Our constitution, July 2012: Social rights

1. Enhanced constitutional rights (b) Social rights (right to universal healthcare, education)

The right to work, and to be paid for your work, is a radical demand in the UK at the moment (see Economic Rights) also A day’s work for a day’s pay:

How is it that wanting a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work has become a left-wing, radical/revolutionary value? Iain Duncan Smith notoriously called Cait Reilly “snooty” for expecting to be paid to work in Poundland – though he himself continued to draw his MP’s salary and expenses during the six months he took off work in 2009 to care for his wife when she had breast cancer.

Social rights are good for the individual, but they’re also good for the general welfare.

Article 25: (1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
(2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

Healthcare: what you need, when you need it, free at point of access

Everyone understands that it’s cheaper and better to make sure everyone has healthcare when they need it: you only have to look at the US to see the mess a country gets into when they allow healthcare to become a privilege, not a right: when they allow healthcare to become largely the province of health insurance companies, which incidentally (and thanks to Avedon Carol’s blogging on the issue) I don’t see that the recent change in the law does anything to fix.

The NHS has flaws, but over sixty-four years it’s proven to be the cheapest and most effective way of making sure everyone has healthcare when they need it. The recent attacks on the NHS are one of the best arguments for removing Scotland from the greedy reach of the vultures circling round the English NHS. What America proves to some people is that providing healthcare can be hugely profitable and they want a piece of that action.

Ten or twenty years ago I would have said: we don’t need to put “universal healthcare” into a constitution: everyone knows we need it and that it’s better provided by a national health service.

Now? Yeah. I think it should be there. Healthcare provided without discrimination on grounds of wealth, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, race and ethnicity, religion and belief, age, or disability.

Healthcare is devolved: this is something that would apply if a Constitution was ratified, whether or not Scotland was independent.

The right to education

Scots who care about social history are very proud of the fact that Scotland has the oldest state-funded secular education system in the world. Caring about education – wanting everyone to be educated to their capacity, not according to the wealth or class of their parents – is really part of the Scottish national identity. We’re patriotic that Scotland – a tenth the size of England – had four universities at a time when England had two: it’s even a tea towel joke that so many British inventors were actually Scottish.

Like most patriotic ideas, it’s safer to stay fuzzy about the actual details if you want to stay comfortably patriotic. When you come to look at the history of Scottish education a little more closely, it begins to look a little less admirable in the fine details. (Not least that Scottish men were just as angrily opposed to the idea that women should be educated to their full capacity as English men were.)

However, by the end of the 19th century, literacy was more or less universal in Scotland, regardless of class or location, for both women and men, which was by no means the case in England: and Scottish Highers were designed to let high school students have a broader education than is possible with the narrow focus of A-Levels: and famously, the Scottish Parliament turned back the New Labour idea of tuition fees to bar students from poorer families from going on to University. Education for all may seem to outsiders a strange patriotic ideal, but it is a Scottish thing, and a good one.

Education is devolved: this is something that would apply if a Constitution was ratified, whether or not Scotland was independent.

The right to care

What if we had the right to care for a relative or a close friend built in?

In Belgium, workers who see a need to work part-time because of other obligations, may do so for up to five years without any penalty (aside from only getting paid for the hours they work). Their employer isn’t allowed to disadvantage them or discriminate against them in any way for choosing to work part-hours: and for a shorter period, any employee can take an unpaid break with the right to return to work. (Though new mothers only get 16 weeks paid maternity leave, either parent can take advantage of the right to take unpaid time off.) This could apply to a new parent (birth or adoptive), to a carer, even to someone wanting time to get their start-up business off the ground. This doesn’t appear to have done their economy any damage.

In the UK, it was estimated in 2011 that unpaid carers – friends and family members – who help look after ill, frail or disabled relatives, save the state £119 billion a year. There are

around 6.4 million people in the UK providing care for ill or disabled loved ones that would otherwise cost the state £18 an hour, meaning that each carer saves on average £18,473 a year.

For this service, they get complained about by politicians who say that the welfare benefits they claim are “too expensive” for the UK.

Article 22: Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.

Food, clothing, housing: subsistence rights

What if we stated that government policy should be directed towards making sure everyone has enough to eat, everyone can afford to buy sufficient clothing, everyone has the right to a home?

Home is a basic human need. In our affluent nation, everyone should have a home, and Shelter is challenging the people in power to make that vision a reality, through tenacious lobbying, persuasive research and policy reports, and high-profile public campaigns.

The Never Seconds blog briefly and swiftly proved the point that people believe children deserve a decent school dinner, and when they can see that children aren’t getting that, they get annoyed.

Clothing? One of the really awkward things about being poor is that you can’t afford – really can’t afford – to buy good-quality clothing or shoes – or furniture. Knowing that spending £100 will get a good pair of shoes that lasts doesn’t do you a lot of good when all you can afford is £15 for another cheap pair that will soon fall apart. What if there were factories like Remploy or Blindcraft that made good-quality clothing (using local materials, using few and basic designs – they don’t need to look ugly, just go with simplicity) that could then be bought by people who’d claimed a voucher for clothing for themselves or their children.

Frankly this brings up awkward visions of the kind of desolate future where everyone wears the same beige jumpsuit, but it’s an interesting thought – and honestly: we all know that the only reason we can buy cheap clothing is because retailers import it from sweatshop factories in countries like Bangladesh. Why export the misery?

This is now beginning to move into the realms of “Wouldn’t it be great if…?” that I always get doubtful about when speculating on my own.

No constitution should get tied down to details like Remploy or Blindcraft. But the idea that we all deserve a decent standard of living, that we don’t need to have children going hungry to school, that everyone should be warmly housed and warmly clothed: that we could as a nation take seriously the most radical demands of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – that, I like.

Do you?

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Filed under Education, Elections, Equality, Healthcare, Housing, Scottish Constitution, Scottish Culture, Scottish Politics, Tuition fees

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