In March this year, the Joint Committee on Human Rights of the Westminster Parliament published a report entitled The Meaning of Public Authority under the Human Rights Act. The Report sets out the Committee's consideration of the arguments for clarifying and widening the definition of a "public authority" under the Human Rights Act 1998.

The Report highlights the Committee's concern that the courts have adopted an unduly restrictive interpretation of section 6(3)(b) of the Human Rights Act, which has created uncertainty in relation to the circumstances in which the users of contracted-out services can seek to rely on Convention rights where disputes arise with the service provider. This is particularly problematic in light of increased outsourcing of public services. (We have discussed the case law in this area in a number of previous bulletins – see, in particular, the article in relation to the Johnson decision in the March 2007 Public Law Bulletin at: http://www.shepwedd.co.uk/knowledge/archive/12/public-law)

The Committee reaches the conclusion that the problem is unlikely to be solved satisfactorily by case law and other mechanisms, such as the creation of Government guidance for local authorities on contracting for services in the light of the Human Rights Act have also proved ineffective. The Report therefore concludes that the most effective way to address the problem would be through the introduction of new primary legislation, either amending or supplementing the HRA definition of "public authority" or "functions of a public nature".

Following the Report, the Human Rights Act 1998 (Meaning of Public Authority) Bill has now been published and is due to receive its second reading on 15 June. The Bill is sponsored by Andrew Dismore MP, the Chairman of the Committee, and is supported by all Committee members. The Bill aims to implement the key recommendation of the Report. In a recent press release, Mr Dismore said:

"Under the Human Rights Act, public authorities – such as central and local government – must act in ways which protect and promote the human rights of the people who deal with them. But many services – such as care homes – are now contracted out to the private sector. It is not clear in law whether the Human Rights Act applies to these services. We think that it should: human rights should be protected whether the service is provided by the public or private sector. My Bill would clarify the law and ensure vulnerable people – for example, in care homes – get the protection they deserve from the Human Rights Act."

In addition to these developments in relation to the Human Rights act, the Committee has also decided to inquire into the creation of a British Bill of Rights. It will look at whether and why such is needed; what rights should be contained within it; what its relationship should be with the Human Rights Act and the UK’s other international human rights obligations; and what should be the impact of such a Bill of Rights on the relationship between the executive, Parliament and the courts. The Committee is currently receiving written evidence and the call for evidence identifies the questions in relation to which the Committee would particularly welcome evidence. Submissions must be made by 31 August 2007 and the call for evidence can be viewed on the Committee's website at:

http://www.parliament.uk/parliamentary_committees/joint_committee_on_human_rights/jchrpn38_220507.cfm