Public finances, human rights and COVID-19

Written by: Dr Alison Hosie, Research Officer, Scottish Human Rights Commission

Published: 08/06/2020

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We need transparency in public finances to rebuild and protect human rights after COVID-19.

Life in Scotland has changed dramatically in the weeks since COVID-19 took hold. Both the pandemic and associated measures taken by the state have impacted on all aspects of our daily lives, on public health, and on the economy. Our rights are affected in all sorts of ways, including rights to health, life, fair work, food, social security, privacy, family life and freedom of movement. Like other countries around the world, we are dealing with the immediate crisis while feeling our way into a “new normal” where little is certain and much is at stake.

The Scottish Parliament’s Finance and Constitution Committee is holding an Inquiry into the impact of COVID-19 on the public finances and the Fiscal Framework. As the Scottish Human Rights Commission noted in its joint evidence with the ALLIANCE, government must ensure fiscal transparency and engagement with the public, even in the urgency of rapid decision-making. These principles are core to taking a human rights based approach to the budget – an approach that recognises and fully considers how decisions about resources affect how people’s rights are respected, protected and fulfilled.

Public questions are already being asked about spending decisions that have been made: how additional resources from the UK government are being used; whose interests they are serving; whether decisions perpetuate or alleviate existing inequalities; and whether the decisions being taken are fair. The impact of decisions being made now will be felt for many years to come. Taking a human rights based approach to these decisions can support openness, honesty, transparency and public engagement, helping to maintain the public’s trust in current and future budgetary decisions.

The International Budget Partnership’s (IBP) (this link will take you away from our website) Open Budget Survey (OBS) (this link will take you away from our website) is used to produce the only global, independent, comparative measure of the budget transparency of 117 countries national governments, encompassing all regions of the world and all income levels. It uses internationally accepted criteria developed by multilateral organisations and is recognised as authoritative by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

The latest recently published results (this link will take you away from our website) reveal cause for concern. They show that many governments worldwide currently fail to publish key budget documents that would clearly explain their budget policies, decisions and outcomes, enabling their budgets to be fully accessible to the public. In particular, the IBP notes (this link will take you away from our website) that “sector budgets do not typically include the detail necessary to show public spending improves the delivery of critical services, including health care services central to resolve this pandemic”.

The UK government’s budget process is assessed by the OBS (this link will take you away from our website) but as a sub-national government, Scotland is not specifically subject to assessment. To enable globally comparable scores for Scotland, the Scottish Human Rights Commission therefore replicated the detailed OBS methodology (this link will take you away from our website), with support from the IBP and partners in its Human Rights Budget Working Group (this link will take you away from our website). This initiative forms part of the Commission’s human rights budget work programme.

The results show that Scotland performs well when it comes to budgetary oversight, scoring 85/100 overall, 77/100 on legislative oversight and 100/100 on auditory oversight. However, when it comes to fiscal transparency and public participation, Scotland falls significantly short of globally recommended standards, scoring only 43/100 and 20/100 on these key measures.

The Commission’s report (this link will take you away from our website) details the full findings. It also makes a series of recommendations to the Scottish Government, Scottish Parliament and relevant oversight and scrutiny bodies. These include:

  • The Scottish Government should publish all eight key budget documents (only four were published) (this link will take you away from our website).
  • A Citizens’ version of each of the key documents should be published at the same time as the key document, to facilitate engagement with the budget when it matters.
  • The Scottish Government should provide more opportunities for the public and civil society to participate in scrutiny at all stages of the budget.
  • Better legislative oversight is required during the implementation stage of the budget cycle.
  • Government and Parliamentary policy and subject inquiries could consistently and routinely address budgetary elements to improve budgetary focus and scrutiny.

Overall, the recommendations aim to support further positive changes to Scotland’s budgetary processes, many of which were recommended (and accepted by government) in 2017 by the Budget Process Review Group (this link will take you away from our website).

As United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, emphasised in March (this link will take you away from our website): “COVID-19 is a test for our societies, and we are all learning and adapting as we respond to the virus. Human dignity and rights need to be front and centre in that effort, not an afterthought.”

The Scottish Government is currently taking very difficult decisions in particularly challenging circumstances. Doing so with openness, transparency, accountability and public participation will foster and build trust with people. It will also help to ensure that budgetary choices being made support Scotland’s recovery in a way that respects, protects and fulfils everyone’s rights as much as possible.

This Opinion is part of a specially commissioned series by the ALLIANCE’s Academy programme looking at COVID-19 and the Five Provocations for the Future of Health and Social Care.  An earlier version of this Opinion first appeared as an article in The National on 1 June 2020.

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