Human Rights Day 2022: The cost of living crisis and human rights

On Human Rights Day 2022, our Chair, Ian Duddy, calls for action to strengthen economic, social and cultural rights in Scotland. 

On this day, in 1948, world leaders adopted a ground-breaking document – the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

The Declaration was a response to the horrors of World War II, in particular the Holocaust, when a minority group was effectively wiped out from most of Europe.

The Universal Declaration was the first real attempt to set agreed international standards on human rights and how governments should behave towards their citizens.

It covered basic rights, such as the right to life, the right to freedom of religion or belief, and the right to freedom of opinion and expression.

Fast forward to 2022 and some of the principles set out in the Declaration remain very relevant today.

Scotland, like many other parts of the world, faces a cost of living crisis. Energy costs have soared, as have the prices of basic foodstuffs. Mortgage interest rates are at their highest for over a decade and the cost of renting a home is out of reach for many.

Scotland also has an ageing population and, following the COVID pandemic, demands on our health service and social care continue to increase.

The cost of living crisis is a human rights crisis

The Universal Declaration sets out that everyone has the right to an adequate standard of living, including food, clothing, housing, medical care and social services. The very same rights under pressure now due to the cost of living crisis.

In Scotland, 26 per cent of children live in poverty*, the majority of them in working households. Being in work is no guarantee that you can provide for your family. And with inflation over 10 per cent, real wages aren’t keeping up, particularly for the lowest earners.

Scotland also has a housing problem. Pre-pandemic, one household was being made homeless every 18 minutes**, and there are 1.5 million Scots struggling with housing costs***.

In the last year, the number of children stuck in temporary accommodation rose by 17%  the highest since records began and a doubling since 2014****.

At the same time, our supply of affordable housing continues to be outstripped by demand, leaving some families trapped for years in temporary accommodation.

What can be done?

The Scottish Government has announced plans for a new Human Rights Bill, that will make some of these internationally recognised standards enforceable in Scots Law. That means local authorities and public bodies will have a legal obligation to comply with them. This is an admirable aim.

However, legislation is just a first step. If it’s not accompanied by a change in mindsets, or sufficient resources, then it often fails.

A Human Rights Based Approach (HRBA) means looking closely at the most marginalised in our society, addressing inequalities, and establishing a minimum core of rights that will enable people to live their lives in dignity.

It cannot be right that, in a developed country like Scotland, this winter individuals and families will struggle to heat their homes or eat regular hot meals, and will live in unfit accommodation that damages their health.

Human rights budgets make a difference

How countries chose to tax their citizens and fund public services is ultimately a political question. But from a human rights perspective, countries need to map out the needs of their population first, and then work out a tax system that will raise sufficient revenues to meet those needs.

Most governments tend to work in reverse. They set parameters for taxes and then decide how to distribute the revenue from a tax take that may not be large enough.

We know that pressures on public services, particularly health and social care will continue to increase over the next decade. Now is the time for an honest conversation about how it will be paid for.

Over the last 200 years, in Scotland and most other developed countries, we have got used to progressively higher living standards, meaning that each generation tends to be richer and live longer, and children enjoy better education, access to healthcare, food and leisure (these are all internationally recognised human rights too).

But is that trend starting to fall apart?

Let’s hope not. I’m an optimist. I believe that strong legislation with a human rights focus, backed up by independent institutions, well-funded, efficient public services, and a commitment to tackling inequalities, could mean Scots born in this decade enjoying the same and ever-strengthening  human rights protections as their parents.

Read more about the Commission’s work to strengthen economic, cultural and social rights and to build more powerful human rights laws on our website.

Read more about Human Rights Day on the United Nations website.


* Source: Scottish Government/** Source: Shelter Scotland/
*** Source: YouGov for ShelterScotland/**** Source: Scottish Government