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.