A Rights Deficit?
Along with our members and third sector/civic society partners, SCVO has been vocal about the impact of austerity measures and welfare cuts and the resultant effect on people’s ability to fulfil basic human rights.
Responses to, for example, the Oakley review on jobseeker sanctions highlighted the impact of increased use of penalties on people who are already vulnerable and struggling to participate in society and the economy on an equal footing e.g. three year sanctions applied to people with disabilities and lone parents with young children. [i] [ii] [iii]
Evidence from across the third sector[iv] and work done by Dr David Webster[v] paints a disturbing picture of individuals and families being left with no income; other are being driven to seek free food services and support from food banks[vi]. There are individuals and families struggling to fulfil the most basic of human rights, including access to housing[vii], food[viii], and the ability to have a stable, family life.[ix] A particularly concerning development was the return of food to food banks by families who could not afford heat the food provided.[x]
Whilst recognising the more positive context within Scotland and the drive to ensure progressive implementation of a rights based agenda[xi], there is more which could be done to ensure that the rights of key groups are protected. Consider, for example, the challenges within social care and concerns within independent living movement and the wider third sector about how social care is developing.[xii] [xiii] Recent pressure from the sector to restate human rights principles within legislation (in addition to the provisions within the Scotland Act)[xiv] provide an indication of the drive to ensure policy empowers and protects key groups such as people with disabilities and unpaid carers.
SCVO also notes the recent Law Society discussion paper “Legal Assistance in Scotland: Fit for the 21st Century”[xv], which suggested a number of changes including reducing eligibility levels for civil legal aid and the introduction of “affordable legal assistance loans”. Given the recent decline[xvi] in expenditure on legal aid, SCVO is concerned about the ability of those who are vulnerable or seeking legal redress to access justice and how this in turn impacts on their rights.
Positive debate needed
The third sector’s vision is for a fair and just society, and we work in partnership with third sector organisations and community groups to advance our shared values and interests. Human rights and equality are central to these values.
Now more than ever, we must act to ensure a more positive and empowering debate about human rights. We are concerned about the language and debate being driven at a UK level – rather than seeing the positive impact of driving a rights based approach to public services and policy, this debate pits people against each other[xvii]. The language used to stigmatise individuals and families who are claiming benefits provides a prime example of this[xviii]; this must continue to be challenged by the Scottish Government, political parties and wider civic society.
Opportunities to embed a rights based approach
There have been opportunities for the Scottish Government to build a clear rights based focus into key legislation over this last term – e.g. amendments to the Self Directed Support act prior to it being passed – in addition to the provisions within the Scotland Act.
SCVO has called for the Welfare Funds (Scotland) Bill to have a clear rights focus, given the nature of the Fund. A clear, “up front” set of principles should indicate from the outset how people in crisis will be treated. As SCVO outlined in a previous consultation:
“We believe that the planned Bill must include principles or a commitment to protect key human rights and/or reflect a commitment to maintain the dignity and respect of individuals who have to use the Fund. In the case of this Bill, this is especially important as many approaching the fund for help are struggling to achieve the most basic of rights e.g. access to food, heat etc. Further stigma and bureaucracy only serves to further strip people of those rights.”
Access – or lack of access to food – is a key concern for the sector. As outlined above, this has come to the fore particularly as a result of benefits changes. However, charities in the frontline have outlined the challenges which older people can face in relation to malnutrition.[xix] Policy in Scotland has not always picked this up e.g. the consultation on “Good Food Nation” published by the Scottish Government. In a response to this, Foodtrain and SCVO argued:
“Food is vital to our very survival, it connects and unites us. The document focuses heavily on growing, retail and production and misses the opportunity to link to other Government work focusing on the wellbeing of people in Scotland. There are clear links with health, wellbeing, with activity to reshape care for older people and with commitments to combat child poverty[xx].
The issue of access to food sits across a range of Scottish Government policy portfolios and key groups such as the Ministerial Advisory Group on Child Poverty, The Health Inequalities Action group and should be a key element of health and social care integration.” There are opportunities to ensure that fulfilling this basic right is part of wider policy action in this regard.
Along with carers’ organisations, we welcome the ongoing discussion about enhancing the rights of unpaid carers[xxi]. As Carers Scotland indicates, there is an opportunity to rethink policy in the context of clearer rights for carers – looking beyond health and social care to employment, education and other policy portfolios.
Lastly, the work to take forward the Scottish National Action Plan on Human Rights (SNAP) must continue to be a priority for the Scottish Government. The vision driving SNAP is one where everyone in Scotland is “able to live with human dignity” is simple but compelling. It must be a key element of government (at all levels) and sit at the heart of policy and legislation. It must mean something to people and communities affected by government policy. It must drive economic policy – recognizing the need for our economy to work better for all.[xxii]
This is a positive development focusing on areas of concern outlined above e.g. SNAP Priority 4 relating to access to high quality care. Opportunities may exist to bring to life other SNAP priorities with the possible further devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament. With the ability to create social security policy, even on a relatively small scale, how can governments (national and local) ensure access to a decent standard of living? (SNAP priority 5). The strong emphasis on human dignity and people being treated with respect was a central principle identified by the Expert Working Group on Welfare[xxiii] ; this must be reflected in how future powers over welfare and other areas are implemented.
Further Devolution, Equality and Human Rights
Human rights, equality legislation and enforcement featured in many third sector responses to the Smith Commission. SCVO called for partial devolution of equalities powers to “..better align equality with devolved policy areas such as housing, health, education, employment & justice, to account for the different demographics in Scotland and to build on the strong relationships which exist between equality organisations and the Scottish Parliament”.[xxiv]
From the perspective of other third sector organisations, there are opportunities with further powers to tackle long term, ingrained inequality e.g. Engender. [xxv]
One of the key drivers in implementing any newly devolved powers must be to tackle the inequality which exists in Scotland and to drive forward the SNAP vision focussed on dignity in life for all.
SCVO is working across a range of networks and forums to promote the positive impact of human rights and to challenge negative perceptions of a rights based approach. Our work includes:
- Working in partnership with organisations such as SHRC, Outside the Box, Highland Senior Citizens Network and others through our Highlands and Islands Equality Forum (HIEF) to deliver events, training and networking opportunities;
- Working as part of the steering group for the development of the SHRC’s Equality and Human Rights Impact Assessment (EQHRIA) project ;(http://www.scottishhumanrights.com/ourresources/hreqiamaincontent)
- Providing information and support on equality and human rights issues through our Information Service and the HIEF project
- Supporting the development of an Equality and Human Rights Performance Framework for the third sector across the UK (http://ehrf.org.uk/)
Lastly, SCVO is taking forward the Scottish Accessible Information Forum (SAIF), which is supporting the rights of disabled people and their carers to timely and accurate information (http://www.saifscotland.org.uk/).
[xii] For example – http://www.ilis.co.uk/cgblog/26/Abolish-Social-Care-Charges
[xiv] E.g. – Integration of Adult Health and Social Care in Scotland: Consultation, A Shared Statement from Third Sector Organisations
[xxv] Engender submission to the Smith Commission on devolution October 2014