Call to put rights at heart of Scots services

5 Mar 13
Public bodies in Scotland need to incorporate human rights more fully into their activities or face financial consequences, a Scottish campaigner has told Public Finance.

By Keith Aitken in Edinburgh | 6 March 2013

Public bodies in Scotland need to incorporate human rights more fully into their activities or face financial consequences, a Scottish campaigner has told Public Finance.

Carole Ewart, chair of the Human Rights Consortium Scotland, warned public bodies against using the ­austerity programme as an excuse to drag their feet on human rights.

She told PF: ‘Public bodies can’t afford not to comply, not just because they should care about human beings, but because there’s a big risk to the public pound from failing to comply.’ 

Ewart cited the example of the £85m that Audit Scotland has advised the Scottish Prison Service to set aside for settling cases following a successful human rights challenge to the practice of ‘slopping out’. 

Ewart was speaking during a ­conference in Edinburgh, Developing the Scottish Human Rights Agenda, on ­February 5. The conference was addressed by Audit Scotland, the Public Service Ombudsman’s office, the Scottish Human Rights Commission and legal affairs minister Roseanna Cunningham.

Cunningham said human rights were ‘a bedrock of the current constitutional settlement’ and needed to be expanded across the public sector.

The conference coincided with a debate at Holyrood on extending rights in public bodies. This was held to mark the start of a consultation by the Scottish Human Rights Commission, an independent body backed by the Scottish Government, to draw up a national plan for human rights. First Minister Alex Salmond has proposed that an independent Scotland would have a written constitution, enshrining the European Convention on Human Rights and so-called third generation cultural and social rights, such as the right to a home and to free healthcare and education.

SHRC chair Professor Alan Miller said that the national plan, to be published by the end of the year, would aim to produce both legal and public policy consistency to ensure that economic, social and cultural rights were accorded equal status to civil and political rights. ‘It’s not to be cherry-picked. It’s a human rights culture that we want to develop,’ he said.
One example of the approach is the new oath for members of Scotland’s police force, which includes a commitment to uphold human rights.

The public sector, Miller said, would have a lead role in setting standards and developing know-how. Human rights impact assessment techniques were being piloted in Fife and Renfrewshire, and best practice would be shared with the private and voluntary sectors – and might ultimately be enforced through procurement policy.

Diane McGiffen, chief operating officer of Audit Scotland, said the body already audited Best Value, which included rights-related factors such as diversity, equality and community engagement and which sought to spread best practice. It was also developing new audit techniques, and saw human rights compliance as a facet of good governance.

Ewart highlighted the importance of the conference, telling PF: ‘It is significant because we have had a minister giving clear direction to the public sector that the Scottish Government expects human rights to be part and parcel of the delivery of public services. It’s memorable because the key drivers of delivering human rights compliance are speaking as one.’


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