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The three golden rules? Mainstreaming transparency, participation and accountability in the Scottish Budget

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On Monday 19 December we published our detailed briefing on the Scottish Budget 2023-24.

Within that, for the first time, we included a section on human rights budgeting, which reflects a growing focus on this approach not only in Committee and stakeholder scrutiny, but also in the Scottish Government’s own language.

This blog expands on that section, explaining in more detail what human rights budgeting means, what stakeholders have asked for from the Scottish Government, and how the Government has measured up against those asks in the 2023-24 Budget and documentation. It also looks at how the Budget compares to the aspirational standards set out in a recent briefing produced as part of a SPICe fellowship by Rob Watts of the Fraser of Allander Institute.

Because of the length of this blog, we’ve added a table of contents to make it easier to navigate.


Human Rights

Human rights place an obligation on the state to respect, protect and fulfil legal protections and rights for everyone. The main legal footing for human rights in the UK is the Human Rights Act 1998. The UK has also signed up to international treaties on economic, social and cultural (ESC) rights, which include the right to health, housing, social security and adequate standards of living, and the Scottish Government has proposed a new Human Rights Bill to see how these can be enshrined in law.

Human rights go beyond equalities matters, and the protected characteristics set out in the Equality Act 2010. They impact everyone, regardless of protected characteristic (though are likely to impact more on people with protected characteristics and intersectional challenges), and there is an increasing focus on considering broader human rights in addition to equalities.

Human Rights Budgeting

In 2021, at the start of Session 6 of the Scottish Parliament, the newly formed Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice (“EHRCJ”) Committee agreed to focus its budget scrutiny on Human Rights Budgeting.

To do this, it commissioned a SPICe fellowship, and Rob Watts of the Fraser of Allander Institute worked within the Financial Scrutiny Unit to understand how the principles of human rights budgeting could be applied to the Scottish Budget. He explored the Scottish Budget by looking at a case study to illustrate the concept – using people with learning disabilities as an example, he brought their perspective and lived experience to the forefront of understanding the impacts of budget decisions.

As Rob sets out in his recent summary blog:

“Human rights budgeting means that the actual content of a budget (i.e. the decisions taken around how money is raised, allocated and spent) should be in line with the government’s human rights obligations. These obligations provide criteria against which we can assess a budget.

  • Progressive realisation: Governments must take steps towards the full realisation of economic, social and cultural rights over time.
  • Minimum core obligations: These are the minimum protections that governments should guarantee everyone. 
  • Non-retrogressive measures: Human rights principles state that governments should not take active steps to deprive people of rights that they used to enjoy.
  • Non-discrimination: All forms of discrimination must be prohibited, prevented and eliminated. This principle implies that budgets should be allocated in a way that reduces systemic inequalities.
  • Maximum available resources: Governments are obliged to take steps to progressively realise rights to the “maximum of its available resources”.”
Guest blog: Does the Scottish Budget enable human rights? Rob Watts, Knowledge Exchange Associate, Fraser of Allander Institute, University of Strathclyde, 14 December 2022

Three principles of human rights budgeting

Within human rights budgeting, there are three principles:

  • Transparency: Parliament, civil society and the public should have accessible information about budget decisions.
  • Participation: Civil society and the public should have opportunities for meaningful engagement in the budget process.
  • Accountability: Budgets should be subject to oversight and scrutiny that ensures accountability for budget decisions and the impact these have on human rights.

These three principles were adopted by the EHRCJ Committee as a structure for recommendations in its 2023-24 Pre-Budget letter to Minister for Equalities and Older People. The Committee said, “We hope that this might help to provide a baseline for future scrutiny”, and recommended:

“… that the Scottish Government consider demonstrating adherence to the three principles of human rights budgeting within its Budget documentation, across all portfolio areas.”

Budget 2023-24: Pre-Budget Scrutiny. Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee, 10 November 2022

The Social Justice and Social Security Committee also used human rights and human rights budgeting as part of its pre-Budget scrutiny, and in its report set out many concerns and recommendations that echoed those of the EHRCJ Committee.

Human rights are often spoken about as a ‘golden thread’ which should be woven through policymaking. If human rights are the golden thread, these three principles would be the golden rules.

Because of this, it could be argued that although the three principles approach originates in human rights budgeting, the outcome of using it would go further, and have wider benefits from both a governance and a scrutiny perspective. For instance, it could provide a consistent framework for understanding the process behind the Budget decisions and comparing changes year-on-year beyond headline figures.

Budget reaction from stakeholders

At the time of writing, there hadn’t been much comment from equalities and human rights stakeholders on the Scottish Budget 2023-24, however the Fraser of Allander Institute analysis said:

“The equalities statement has improved in recent years but could still provide further insights about the impact of decisions that the government have (and have not) made. In particular, it is still not clear the extent to which equalities considerations influence budget decisions.

There is welcome mention of human rights throughout the statement, but little evidence of robust analysis of how budget decisions will enable human rights to be realised. With proposed legislation on the table that would enshrine economic rights into Scots law, a more substantial and outcomes focused assessment of whether the budget meets the government’s human rights obligations will be needed.”

A first glance – Scottish budget 2023-2024. Fraser of Allander Institute, 15 December 2022.

In our own review, we’ve looked at the entirety of the Scottish Budget 2023-24 documents with the three golden principles in mind. The Scottish Government has also adopted this structure to some extent in the Equality and Fairer Budget Scotland Statement, so its response against each principle is included in our analysis.


In a human rights Budgeting approach, transparency means that “Parliament, civil society and the public should have accessible information about budget decisions.”

Transparency has been a long-running theme in Budget scrutiny, with many Committees (and other stakeholders) calling for improvements over the years. For example, as we reported in our 2018-19 Draft Budget briefing in 2017, useful changes were made to the presentation of local government figures following calls for greater transparency, which the Local Government and Communities Committee acknowledged and welcomed in its Draft Budget 2018-19 report.

In evidence to the EHRCJ Committee, the Scottish Human Rights Commission said, “there remains a lack of transparency in the Scottish budget to date, which is problematic”, and common points across all evidence included concerns about a lack of sufficient detail to accompany Level 4 figures, challenges in making comparisons to previous budgets, a lack of transparency around Budget-setting decisions, and wider concerns about the accessibility of Budget documentation. The Health and Social Care Alliance Scotland expressed specific concerns around the ability to understand whether budgets are increasing or decreasing in real terms.

Scottish Government statement

In the EFBS Statement 2023-24, the Scottish Government says it has demonstrated this principle by improving its budget documentation including the Your Scotland, Your Finances accessible overview, and by taking part in the Open Government Partnership.

How the Budget measures up – Transparency

The Government made various commitments regarding data and transparency in the Budget document when addressing the points made by Committees in their letters.

Within the main Budget document, there is commentary on portfolio priorities, but little detail on the outcomes-based data underpinning budget decisions, or how the decisions impact on different people. Nor are there significant changes in the presentation of data, though we note some improvements to accessibility in formatting. There are, however, no accompanying documents aimed specifically at accessibility (i.e., Easy Read, Plain English, infographic or BSL versions, or detail on accessing the documents in other languages), or a “Your Scotland, Your Finances” breakdown of the Budget. Finally, some of the supporting documents are not linked from the main Budget document,  or must be found on the website by navigating through other documents. For example, to reach the Level 4 figures from the main Budget documents page or the Budget landing page, you need to go into the Budget document, then a different ‘supporting documents’ menu. Even with a SPICe researcher’s familiarity with the pages and documents this is tricky to navigate.

Likewise, there haven’t been major changes to the detail alongside Level 4 figures, but the Equality, Inclusion and Human Rights budget has been further disaggregated and renamed, giving further insight into how the portfolio is broken down. For further detail see our dedicated briefing section on the statement.

The headline in this years’ Budget has been the changes to income tax policy. There is, as in previous years, a fact sheet on income tax changes which explains the effects on individual taxpayers. For the first time, this is linked to from the main Budget document. As in recent years, there is also a distributional analysis, which “considers the impact of the Income Tax policy changes both on individual taxpayers and households across the income distribution”.

As in previous years, much of the relevant detail on equalities and links to outcomes is included in reference to the Equality and Fairer Budget Scotland Statement 2023-24. Annex A of the statement gives detail specifically on the Equality, Human Rights and Fairer Scotland Budgeting process, and Annex D sets out where specific funding within portfolio areas support equities and human rights.

Whilst having more detail on evidence and notes on annual changes than previously is welcomed, it is hard to understand the scale of the funding commitments in a holistic way, and a lack of consistency in presentation and repetition of funds against different characteristics has meant that SPICe cannot reliably create a tabular interpretation of these figures. As our section in our Budget Briefing on the Statement explains, the rich detail is not always directly relatable to outcomes. It also leads to the annex being close to 60,000 words, which might raise some questions around accessibility.


In a human rights budgeting approach, participation means that “Civil society and the public should have opportunities for meaningful engagement in the budget process”.

Civic participation in the democratic process is a growing and emerging area of focus within both democratic structures and academia. The Scottish Parliament’s own Citizen Participation and Public Petitions Committee has recently published its interim report on its inquiry into public participation in the work of the Scottish Parliament and has launched a consultation on the recommendations made by the Citizens Panel it commissioned.

Scottish Government statement

In the Equality and Fairer Budget Scotland Statement 2023-24, the Scottish Government says it has demonstrated ‘participation’ by supporting participatory budgeting as a tool for community empowerment, co-designing a framework for the future of participatory budgeting in Scotland, using public and stakeholder consultation on the RSR and tax policy, and it’s Open Government work.

How the Budget measures up – Participation

The main Budget document mentions consultation and participation only in passing.

In the 2022-23 Budget, the Scottish Government highlighted it’s consultation on its tax framework and included key themes from the consultation in its main Budget document. This year, it has published a separate document, not referenced in the main document, which summarises attitudes to tax. This includes findings from questions asked in the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey and a YouGov omnibus survey, which broadly support the direction the Government has taken in its plans for income tax. There is also a summary of a series of round-table discussions with stakeholders, which is brief but goes further than ever before to illustrate the annual consultation process on taxation.

There is reference to other instances where policy development has, is, or will involve attempts to understand and reflect lived experience, including on updating the Public Sector Equality Duties process. Overall, though, little information is given on how people can and have participated in the budget-setting process.


In a human rights budgeting approach, accountability means that “Budgets should be subject to oversight and scrutiny that ensures accountability for budget decisions and the impact these have on human rights.”.

In evidence to the EHRCJ Committee on the Resource Spending Review, the Scottish Women’s Budget Group said, “there is a lack of connection between this statement, the Programme for Government and critically the National Performance Framework which sets out Scotland’s priorities as a nation”, and the EHRC pointed out that:

“… despite what appears on the face of it to be a comparable exercise across the RSR and most recent budget, there is not obviously any attempt to align the RSR ‘opportunities and challenges’ and budget ‘key risks’. Although there is a degree of overlap between some of these, it is not immediately clear whether this is by design or accident”.

written submission to the EHRCJ Committee on ‘The impact of Human Rights budgeting’. Equalities and Human Rights Commission, 2022

As with data and transparency, several Committees made reference to using National Outcomes in their scrutiny work, and the need for clear links between the National Planning Framework and the Budget in their pre-Budget scrutiny letters.

Scottish Government statement

In the Equality and Fairer Budget Scotland Statement 2023-24, the Scottish Government explained that the Committee pre-budget scrutiny process supports accountability.

How the Budget measures up – Accountability

Chapter 1 of the Budget document talks about the links between inequality, the economy and public services, as well as the ‘social contract’ between the Scottish Government and Scottish citizens. It also says later in the same chapter that “The Scottish Budget is underpinned by Scotland’s National Performance Framework”.

As in previous years, each portfolio chapter of the Budget document contains detail on how each portfolio budget links to the NPF. A change which was implemented last year, in which previous textual descriptions were replaced by an infographic directing readers towards the EFBS Statement has been used again. But, as we note in our briefing section on the NPF, although there is a lot of detail here, it’s questionable how useful this will be for scrutiny.

It’s worth noting here that one outcome of the NPF is in itself a commitment to supporting human rights. This outcome is noted as a ‘Primary outcome’ in the Health and Social Care, Justice and Veterans and Social Justice and Local Government portfolios, and a secondary outcome in all others.

In the EFBS statement, the Government acknowledges the transparency and accountability concerns raised by stakeholders in Committee scrutiny. Whilst there have been cosmetic and language changes, a greater emphasis on explaining the equality budget process, and research has been used effectively to outline the context of the Budget, some of the content that human rights and equalities stakeholders told the EHRCJ Committee was important is missing. Steps like evidencing the effectiveness of policy interventions are useful, but the detail is inconsistent, and the direct links to outcomes and tangible measures are sporadic.

Mainstreaming and Committee scrutiny

In our briefing section on the Equality and Fairer Scotland Statement, we explain the mainstreaming approach to equalities across portfolios. The Minister for Equalities and Older People has highlighted the Scottish Government’s commitment to equalities mainstreaming, and we’ve also seen a greater emphasis in Budget documents on understanding human rights impacts across all portfolio areas.

But what about in scrutiny?

Committee scrutiny

Until 2017, the Parliamentary Budget approach included all subject committees submitting a report of their budget inquiry process to the Finance Committee. As part of guidance on this, the equalities committee (under its past names) would ask that all committee consider and report on equalities aspects within subject portfolios. The current process for scrutiny was put into place in 2018, partly in response to calls for enhanced opportunities for scrutiny. The process aims to give committees more scope of influence over the final Budget contents, but the process of one Committee having oversight of all committees’ recommendations was lost.

There are, however, common themes across many committees’ letters – data, transparency and links between strategic aims and budget lines are just some. This raises the question of how human rights, equalities and other common themes can be mainstreamed in scrutiny.

Using the three principles of transparency, participation and accountability are one potential approach that could be used to do this, in both Budget scrutiny and in looking at areas such as the upcoming refresh of the National Performance Framework, especially if the Scottish Government expands its adoption of the EHRCJ Committee’s recommendations.

In the coming weeks, we’ll be exploring this further with a blog looking at the common themes across Committee scrutiny.

Ailsa Burn-Murdoch, Senior Researcher, Financial Scrutiny Unit