Commission welcomes appointment of COVID-19 inquiry Chair and presses for further action to put human rights at heart of inquiry

The Scottish Human Rights Commission has responded to the announcement by Scottish Ministers of the establishment of a statutory public inquiry under the Inquiries Act (2005) to examine the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in Scotland.

The Commission welcomes Lady Poole’s appointment as chair of the COVID-19 inquiry. The Commission also welcomes the inclusion of some human rights considerations in the inquiry’s Terms of Reference. However, the Terms of Reference do not go far enough to ensure that a human rights based approach is taken to the inquiry. Much will depend on the approach taken by the newly appointed Chair.

The Commission first called for a human rights based approach to a public inquiry in July 2020, in the context of reporting on human rights in care homes. We reiterated this call in May 2021 in a letter to Ministers. In September 2021, we submitted detailed advice to the Scottish Government’s consultation on the draft aims and principles of an Inquiry.

Judith Robertson, Chair of the Commission, said:

“Acting quickly to identify and learn lessons from the handling of the pandemic, through a human rights lens, will help to identify where things went wrong and ensure rights-respecting governance and decision making in future times of crisis. We welcome the positive steps taken to ensure human rights are considered by the inquiry. 

“However, we remain concerned to ensure that the inquiry itself now takes a human rights based approach to the greatest extent possible within its Terms of Reference. We will be writing shortly to Lady Poole to highlight key ways in which this can be done. 

“Meanwhile, the Scottish Government must ensure that the inquiry has the resources required to take a human rights based approach, including the provision of advocacy and psychological support for those particularly affected by the handling of the pandemic. It must also give a public commitment to respond in full to all the recommendations made when the inquiry reports, and take all necessary steps to ensure that all public bodies and those carrying out public functions act in accordance with the principles of full transparency and cooperation in relation to the inquiry.” 

The Commission has previously called for the principles of a human rights based approach to be applied to all aspects of the inquiry’s work. As the inquiry moves forward, this should now include: 

  • Ensuring that people affected by human rights issues are involved in both the process of the inquiry and determining its outcomes. 
  • Acknowledging and applying the procedural standards of Articles 2 and 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. 
  • Gathering evidence in relation to all of those with human rights obligations across the 12 strategic elements of the inquiry’s Terms of Reference, whether in public or private sectors. 
  • Analysing evidence in terms of the disproportionate impacts of laws, policies and practices on different groups within the community, and compliance with human rights standards. 
  • Appointing a panel and/or assessors with diverse experience, reflecting those who have been most affected by the pandemic, and with expertise in a human rights approach and human rights standards.

The Commission emphasises that taking these actions as the inquiry progresses will help ensure that the values and aspirations relating to human rights, previously expressed by Ministers, are embedded in the inquiry and carried through to its completion.