The spotlight on human rights is about to shine on new sectors of Scottish life
The protection of human rights when public services are contracted out to private operators will be a key focus of the Scottish Human Rights Commission in the coming year.
The move will have major implications for operators of private residential care homes and private prison operators. Speaking with Holyrood ahead of the launch of the SHRC’s first annual report, which sets out its plan for the year ahead, chair, Professor Alan Miller said that the Scottish work would go further than provisions planned for the UK Equalities Act.
While the Equalities Act contains elements concerned with the provision of government services, the SHRC will be taking a farranging examination of how human rights are protected – or otherwise – in such privatelyrun facilities.
Miller says: “What is emerging and what we are going to look at quite seriously is public procurement and how increasingly a lot of public services are being contracted out to private operators to deliver and the gap is that many of these private operators do not have to comply with the Human Rights Act. It’s a separate but bigger issue than the Equality Bill. That relates primarily just to the labour conditions of those who work for the private contractors. We’re talking about the actual service that they are contracted to deliver to ensure it meets human rights standards.
We are talking about private prisons, private residential homes, private operators of care services, where there is a definite impact on the quality of life of those who receive those services.
“But the procurement process is very much value for money, driving down as a result, not just the wages and working conditions and therefore the culture of those who deliver these services, but the quality, the standard of care that’s delivered and therefore to look at that and see how it’s not just value for money that should be a criteria but value for society and that human rights standards and expectations should be built into the procurement process. It is an emerging issue of public concern where, we think, there are areas of human rights concern which need to be explored and strengthened.” This work will naturally dovetail with another of the SHRC’s stated areas of focus for the coming year: the dignity and human rights of those receiving care of any kind.
Miller says: “All those who are entitled to receive care, particularly the most vulnerable, like older people, younger people, those who are in need of mental health care, drug and alcohol care. Those are generally the most vulnerable and have the least heard voices.
“It’s working with them and their advocacy bodies, those who provide the care, those who regulate the quality and standard of care, working with them to increase their ability to be able to ensure that human rights are understood and integrated into care and therefore the human dignity of those who are entitled to receive care is respected.” Miller says the previous 12 months of the commission’s work was focused on laying the institutional foundations that will now allow the SHRC to be “ready to begin to make a difference in Scotland”.
He outlines three areas that the commission felt it needed to address before being ready to ‘go live’: “One is the internal governance, how we organise ourselves, being sensitive to the expectation and concerns that were expressed during the passage of the Bill and the establishment of the commission, so getting the governance right. Second, building relationships throughout Scotland with the public and with the different levels of policy and decision making in Scotland.
“Thirdly, internationally, integrating ourselves into the international human rights framework at the UN and our sister organisations, of whom there are over 80 around the world.”.
He identifies work done at the State Hospital – otherwise known as Carstairs – in recent years to improve the human rights culture as an example of best practice in this country that he will use to help inform other institutions and bodies in their own efforts to improve their work.
He says: “There were problems at the State Hospital and progress has been made, using a rights-based approach over the last seven years and we’d like to evaluate just how that was done and what can be shared with the rest of the country and internationally.
The problems were that under the previous management, there was defensiveness and a lack of understanding about the role of human rights in the delivery of mental health care and the management were on the receiving end of human rights challenges and problems.
“New management came in who wanted to see if human rights could be made to work for them rather than against them and I was asked to play a role in the early stages in helping them better understand and integrate human rights into their daily life for the benefit not only of patients but staff and management and the community.
That work has been picked up and taken forward by everyone in the State Hospital and we want to capture just how it was done, what the benefits have been in order that it can be popularised and lessons learned and adapted by not just the mental health sector more generally, but also the public and private sector in Scotland.
“It’s probably the most advanced attempt in Scotland to create a rights-based approach but we want to be able to have an independent evaluation done of it to provide the evidence for others to then learn as to what they might adapt in their own context.” Miller also says that the commission has worked hard to develop systems that will allow it to react quickly to an emerging human rights issue, though he makes an effort to point out that the SHRC will not be getting involved in each and every issue without ensuring it can have an impact.
The sense is clear that he does not want the commission to be seen as a busybody or talking shop.
He says: “We have developed criteria by which we will assess how we will respond to issues that will emerge in the next years and beyond. For example, how grave is the breach or the threat to human rights? Is it impacting on those with no voice to speak for them? Are there no other bodies taking up the issue for them?
Can we really make an impact commensurate with our resources?
“We want to be able to filter the demands that will be made on us so the public can understand why we prioritise what we do.”