The right to food comes into view

Last week’s report from the National Taskforce for Human Rights Leadership set out ambitious recommendations not just to incorporate new rights into domestic law but also to strengthen the machinery for making them real.

The Taskforce recommends a Scottish human rights bill incorporates (brings into domestic law) international instruments that protect economic, social and cultural rights, the rights of women, people with disabilities and ethnic minority groups. In addition, the recommendations include incorporating the internationally recognised right to a healthy environment and rights of the elderly and LGBTI people.

If Government as expected accepts the recommendations in full, it is committing to a new social contract between state and people where the state takes responsibility for and is held more accountable for delivering a fairer and more equal Scotland.

The machinery for connecting high aspirations to real change over time has four key elements in addition to the incorporation of rights into Scots law:

  • National and local government taking human rights into account when passing laws, deciding policies and setting budgets
  • Multiple ways for scrutinising the impact of policies on the realisation of human rights, and better data for monitoring progress
  • Rights-holders – that’s all of us – knowing our rights and what they mean in terms of everyday life
  • New ways to get access to justice when things are not working – both as individuals but also through class actions which challenge systemic failings and injustice

Right to food

Two proposals in the report relate directly to food.First, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights includes the right to food as part of the right to an adequate standard of living.

Second, the proposed ‘Right to a healthy environment’ includes the right to healthy and sustainably produced food . This underlines the cross-cutting nature of the right to food – it’s not simply the right to enough calories to survive but the right to access healthy sustainable food in a culturally valued way.

In addition, women, ethnic minorities, older people and disabled people are more likely to be failed by the current food system. Enhancing the rights of people in these groups will help to build a fairer food system for all.

Legislating for human rights is not at its heart about complaints and court cases.It’s about describing the sort of country we all want to live in.But at the same time, law provides a harder edge than policy for taking public bodies to task when they are falling short on their duties.Scotland’s Climate Change Act means public bodies have to act, not just hope. Client Earth could only force DEFRA to move faster on air quality because of underpinning EU law.

If the right to food is round the corner, do we need the Good Food Nation Bill?

The proposed new human rights law is a massive undertaking involving new powers, new procedures, new duties, new data, new guidance. The Good Food Nation Bill is likely to be introduced earlier in the next Parliament, and can help prepare the ground by establishing some of those new mechanisms in relation to the right to food.

For example, what information is needed to monitor progress on realising the right to food and what sort of independent body might be needed to chase progress and hold government to account? What are the expectations of private sector organisations which have a key role in fulfilling the right to food?What are the ‘minimum core obligations’ in relation to the right to food in Scotland? (These are the obligations which States have to fulfil immediately, not at some future point as resources allow)

Scottish Government has argued previously that the right to food should wait for the new comprehensive human rights law.So we were delighted to see in the report that the Taskforce ‘recognises that none of the recommendations stated here should hinder the advancement of the protection of rights through other legislation or processes, whether before or after the new human rights statutory framework is introduced’.

Our recent public polling supports bringing in the right to food as soon as possible, with 74% of all respondents wanting this to be introduced in the first year of the new Parliament.Of those, there was a more even split, with 40% wanting to wait for more comprehensive legislation and 55% wanting to bring in the right to food as soon as possible.Either way, the right to food can’t come too soon.

How will this help?

In the piece on Good Morning Scotland when the report was launched, the interviewer asked Taskforce chair Alan Miller “How will this help?”It’s a good question.

It will help to set out in law what everyone in Scotland has a right to experience in their daily life and in the way they interact with government and public bodies.It will help to make government by whichever party or parties more accountable for delivering on dignity, equity and equality.And it will help to build a fairer Scotland – but only if we are willing to be equally ambitious in reshaping our economy, our environment and our institutions to ensure that these rights become real.