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Loch Lomond on a sunny day

COVID-19 and human rights

The UK Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights has confirmed it will work to ensure Government actions are compliant with human rights during this challenging time. A particular focus will be on respect for the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK Government has announced measures which aim to protect individuals’ right to life (Article 2 ECHR) but emergency legislation and other Government actions may interfere with human rights, for example the right to liberty (Article 5 ECHR) and the right to respect for family life (Article 8 ECHR). As Government actions must be proportionate, it’s important that the Joint Committee understands the impact of these measures. Therefore, the Joint Committee wants to hear your views on:

What steps need to be taken to ensure that measures taken by the Government to address the COVID-19 pandemic are human rights compliant?

What will the impact of specific measures taken by Government to address the COVID-19 pandemic be on human rights in the UK?

Which groups will be disproportionately affected by measures taken by the Government to address the COVID-19 pandemic?

You can send submissions of no more than 1,500 words through the written submission form. The Joint Committee states that ‘as the situation is evolving’ it wishes to respond to issues as they arise, so there is no specific deadline but ‘just as soon as possible’.

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Human Rights Leadership

Good news on human rights delivery in Scotland as we are moving from passive compliance to active and evidenced delivery.

Within the Scottish Government a ‘Human Rights Outreach & Improvement Team’ has been established.  One of its first actions was delivery of a ‘Human Rights Leadership Event’ on 20th February 2020 in Edinburgh targeted at the public sector. The presentations are available online. The new team adds to the work of the Equality, Human Rights and Third Sector Division in the Directorate for Local Government and Communities.

Leadership on an issue changes the culture of an organisation. Leadership can happen at any level, but everyone needs to ‘buy in’ to the ambition on human rights to make compliance happen and make rights real for people. Leaders enable improvements in performance by ensuring an organisation has the culture, knowledge, skills, policies and procedures in place to deliver. Taking the lead and working with staff teams on delivery makes the biggest, positive impact.

The Scottish Government plans to introduce a Human Rights Leadership Bill, following on from the recommendations of the First Minister’s Advisory Group on Human Rights Leadership that has now become a ‘Taskforce‘. Leaders drive change and can ensure that legal duties in the, now 22 years old, Human Rights Act are actually delivered. The Act was passed at the UK Parliament in 1998 and covers the public sector as well as private sector and Third Sector organisations when they are delivering public services and services of a public nature. Without realising it organisations already respect, protect and fulfill rights and the challenge is to capture that good practice and replicate it across an organisation.

Evidence of compliance builds public trust and enhances the reputation of organisations, so rights holders and duty bearers both win.

3 bridges across The Forth

The Scottish Budget

The River Forth’s three bridges illustrate the challenges of mainstreaming human rights in the design and delivery of publicly funded services: although each bridge does the same, they are accessible to different groups and the people within the groups change depending on what journey they are on i.e. a train, a bus or a car; the bridges don’t always work as expected. Human rights provide a framework but different approaches are required depending on who you are working with and the challenges faced on the journey to realise rights and deliver duties.

The publication of the proposed Scottish Budget for 20/21 offers another route, some may say incentive, for services funded by the public purse to initiate, demonstrate and evaluate progressive actions to mainstream human rights. Rooting policy ambitions in budget allocations is really important in securing the change which has been sought by politicians and parliamentarians for years and which is now integral to the National Performance Framework (NPF): ‘We respect, protect and fulfill human rights and live free from discrimination’. There seems to be more money on the table to make that happen as the budget states ‘ … we have increased the Equality and Human Rights budget to £30.2 million, its highest ever level, representing our commitment to embedding equality, inclusion and human rights across all portfolios.’ Investment in people and services will make a difference and will help make Scotland fairer.

Action on compliance and promotion makes financial and legal sense. The Human Rights Act 1998 is now 22 years old and requires those delivering public services and those of a public nature to comply with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Scottish Ministers have similar duties under section 57 of the Scotland Act 1998. Failing to act can cost reputation as well as be expensive in legal costs so prevention is better. There is a reminder in the news today (12th February) of the importance of threatening strategic litigation to remedy established wrongs. The Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has sent a ‘pre-action letter to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, arguing that the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) in England has breached the ECHR over the repeated failure to move people with learning disabilities and autism into appropriate accommodation. We await developments with interest! The same tactic has also been used in Scotland, for example in 2019 the EHRC threatened legal action to prevent unlawful restraint and seclusion in schools which promptly resulted in the Scottish Government agreeing to deliver a four point plan.

The UN Convention on Economic Social and Cultural Rights places an obligation on the Scottish and UK Government, and those it funds, to progressively realise the listed rights to the maximum extent of available resources. As we move forward to integrate human rights, visibly, within publicly funded services it is important that rights holders and duty bearers share the journey and travel in the same direction.

Snow scene in Scotland

Update on ICCPR

The UN Human Rights Committee will consider the UK Government’s performance on delivering the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights on 24th March 2020 in Geneva. Scrutiny of human rights delivery and fulfillment of responsibilities in Scotland will form part of the UK wide review. The Committee will produce a ‘List of issues Prior to Reporting’ which will seek answers to matters of concern. To keep up to date with developments on the ‘LOIPR’ go to the Committee’s site and view the agenda and the submissions received – scroll down to the bottom of the page and you will see the UK is listed there.

Civil and Political Rights


The UN’s Human Rights Committee wants to hear from NGOs (non-governmental organisations) about the state of civil and political rights in the UK including Scotland. The Committee is assessing UK, including Scotland’s, compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In particular the Committee invites evidenced proposals from NGOs about what should be put in the ‘list of issues prior to reporting’ (LOIPR) ie what questions should be asked of the UK government before it submits its report to the UN. The questions can relate to devolved or reserved matters.

The LOIPR of UK is scheduled for adoption during the Committee’s next 2020 session – on 8th March. There is more information available from the UN at https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/treatybodyexternal/SessionDetails1.aspx?SessionID=1371&Lang=en. The deadline for the NGO written contributions is 13 January 2020.  

Once the UK LOIPR is adopted, the UK will be given a year to reply, The reply will be treated as the UK’s 8th periodic report and will be considered by the Committee in 2022 along with other submissions on the UK eg from NGOs and National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs). Something to get involved in?



Offering Comment

Looking ahead, organisations can explain to staff, volunteers and stakeholders, how human rights fit with their work internally and externally in a Blog published for International Human Rights Day which takes place on 10th December each year. Be ambitious on what you can do for rights holders as well as duty bearers over the coming year to build a human rights culture in Scotland.

Here are some Blogs we have written to make the connection between human rights delivery and everyday issues including:

Poverty and Human Rights Extreme Poverty and Human Rights – What next in Scotland? and Defending Rights and Promoting Remedies and Counting the Change – Why Human Rights Matter

Housing and Human Rights Capitalising on the Human Right to Housing

FoI and Human Rights A price can’t be put on our FoI rights and Third Sector having its say on FoI rights

Start off the process by asking colleagues what they need to know to make human rights real for them, the people they work with and the people they serve. Rights need to be practical and easily delivered if they are to make Scotland fairer.

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Recent Developments

The profile of human rights in decision making on strategy, policy, services and funding is now more visible in Scotland. The challenge remains to capture high level political commitments and apply them in local areas across everyday issues. The potential of human rights to deliver a fairer Scotland is being realised by more people and more organisations but increased action is needed – from volunteers and front line staff to those who govern and manage the public, third and private sectors. We all have a role in making human rights real and if you want to influence developments and roll out good practice, a good idea is to draw on reports with recommendations and be inspired by resources including:

Reports from the Equalities and Human Rights Committee of the Scottish Parliament

Report from the First Minister’s Advisory Group on Human Rights Leadership

In respect of making decisions on budgets there is very useful learning from resources produced by the Scottish Human Rights Commission

Finniestoun Crane

Momentum for Change?

Opportunities for Human Rights in Scotland

Towards the end of 2018, two major reports were published that should set the direction for the promotion, delivery and enforcement of human rights in Scotland over the next decade. 40 recommendations were made in ‘Human Rights and the Scottish Parliament’ published by the Equalities and Human Rights Committee and seven in ‘Recommendations for a new human rights framework to improve people’s lives’, published by the First Minister’s Advisory Group on Human Rights Leadership.

The conclusions from both reports mean the current attitude of ‘business as usual’ on compliance with human rights law is no longer tenable. Something has to happen although both reports realise that building knowledge and capacity are the key, first steps to enabling informed and progressive change.

How duty bearers and rights holders respond across Scotland will determine the nature and pace of reform. Both share an interest in ensuring that human rights now explicitly inform the design, delivery and funding of public services and services of a public nature.

So what are the key points? Too many for this Blog but:

As we go forward, rather than staying still or reversing what progress has been made on human rights, let’s hope in 2019 we can each see signs that human rights are more visible for those who use and work in services funded by the public purse.

Human rights Chill Time

Take the time to think about human rights and how they impact on you as a human being, and also in your role at work whether you are employed in the public, Third or private sectors.

Human rights very often get a bad reputation for being too complex, irrelevant to the lives of ordinary people and of little practical use.  In Scotland there is certainly a gap between high level political commitments and people’s day to day experiences.  Fortunately there are several positive developments that create opportunities for civil society and the public sector to mainstream human rights across devolved functions in Scotland including health, housing and education.

In 2016 the Scottish Parliament decided to add a specific human rights remit to a Committee so we now have an Equalities and Human Rights Committee.  The Committee has a programme of work that includes holding an Inquiry on human rights and the Scottish Parliament.  This is a major development as practice will change if the bodies funded by the Scottish Government and held to account by the Parliament, begin to mainstream human rights in their systems, processes and impact assessments.  Importantly, scrutiny of budgets for the impact on human rights will inform and influence decision making to create a fairer Scotland.

Visit the Committee page to learn more about the progress of its Inquiry http://www.parliament.scot/parliamentarybusiness/CurrentCommittees/Equalities-Committee.aspx

Another development to monitor for impact is the introduction of the social and economic duty which has been re-branded as the ‘Fairer Scotland Duty’.  The interim Guidance was published on 27th March 2018, becomes effective in April 2018 and covers a 3 year implementation phase. It places a legal responsibility on particular public bodies in Scotland to actively consider (pay due regard to) how they can reduce inequalities of outcome caused by socioeconomic disadvantage.   Its implementation will be monitored and regulated by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).    Visit the Scottish Government website to learn more about the Duty http://www.gov.scot/Resource/0053/00533417.pdf