A Human Rights Bill for Scotland Consultation Response

Workforce and Resources

A Human Rights Bill for Scotland


August 2023

Introductory remarks

Social Work Scotland is the professional body for social work leaders, working closely with our partners to shape policy and practice, and improve the quality and experience of social services. Human rights, and specifically the actions social services take to give effect to those rights, are a central focus of our work. Arguably, human rights realisation is the purpose of social work, and certainly legislation such as the Human Rights Act 1998 provides part of our operational framework[1].

We therefore feel well positioned to reflect on the opportunities and challenges incorporation of Human Rights covenants, into Scottish domestic law, may mean for people, communities, and public servants. Social workers see, on an hourly basis, the impact of structural and economic factors which inhibit individual’s ability to realise their human rights. Through relational, person-centred practice social workers try to redress those inequities. But would a Human Rights Act for Scotland make that work easier? Would it make a material difference to the lives of those who struggle to realise their rights (as determined by the European Convention of Human Rights and other international law)? Of the various actions the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament could take to “make rights real” for people, is the Human Rights Bill it?

To all these questions our answers are, at present, ambivalent. We absolutely wish to see human rights strengthened, and woven more concretely into the fabric our politics, national governance, and public services. But as a profession with a front row view on the realities of people’s lives, we doubt whether a piece of legislation, alone, will do what the Scottish Government hope it will.

Language, symbols, and culture matter, however in the expansion and improvement of quality public services, financial resources matter as much, if not more. If this legislation helps unlock the resources Scotland needs to bring thresholds (to access services) down, or to create and maintain services in areas where there are none, then it is a worthwhile endeavour. If the legislation is seen as the means through which rights will be realised, without that parallel release of resources, it will be a disappointment. And, potentially, a problematic piece of additional legislative architecture, complicating an already complicated statutory environment, and tying public authorities up in legal processes which pull resources away from the support and services which people need.

Furthermore, social workers understand that a human’s rights are relational; they exist in reference to another human being’s actions and rights. Our profession must often operate in that liminal space between two people’s ‘rights’, assisting in the adjudication of which right takes precedence, e.g. the right of a parent to care for their child, balanced with the right of the child to grow up safe from harm.

We understand that rights do not exist in a vacuum; other obligations abut them, such as a public duty to keep individuals and communities safe. An individual may seek privacy and exert their right to live in whatever manner they deem fit, but if those decisions put their health and wellbeing significantly at risk, or the health of others, society empowers social workers to intervene on its collective behalf. This context is important when considering the opportunities and challenges of a Human Rights Bill; will it facilitate or unhelpfully complicate the critical and necessary work of social workers and other relevant professionals.

Finally, the questions in the consultation are lengthy and technical in nature. Ironically, considering this a consultation about human rights, this creates issues around accessibility. Even for social workers, operating in busy, overstretched environments, the size and technical nature of the consultation has hampered their opportunity to digest the content and provide thoughtful feedback. Consideration should have been given to exploring a consultation process that aimed more specifically to gathering the views of distinctive sectors and having questions framed more appropriately on that basis.