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Human rights on deaf ears

A substantial number of complaints to the ACT Human Rights Commission will now go unanswered and the statutory authority will stop offering free training to community groups.

The decision comes after the commission – along with other ACT government agencies – had its funding cut in the recent territory budget, and after several years of it struggling to cope with the rising number of complaints it has had to deal with.

In a statement on its website, the commission blamed the cuts on ‘‘resource pressures’’.

‘‘We have not made this decision lightly, and are currently undertaking a review of all activities undertaken by the Commission.  We hope, sometime in the future, to be able to re-commence publishing [quarterly newsletter] Humanity  and offering our full range of training,’’ it said.

‘‘The Commission is also discontinuing the consideration of certain categories of complaints, which will substantially reduce the number of complaints considered by the Commission.’’

Children and Young People Commissioner Alisdair Roy said the commission took complaints about services for children and young people, disability services, discrimination, health services and services for older people.


‘‘We have yet to finalise the categories of complaints we will be unable to consider, yet anticipate that there will be a substantial reduction across all of the five areas,’’ he said.
‘‘We anticipate that the majority of the regular training will cease, and that tailored training will only take place on a fee-for-service basis.’’

The commission offers training in several areas, including workplace discrimination, sexual harassment and bullying, human rights in the community sector and human rights obligations.

It said in its most recent annual report that ‘‘expert training for the community and public sector is a key role of the Commission’’.It held three training sessions a month, on average, and they were free for community sector members.

In 2010-11, the commission trained 214 members of the community sector and 182 people from the private sector.

Attorney-General Simon Corbell said the commission, like all other ACT agencies, had been required to find savings as a result of the recent territory budget.
‘‘This is a function of the current financial climate,’’ he said.

The commission was a statutory authority, and the allocation of resources was ‘‘mainly a matter’’ for commissioners.  

‘‘It is appropriate for all agencies to set targets and to make decisions about the allocation of funds to deal with their business. Where that business includes complaints-handling, decisions for agencies such as the Human Rights Commission may involve assessing which complaints to consider in detail, and which not,’’ he said.

‘‘I understand that the Commission will reduce its consideration of complaints which do not result in serious adverse consequences, and will instead focus on more serious complaints.  This triaging of case management is appropriate.’’

Figures from the recent budget show the commission, which investigates human rights infringements and unlawful discrimination managed to conclude only 54 per cent of its cases within its own targets and standards last year, because of an ‘‘increased workload’’.
Its workload has increased dramatically over the past decade, as has its scope.

It received 728 complaints across four jurisdictions in 2010-11, up from the 98 complaints received by the organisation, then called the ACT Human Rights Office, in 2002-03.
Greens justice spokesman Shane Rattenbury said the figures showed the commission was already under significant pressure and its poor funding was ‘‘undermining the commitment to human rights in the ACT’’.

‘‘If the agency can’t do its job properly, it is not good enough to simply say ‘We have a Human Rights Act, that is the end of the job’. It requires a level of implementation and follow up,’’ he said.

‘‘We need to make sure the resources are available for the commission to do its job properly, and to engage the community in an effective way. The training program is obviously a really important part to ensure that government and non-government agencies are fulfilling their obligations under the act.’’

Labor plans to bring legislation to the Assembly in the coming sitting fortnight to add education as an additional right in the Act.

‘‘Education is already the second most common complaint or concern raised to the Children’s and Young People Commissioner, so with the government formally adding education as a human right, we can only expect that the pressure on the agency will increase,’’ he said.


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