schools and hospitals are to be subject to investigations by a human rights watchdog with wide powers to uphold civil liberties across Britain, under plans backed by ministers. The body will be responsible for making Britain compliant with Labour's flagship human rights legislation, which came into force 30 months ago but which has so far proved ineffective.

A parliamentary inquiry has found evidence of widespread human rights abuse in care homes and other institutions responsible for the vulnerable. Ministers and civil rights campaigners are also concerned that the initial impetus that accompanied the introduction of the Human Rights Act in October 2000 has stalled in the year that marks the 50th anniversary since the landmark European Convention on Human Rights came into force.

Privately, ministers have accepted the case for establishing a human rights commission and want to consult on how wide its new powers should be. Some ministers favour a watered-down commission limited to promoting human rights and issuing advice on best practice and education, but equality groups want it to have power to investigate public organisations that fail to uphold the new laws.

Yvette Cooper, a minister at the Lord Chancellor's Department, has told civil right groups: "The Human Rights Act and the approach it takes are far from embedded across society at this stage." She said there were misconceptions over the Act that needed to be challenged. And she warned that if the Government did not champion the Act, "we risk creating a climate in which a reactionary government can get away with pulling out".

The parliamentary inquiry found the case for a human rights commission for England and Wales "compelling". The joint human rights committee of MPs and peers, whose report follows a two-year inquiry, says public bodies such as local councils and hospitals "do enough to avoid litigation and no more. They have not put respect for individuals' rights at the heart of their policy and practice. We have found widespread evidence of a lack of respect for the rights of those who use public services, especially the rights of those who are most vulnerable and in need of protection."

The committee recommends a move to an integrated body combining the human rights commission and the single equality body the Government has unveiled to enforce discrimination laws.

Ms Cooper says: "Parliament's joint committee on human rights has argued strongly that human rights should be part of a new single equality commission, not to take human rights litigation, but to promote and champion the values of human rights across society. We need to consider their case. Because whatever we do, we need to strengthen support for human rights and responsibilities and the values of respect for human dignity across our society."

But many equality and human rights campaigners fear the Government may wish to establish a "toothless" watchdog. There is understood to be a perception within the Government that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission has "spun dangerously out of control". …