The time to introduce human rights budgeting for Scottish councils is now
Local councils need ‘radical change’ to keep delivering for the people of Scotland, according to a recent report from the Accounts Commission. So, what about adopting a rights-based approach to resources?
This article was originally published in Public Finance magazine, by Dr Alison Hosie, Research Officer at the Scottish Human Rights Commission and co-author Aidan Flegg, a doctoral student undertaking a collaborative PhD with the Commission, the University of Glasgow and University of Stirling.
When you listen to those with lived experience of human rights issues in Scotland, you’ll often hear the same theme: that warm words of policy intent are a long way from the cold harsh reality of life in houses, communities, hospitals, and in the pockets of too many people.
The Scottish Human Rights Commission is increasingly concerned by this accountability gap. But we do know that one of the strongest tools for change is decision-making by duty bearers on how and where public money is spent – and using the human rights framework to support that decision-making. Local councils lie at the heart of this change.
Scotland’s collective journey to respect, protect, and fulfil human rights requires a balance between the population’s increasing demands on public services whilst simultaneously recovering from the vast public expenditure of the global pandemic, the economic damage created by Brexit, more than a decade of austerity and the current cost of living crisis.
This tension is felt acutely by our local councils who are at the forefront of delivering public services essential to upholding our human rights, basic needs, and wellbeing. This ranges from providing free school meals and public education, to leisure centres and libraries, social care, social housing, waste and transport services, and creating a natural environment fit for the future. A healthy, dignified society depends on functioning, well-resourced local councils.
This is why the recent report from the Accounts Commission’s three-year exploration of local council finances should raise the alarm.
Without ‘radical change’ there will be ‘increasingly difficult’ choices to make between spending priorities and delivering essential services. Five key areas of focus are highlighted in the report:
Upskilling council workforces
Placing community needs and inequality at the heart of service delivery and making better financial and resourcing decisions.
The Accounts Commission’s report recognises these needs. It demonstrates issues from increasing budget constraints and centralised ‘ringfencing’, ballooning costs of delivering key services to an increasingly ageing and unhealthy population and the growing pressures of tackling child poverty, whilst also delivering on net zero pledges. Worse, resources are going to get tighter, as outlined in the Scottish Government’s Resource Spending Review (2022) and Medium-Term Financial Strategy (2023).
The current approach is unsustainable and leaves local councils increasingly reliant on resource reserves, likely meaning the problems we face today will remain the problems of our future. If Scotland is serious about its commitments to reducing poverty, bettering public services, and forging a nation built on the basis of fairness, dignity and human rights, action is needed now.
Recommendations in the report include greater transparency in decision-making, longer-term planning with three-year budgets, targeting resources to the most marginalised and disadvantaged groups of people, and greater flexibility in local council spending - to ensure local needs are met over national policy.
It also recommends the need to ‘work with the Scottish Government to rebuild an effective relationship’. What is missing is the framework to support fair and transparent decision-making on resource generation, allocation and spend. Human rights budgeting (HRB) can provide that framework.
HRB can be threaded throughout all public decision-making on resources. It reflects the need for human rights standards, principles, and entitlements to be at its heart. In practice, it champions the need for participation of local communities, greater transparency of decision-making and financial documentation, and decision-making that encourages substantive equality.
Most importantly, it requires spending decisions to be evidenced on improving outcomes and ensuring everyone’s most basic needs are met in Scotland.
The question often raised when debating how to spend our limited resources is ‘how much will it cost?’ The more appropriate question is ‘what is the cost of us not doing so?’
Resources are limited and there will always be competing priorities. But having the key principles of human rights at the centre of decision-making enables tough decisions to be made in a way that respects, protects, and fulfils our human rights to the best of a public body’s ability.
HRB provides not only a tool to hold decision-makers to account, but, crucially, a tool for public bodies to demonstrate their commitment to international, and soon-to-be domestic, human rights obligations.
The Scottish Government has committed to incorporate key international treaties into Scots Law soon. But in the context of UK-wide, ever-growing financial troubles, the ‘radical change’ needed is aligning our resources with delivering upon everyone’s human rights. If Scotland is serious about continuing this journey, rights-based budgeting represents a significant step towards that goal. With Audit Scotland’s necessary but bleak report, there seems no better time than now to get started.