This website is no longer updated. For the latest information, visit Public Health Scotland.

Ask yourself this, what does your organisation do to live and breathe human rights in its day-to-day work? It’s a question vexing minds across Scotland. Cath Denholm Director of Strategy, NHS Health Scotland and Interim Head of Strategy, Governance and Performance, Public Health Scotland looks at some of the challenges and opportunities ahead for human rights and the public sector…

“Later this month (20 February) I’m taking my place at an important event hosted by the National Taskforce for Human Rights.  The Taskforce came about as a result of the First Minister’s Advisory Group in 2019. This proposed a new statutory human rights framework for Scotland to help support the effective implementation of the country’s human rights obligations. 

At the forefront of this will be a new duty on the public sector. This is an excellent opportunity to lead the way on human rights, in the UK and beyond.  I am excited by this, but I also have a fear. My fear is that if we frame the duty in the same way that we have with previous duties, we’ll start where we left off with a ‘tick box’ mentality driving change. We should use this opportunity to craft a different kind of public sector duty, a duty that helps to promote real change for the benefit of everyone.

When I look back on the last 15 years I’ve see progress around human rights in the public sector. For example, my own organisation, NHS Health Scotland, has steadily increased its commitment to this agenda and we now talk explicitly about human rights – about the right to health and about the right to the things that protect and create health, such as housing, adequate income and a healthy environment.  There are also many other examples where changes at policy and strategy level have led to positive influence and positive action. But despite the good examples that can be pointed to, I am very aware these are still frankly meaningless for anyone trying to use services that they either can’t access or aren’t available to them, or that aren’t appropriate for their needs. 

I share the frustration and disappointment of people and organisations where equality, diversity, human rights issues or opportunities are met with a defensive line, or delegated quickly to more junior and often relatively powerless individuals.  I also believe it’s futile simply to say that the public sector needs to show more commitment. It is rarely commitment that holds back progression.  Rights are all about respect. So when we in the public sector are asked to ‘strengthen our commitment to human rights’, we have to first acknowledge the frustrations of rights holders who see too little change, too slowly. And those looking into the public sector must recognise public sector efforts in what is a very complex network of organisations, cultures, systems, structures and politics.  

As uncomfortable a truth as it is for those of us in the public sector, it is in this complexity that the difficulty lies, and might be why we get stuck at strategy and policy too often.  Of course, we have to set out where we want to go and how we want to go there.  But then we need to go there!  We have to become resolute in moving from declaring we’re about rights, to implementing them.

For me, this means people who hold rights and those who have duties to uphold them, working together and with a different common language.  Those advocating most strongly right now for human rights come from traditions of advocacy and campaigning, or from a legal perspective – but the public sector isn’t constructed of campaigners and lawyers.  

Where I think the public sector could be helped most is through more thinking, skills and capacity to make lasting organisational and systems change.

Helpfully, in the public health community, we’re now talking about the need for whole systems change to improve health and wellbeing for all. I believe that this approach to whole systems change across the public sector – if it embraced the goal of progressively realising all our human rights from the outset – would achieve much of what we need to for equality, diversity and human rights. Why do I believe that?  Because I believe systems change is needed to address the cultural, systemic, political and fiscal barriers that are getting in the way of services being reorganised around the people that need them, rather than the people providing them.  This is where I believe we now need to place our collective effort. If a different kind of public sector duty could be one of the levers to help us achieve that, then I believe this is well worth pursuing.”


If you're interested in finding out more about Cath Denholm's thoughts on the National Human Rights Taskforce and human rights in the public sector, check out our interview with her in the Public Health Reform Scotland podcast 


Leave a comment

We only ask for your email so we know you're a real person