Robin McAlpine – 28th October 2021
If you want to find an example of a truly inspiring vision for the world with a genuinely utopian spirit and you limit yourself to the period since the Second World War, your best bet is probably the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
It is certainly a product of its time and it may well have its own biases and in-built assumptions – but you can read stretches of it and think ‘wow, I want to live there’. That this was agreed by the world’s nations may have been a function of the shock and horror at the war just ended (they were signed in 1948), but that takes nothing away from their impact.
It is therefore to be assumed that the increasing use of ‘rights-based approaches’ to solving Scotland’s social, environmental and economic problems is to be welcomed by all, right? Except it really isn’t as simple as that.
A ‘right’ is a bold statement as to what you, as a person, can expect from your society. But it does not in any way detract from its power to say that the existence of that right does nothing to realise its meaning. It isn’t a promise and it isn’t a plan. It may not even be legally enforceable (some ‘rights-based approaches’ are really ‘consumer-based approaches’, the right to pick from a menu).
In the end you can grant a Right to Food, a Right to a Home or the Rights of the Child (to be heard) – but you can’t eat a right, live in one or get to a consultation meeting on one.
This has come up as a crucial question in the work Common Weal has been doing on a National Care Service. The consultation discusses whether there should be a ‘Right to Respite’ for an informal carer. On the face of it this is inarguable; to be a carer for someone who needs that care round the clock, every day of the year, is one of the most exhausting commitments you can make.
But what does a ‘Right to Respite’ mean for that person? After all, technically you don’t need one – you have the right to walk away any time you want. You choose to care, you’re not required to care. So what does a right for a short break mean when you have the right to just leave any time?
And what does a Right to Respite mean if the service provided to your loved one isn’t of a high enough standard to allow you to enjoy your break without guilt or remorse? What if you don’t know how to access your right? What if you are denied your right? What then?
What is needed isn’t a right to respite on the part of the carer but a right to high-quality care on the part of the person who needs it. Of course they may prefer that to be from someone important to them, but few won’t want that person to get a break. What is important is that the person who needs care is guaranteed that high-quality care.
This is what has led our work towards what we’re calling ‘the Four Rs’. When you hear the first, the word ‘Right’, you should immediately look for the others – Responsibility, Relationship and Resource.
If you are granted a right, whose responsibility is it to deliver that right? What is their phone number? Who do you talk to? It must always be someone’s responsibility to make that right a reality.
A right means something more than a guarantee. The Right to Food doesn’t mean the right to lobster thermidore every day, but nor is that right met with a loaf of cheap sliced bread. Rights are about people living lives of a certain quality. With a right must come a relationship, a service or an organisation or a company which is expected to treat you as a person, to pay attention to what a right means to you in your context, not in the abstract.
In care the right to care doesn’t count if the right delivers only a cold, impersonal, transactional service. Whatever that is it’s not care, and this is so often what makes it hard for a long-term carer to get a break – the fear that their loved one will be left without true care during that break.
And of course, none of it means anything if it isn’t properly supported with resources. What is the right to care if there are too few qualified carers on the payroll to deliver the care? What victory is there in raising a judicial review to eventually find that yes, the right to care was breached because quality care wasn’t provided? If you are offered new rights without new funding to back them up, you have reason for suspicion.
That is the fundamental risk here. Human Rights really are the utopian vision of our era and we lose faith in them at our peril, but if they come to us as promises and then leave us as failures or, worse, betrayals, our faith in rights is chipped away.
There is a risk that ‘rights-based approaches’ seem like the golden goose to policymakers – they get the glory of delivering a big-sounding solution to important problems without doing an awful lot. From there it really becomes someone else’s problem, and initially that someone else is you the citizen.
Because if the right you’ve been promised is not met through public action, all you can do about is is take the issue to law. But how many people who are most reliant on rights are also in a position to raise legal action? Even then, that action may need to be taken against an organisation or institution other than the one that enshrined the right.
So a government can say you have a ‘right to local participation’, but then you need to sue the local authority if you’re not satisfied, and the local authority may not have been given either support or additional resources to deliver it.
The person most in need of the right to a home or the right to food might well be someone with an addiction problem who would then need to raise action against a local authority which has had its budget cut. That is power for people who can’t wield it to demand service from a body which can’t deliver it. That isn’t really a step forward.
No-one should underestimate the positive impact on all of our lives which the concept of Human Rights has had. We should celebrate them and be grateful ours is the era which had access to them.
But that is only the starting point – welcome your rights, then make sure its someone’s responsibility, expect them to meet your right in relationship with you, and demand that there are resources dedicated to make it all real.