Human rights budgeting is a powerful tool for change

As the Scottish Government prepares to put its tax and spending plans for 2024-25 before the Scottish Parliament, embedding human rights into government spending would be one of the most powerful tools for change, says Dr Alison Hosie, Research Officer at the Scottish Human Rights Commission.

The Scottish Government is not yet budgeting through a human rights based lens, according to the evidence currently available to the Scottish Human Rights Commission.

We recently made this point at the Social Justice and Social Security Committee (SJSSC) at the Scottish Parliament, where we gave evidence on its Pre-Budget Scrutiny for 2024-25.

The new Human Rights Bill for Scotland is a chance to change this and achieve real progress in areas such as poverty, homelessness and social care. But first, we need to persuade law makers to put human rights at the heart of decision making.

A human rights based approach

A human rights based approach (HRBA) to scrutinising the Scottish Government’s budget starts with identifying the relevant international human rights standards and Treaty Body recommendations.

Next, it’s vital to assess the resource required to deliver the necessary change and improve outcomes for people.

 In order to do this, the process of budgeting has to connect meaningfully to human rights standards and the content of the rights – the ‘L’ in the human rights PANEL principles (‘Legality’).

Meeting the right standards

Understanding the ‘Legality’ in relation to international human rights standards is a three-step process. This is a simplified breakdown but represents an adoptable approach for how government can start to formulate a rights-based analysis of resource generation, allocation and spend to inform budgetary decisions.

Step 1:

Look at what international human rights Conventions/Treaties say a State should be delivering based on its existing obligations. 

Step 2:

Explore any areas where Treaty Bodies, comprised of expert individuals from around the world that provide guiding materials to States on human rights, have identified that a State is not currently delivering.

This provides an evidence based approach to questions for government and budget proposals. It also enables people to challenge the government on its results and outcomes when compared against the Scottish Government’s targets and goals.

Step 3:

Consider what resources are required to deliver on commitments before finally agreeing how the necessary resources can be generated. This information should be shared transparently to enable active participation and deliberation on how best to budget to meet Scotland’s priorities and outcomes.

Transparent decisions

From a HRBA perspective, where systems need to move to with regard to transparency, accountability and participation, it’s important to explore how that end point was reached. This is the element that the Commission has found difficult to assess in its own scrutiny of budget processes.

Fundamentally the key questions are:

  • Are we connecting the generation, allocation and spend of money to the outcomes that we actually want to meet?
  • Where can we demonstrate in the taxation system how that links to achieve X goal e.g. reducing child poverty?

Improving transparency is important and in and of itself is a public good, but it will not deliver rights-based outcomes and improve the lived experience of many people in Scotland. What it will do is make it easier to see and scrutinise what is happening and possibly why allocated resources are not having the desired impact.

Asking different questions

Notably, the current consultation on the Scottish Government’s proposed Human Rights Bill contains a commitment to embed human rights principles into the existing process, rather than a commitment to adopt a HRBA to the development of a new budget setting process, ensuring these principles of transparency, accountability and participation influence new budgetary decision making. This is unlikely to lead to the budgeting from a rights perspective that is required to bring about change.

An expected refurbishment of the Equality Fairer Scotland Budget Statement (EFSBS) presents an opportunity to include improved analysis of potential equalities and human rights impacts before decisions are taken, with a better connection to relevant human rights. There is value in looking at how this approach may be further enhanced for future budgets.

We can see that many Parliamentary Committees at the pre-budget stage are asking questions with relevance to their portfolios. However, the questions being asked risk leading to the same answers already received – and the process continues as before. To change the answers, the Commission recommends that the questions need to change.

Read more about human rights budgeting on the Human Rights Budget Work page of our website.