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It mostly covers my work as UNISON Scotland's Head of Policy and Public Affairs although views are my own. For full coverage of UNISON Scotland's policy and campaigns please visit our web site. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Developing a human rights agenda

I was speaking at a conference in Edinburgh today on the challenges for staff in developing a human rights agenda in Scotland. It was on the same day as the Scottish Parliament was debating 'Promoting and Protecting Human Rights - Scotland, Europe and the Wider World.'

Most of our members and their employers are covered by the Human Rights Act and this approach is embedded into devolution through the Scotland Act. It is a particular issue for members in health, social care, police and education settings.

The Scottish Human Rights Commission (SHRC) are promoting a National Action Plan for Scotland and their analysis of human rights in Scotland is reflected in our experience. Much more needs to be done on process including measures, awareness and capacity building. A particular problem is with impact assessment as this is rarely done well with a tick box approach being the norm. Studies done by Warwick University highlight the importance of clear guidance, shared evidence, monitoring and collective impact studies. The SHRC also have a project that is developing new guidance for public bodies. This month sees the publication of council budgets for the coming financial year. We will be looking careful at the impact assessments on these budgets. Human rights is more than simply justifying the risk of cuts on disadvantaged groups.

Another concern is the UK Government's review of the public sector equality duty. It reflects their regulatory burden approach rather than viewing impact assessment as a positive tool to improve services. More positively, I highlighted the work being done to incorporate human rights approaches into the new national police force, including the Constable’s declaration and a new ethics code. Sadly the Bill also undermined the human rights of police civilian staff in several areas.

Individual public service staff also have responsibility for human rights. However, we found very limited awareness  of human rights approaches and members tell us that they
don't generally operate in a human rights culture. It is viewed as an add on - not integrated into the organisations decision making process. There is some awareness of the FAIR approach that is viewed as a useful tool. There is also not enough training or capacity in this field and I illustrated this with our own work in producing a Scottish Gypsy Travellers guidance booklet for members.

The primary human rights constraint on staff are the spending cuts. These are pushing the boundaries of proportionate responses under human rights law - particularly in areas like care procurement, personalisation, mental health, housing, fuel poverty and of course welfare reform. With 51,700 fewer public service workers in Scotland since the crash, staff are simply too stretched to give adequate consideration to human rights approaches. Cuts are widening inequality and social exclusion.

Public service reform is also a challenge for human rights in Scotland. Contrary to the Christie recommendations we are seeing increased centralisation of services. While communities of place are important we should not forget the importance of communities of interest when protecting human rights, particularly of people from ethnic minorities.

Finally, I looked at the role of human rights in protecting workers. As a senior trade union official I am painfully aware that however robust my organising, bargaining and campaigning may be, I can go home at night in safety. There are many comrades across the world who don't operate in a human rights environment and have lost their lives doing what I do ever day. That is why we should view human rights as of international importance and not be sucked into the isolationist approach of a UK Bill of Rights.

Human rights as a policy and legal approach is of increasing importance to trade unions. It should underpin our approaches to fair pay and attacks on conditions through zero hours contracts and similar provisions. The UK government's attack on health and safety at work undermines human rights, as does privatisation with its disproportionate impact on women workers. The right to strike under Article 11 has also been the subject of some legal debate given the highly restrictive laws in the UK.

In conclusion, human rights should impact on wide range of public service staff. However, it is constrained by limited organisational development and a tick box process rather than an embedded culture. There is limited staff awareness and training and the cuts are a major constraint. More positively, there is a growing recognition of human rights as means of protecting workers.