July 31, 2020
Scotland's Human Rights Commission Urging a Rights-Based Approach to Budgeting
Guest blog by Alison Hosie of the Scottish Human Rights Commission (SHRC)
Alison Hosie is the research officer at the Scottish Human Rights Commission, a National Human Rights Institution, which is an independent public body mandated to promote awareness, understanding and respect for all human rights, for everyone, everywhere in Scotland. Ali coordinates the Commission’s work on human rights budgeting.
What have the impacts of the pandemic been in your country?
In many countries, Scotland included, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the harmful effects of longstanding inequalities and indirect discrimination on people’s rights—especially their economic and social rights. It has shone a light on the negative impact of ten years of contractionary fiscal policy (i.e., austerity) on Scotland’s public infrastructure; highlighted the inadequacy of our existing social safety net; and shown how little “value” society had placed on the jobs now on the frontlines responding to COVID-19.
It’s clear from emerging evidence that the impact of the pandemic is not being felt the same by everyone. The government anticipates that the following groups will be hardest hit financially: low earners; younger people; women; minority ethnic people; disabled people; those living in more deprived areas; and lone parents. When you place an intersectional lens over this data—and compare it to previous research into the cumulative impact of austerity in the UK—it’s clear those likely to be most impacted by the current pandemic are, for the most part, those already struggling to realise their right to an adequate standard of living.
How has the pandemic changed economic policy debates in your country?
Much discourse—in government and Parliament, as well as across wider society—is questioning “how do we build back better?” In some contexts there does appear to be genuine recognition that things were not working for everyone before and an appetite for wholesale change. For example, the Scottish government created an Advisory Group on Economic Recovery in April, which recently provided a draft set of recommendations to government (following a public call for views) aimed at shaping the path towards a better economic future.
However, truly building back better means that tackling Scotland’s pre-existing inequalities must be at the heart of how we move forward as a society. If there is not the genuine desire to tackle the structural and systemic causes of these inequalities, many of which are economic, then all we’ll be doing is papering over the cracks. Hard questions need to be asked about what has created such extremes in wealth inequality, as well as health inequalities and other inequalities based on gender, race, disability and socioeconomic status in particular. All possible levers available to the Scottish government to address these inequalities moving forward need to be examined.
What are the priority economic/ budgetary/ resource measures you are advocating for in response to the pandemic?
In our recent submissions to government and Parliament, the Commission has advocated for taking a rights-based approach to Scotland’s economic recovery and future budgeting processes (including how Parliament scrutinizes the budget). This means using human rights principles to shape the budgetary process, whilst using the human rights standards to shape the budget’s goals. Human rights standards and principles can guide transparent, accountable and participatory decisions that require balancing competing interests and priorities. In the context of COVID-19, a time when trust and public confidence is both fragile and critical, this is more important than ever.
Taking a rights-based approach to Scotland’s economic recovery would involve setting out Scotland’s core obligations across all human rights: civil, political, economic, social, cultural and environmental. Then, with the meaningful participation of rights-holders, exploring the resources required to improve rights realisation in accordance with Scotland’s fiscal envelope. We have stressed the important role government plays in redistributing resources through progressive taxation, in order to invest in public goods and services that, as a society we agree, are necessary to secure the realisation of rights.
SHRC has also highlighted that “building back better” must involve considering whose voices are heard in, and how different groups are affected by, government’s fiscal decisions—with reference to human rights standards to make that assessment. Human rights standards, by themselves, do not provide all the answers on what specific choices and trade-offs the government should make. How choices are discussed and made is therefore key in determining the extent to which different human rights obligations are met or not.
What have been the challenges and opportunities for bringing human rights into these debates?
One of the biggest challenges continues to be getting the balance right between speed of decision making, on the one hand, and transparency of and participation in those decisions, on the other. The government and Parliament have been actively reaching out to invite a variety of voices into this discussion. This is to be welcomed. But a couple of weeks, via online consultations, is not sufficient time for many of the most marginalised voices to be collated and heard. This leaves many groups, such as children, disabled people and others with long term conditions, for example, unable to engage in these processes—as highlighted by Health and Social Care Alliance Scotland.
The idea around “building back better” is about taking a transformational view of what kind of society we wish to create. The fully considered views of all members of society is therefore critical. As the United Nations Secretary General reminds us:
“People need agency and voice in a crisis. This is a time when, more than ever, governments need to be open and transparent, responsive and accountable to the people they are seeking to protect. … Securing compliance depends on building trust, and trust depends on transparency and participation.”
CESR has engaged with the Scottish Human Rights Commission for a number of years, though our work with the European Network of National Human Rights Institutions. Since 2018, we’ve partnered directly with the Commission, collaborating on ongoing work on human rights budgeting, which aims to better understand and support wider scrutiny of public spending decisions through a human rights lens. For more on CESR’s work with national human rights institutions, see here.
The Confronting COVID series profiles how our civil society partners in various countries are responding to the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the role that human rights norms, tools and strategies are playing in economic policy debates at the national level.
The photo of the Scottish Parliament is by Gustavo Naharro/Flickr.