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Call for public sector staff to swear oath on human rights

PUBLIC sector workers should be asked to pledge an oath to defend human rights, according to a new proposal.

The Human Rights Consortium Scotland said asking the country's public sector staff - more than half a million people - to make a commitment to respect human rights on a daily basis would raise the profile of standards which the UK is already signed up to.

The consortium fears that human rights are not making an impact on public life, due to a lack of understanding of what they are or how to defend them.

A pledge for all workers would be a quick and effective way of explaining and emphasising the importance of existing public sector legal duties to employees, it says.

The consortium is a network of more than 70 charities, academics and professional associations. Members include Amnesty International , the Scottish Association for Mental Health and the Scottish Refugee Council.

It says public sector staff deal daily with decisions which affect people's basic rights, in settings such as care for the elderly, work with vulnerable children, or adults with learning difficulties, in schools, hospitals, housing and communities.

An oath could resemble the Scottish Government's version of the civil service code or the professional commitments such as the social work code of ethics, it says.

It also points to the fact that the newly established Police Scotland has already introduced an oath for recruits which includes a duty to "uphold human rights".

However after consulting on the idea, the consortium has warned that more training for staff may be needed on what a duty to respect, protect and fulfil human rights in their daily work might mean.

In response to the consultation, public sector union Unison Scotland, which represents 160,000 public sector workers, said staff would not be confident about a pledge, adding "members advise that they don't generally operate in a human rights culture".

But Carole Ewart, chairwoman of the Human Rights Consortium Scotland, said this was worrying. She said: "When the United Nations Human Rights Council assesses the UK's compliance with its human rights duties, the need for staff training in the issues is repeatedly identified. An oath could fix that problem."

A public sector human rights pledge could also promote whistle-blowing in the public interest, Ms Ewart said.

"There has been a lot of debate about whistleblowing in the NHS recently," she said. "If workers took an individual oath perhaps they would be more sensitive to their individual responsibility to act, or complain about what is happening - for example as a result of cuts in services and overworked staff."

However the duty to meet national commitments such as the UN Convention on Human Rights, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities - all of which the UK has signed - would remain with the organisation, Ms Ewart said.

"The public sector organisation holds the duty and the individual staff members responsible for delivering it have to be trained."

A spokesman for Unison Scotland said: "Unison welcome ideas from anyone trying to strengthen the human rights of those we serve. However we have reservations about this particular approach.

"There would be a considerable logistical challenge in organising more than 552,000 public sector workers to swear an oath, and provide them with briefing to explain its significance. We question whether this is the best use of resources."

He said it was also important to remember that human rights obligations apply to organisations, not individuals. "The organisation as a whole has to be vigilant. We would be concerned if that duty was passed from the organisation on to individual staff."

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