By Carole Ewart, public policy and human rights consultant and Convener of the Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland.
The Scottish Parliament’s Inquiry on ‘Human Rights’ has just finished with a letter to the UK Government stating that “there is strong opposition from Scottish stakeholders to any repeal of the Human Rights Act 1998, as they did not perceive that there was any evidence for doing so and believe that any human rights reform should build on and strengthen the Act.” Those of us working on human rights for the past few decades are relieved that the political focus in Scotland must now be directed at making rights real for ordinary people in their local communities and when accessing public services such as housing, health, social care and education.
Making rights real requires leadership and monitoring so the next step should be to establish a dedicated Human Rights Committee at the Scottish Parliament after the elections in May. Five years ago the Human Rights Consortium Scotland made such a call but there was little support. The new Scotland Act gives additional, devolved powers to our Parliament making a review of the exiting committee structure inevitable and such an ‘addition’ easier.
The Committee’s summary and analysis of the evidence, which appears as a 28 page appendix to the letter, confirms the devolution settlement provides powers to extend as well as respect, protect and fulfil human rights. The Law Society of Scotland pointed out:
“Schedule 5 to the Scotland Act also makes an exception for ‘observing and implementing international obligations, obligations under the Human Rights Convention and obligations under [EU] law’ from the general reservation of international relations. So, it seems that there remains considerable scope for Scotland to take action on human rights, both as a subject to themselves and as they relate to devolved matters.”
So how can we strengthen human rights in Scotland? For many, just delivering the Human Rights Act (HRA) would be a very good place to start. Research has shown that we have 10,000+ public services in Scotland and each will be covered by S6 of the HRA, which means they must comply with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Finding examples of where ECHR rights have featured tends to lead us to pilots and research projects rather than institutional and systemic examples. As the Scottish Human Rights Commission (SHRC) pointed out in a briefing to the Scottish Parliament in February:
“Those in power, who have a responsibility to protect, respect & fulfil people’s rights must step up to discharge their duties. While progress has been made by reaching out, engaging, raising awareness & supporting Scotland’s public authorities, more action is needed by them to demonstrate how they are protecting human rights in practice. A step-change is needed across the public sector, building on the willingness and commitment already shown.”
As the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament pay for public services you would think that their commitments would be delivered and monitored for implementation, such as:
- The Scottish Parliament agreed a motion to be a global model of ‘best practice’.
- The First Minister: ‘we are seeking across a whole range of decision making to embed human rights at the heart of everything we do… we will look further at how we measure and report on our compliance with our human rights obligations.’ 
- Cabinet Secretary Alex Neil ‘A socially just society is one that embeds human rights at every level. … At their heart lies the fundamental challenge of making rights real in everyday life for individuals and communities across the whole of Scotland.’
One problem with implementation is staff awareness. In 2014 UNISON Scotland, representing 160,000 public service workers, reported that “members advise that they don’t generally operate in a human rights culture.”
Another problem is building public understanding and support for human rights. Currently, too many people think human rights are irrelevant, only apply overseas or to particular groups. A YouGov poll for the Scottish Government revealed:
- 1 in 5 Scots say human rights are for minority groups only
- 44% say they have ‘no bearing on their everyday life Contrast the figures with the Ipsos MORI poll for the Scottish Information Commissioner which confirms a high level of public awareness of and support for, freedom of information rights:
But two thirds agreed that human rights are ‘a positive thing’ and 68% said they would take action if they felt their rights had been violated. Given the public’s views, it is now time for the Scottish Parliament to amend the legislation it passed in 2006 which banned the Scottish Human Rights Commission from undertaking casework.
Contrast the figures with the Ipsos MORI poll for the Scottish Information Commissioner which confirms a high level of public awareness of and support for, freedom of information rights:
- 85% had heard of the Freedom of Information Scotland Act 2002
- 91% agreed it is important for public to access information.
- 77% agreed FOI gives them more confidence in decisions of Scottish public bodies.
- 82% agreed FOI is not a waste of public money.
Instead of focusing on problems, we should be focusing on the benefits of human rights, just as we have enjoyed sustained messages on the positives of FoI over the last 11 years. Boosting public awareness of Scotland’s National action Plan on Human Rights is key as is mainstreaming it across public services. Developments such as the imminent publication of the revised National Care Standards, rooted in human rights, are an example of positive action.[I]
Pragmatically, human rights will only feature in the design, delivery and funding of public services when the public sector and those delivering services of a public nature know they must comply with the ECHR. Regulators need to add it to the list of issues examined. Existing frameworks and tools should also be better used, such as the Equality and Human Rights Impact Assessment tool developed by the SHRC and EHRC Scotland.
Delivering human rights in Scotland should not be this difficult when you have a Scottish Government and Parliament fully behind the law. Focusing on the roadblocks will help us progress delivery, but that will be an uncomfortable and challenging experience for many.
- The European and External Affairs Committee Scottish Parliament, Human Rights Inquiry http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/S4_EuropeanandExternalRelationsCommittee/2016_03_17_Convener_UK_Govt_HR.pdf
- Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002, Survey of Designated Public Authorities’ by Craigforth Consultancy and Research for Office of Scottish Information Commissioner, March 2004. More organisations are covered under human rights law than FoISA eg Scotland has over 200 housing associations.
- The motion was approved on 11th Nov 2014 http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/parliamentarybusiness/report.aspx?r=9616
- Speech to the SHRC Innovation Forum, Edinburgh 9th December 2015
- Debate ‘Scotland’s National Action Plan on Human Rights – Year Two Report’ Scottish Parliament 23rd February 2016 http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/parliamentarybusiness/report.aspx?r=10380
- YouGov undertook an online poll for the Scottish Government from 30th October to 3rd November 2015. The 1,026 online interviews are representative of all adults in Scotland aged 18 and over.
- November 2015 Public Awareness Research published by the Office of the Scottish Information Commissioner http://www.itspublicknowledge.info/home/SICReports/OtherReports/PublicAwarenessResearch2015.aspx
- Information on the National Care Standards Review can be found on the care Inspectorate website at http://hub.careinspectorate.com/knowledge/policy-and-legislation/policy-portals/national-care-standards-review/