This is a guest authored article from Dr Alison Hosie, Research Officer at the Scottish Human Rights Commission and member of the Equality Budget Advisory Group
“Budgets are a key sign of a government’s values. So, if human rights are not in there, what’s being said is that they are not a value worth counting.” Professor Aoife Nolan, 2014
Arguably the budget is the most important policy document a government produces. All governments must respect, protect and fulfil human rights, which Scotland has explicitly acknowledged through its National Performance Framework Outcomes. The way a government generates, allocates and spends money plays a key role in this.
Placing human rights at the heart of budgetary decisions connects finance with everyone’s right to lead a life of dignity. To achieve this requires human rights standards to shape the goals of the budget and human rights principles such as participation, transparency, accountability and non-discrimination to shape the entire budgeting process..
The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights states that the fundamental relationship between a government’s budget and its human rights obligations requires governments to:
“take steps… to the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the rights…”[i].
Assessing whether or not this has happened starts with asking the right questions.
With regard to resource generation this means asking:
- Is sufficient revenue generated to invest in realising basic levels of rights for all?
- Where and whom are resources generated from? Are particular groups unjustly impacted?
- Is government revenue increasing/ could it be increased further?
With regard to resource allocation, this means asking:
- Do allocations prioritise the achievement of adequate rights for all?
- Do allocations close the gaps in human rights enjoyment between different groups?
- Are allocations growing or shrinking? Are reductions justified in human rights terms?
The beginning of an answer to these questions lies in the areas of taxation and the degree to which the government understands its rights obligations.
As a member of the Equality Budget Advisory Group (EBAG), we help shape the Scottish Government’s equality and human rights approach to the budget.
This is a difficult budget year. Scotland ,alongside the UK, is still to enter the recovery phase from the COVID-19 pandemic. The Cabinet Secretary for Finance Kate Forbes promised a budget of ‘exceptional circumstances’ requiring an ‘exceptional response’[ii]. Has the budget delivered this?
To answer this we need to start by questioning whether the Scottish Government has done everything it can to maximise its revenue generation through fair and progressive taxation? At a first look , it doesn’t appear so.
Income tax rates remain unchanged, coupled with an end to the freeze on Scotland’s higher rate income tax threshold. It is higher-earners who will benefit from this policy, the majority of whom are men and who have been better insulated from the financial impacts of the pandemic and this is a missed opportunity to raise much-needed tax revenue.
This budget also saw the return of the Council Tax freeze. A tax which is long established as regressive and overdue for replacement. That debate aside – who does this freeze benefit? The obligation to maximise available resources must not unjustly impact on certain groups. Through its broad relation to income with higher income often equating to a more expensive property ,this freeze could benefit higher earners more. Lower income households should be exempt from paying Council Tax and so this freeze will do little to improve their situation. This policy will cost £90 million, to the benefit of approximately 50p per household, arguably money that could have been better targeted elsewhere.
Content of the rights obligations
The government must understand the contents of its rights obligations in order to be able to assess if they meet the basic levels of rights for all. The supplementary information published with this year’s budget starts the first-stage of that process and applying that understanding to assessing the budget would be the next step.
This year’s Equality and Fairer Scotland Budget Statement[iii], for the first time, has attempted to identify what key rights each of the government portfolios has a particular focus on. With a few exceptions, it was a good attempt. Of concern was the limited awareness of rights relevant to the Finance portfolio. Whilst correctly identifying its relevance to the right to an adequate standard of living, there was a failure to note that the work of this portfolio is in fact relevant to realisation of the full spectrum of rights – economic, social, cultural, civil, political and environmental. Few rights can be realised without the application of resources.
Finally, we ask questions around the processes – were they transparent, participative and accountable? Work published[iv] by the Human Rights Budget Working Group[v] last year, highlighted concern around public participation and fiscal transparency. The inability to ‘follow the money’ has subsequently been highlighted by the likes of the Fraser of Allander[vi], the Joseph Rowntree Foundation[vii] and Audit Scotland’s new policy priority to ‘follow the pandemic pound’[viii]. Connecting allocation, spend and impact necessitates better fiscal transparency.
In terms of improving fiscal transparency, the Scottish Exchequer have launched a programme of work with the Scottish Government’s Digital Transformation Division to explore how data on Scottish Government borrowing, revenue and spend could be presented and used to support fiscal transparency and in turn people’s ability to participate.
The budget should support the government’s objectives as set out in legislation, policies, plans and programmes. For this reason, human rights budgeting must be part of a larger process. Specifically, actors involved in designing policies and plans relevant for the realisation of human rights, need to work closely with those involved in developing the budget, to ensure that they are all pulling in the same direction. Giving effect to a state’s human rights obligations, goes beyond analysing for human rights compliance, it must ensure that the obligation to dedicate the maximum of its available resources to progressive realisation of rights is embedded in the way that fiscal policy is conceptualised and developed.
Those making decisions are ultimately responsible for ensuring that the budget is created and implemented to respect, protect and fulfil its human rights obligations. The imminent incorporation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into Scots law[ix], and legislation flowing from the recommendations of the National Taskforce on Human Rights Leadership[x], make this of immediate importance. Developing capacity on Scotland’s human rights obligations across all government portfolios and their budgets will be crucial if the government is to take human rights leadership off the page and into action.
Links for further information on the Scottish Human Rights Commission