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by Kavita Chetty, Scottish Human Rights Commission
29 November 2018
Poverty and human rights: closing the accountability gap

Poverty and human rights: closing the accountability gap

The poverty trap - Image credit: Holyrood

Poverty is one of the most prevalent human rights issues affecting people in Scotland today.

Much needed attention has been drawn to this in recent weeks thanks to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Professor Philip Alston.

His findings from a 12-day fact-finding visit have hit the headlines both because of the bleak picture of poverty they paint, and because of his scathing criticism of failures by the UK Government.

Professor Alston’s sharp articulation of the extent and nature of poverty in Scotland and the rest of the UK will be of no surprise to those living with the consequences of Universal Credit, benefit sanctions and other ‘reforms’ to the broader safety net of social protections.

His findings have also resonated strongly with those who work in frontline support services and advocacy organisations.

Professor Alston is explicit that poverty is a political choice.

This is true but it is also a choice that flies in the face of the international human rights obligations that the UK has signed up to and ratified.

These legal obligations, set out in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, among other international treaties, include exercising political choices in a way that progressively realises rights, using the ‘maximum available resources’ to do so.

There are also legal obligations to make sure goods and services are available, accessible and adequate for people to realise their rights.

And there are obligations to not allow regression when it comes to rights, nor to allow anyone to fall below a minimum floor of protection.

What is striking about the UK Government’s response to Professor Alston is how dismissive they have been when it comes to these obligations, and how defensive they have been when presented with clear evidence of their failure to meet them.

We are left with the impression of a government unwilling to listen to either a world leading expert on human rights and poverty, or the reality of life for millions of people whose lives and hopes for the future are blighted by unnecessary poverty.

This shows just how far the UK has to travel to show meaningful engagement with international accountability for human rights.

Scotland: from ambition to outcomes and bridging the accountability gap

The challenges are different in Scotland.

The Scottish Human Rights Commission hosted meetings between the special rapporteur, people with lived experience of poverty and civil society.

Alston and his team joined us straight from meetings with the First Minister and other Scottish Government representatives, and were clearly struck by what they had heard there.

Understandably so. The level of leadership in human rights governance in Scotland is strong and very welcome.

From the appointment of a First Ministerial Advisory Group on Human Rights Leadership to the greater use of human rights when framing policy to the establishment of a national outcome on human rights.

These commitments are forward thinking in their own right, let alone in contrast to the UK Government’s approach.

However, in our meetings with the special rapporteur and his team, we heard directly from people affected by issues such as rural poverty, barriers to employment and inadequate accommodation for Gypsy Travellers.

We also heard stark statistics from the Poverty and Inequalities Commission and the Equality and Human Rights Commission about the scale and nature of poverty including alarming health inequalities and suicide rates.

It is clear that despite positive ambitions and intentions on poverty by government in Scotland, there has been little change in outcomes in people’s lives.

How can we close this gap between ambition and outcomes?

Professor Alston heard a strong call from our civil society stakeholders for the incorporation of social rights and children’s rights into law in Scotland.

Borne of frustration at the gap between rights respecting rhetoric and the reality for people, the message was clear: Scotland’s people need stronger accountability for their rights to be realised in a meaningful sense.

If we want people’s rights to social security, housing, health and food, among others, to be considered at all stages of policy design and implementation, then we need to build systems which support that.

And people need stronger ways of holding people in power to account when things go wrong and their rights are not protected and respected.

The special rapporteur has been astute in his findings in relation to Scotland.

He has focused on outcomes and actions rather than ambitions and intentions.

He has acknowledged the steps taken by the Scottish Government to mitigate social security reform and alleviate poverty, while encouraging them to take leadership by providing real accountability by creating justiciable rights.

Next month the First Minister’s Advisory Group on Human Rights Leadership, of which the Scottish Human Rights Commission is a member, will present its recommendations, including action to advance accountability for economic, social and environmental rights.

Professor Alston, and indeed the broader international community of human rights advocates, will no doubt be watching with interest to see how the Scottish Government responds.

Kavita Chetty is head of strategy and legal at the Scottish Human Rights Commission

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