Fairness for All: A New Commission for Equality and Human Rights: Oxfam's response to the White Paper | Gender Equality | Oxfam

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Oxfam believes that poverty, social exclusion and discrimination represent a denial of human rights, preventing people from exercising their full rights (e.g. to housing, adequate health care, education, to an adequate standard of living). In our view, there are also important connections between economic inequality, and inequality based on social divisions such as age, disability, race, gender, sexual orientation, and religious affiliation. We recognise the progress that has been made since 1997 in developing a legal and institutional framework to tackle inequalities and promote human rights. We welcome the Government’s proposals to establish a Commission for Equality and Human Rights (CEHR), and believe that this body can play a significant role in developing a culture of human rights in the UK.
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    Fairness for All: A New Commission for Equality and Human Rights - Oxfam’s response to the White Paper Summary Oxfam believes that poverty, social exclusion and discrimination represent a denial of human rights, preventing people from exercising their full rights (e.g. to housing, adequate health care, education, to an adequate standard of living). In our view, there are also important connections between economic inequality, and inequality based on social divisions such as age, disability, race, gender, sexual orientation, and religious affiliation. We recognise the progress that has been made since 1997 in developing a legal and institutional framework to tackle inequalities and promote human rights. We welcome the Government’s proposals to establish a Commission for Equality and Human Rights (CEHR), and believe that this body can play a significant role in developing a culture of human rights in the UK. Our recommendations are summarised below:  The suggestion that the CEHR should consult the voluntary and community sector on its strategic plan is useful. However, Oxfam believes the CEHR will have to be much more radical and innovative if it wishes to engage with marginalized men and women. We believe that the CEHR could usefully engage in dialogue with the Department for International Development on participatory approaches. It could also pioneer innovative participatory ways of working with groups facing poverty, social exclusion and discrimination. We suggest that the CEHR establish fora for regular structured input into policy and decision-making by people facing poverty, social exclusion and discrimination at UK, devolved and regional levels.  Provision of grant-giving powers for the CEHR to assist local organisations and groups, as the White Paper recommends, will undoubtedly be helpful. But further action will also be required to support the voluntary sector. We endorse the proposals set out by the Institute for Public Policy Research 1  for the CEHR to be involved in: information provision about human rights; development of case study materials, highlighting the application of human rights principles; dissemination of informal best practice codes; and guidance on staff training.  Rather than the burden remaining with individual users to seek to claim their rights, the emphasis should shift so that service deliverers take account of human rights in the design and implementation of services as a matter of course. Oxfam agrees with the Joint Committee on Human Rights (para 32, Eleventh report) that a positive duty should be imposed on public authorities to promote human rights.  We concur with the argument of the Joint Committee on Human Rights that: ‘Involvement in the reporting processes under the various international human rights instruments would be a valuable function of any human rights commission’ (para 118, Sixth report). The Commission should also have the ability to engage in international co-operation in support of human rights     Oxfam welcomes the recent announcement by the Deputy Minister for Women and Equality at the EDF Conference (14 July 2004) that: ‘…one of the first tasks of the CEHR will be to review the legislative framework to ensure that it meets the needs of a modern Britain, with the aim of bringing forward a Single Equality Act’. Although we would have preferred a Single Equality Act to have been introduced either at the same time as the Commission for Equality and Human Rights or – more advisedly – before  setting up the Commission, we are glad that the Government is committed to taking this step. We believe that this proposal should be enacted as swiftly as possible.  Whilst there will clearly be a sponsoring department within government, it is essential that the role and work of the CEHR should not be influenced by one department (or Minister) alone. In Oxfam’s view, the CEHR should have strong links with, and influence within, other government departments through a designated Standing Inter-Ministerial Group.  Oxfam believes that the CEHR should have a direct reporting relationship to a parliamentary committee, preferably the Joint Committee on Human Rights (with an expanded ‘Equalities’ remit).  Bearing in mind the need to ensure efficiency and cost-effectiveness in the operation of the CEHR, it is essential that the new body has sufficient resources available to carry out its role effectively. Overall, it should be better resourced than the combined budgets of the existing commissions. The budget should be determined by Parliament rather than the Executive. The work of Oxfam’s UK Poverty Programme Oxfam GB established a UK Poverty Programme (UKPP) in the mid 1990s in response to a concern that it should begin to address poverty ‘at home’ in a more systematic way. The overall purpose of the UKPP is to have a direct impact on poverty and social exclusion in the UK, by strengthening the skills and capacity of the community and voluntary sector to tackle poverty more effectively, and by direct lobbying and campaigning based on Oxfam’s domestic and international programme experience. The UKPP’s work is organised around four key programme themes: sustainable livelihoods; humanitarian protection; participation; and gender and race equality. Oxfam has a long-standing commitment to the promotion of gender equality, both internationally and at home. We recognise that women are in the majority in the poorest groups, that men and women have different needs, and that solutions to poverty will not be effective unless they address power relations and resource imbalances between women and men. We have piloted gender analysis within services as a means of highlighting gender assumptions, identifying inequalities, and developing action in response. We are now seeking to develop a programme of work around race inequality that will focus on addressing the causes, and support the empowerment of black and minority ethnic communities in seeking    solutions; this will learn both from our international experience and our work on gender inequality. Introduction to Oxfam’s response 'The worst thing about living in poverty is the way it gives others permission to treat you as if you don't matter, as if your opinions don't count, as if you have nothing to contribute. We realise that this doesn't show up in the statistics, but there is a stigma attached to living in poverty. If you make policy about us and not with us, then you reinforce that stigma.' Comment by community activist at All Party Parliamentary Group on Poverty meeting, 27 February 2002 Oxfam regards poverty as a state of powerlessness, in which men and women are unable to exercise their basic human rights or control virtually any aspect of their lives. Poverty is the result of deeply rooted inequalities in power relationships, institutionalised through policies and practices at the state, societal and household levels. In a previous publication on human rights in the UK 2 , we argued that poverty, social exclusion and discrimination represent a denial of human rights, preventing people from exercising their full rights (e.g. to housing, adequate health care, education, to an adequate standard of living). In our response we focus primarily on issues relating to human rights and participation. We also comment on the UK’s international obligations, the development of a Single Equalities Act, and the accountability and independence of the CEHR. Engaging with key stakeholders – rights and participation ‘Respect for the men and women in receipt of social benefits and social and other statutory services is needed…Agencies and local authorities should be aware of the power relations at play when they are interacting with vulnerable people and adopt a code of conduct with guidance on acceptable standards towards the men and women using their services. Care should be taken at all times to ensure that no-one is being marginalized by inappropriate attitudes.’ Gellideg Foundation Group/Oxfam , (2003), ‘Fifty voices are better than one’: Combating social exclusion and gender stereotyping in Gellideg, in the South Wales Valleys , www.oxfamgb.org/ukpp/resources Oxfam believes that rights-based approaches are essential in tackling poverty, social exclusion and discrimination. If implemented effectively they can improve analysis of, and responses to, poverty, and result in the development of policies and practices that are relevant to those people affected. They can also enhance the self-esteem and confidence of people in poverty, and encourage wider understanding of the difficulties they face. They can help to challenge the negative stereotypes and prejudice that impact on people in poverty, and strengthen their claims to full citizenship. 3      The White Paper acknowledges the importance of such participation, and highlights the importance of the voluntary and community sector organisations (‘especially those led by and working for individuals who experience discrimination’) to the work of the CEHR. It argues that ‘the CEHR must have an ongoing dialogue with these organisations to ensure that its work remains grounded in the experiences of discrimination’ (para 2.6) and states that the CEHR ‘will need to consider how to make its consultations ‘timely, accessible and interactive, ensuring that it genuinely listens to groups and individuals’ (para 2.11). Laudable though these aspirations are, the White Paper provides little indication of how they will be met. The suggestion that the CEHR should consult the voluntary and community sector on its strategic plan is useful. However, Oxfam believes the CEHR will have to be much more radical and innovative if it wishes to engage with marginalized men and women. In practice, community activists often resist involvement in participation processes on the basis of negative past experiences. They frequently suggest that their participation was tokenistic and even humiliating – and that in the end, they had no influence on decisions taken. If power relations are to shift so that consultation is genuinely participatory, it is vital that those involved can see that their intervention has made a real difference. We believe that the CEHR could usefully engage with sources of experience and expertise on participatory approaches (Oxfam, or for example the Department for International Development). It could also pioneer innovative participatory ways of working with groups facing poverty, social exclusion and discrimination. We suggest that the CEHR establish fora for regular structured input into policy and decision-making by people facing poverty, social exclusion and discrimination at UK, devolved and regional levels. 4  We would be happy to share with you our experience of work with the Department for Work and Pensions in directly engaging people experiencing poverty in policy making. Beyond consultation with the voluntary and community sector to identify the priorities for the CEHR, the White Paper acknowledges the importance of developing partnership relationships with the voluntary organisations. There is currently a serious lack of awareness within the sector of the implications of the Human Rights  Act. As the British Institute for Human Rights have found: ‘There is little or no understanding of the Act as a useful framework for public service providers within which problems can be solved and risks assessed, and within which the needs of individuals in the provision of services can be considered’ 5 . Provision of grant-giving powers for the CEHR to assist local organisations and groups, as the White Paper recommends, will undoubtedly be helpful. But further action will also be required to support the voluntary sector. We endorse the proposals set out by the Institute for Public Policy Research 6  for the CEHR to be involved in: information provision about human rights; development of case study materials, highlighting the application of human rights principles; dissemination of informal best practice codes; and guidance on staff training. More broadly, Oxfam welcomes the recognition in the Prime Minister’s Foreword to the White Paper that: ‘We cannot achieve our vision of high quality public services for all if those services do not respect individuals’ rights to dignity, privacy and respect’. In our view, much more needs to be done to translate this positive statement into effective public policy and service delivery.
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