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Human Rights in Essential Public Service Provision: Governing Access for All

25 March 2014

Lottie Lane

public services
Institute for Government: Public Services Without Government?

This seminar series, organised by the Groningen Centre for Law and Governance together with the Groningen International School of Law, explores the role of human rights law in regulating adequate provision of essential public services from a ‘law and governance’ perspective. A ‘law and governance’ perspective encourages consideration of the potentially wide range of available hard and soft regulatory instruments and mechanisms through which various (competing) public and private interests in the delivery of services can be simultaneously assessed, appraised and balanced, including on the basis of human rights.

Seminar one: Governing Access for All

The first seminar, ‘Governing Access for All’, was held on Thursday 12 December 2013. The seminar aimed to formally introduce the overall topic of the series. The purpose of this session was to explore the importance of international human rights standards mostly as they relate to ‘non-discriminatory’ treatment in access, and questions of the ‘availability’, ‘accessibility’, ‘acceptability’ and ‘quality’ (‘AAAQ’) of services, with a particular focus being placed on health, water and energy.

Each of the five engaging presentations focused on one of more of these issues. An extremely informative keynote presentation was given by Prof. Tony Prosser of Bristol University, entitled ‘Protecting Social Rights in an Age of Austerity’ . Prof. Prosser’s presentation gave an overview of previous measures and models adopted in the UK in order to ensure social protection. This was examined in the context of the new austerity approach to politics, with a new model being suggested to remedy and compensate for the limited success of the previous attempts (largely down to an excessive emphasis on political, to the detriment of legal, regulation of essential public services). The conclusion reached was that social rights must be at the heart of fiscal policy, with a need for reviews on spending to be opened up to essential public services by way of more deliberative politics and discrete legal interventions. The result of this would be to give law a concrete, but procedural role in the regulation of essential public services.

Following a dynamic and engaging debate on the issues raised by Prof. Prosser, four in-house speakers [1] presented research on the subjects of Universal Service Obligations (USO) and Human Rights (focusing on regulation of privatised Essential Public Service (EPS) providers), access for all and the provision of water (with an emphasis on non-discrimination), access to energy as an EPS and human right, and access to health care. Each of these presentations resulted in an in-depth discussion, with observations on each being provided by Ms. Marlies Hesselman.

General Reflections

Reflecting upon the discussions, it is possible to identify some underlying challenges common to all the different services discussed. One example is the lack of a concrete and generally accepted definition of what different human rights and essential services actually mean. Ms. Hesselman emphasised the difficulties faced in relation to energy with a lack of uniform definition of both ‘access to energy’ and ‘energy poverty’. Similar issues in relation to the right to health, which has several suggested definitions, were experienced by Dr. Brigit Toebes during her research on access to healthcare. These complications have made it difficult for states and international bodies to adopt standards both in terms of regulating access to these services, and in definitively outlining the content of the right to health, and what may in time become the right to energy access.

Another similarity was present in Dr. Antenor Hallo de Wolf and Dr. Monika Ambrus’ thoughts on the connections between USO and human rights obligations. Although Dr. Hallo de Wolf was more explicit in this respect, Dr. Ambrus also noted that the obligation to fulfil the right to water focuses on affordability (one of the AAAQs required for Universal Service Providers). Her argument that the focal point of the obligation is non-discrimination (which has been highlighted by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) also correlates with the accessibility and availability requirements of the AAAQs, as well as the very purpose of USO that services available to the majority of society should be extended to vulnerable and marginalised groups.

The day was rounded off by a general discussion involving all participants in the seminar. Although it was unfortunate that this had to be cut short due to time restraints, it was certainly indicative of the success and engaging nature of the seminar, leaving participants eager for the second seminar focusing on accountability.

For more information on the Seminar Series, as well as upcoming events, please, visit the official website available here.


Last modified:16 November 2018 11.31 a.m.

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