By Dr Alison Hosie

TAX, the realm of accountants, economists and policy experts – but what has it got to do with human rights? The answer is everything.

Taxation is one of the key ways a government raises its revenue, used to pay for public services, wages and social security entitlements.

The realisation of human rights, such as access to decent health, housing, education, food and justice – this requires resources too.

When governments sign up to international treaties (as Scotland has via the UK), including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, these treaties come with obligations. One of these is to maximise available resources to realise rights on the ground.

This isn’t just about slicing up a budget pie. It starts instead by asking: what do we need to realise our obligations? Is the government doing everything it can to fund basic rights and ensure progressive realisation? Has it used all the taxation options available?

In response to the pandemic we’ve seen a huge mobilisation of resources, but we are now left to pay for recovery.

Whilst acknowledging not all fiscal levers are within the Scottish Government’s gift, it needs to be bolder about using what it does have.

For example, although the Scottish Government has introduced more progressive income taxation, successive governments have failed to make progressive changes to other aspects – such as local taxation – despite consultations concluding it’s necessary.

Economic disadvantage has translated into a key precondition to the worst impacts of Covid-19. The death rate for people on low wages was three times that of those on higher wages in the UK. How governments finance their Covid-19 responses will affect such inequalities.

We have seen a growing inequality of wealth over the last 40 years in part due to how and what we tax. We treat earned and unearned income differently – taxing wealth at low rates compared to earned income and allowing money to be hidden overseas, resulting in unprecedented wealth concentration.

The obligation to maximise available resources means governments need to explore what they tax, who they tax and how they tax. Taxation needs to be fair, proportionate to people’s ability to pay, efficient, impactful and accountable.

Developing such a system also needs to involve the active, meaningful participation of rights holders. "Consultation" that asks, but does not listen, is not meaningful. And yet, it is critical to good decision=making, creating more innovative, appropriate and tailored policies.

With the forthcoming Human Rights Bill, which will reassert Scotland’s commitment to the UK’s international rights obligations, it must be well understood that these obligations apply to all the Scottish Government’s activity.

Covid-19 has reinforced the importance of taking a Scottish approach to tax, exploring how the pandemic has impacted the system and considering options for restructuring devolved taxes.

If Scotland is to move from rhetoric to reality in ‘taking a human rights based approach’ to policy and practice, it needs to be willing to put its money where its mouth is when it comes to tax.

Dr Alison Hosie is Research Officer at the Scottish Human Rights Commission