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

Shelter Scotland blogs on housing as a human right

In December 2018, the First Minister’s Advisory Group on Human Rights Leadership recommended a new Act of the Scottish Parliament on human rights. This Act 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 – including freedom of speech, and freedom from slavery and torture. 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 support throughout their life. In Scotland today, many of these rights are built into our safety net through the NHS, pensions, social security, and a system to help people experiencing homelessness. 

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; housing which is habitable, accessible, and where people have legal protection to stay. 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: it can be the difference between good or poor health; being able to pay heating bills or buy food; doing well at school or being socially isolated. Only too often we hear about the awful experiences of people forced from pillar to post in various temporary homeless accommodation placements, having to abide by an arbitrary hostel curfew, 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’s so important that housing is seen as a human right – so we can achieve lasting change – and that this covers more than just the right to a roof, but to housing which is safe, secure and affordable.

So, what’s the problem?

Housing has been defined as a human right in many international conventions, but whilst we have strong rights in domestic law on housing there are still gaps 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 the past 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. In Scotland, we have passed world-leading homelessness legislation, but well-intentioned legislation is only effective if implemented properly and well-resourced. 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 them.

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

Shelter Scotland are supporting Scottish Housing Day on 18 September 2019, which is focusing on housing as a human right. 

Find out more in Shelter Scotland’s recent paper on housing as a human right.