An afternoon at parliament

During a recent trip to Europe, GLaD team member Sean Mulcahy attended a public meeting of the UK’s Joint Committee on Human Rights. The Committee acts as parliament’s voice on human rights, with the Lord Chancellor the ‘superintendent of human rights in government.’ Its meeting was investigating whether human rights are respected in the processes for public inquiries and inquests, stemming from the inquests into the Hillsborough disaster, a crush event that occurred during a football match at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield in April 1989, resulting in ninety-seven deaths.  

Public inquiries of this kind are common in the UK, with other high-profile examples being the Grenfell inquiry and the COVID inquiry. In this instance, the committee focused on a proposed Hillsborough law that would improve the protection of human rights during public inquiries. There was also a focus at the meeting on ‘changing the culture as well as changing the law’ and an acknowledgement that ‘you need both hard law and soft law to make human rights work.’  

In her opening, Chair Harriet Harman said that ‘we all remember at the heart of this is ninety-seven lives… and they are at the forefront of our minds.’ And throughout the hearing, there was an emphasis on the families of these victims, who, as we have noted in other research, tend to feature prominently in parliamentary debates of this type, with committees often reaching out to them for evidence. Here, the families of victims were hailed as ‘human rights defenders.’ Of particular interest was the question of whether the bereaved may make representations to an inquiry process before and during criminal trials, with the acknowledgment that, in some civil jurisdictions, victims can make representations on an ad-hoc basis. It was also acknowledged that the time, stress and trauma of public inquiries has effects on the lives of people in these families, and that this includes the effects of (social) media narratives – both positive and negative. As one committee member put it, ‘those whose human rights are most directly affected are bereaved families.’  

The human rights issues specifically concerned article two of the European Convention on Human Rights, which addresses the right to life and proper investigation of death, as well as article six concerning the right to silence and privilege against self-incrimination, and article three concerning the reduction of trauma and right to dignity. One of the committee members noted that a ‘fundamental principle underpinning human rights is the recognition of dignity.’ Commercial interests, data protection and national security were issues that also arose during the hearing.  

Reflecting on the courtroom in which some public inquiries occur, a committee member noted that ‘it’s got a very physical dimension to it.’ The same could be said for the committee room in which this hearing occurred. Our other research has examined committee rooms in Australian parliaments, which have similarities to those in Westminster. The committee room in Westminster is at the end of a long corridor, with rooms off either side.  

The committee room itself is arranged with a semi-circular table, with chairs on the outside and inside, four screens each with a neon green logo of the parliament. Opposite is a table from which people give evidence in person (others give evidence via the screens). Water is on all tables. On each side of the room are a row of tables and chairs at which what appear to be parliamentary staff sit, talking to each other through Microsoft Teams on their laptops. On the walls are dark wood paneling and portraits, all of men. On the near wall is a fireplace, and on the far wall is a clock and two windows through which the sounds of outside honks, bells and vehicles can be heard. There are two further screens on the back wall facing the committee that broadcast speakers from the House of Commons. Carpet is underfoot.  

There are separate door entrances for the committee and for members of the public. The public enter through a doorway to two rows of public seating, and screens and speakers are oriented towards this public gallery, but its back row of seating does not allow people to move through the gallery easily. Cameras are located around the room on moving structures, and the screens broadcast the hearing. Though they are often focused on the speaker, the camera sometimes returns to the listener to show their listening and reactions.  

Reflecting on the debate on the Hillsborough law to date, one testifier said that ‘nobody in parliament appeared to be listening.’ This raises an interesting question that is particularly relevant to a public inquiry such as this and is something we have examined further in our other research: what does listening look like? 

The meeting started with the chair calling ‘Order, order.’ During the hearing, committee members often had their hands clasped or heads resting on their hands. Occasionally, they would place their elbows on chairs, or cross their arms. Often, committee members would nod their heads. Sometimes, they would bring their hands to their chest and lean backwards. Regularly, committee members would check their phones during testimony.  

Testifiers would often be looking at all committee members, particularly the questioner. All would engage in gesturing when talking. Committee members often used the phrase ‘hear, hear’ to express agreement with the speaker. The chair ended the meeting by commanding ‘all at order.’  

At the end of the hearing, the public were instructed to leave so that the committee could engage in private discussion. However, in the foyer outside the room immediately afterwards, the chair greeted the testifiers, saying ‘thank you so much, that was so compelling, the evidence’, and reflected that ‘heartache just doesn’t seem to get recognised in policy decisions.’  

The visit enabled us to build our understanding of how human rights scrutiny committees operate in practice, and how these spatial economies perform the act of a public hearing or inquiry on human rights. We will be sharing more about the trip in future posts, so stay tuned.