Housing is a human right – but what does this mean in Scotland?

Housing human rights

With human rights once again on the domestic and international agenda, Shelter Scotland wants to ensure that any new legislation puts good housing right at its heart

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4th February 2019 by TFN Guest 0 Comments

A new Act of the Scottish Parliament on human rights?

In December 2018, the First Minister’s Advisory Group on Human Rights Leadership recommended a new Act of the Scottish Parliament on human rights. The intention is for this Act to include the right to housing, amongst many others, which could provide a legal right to adequate housing for everyone. The potential behind this recommendation is, quite frankly, huge.

In 1948, when the world was still reeling from the destruction and inhumanities of World War II, countries came together through the United Nations to determine and agree on the basic protections and rights that everyone should have. The resulting Universal Declaration of Human Rights,  and later the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, also included the right to an ‘adequate standard of living’ and within that the right to adequate housing.

The intention was that everyone - no matter their country of birth, their financial situation, or how they choose to live their lives - should be entitled to housing, to food, to clothing; and various means of support throughout their life. In Scotland today, many of these rights are built into our safety net – the NHS, pensions, a social security system, and a system to help people experiencing homelessness.

But what does ‘adequate’ housing mean?

At Shelter Scotland, we know that it’s not enough for someone to simply have a roof over their head.  People need a safe, secure and affordable home; and Shelter Scotland has been fighting for fifty years to try and achieve that aim.

Good quality, affordable housing that meets people’s needs is central to wellbeing, a fact that the Commission on Housing and Wellbeing demonstrated well. It can be the difference between good and bad physical health; being able to pay heating bills or buy food. Bad housing affects educational attainment and can contribute to social isolation and loneliness, whilst better housing can address these issues and much more.

Only too often we hear about the awful experiences of people forced from pillar to post in various temporary accommodation placements, having to abide by an arbitrary curfew in a hostel, and having nowhere to cook dinner in a B&B. And in the worst cases, we know the devastating consequences of people having to sleep rough, on Scotland’s streets. That’s why it is so important that housing is seen as a human right – so we can achieve lasting change.

Therefore, adequate housing was defined by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights as: housing which is habitable e.g. wind and watertight; housing which is accessible for example that meets the needs of its occupants; housing in which the occupant has legal protection to remain, that is affordable, that is close enough to a school, to healthcare facilities, to employment.

And there has been lots of legislation in Scotland that has gone some way to protecting people in line with this definition – the repairing standard, the Homelessness etc. (Scotland) Act 2003, the Private Housing (Tenancies) (Scotland) Act 2016. 

So, what’s the problem?

Whilst we have strong rights in domestic law on housing, there are still gaps. And whilst housing has been defined as a human right in many international conventions which Scotland has signed up to, there is a gap between this technical right, what is protected under domestic law, and what happens in practice. A new Act of the Scottish Parliament on human rights, incorporating the right to adequate housing for everyone, could help fill these gaps. 

But we must learn from past lessons and practice on the ground. Crucially, there is a real difference between what is agreed in Parliament as law, and what is experienced by someone in crisis – well-intentioned legislation is only effective if implemented properly and well-resourced. Scotland already does many good things on housing: we are building tens of thousands of new social homes, we continue to mitigate many of the worst effects of welfare reform and we have passed world-leading homelessness legislation. But there is a real gap on what scrutiny and accountability there is when rights related to housing – wherever they are written – are broken. We must, therefore, ensure there is real accountability when the law is broken, and that there is a step change in awareness of rights and the ability of individuals to enforce their rights.

This is a real opportunity to realise those aspirations, those commitments and promises from 1948, and to ensure that there is a safe, secure, and affordable home, for everyone.

Shelter Scotland has published a paper detailing the human right to housing further, and will be exploring housing rights issues in a workshop at the Gathering on 20 February, at 1145. Please do come along and share your views, and in the meantime, sign up to support to hear more about our campaigns.         

Lisa Glass is a senior campaigns and policy officer at Shelter Scotland