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The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S4M-13562, in the name of Christina McKelvie, on do the human right thing: keep the Human Rights Act. The debate will be concluded without any question being put. I warn members that time is extremely tight.
That the Parliament welcomes the launch of the Amnesty International campaign, Do the Human Right Thing: Keep the Human Rights Act; understands that this campaign aims to raise awareness of the importance of the Human Rights Act 1998 and the threats that it faces from some politicians, who would like to scrap it; considers that the Human Rights Act is a fundamental safeguard to the freedom of every citizen, including those resident in the Hamilton, Larkhall and Stonehouse parliamentary constituency, as well as any visitor to this country; believes that it has given people the power to challenge decisions made by public authorities and has also led to positive policy changes, and hopes that this campaign will help to raise awareness of what it considers this important issue.
I thank all my colleagues across the chamber who signed the motion to allow us to debate this very important issue, and I thank Amnesty International UK, the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, the human rights consortium Scotland, the Jimmy Reid Foundation, the Scottish Human Rights Commission and the many other organisations that have helped us with understanding the process and in giving us some input on how they see the piece of work shaping up.
The Magna Carta went viral in 1215. Thirteen copies were made, complete with spelling mistakes, though there was blissful unawareness of LOL and the potential for tweeting the document. Unlike the declaration of Arbroath, which enshrined the rights of Scotland’s sovereign people, the Magna Carta enshrined the rights of the barons of the time. However, it was still a bill of rights in its limited sense. That the Prime Minister was happy to tear it up on its 800th anniversary speaks volubly of his approach to human rights—even those of his barons. He has, of course, displayed something similar in completely failing to recognise the rights of hundreds of thousands of refugees and to give them safety across Europe. I listened to a wee bit of the Westminster debate this afternoon and have to say that I was not very much enthralled by it.
While Germany happily absorbs 800,000 people, David Cameron stands back and, under pressure, says, “Well, we might take a thousand or so from the camps, but we’re not taking anyone who has ‘jumped the queue’”—as one of Nigel Farage’s acolytes put it. That arrogant, selfish lack of the remotest compassion or even simple empathy with the family of Aylan Kurdi, as his small three-year-old body was carried out of the sea, brought anger and distress across Europe. The public outcry has been such that even David Cameron, who admits that he has not a clue about the price of bread, had to back down a bit more than he would have liked. It might even upset some of his back benchers, but he will have to take some desperate people from the refugee camps.
According to David Cameron, King John was an outrageous bully, and it was the brave barons who sat him down, gave him a jolly good talking to and asked him to seal the document. Good on them: we should all stand up to bullies wherever we see them, whether that is in the school playground or, indeed, the House of Commons. We need to stand together to fight the kind of right-wing, extremist messages that are infiltrating our communities and terrifying our towns and cities with their messages of hate and blame.
Amnesty International UK’s drive to do the human right thing is about exactly that. That campaign to save the Human Rights Act 1998 demands that the Westminster Government is stopped from bullying the very citizens who put it into power. That is yet another one of those arenas in Scotland where we get a double whammy: we cannot decide to hold on to the act for ourselves and we cannot stop proposals being passed by David Cameron’s Government and ourselves being subjected to the loss of our human rights. In other words, we are being bullied.
As you know, Presiding Officer, our Scottish Parliament has its foundations in human rights legislation, but there seems to be no thought about the impact on how this place, with cognisance of its human rights, formulates its policy. I am extremely proud of our approach to human rights; it is threaded through the Scotland Act 1998, and we should all be extremely proud of that.
That is why Amnesty’s campaign is so important. Scrapping the Human Rights Act would be a dangerously retrograde step that could put us all under the threat of tyranny. As Allan Hogarth, the head of advocacy and programmes at Amnesty, succinctly puts it:
“Human rights are not a gift to be bestowed upon us by monarchs, barons or democratically elected politicians, they are ours to be treasured and protected. It is not up to them to decide who and who is not entitled to human rights—the ‘human’ part of this is universal.
If the Prime Minister is sincere about protecting human rights in the UK and is proud of the Magna Carta’s legacy, he should stop attacking the Human Rights Act and think about how he can ensure that we all have equal access to justice.”
The people spoke out and the Tory Government had to listen. As we were preparing for the juggernaut of a bill that would scrap the act, we were suddenly told that there was to be a consultation and not a bill. Ordinary people refused to be bullied by the Government, but make no mistake: dumping the Human Rights Act and withdrawing completely from the European convention on human rights is still a live option. It has not gone away.
People tend to concentrate on the Human Rights Act’s importance for refugees and for those who are tortured, threatened or trafficked, but its impact reverberates through far more lives than those on the front line of conflict situations.
Jan, an MS sufferer, believed that her lack of care support infringed her human rights as an individual. She says that studying the legislation
“helped me to feel stronger—strong enough to search for the support to challenge my local council”.
She won that additional support and the sense of her own worth that she had lost over time. Without the act, what would have happened to Jan? Would she have managed to get more support? Getting rid of the obligation to treat people as human beings is another handy, back-door way to save money. Welfare reform already includes the erosion of human rights. Can we bear to imagine what might happen if we lacked the ultimate security of the ECHR?
What about families who are trapped in domestic violence? A woman who is stalked and abused by a violent partner surely has the right to escape with her children, and that right is enshrined within the HRA. The act makes it safer to be gay, which is still illegal and could lead to execution in 78 countries in this world. Thanks in large part to the ECHR and the UK Human Rights Act, our rights to be treated as equals with equal access to protection, regardless of gender, sexuality, race or age, are protected by law.
The struggle for equal rights has been significantly advanced by the laws, campaign groups and trade unions. The frightening thought that the UK might withdraw from the European Union and remove from us such crucial protections is yet another solid reason for Scotland to retain its integrity and compassion by staying in Europe. Scots have always viewed the right to civil liberty as fundamental. Our history in the trade union movement and people such as Keir Hardie are testament to that set of values.
Today the UK Government announced that it will repeal the Human Rights Act 1998 and bring forward a bill of rights. It is time now: let us all back Amnesty’s do the human right thing campaign. When enough people speak, Governments listen.
I thank Christina McKelvie for her motion. It is an important issue that we have to discuss, especially today.
Human rights and the Human Rights Act 1998 can challenge Governments and other public and private institutions, and rightly so. I required to deal with the consequences of the Cadder decision but we, as an Administration, accepted it, although we were probably rather begrudging about it.
It is important that we allow decisions to be challenged and not simply imposed upon people. Every democracy requires there to be a separation of powers. There requires to be the Government that is held to account as the executive by the wider Parliament. Equally, there requires to be a legislator to whom people can go if they have queries or if they feel that the Parliament or the Government are acting outwith their powers or are failing to act appropriately. That is how it should be in all democracies.
Even the United States, a country that sometimes I and other members would challenge, sees court decisions as fundamental to the defence of the constitution, and there have been many areas in which the US has seen the court overturn the legislature and the executive to protect the rights of citizens. It should be no less so in this country—and indeed it has been no less so in this country, with people able to go to the courts to take issue with actions by Government or institutions on a variety of reasons or grounds.
I accept that the Conservatives are being driven not so much by a desire to abolish human rights—there is a willingness to impose a UK bill of rights—as by their antipathy towards ECHR and to Europe in particular. However, I believe that a UK bill of rights would be no substitute for what is an international institution that is accepted by almost all right-minded countries. It is important that we should remain part of the mainstream, not simply by being a member of the European Union, which is a separate political action, but by subscribing to ECHR and accepting the right of the European court to hold the Government—Scottish or UK—to account.
This is about the right of citizens to be able to challenge those who are much more powerful or who are in much more privileged positions. There is a great deal of obsession in the media about crime. That, after all, is one of the things that helps to sell tabloid newspapers. Many of the major challenges that have been faced in Scotland and in the UK have been related to criminal justice—I have already mentioned the Cadder issue—but the Human Rights Act is much wider and broader than that, as Christina McKelvie correctly said. It is about the rights of citizens, whether in relation to mental health, access to legal aid, or a whole gamut of other aspects. It is important.
Equally, if the UK were to repeal the Human Rights Act, it would put Scotland in limbo, given the act’s constitutional position in the very founding document of this Parliament. Withdrawing would leave the UK isolated, along with North Korea and other countries that do not seek to be part of the mainstream world. That is why we should, and must, preserve the Human Rights Act and remain signed up to ECHR.
It would perhaps be remiss of me not to take the opportunity to put a sting in the tail. In championing human rights, it is important that the Scottish Government should take cognisance of ECHR and the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights on the right of prisoners to vote. That would be no small step to make sure that we got on the right side of the European Court. It is perhaps something that we should think about as well as chastising the Tory Government for its proposed actions.
I congratulate Christina McKelvie on lodging this important motion. I agree with what she said at the start of her speech about refugees but also more generally about the importance of the Human Rights Act 1998 in protecting fundamental liberties and holding power to account.
Of course, the Human Rights Act was passed by the Labour Government in 1998. It was seeking to ensure that people who previously had to take their case to the European Court of Human Rights could, from 1998 onwards, take their case to the domestic court. The UK Government is seeking to abolish that aspect of ECHR but my understanding is that it also wants to have the right to veto ECHR more generally. That would require it to depart from ECHR and from the Council of Europe. Some people argue that it would even need to depart from the EU, although I do not think that that would necessarily follow.
The Conservatives also want to limit human rights coverage to the most serious cases and deny people human rights if they are not deemed to have made a positive contribution to the UK. Those are significant changes and although I reminded people that it was the Labour Government in 1998 that brought in the Human Rights Act, it was a Conservative Government in the early 1950s that was very keen on ECHR. Churchill was keen on it and it was a Conservative member of Parliament, Maxwell Fyfe, who was instrumental in the drawing up of ECHR.
It is a new departure for the Conservative Party to be challenging fundamental rights in this way and I know that quite a few Conservative MPs in the UK Parliament are not happy about that. Part of my grounds for optimism is that they may rebel; my other ground for optimism is that I think that abolishing the 1998 act requires the consent of this Parliament. I think that we have an important role to play in protecting the act and ECHR more generally.
The European Court of Human Rights has made groundbreaking judgments on a wide range of issues, helping the UK to become a more progressive society. To those who criticise some of the judgments, we should emphasise how many of them have helped some of the most vulnerable people in society. For example, the act has protected older and disabled people who receive care, helped victims of rape to sue the police for failing to act on their complaints and been used to hold social services to account for not doing enough to stop child abuse. Of course, the act does not protect only the vulnerable; it also helps to protect the freedom of the press, which I am sure that we all believe in, and it has defended the rights of servicemen and women to have the right equipment when serving overseas.
I therefore strongly support the Amnesty campaign that was launched in April and which urges people to do the human right thing and protect the act. The Amnesty campaign uses examples to highlight the very real impact that the act has had. There is also a petition, which has nearly 100,000 signatures—people can add their names to it at www.savetheact.uk. The Amnesty campaign gives powerful examples. I have given some general examples already, but it is important to remind people who are critical of the act exactly what it has meant in practice. For example, a woman with multiple sclerosis who was forced to spend all day every day in bed was able to use the act to get her local council to increase the amount of care that she received. A second example that Amnesty gives is of an elderly couple who were placed in separate care homes after 65 years of marriage and who were able to use the act to successfully persuade their local authority to allow the woman to move into her husband’s care home.
I have other examples, but my time is running out. We need only glance abroad to the crises in Syria, Gaza and other places or look to the horror that is being faced by refugees on the shores of the EU to recognise just how precious our human rights are and how we must fight for them. We must fight for the human rights of others and we must face down any attempt to withdraw those rights in the UK.
This is not a new subject, as it has been covered in topical questions and in other debates. However, I thank Christina McKelvie for lodging the motion and providing me with the opportunity to set the record straight regarding the UK Government’s proposal to put the European convention on human rights into a British bill of rights.
Britain has a proud tradition of upholding human rights and it played a significant role in drafting the European convention on human rights, which was enacted in 1953. That represented an historic and groundbreaking codification of the rights that all humans should expect to enjoy.
In June this year, the UK Government confirmed that it would bring forward proposals, including a public consultation, on replacing the Human Rights Act 1998 with a British bill of rights. Since then, much political capital has been made from the proposal. It is unfortunate that Amnesty International’s campaign, in seeking to ensure that the Human Rights Act 1998 is not repealed, infers that British citizens will suddenly lose their right to life, education, marriage, liberty and property—the list goes on. That is despite the acknowledgment from the then justice minister Roseanna Cunningham that
“The precise implications of repeal” of the act
“would depend on the detail of the repealing legislation.”—[Written Answers, 30 October 2014; S4W-22699.]
Let us be clear that, in proposing to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998, the UK Government is not proposing to abolish human rights; instead, it proposes to uphold them in a way that reflects the values of those living in the UK by ensuring that the interpretation of European convention rights lies with UK judges. That addresses concerns over the so-called mission creep of the European Court of Human Rights. A recent case in point is the European court’s decision that life imprisonment for the most serious violent offenders should not be allowed, on the basis that it amounts to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, regardless of the severity of the crime.
Another example is the European court’s decision on the rights of prisoners to vote, to which Kenny MacAskill referred. Nicola Sturgeon, who is now First Minister, recognised that decision as problematic, when she disagreed and said:
“people who commit crimes and are sent to jail do not get to vote. I do not believe that a good case has been made for changing that situation.”—[Official Report, Referendum (Scotland) Bill Committee, 28 March 2013; c 314.]
However, it is only fair to point out the irony of so much political capital being made of the supposed adverse effects of the proposed bill of rights when the Scottish Government has allowed potential human rights abuses to continue on its own watch on issues for which it has complete devolved competence. The so-called consensual stop and search by police in Scotland, under which thousands of people—including children—have been searched without knowing that they had a right to refuse, is evidence of the infringement of human rights here.
To put it in perspective, rather than raising the topic repeatedly when nothing further has happened since the initial announcement last year, the Scottish Government should concentrate on making sure that the devolved issues over which it has competence are not the subject of the infringement of human rights in Scotland.
I again thank Christina McKelvie for bringing the debate to the chamber and allowing me to set the record straight.
I congratulate Christina McKelvie on securing this debate on an important issue. The UK Conservative Government would have us believe that the Human Rights Act 1998 undermines the sovereignty of Parliament and the independence of our courts and that it goes far beyond the UK’s obligations under the European convention on human rights. The Government talks of the European Court of Human Rights being afflicted by mission creep. It is determined to abolish the act and proposes replacing it with a British bill of rights and responsibilities. It has admitted that the new bill of rights would apply only to the most serious cases. Which of our human rights are not serious? What is a trivial breach of human rights?
The UK Government’s plans state that it would
“Limit the reach of human rights cases to the UK, so that British Armed forces overseas are not subject to persistent human rights claims that undermine their ability to do their job and keep us safe”.
That would set a dangerous precedent. Human rights are not something to opt into and out of. As a Liberal Democrat, I firmly believe that they are universal. In this of all weeks, when David Cameron and his Government have been found so wanting in their response to the refugee crisis, why would anyone even contemplate allowing them to tamper with the hard-won freedoms that are set out in the convention and the act?
Amnesty International’s do the human right thing campaign focuses on saving the act. I strongly support the campaign and the work that Amnesty International does on the issue. The act compels us to comply with the European convention on human rights. Let us not forget that, as others have said, both documents were drafted by UK lawyers and fully reflect British values. They are not, as some might want us to believe, foreign diktats that allow criminals and terrorists to act with impunity, avoid punishment or exploit loopholes; on the contrary, they protect the most vulnerable in our society.
The Human Rights Act has helped to keep families together by ensuring, under the protection of our right to family life, that care homes and local authorities keep elderly married couples together. It has helped to secure proper support from local authorities for people with a disability. It has protected the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people at home and abroad. It also protects the dignity of some of our most marginalised citizens.
Furthermore, scrapping the act would cause specific legal issues that relate to those of us who sit in devolved Parliaments. The act is hardwired into the devolution settlements in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Good Friday agreement was achieved in part thanks to the assurances that the act provided.
The Conservatives have admitted that, if the international community did not accept their proposed British bill of rights and responsibilities, the UK would be forced out of the convention. Abolishing the act and leaving the convention would put us in the same club as Belarus, which is often dubbed the last dictatorship of Europe. To walk away from the act and the convention would undermine our ability to ask other countries to respect their citizens’ rights. It would send a damaging message that the UK does not respect its international obligations, so why should anyone else?
Only the presence of Liberal Democrats in the previous UK Government prevented the Conservatives from abolishing the act earlier. Unfortunately, they are now in a position to jeopardise those rights that we hold dear. I support the motion and Amnesty International’s campaign. I will work with colleagues around the chamber to do the human right thing. As Amnesty has said, we cannot let the UK Government
“turn universal freedoms into privileges for a chosen few.”
I welcome the opportunity to participate in the debate and commend Christina McKelvie for bringing it to the chamber. As others have indicated, it is perhaps hard to remember that Conservative politicians of the late 1940s and early 1950s were proponents of the European convention on human rights, for they recognised the need to move forward in Europe and not to move backwards—even though David Maxwell Fyfe, to whom Malcolm Chisholm referred, would perhaps have been surprised at the extent to which the convention has moved forward on matters of sexual morality.
Last autumn, Conservative plans to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998 and replace it with a British bill of rights were announced, together with a move to stop the UK courts having to take account of Strasbourg jurisprudence. Since the election in May, Conservatives have reiterated that commitment and we now seem to be moving towards a consultation.
Why are the proposals worrying? Because the act sets out the fundamental rights and freedoms that everyone in Scotland and the UK has access to. Those rights and freedoms are based on the European convention. According to the act, all public authorities—including prisons, police officers and councils—must respect those rights and freedoms. That is an essential mechanism for protecting our rights and freedoms.
Scotland has a long and rich tradition of upholding human rights and freedoms. The Scottish Government’s recent commitment to accept a fair and proportionate number of refugees in Scotland, in the wake of the European refugee crisis, is a fine example of the commitment to those who have no rights in their own countries. Furthermore, the act is at the heart of Scottish legislation. Any withdrawal from it, under the Sewel convention, might have implications for the devolved settlement.
As we know, the Conservative Party has only one MP in Scotland, which means that only one representative out of 59 is committed to the proposals. I urge the Conservatives to think carefully about the wider implications of the move. They simply have no mandate to tamper with Scotland’s long and rich commitment to human rights. I am sure that my SNP colleagues at Westminster and Holyrood will continue to oppose Tory proposals to repeal the act.
Furthermore, it is quite indicative that several charity organisations and groups, including the SCVO and the Health and Social Care Alliance, have highlighted their concerns about the potential risks that are associated with repealing the act. Even some in David Cameron’s party, including David Davis and Ken Clarke, have voiced opposition to the UK Government’s plans to repeal the act.
For all the talk of bad decisions on prisoners’ right to vote—with Westminster and the Scottish Parliament taking the view that prisoners should not have the vote—the European Court of Human Rights decided in February this year, no doubt to some lawyers’ disappointment, that UK prisoners who were barred from voting were not entitled to compensation.
I suspect that a British bill of rights will be equal to an English bill of rights, which would fail to take into account the needs and interests of the people of Scotland. From the Conservative proposals that were published in October, apart from a small reference to the claim of right of 1689, one could be forgiven for thinking that Scotland did not exist at all. We are right to fear a British bill of rights, particularly in relation to social rights, and we can be certain that it will severely curtail anything that might look to be a right to economic assistance, housing or welfare.
I will conclude by referring to the possible constitutional crisis that the Tory proposals will cause. In the view of Michael Pinto-Duschinsky and other commentators, Scotland and the UK risk being forced out of the European convention on human rights altogether. His view is that it is impossible to leave the court’s jurisdiction without also rejecting the convention. In the view of Professor Francesca Klug, there is also a problem for the UK’s continued membership of the European Union. In her view, a country needs to adhere to the convention in order to be a member of the EU. That no doubt sounds grand to Tory Eurosceptics, but I would say to more considered people in the Tory party, “Don’t do it.”
I, too, congratulate Christina McKelvie on securing the debate. The topic is very appropriate, because the human rights of millions of people in Syria and across the middle east and north Africa are threatened to the extent that they have had to flee their countries of origin and seek asylum elsewhere.
In Europe, there has been an outpouring of humanitarian response to the horrific experiences of our fellow human beings. While we compare our situations with theirs, it is worth reflecting on how the European convention on human rights, which was drafted way back in 1950 in the aftermath of the second world war, protects those of us who are fortunate enough to live in Council of Europe member states from the atrocities that others suffer.
As a Scottish Labour member, I am proud that incorporating the convention into UK law was one of the first actions of the incoming Labour Government in 1997. I am pleased therefore to fully endorse Amnesty International’s do the human right thing campaign to raise awareness of the importance of the Human Rights Act 1998 and the threat that is posed by the UK Government’s intention to repeal it and replace it with a so-called British bill of rights. It is a bill of rights and not a bill of human rights that is proposed.
In October last year, Professor Alan Miller, chair of the Scottish Human Rights Commission, warned:
“Human rights laws often benefit us in ways we do not always realise. Here in the UK, they have been used to expose fatal failures in hospitals and care homes and to challenge the unfair impact of the bedroom tax. From protecting soldiers serving in battle to challenging prison conditions that have no place in a decent society, the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights provide a safety net for everyone.”
Why would the UK Government wish to remove that safety net and risk expulsion from ECHR?
A clue to that is in the way in which the original announcement by Chris Grayling, who was Secretary of State for Justice at the time, was greeted by delighted headlines in right-wing tabloids that trumpeted so-called British values and the removal of the authority of “meddling European judges”. For years, those same publications had reported human rights as in their view benefiting only bad people such as offenders and others who those tabloids consider to be undesirables. Theresa May contributed to that in 2011 with her unfounded story at conference about an illegal immigrant being allowed to stay in the country because he had a cat.
Like organisations such as the SHRC, the Amnesty International campaign presents the other, important side of the argument. Malcolm Chisholm referred to the vulnerable elderly couple who would have been separated when the man was admitted to a care home because the woman did not fit the criteria for that home. Their human right to a family life have now been respected.
A woman who, with her children, was fleeing domestic violence was accused of making her children intentionally homeless and threatened with their removal. That family have now been rehoused because their human rights were recognised. Other examples are rape victims no longer being subjected to cross-examination by their attackers, and the journalist who, on appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, was permitted not to reveal his source on the takeover of a company so that the information that he had obtained from the source could be provided in the public interest.
A human rights approach can force us to focus on controversial issues. We discussed one—the age of criminal responsibility—at the Justice Committee this morning. Issues such as the right of prisoners to vote or the physical punishment of children can provoke instinctive responses. ECHR and the Human Rights Act 1998 have forced us to consider difficult issues more deeply and thoughtfully.
Repeal of the act would be a deeply retrograde step. I wish Amnesty International every success in its campaign to make the Conservative Government think again.
I, too, congratulate Christina McKelvie for a timely debate—although I always think that it is timely to discuss human rights. I thank everyone for their briefings, declare my membership of Amnesty and indicate my support for the do the human right thing campaign.
I alluded before to a meeting of the Highland senior citizens network that I attended as part of the Scottish national action plan on human rights process, in which civil society was consulted on how we should go about dealing with and embedding our human rights. The chair of the network—a very respected individual—acknowledged that he had no previous experience of human rights; in fact, many of the people there wondered about their relevance to them. However, due to the network’s extremely positive work in relation to the quality of care that was provided in care homes, the dignity of residents and issues such as hydration, mobility, bed sores, medication and privacy, it became apparent that it fully understood the need for a rights-based approach.
That is in line with what Amnesty told us in its briefing, which was that the Human Rights Act 1998 is for the most vulnerable people. However, Amnesty also said that the act guarantees important rights for everyone living in the UK. Relevance is the key to this.
We are having the debate because of an erosion of respect for individuals. That is part of a concerted—I would say neoliberal—campaign; indeed, I would describe it as mission creep. That is reflected in policies that attack the poor and vulnerable and undermine hard-fought-for workplace terms and conditions. It has brought about a discussion about deserving recipients of public support: I say that everyone deserves the protection of human rights. I make no apology for repeating that a UK Prime Minister talked about slaying the “health and safety monster”. The highest levels of cleanliness must apply in our hospitals. I speak as the proud son of a hospital cleaner. It is about the dignity of patients and their wellbeing, and it is about fundamental human rights and health and safety. If we make those links to practical things, it makes the debate make sense to a lot of people.
“The Human Rights Act has consistently proved its value by providing an essential safeguard in areas such as protecting older and disabled people who are receiving care.”
That quotation is from one of the briefings, and we have heard that point consistently throughout the debate. I commend the Equality and Human Rights Commission not just for its work but for the very diplomatic phraseology that it used in relation to the situation in which we find ourselves. It has said—and I quote—that
“Scotland’s devolution settlement is directly tied to the Human Rights Act and ECHR. Any change to our human rights framework would have to take careful account of the implications for the UK’s wider constitutional architecture.”
I seek an independent Scotland, but I am not going to revel in highlighting the differences. I want the highest standards to apply across these islands, regardless of our constitutional arrangements. I would like one very clear message from this debate to be that everyone wants the highest standards to apply not just within these islands, but beyond. I commend the UK’s three national human rights institutions for working together to pursue that.
There was a time when the UK was admired as a place of sanctuary, but I have to say that that reputation has been sullied of late. I do not want to see us being complacent. We have no need to be complacent in Scotland—we have had issues such as Gypsy/Travellers, stop and search and votes, which have been alluded to.
The UK has an opportunity to show that it has a heart that has regard for human rights. I hope that it takes that approach and does the right thing.
I add my thanks to Christina McKelvie for bringing this debate to the chamber. It is very important and, as John Finnie just said, it is timely. Perhaps Margaret Mitchell does not know this, but the Tory plan to scrap the Human Rights Act was confirmed in Parliament today. The consultation will come forward from the Conservative justice minister, Mr Raab, who said at Westminster that the bill will give the UK Supreme Court supremacy over the European Court of Human Rights and
“a greater respect for the legislative role of hon. Members in this place.”
It is important that we have the debate today.
I look forward to having a lot more debates about this subject, because it is very important that we talk about human rights in terms that are different to those that the Conservatives are using. John Finnie talked about a “neoliberal ... campaign”—he might be right. Mr Chisholm talked about the many Conservatives in the past who were very much guardians of our human rights. I do not think that the Conservatives today are in the same place as their predecessors.
We are in a different place altogether in relation to the language that is used, and which is so important. Christina McKelvie started by talking about the refugee crisis that we have just now. We can see how language is so important in a debate about human rights. We want to focus on making sure that we have more and more debates about that. Politicians have a responsibility, as do the media, to ensure that we use positive language when we talk about human rights. Human rights are good things for the people of Britain—for everybody who lives in Britain, just as they are for those outside Britain. It is important to remember that they are not British rights or Labour rights, even if Labour introduced the Human Rights Act 1998. They are everybody’s rights.
The key evidence in the refugee crisis and the conversation that we are having about human rights is the use of language. There are a few examples of that in the Conservative proposal for changing Britain’s human rights laws. A lot of the language really should not be used. For example, it twice states that
“we must put Britain first”.
In the context of a refugee crisis such as we have just now, or of human rights in general, that is the last thing that we should do. Rather, we should put humans first—everybody, wherever they come from and wherever they live.
Margaret Mitchell talked about offenders. She forgot to use the exact phrase in the Conservative proposal, which is “foreign nationals”. In a debate about human rights, mixing up foreign nationals with the perpetrators of one of the most evil crimes is absolutely not the right thing to do. If the Conservatives have a plan for change, that is not how we should debate it. I remind Parliament that we all have a responsibility to be mindful of the language that we use when discussing human rights.
It is fair to say that few members’ business debates attract the level of interest that we have had this evening, but it is rare that a question mark hangs over fundamental rights. Everybody who has attended deserves credit, starting with Christina McKelvie, of course, who brought the subject to the chamber.
I also congratulate Amnesty International on the campaign that it has launched today. Let me be clear that that campaign has our support. Amnesty International is a well-chosen name for an organisation. I want to draw attention to the international part of that, because the UK Government has promised to bring forward proposals for a British bill of rights. The desire to remove the word “human” is no accident and is much more than a cosmetic change, because it signals a desire to move away from a universal standard—a separation from a human rights framework that is meant to connect and unite people around the world regardless of their circumstances.
Let us make no mistake. Reducing the human rights safeguards that we currently have would threaten the fundamental freedoms of us all, but undoubtedly the most vulnerable members of society are always hardest hit. John Wadham, the former director of Liberty, said:
“a simplistic version of democracy where Parliament rules and Parliament rules alone, is not adequate to protect our democratic values”.
He also said:
“the bill of rights we have is the Human Rights Act, and the bill of rights we need is the Human Rights Act.”
As a result of that desire to move away from the existing terms, it is no surprise that the eyes of the world are on us. Contributions have focused on the critical protections provided by the ECHR and the Human Rights Act, but let us not forget the wider framework of seven core United Nations human rights treaties, and eight that we have signed up to under the Council of Europe treaty system.
The UK was recently examined by the UN Human Rights Committee in relation to its obligations under the international covenant on civil and political rights, a treaty that echoes many of the key protections found in the ECHR. Members will not be surprised that the committee’s concluding observations expressed concern in the UN—as there is also in the Council of Europe—at the prospect of the UK retreating from its commitment to human rights and fundamental freedoms.
“If you did a paternity test you would find the UK’s genes are there in the ECHR’s conception. The threat to withdraw would be like Daddy leaving home.”
He went on to say that the country that was among the founders of the European convention on human rights
“could become the dismantler of the entire enterprise”.
We must ask ourselves what message it sends when we wish to provide international leadership on the importance of complying with human rights if we are withdrawing from what is seen as a more international standard.
The Irish Government has highlighted the dimension that affects it, stating:
“Protecting the human rights aspects of the Good Friday Agreement is ... a shared responsibility between the two Governments”.
That is an unusual intervention, but it also reflects some of the constitutional issues that the proposals throw up within the United Kingdom.
Under the Scotland Act 1998, the power to observe and implement international obligations, including obligations under the ECHR, falls firmly within the competence of this Parliament. Like the wider work of this Parliament, that power and those obligations are of immense importance. The Sewel convention exists to ensure that there is some constitutional underpinning of the rights of this Parliament and that its powers will not be changed without its permission, but the Sewel convention is bounded only by the UK Government’s willingness to exercise restraint in using the sovereignty that the Scotland Act 1998 reserves to it. Could there be a more apt illustration of where rights beyond the untrammelled will of Parliament are needed and necessary?
There are some real dangers. Margaret Mitchell has highlighted the proposals, but if we are to have a British bill of rights that is the same as the ECHR, why bother? If it is to be different to the ECHR, it is safe to assume that “different” to the UK Government will not mean stronger, especially when there are accusations of mission creep and where there are the doubts, as Rod Campbell has highlighted, about commitments to social rights. Today, we have heard repeatedly about the desire to reduce the accessibility of recourse to those rights.
Underlying the Conservative proposals is the complaint that, sometimes, courts in the UK or in Strasbourg deliver judgments that the Government of the day does not like. The rule of law means that Governments cannot simply pick and choose which court ruling should be allowed to stand. The fact that courts make decisions with which we disagree should not be used as an excuse to get rid of the court system.
There are a lot of myths in the wider debate. Let me try to scotch a few of them. In 2014, the court dealt with 1,997 applications concerning the UK. A violation of convention rights was found in only 0.7 per cent of cases. In fact, the UK had the highest numbers of judgments that found there to be no violation.
Malcolm Chisholm, Alison McInnes and others have highlighted some of the positive examples that we need to hear more about: the victims of rape, who can expect to see their complaints investigated; people serving in the army, who can expect to receive equipment and training to an appropriate standard; children suffering mistreatment or neglect, who can expect social services to respond to warning signs; journalists, who are not required to disclose their sources; disabled people, including people with mental health problems in care or detention, who can expect to receive treatment and conditions to meet their specific needs; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people, who have used human rights to overcome discrimination; and the elderly couple who after 65 years of marriage were going to be forced to live apart due to their differing care needs, who used article 8 of the Human Rights Act 1998 on the right to family life to ensure that the council backed down.
With every day that passes, the UK Government shows more and more that its all-consuming obsessions are shrinking the state and an instinctive aversion to almost anything with the word “European” in its title. Those are not my values; they are not this Government’s values; they are not this Parliament’s values. They do not deserve to be called “values” at all. The ECHR has values. Scotland will stand for them; Scotland will do the human right thing. I sincerely hope that the UK Government sees sense and follows suit.
Meeting closed at 17:52.