Tom Bennett, Rights in Recovery Development Officer at Scottish Recovery Consortium.
The Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) offers essential protection for people whose lives have been, or continue to be, affected by alcohol and drugs. It offers the fundamental protections that are needed for people and their loved ones to receive appropriate standards of care, safety and support. Human rights are the basic elements and protections that all human require to live in safety and with dignity. They are not luxuries, or extras as some in power would like to have us believe.
These standards are necessary for people to lead lives where they are treated fairly and with dignity. That said, it is clear to us all, given the number of lives that are being lost to alcohol and drug specific deaths, that these fundamental, essential minimum standards of safety and support are not, in practice, universally available. Nor are people universally being treated fairly or with dignity.
People with substance dependency are at high risk of being stigmatised, treated unfairly, and discriminated against. Consequently, people with substance dependency are at high risk of receiving sub-standard care, compounding the severity of their problems and reducing the likelihood of them accessing a pathway into recovery. The Misuse of Drugs Act (1972) has played an important part in creating the conditions that are playing out in Scotland today along with unintended consequences of the Equality Act (2010) which specifically excludes people with substance dependency from its protection and contributes to the significant problem of stigma.
Alcohol and Drug related deaths are at record levels in Scotland, with Scottish Government declaring a public health crisis. 1245 people died from alcohol-specific causes and 1330 from drug-related causes in 2021. Informed consensus is categorically in support of finding a public health focussed solution rather than our, out-of-date, criminal justice approach to substance dependency. A human rights-based approach is the foundation upon which to build a successful public health focussed approach to reducing deaths and harms.
The HRA protects all of us, it enshrines our rights in UK law, thus improving access to justice, protecting our day to day lives, and holding duty bearers, institutions, and governments to account. For this reason, it is only ever governments, or companies that stand to increase profit from reducing our protections, that make attempts to reduce our legal human rights protections. History tells us clearly, it never benefits any rights-holder or society by removing our human rights protections. The HRA brought human rights into the UK legal system and provides a clear and realistic path to challenge human rights breaches within UK courts.
People for whom substance-use has become a problem require compassionate support that is designed and delivered in a way that respects rights holders. This means that much of the delivery of alcohol and drugs services requires an overhaul and redesign as our current services often fail to treat people respectfully or with dignity. The implementation of the new Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) Standards will play an important role in structuring this overhaul and redesign.
Societal and institutional stigma is now recognised as being an important barrier that stands in the way of reducing drug and alcohol harms and the number of families tragically losing their loved ones. A rights-based approach, built upon the strong and essential foundations of the HRA, reduces stigma, and helps to reduce the impact of those that hold stigmatised beliefs and carry out their duties in a discriminatory and illegal way. Scotland’s, and the UK’s, recovery communities and Lived Experience Recovery Organisations are working tirelessly to educate and empower their members to claim their rights and help others claim their rights. This is a positive movement for change that will bring enormous benefits for society. The consequences of a failed criminalisation approach is costing Scottish and UK purses billions of pounds every year. A system built upon the HRA that helps to build empowerment, self-worth and confidence will allow many more people to recover and become responsible, contributing members of society once again. Thus building a society that we can be proud of, saving costs, and most importantly saving lives,
Considering recent uncertainty surrounding the future of UK Human Rights legislation, and the last UK Government’s desire to remove the HRA, thereby weakening our human rights protections, it is encouraging to note that Scottish Government is taking an entirely different approach. It is integrating the human rights-based approach into its strategy to reduce substance related harms – ‘Rights, Respect and Recovery’ and the creation of the rights-based National Collaborative headed by Prof, Alan Miller. Scottish Government has also committed to introduce within this parliamentary term Scotland’s own Bill of Rights which aims to strengthen overall human rights protections, and notably including more elements of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). This would explicitly change the legal protection to the ‘right to the highest attainable standard of health’.
At Scottish Recovery Consortium we support, represent and connect recovery across Scotland. We deliver a broad package of learning opportunities for communities, organisations and workforce development needs. Our popular introductory ‘Rights in Recovery’ workshops, full day workshops and 35 hour Rights in Recovery Leadership Programme in partnership with BIHR all offer, in varying degrees of detail, the major themes of the rights-based approach, its context, and why it’s relevant to all of us. Participants gain confidence to speak about the rights-based approach and claim their rights.