I have great pleasure in opening today’s debate on dignity, equality and human rights for all. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, articulates what I believe to be the self-evident truth that
“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”
There is a sense in which any debate on dignity, equality and human rights necessarily begins and ends right there, with that simple statement. Almost everything that we need to do in the world of government, public policy and legislation—and in our roles as elected representatives—can be derived directly from our acceptance of that single sentence. In fact, nothing that we do and nothing that we seek to achieve can ultimately have meaning if it does not strive above all else to give practical effect to the principles of freedom and equality, to human rights and to the overriding obligation to secure human dignity.
It is certainly a truth that shapes our collective response in Government and indeed in this Parliament to critically important domestic challenges. From the elimination of poverty, ill-health and inequality to the delivery of inclusive and environmentally sustainable economic growth, those universal principles directly inform our work. It is a truth that lies at the heart of how we confront as a nation and as a society the prospect of life post-Brexit. It is also a truth that reminds us, if a reminder is needed, of the monstrous tragedy that we see unfolding in Myanmar and of the continuing scandal of modern, wealthy nations that fail in their duty to alleviate the suffering of refugees who are cast up on European shores.
Of course, the work of both Government and this Parliament is also shaped by our common responsibilities to do more than simply acknowledge big principles. We also have a shared duty to get the details right to ensure that we achieve the outcomes that the people of Scotland have tasked us to deliver. Doing so requires a human rights approach. It demands ways of working that embed dignity, rights and equality in everything that we do, and it recognises that such action is more than just a policy choice or a consequence of the most recent manifesto commitment. In other words, it is not just about what we do, important though that is. It is also about how we do it. It is about how we do our business, how we implement our commitments and how we include others. It is about how we work with, listen to and respond to those who we seek to serve.
Giving practical effect to equality and human rights and securing human dignity for all is a core function of Government and also of this Parliament. As Scotland’s Government, we have a particular responsibility not only to lead that work but to be accountable for our record in delivering. That is why the programme for government that we set out on 5 September provides an ambitious road map for long-term progressive change. It builds on the actions that we have already taken to make human rights real in Scotland and to enable all members of our society to live with dignity and equality.
We have made it clear that the Scottish Government will maintain our resolute defence of human rights and equality in the face of threats posed by the United Kingdom Government. We will work to prevent existing and future human rights protections, including the European charter of fundamental rights, from being eroded by the impact of Brexit. The European charter is crucial because it has a direct effect in this country and it complements the European convention on human rights. We know that the Scotland Act 1998 and the Human Rights Act 1998 implement the ECHR in Scotland but, crucially, the European charter goes further than the European convention on human rights because it includes social, economic, cultural and third-generation rights around employment, environment and consumer protection, amongst other things.
We are determined to take every opportunity to give further and better effect to economic, social, cultural and third-generation rights for all of Scotland.
The European charter of fundamental rights applies only to the European Union institutions and to EU member states when they are implementing EU law in national law. Given that we are leaving the EU, the charter cannot have any further effect in the United Kingdom post-Brexit, can it?
If Mr Tomkins had listened to what I said, he would know that the EU charter and its principles of course have a direct impact on laws in Scotland as they stand and that they give us protections that we all benefit from. We do not want a UK Tory Government to erode those protections. Furthermore, we have to recognise that the European charter of fundamental rights complements and goes further than the European convention on human rights for reasons that I have given. It includes social security, economic rights, cultural rights and social rights, which are included in our vision of fair work, which the Government and most members are in favour of. Those rights include the right to fair work and to an adequate standard of living, decent housing, health, social security and access to education, and we now need to stand up collectively to protect those rights in the face of the UK Government and the Brexit process.
No. Perhaps I will take an intervention later if I have time.
That is why we are establishing an expert advisory group to make recommendations on how Scotland can continue to lead by example. That group will be chaired by Professor Alan Miller, who is former head of the Scottish Human Rights Commission. Its work will be founded on participation and a deliberative approach that reaches beyond those who already have easy access to power and influence. Human rights belong to everyone in our society, and it is essential that voices from all walks of life and every corner of our nation are heard.
We continue to put the rights of our children and young people at the heart of the programme for government, including by conducting a comprehensive audit of ways to further embed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in domestic law. We know that Scotland has a strong track record on empowering and involving children and young people so that their voices can be clearly heard.
The Government has been explicit in recognising social security as a human right. That commitment remains at the heart of our programme. Scotland’s new social security system will be founded on dignity and respect.
We are determined that Scotland should be a place in which disabled people can live with real opportunity to realise their potential, free from the barriers that hold them back. That commitment to disabled people’s rights was acknowledged by the United Nations last month when it welcomed the publication of our disability delivery plan.
Later this year, we will publish an action plan that will drive positive change for minority ethnic communities in Scotland. We will also publish our delivery plan for the equally safe strategy, which will detail our programme to tackle violence against women and girls.
We are implementing Scotland’s human trafficking and exploitation strategy, which is about supporting victims, identifying perpetrators and addressing the causes of trafficking and exploitation. We also have an ambitious programme of work to take forward the recommendations of the independent advisory group on hate crime, prejudice and community cohesion.
Many of those issues feature among the 227 recommendations that the United Nations Human Rights Council made following its review in May of the UK’s human rights record. Over the past two years, the UK has been examined by UN committees on its record under five of the seven core international human rights treaties. In relation to disabled people in particular, the UK has been found to have engaged in “grave and systematic violations”. Indeed, such are the concerns that the UK has been ordered to report back on progress next year. Members of the United Nations Human Rights Council have made clear their own concerns that the legal protections that are in place in the UK to safeguard human rights are increasingly at risk. Those are concerns and criticisms that this Government shares and which we remain committed to addressing.
This month marks 20 years since the referendum vote for a Scottish Parliament. That vote was a watershed moment for Scotland and for its democracy. From the outset, equality and human rights were embedded in the very fabric of this institution as a founding principle for Scotland’s new Parliament. In the 20 years since, those principles and ambitions have remained firm and have informed all that we do.
Much work still remains to be done, but I am proud of the commitment that this Government and Parliament have made to equality, to human rights and to the fundamental importance of human dignity. I am proud of the stance that has been taken to protect those rights. We can be confident that the self-evident truth articulated by the universal declaration will ultimately triumph if we continue to work diligently and in partnership to give it full and meaningful effect. That is work to which I know that this Government and Scotland’s national Parliament are fully committed.
That the Parliament is committed to creating a fairer Scotland underpinned by respecting and implementing human rights; notes the achievements that Scotland has already made in giving practical effect to the human rights set out in UN and Council of Europe treaties, and International Labour Organization conventions; welcomes the appointment of the former Scottish Human Rights Commissioner, Professor Alan Miller, as chair of a new expert group that will provide independent advice and recommendations on how Scotland can continue to protect and enhance human rights, including economic, social, cultural and environmental rights; further welcomes the commitment that the Scottish Government will undertake a comprehensive audit of the most effective way to further embed the principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into policy and legislation; acknowledges that embedding a human rights-based approach within Scotland’s public services is fundamental to securing equality, dignity and rights and commends the rights-based approach to building a social security system that will be underpinned by dignity, respect and equality, and resolves to ensure that the human rights and equality of all of the people of Scotland are fully respected and protected, promoted and implemented.
It is not just our signature to the various treaties and conventions on human rights that matters, but rather how we take forward and use those conventions to improve the law on human rights and improve the lives of those who are most in need of protection against prejudice, discrimination and poverty. I associate the Labour Party with the cabinet secretary’s remarks on the treatment of Rohingya Muslims by Myanmar, which should be condemned worldwide as ethnic cleansing.
There is a great deal to focus on in the coming parliamentary year: inclusive education in our schools, transphobia, the rights of transgender people, tackling disability discrimination in employment and smashing the barriers that prevent women from equal and fair representation in all levels of their professions, whether that be in the public or private sector or the board room.
I agree that the concept and definition of human rights by their very nature should be wide. They should not be confined to gender, disability, race, religion and sexual orientation, but should include other protections such as those in the workplace, with the right to join a union; the right for dignity in ill health and old age; and environmental protection rights. Friends of the Earth’s briefing draws our attention to the high cost of taking action on environmental rights, and that is also true in areas of civil justice when people try to enforce their rights. The subject of legal costs to ordinary citizens must be looked at as a serious piece of work by the Parliament.
Labour Party members will support the Government motion and the amendment in the name of John Finnie, but we will abstain on the Liberal Democrat amendment as we have not heard the outcome of the Equalities and Human Rights Committee’s work on prisoner voting.
Parliaments have often gone beyond the legal and convention requirements, such as with the legislation on equal marriage and gender recognition. Credit is due to former Prime Minister David Cameron for equal marriage across the UK and to the Scottish Government for implementing that into Scots law. We should continue to make sure that Scotland is ahead of the trend.
I have no idea why Sandra White thinks that I would disagree with that statement; that is perhaps for another day.
Labour is proud that we enshrined the European convention of human rights into domestic law, and we will continue to defend our decision to do that. Some would even say that a smoking ban is an important human rights question in the traditional sense—the right not to breathe in damaging smoke—but nonetheless it was a life-changing act. There have been many benefits of a law that has enabled people to enforce their human rights.
Our being part of the European Union has given workers rights that they did not previously have. They can ensure that they receive holiday pay, and employers have to include overtime when they calculate holiday pay.
The Tory proposal to remove the ECHR from our law is a backward step. It is not easy for countries to accept decisions with which they do not agree, but from time to time the ECHR provides an important checks-and-balances function in relation to law. If it were not for a decision of the Supreme Court that implemented the ECHR principles, people who are suspected of committing a crime would have no right to have a lawyer present during their questioning. The Supreme Court overturned the decision of a seven-bench hearing of the appeal court in that regard, and I think that the Supreme Court got it right.
I want to talk about the UK approach to immigration. The detention estate is one of the largest in Europe. At any given time between 2009 and 2016, 2,500 to 3,000 people were being detained. It is a principle of human rights law that elected members should have the right to enter a place of detention at any time, but minister Robert Goodwill has refused me the right to see for myself the conditions in which detainees are held. We cannot hold ourselves up as a progressive country if we do not uphold that right, which is an important principle in the context of human rights.
I realise that I must close, Presiding Officer.
I will close, Presiding Officer. I do not want to get on the wrong side of you.
I urge members to support me and to write to David Mundell, as I have done, because he seems to support Robert Goodwill’s decision. If we are to uphold human rights, we must be able to go and see the conditions in which asylum seekers and others are held, including in prisons and other places of detention. We would do so, not to disrupt the regime but to uphold the principle.
I move amendment S5M-07740.3, to insert at end:
“; considers that human rights should be viewed as a broad-based principle and should also encompass workers’ rights as well as the right to a family life, which should include the right to a decent warm home; believes that significant progress should be made in the current parliamentary session to improve the rights of disabled people in areas of education, employment and public transport, and considers that this progress should be meaningful by ensuring that adequate and enforceable legislation is in place to advance these rights.”
The motion speaks of a Scottish social security system that is based on dignity and respect. I hope that everyone goes along with that. The recognition of the right to social security as a human right is fundamental, too.
I commend an approach in which we take things further and incorporate article 9 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and relevant sections of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The Child Poverty Action Group and Inclusion Scotland support such a position.
Although the motion mentions equality, fairness and rights, it does not mention disability rights or the UNCRPD. I appreciate that that is a big area, but the omission is notable for a number of reasons. The UNCRPD is the most recent UN human rights convention. Less than a year ago, the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which oversees the convention, concluded an inquiry into the UK and found, as members have said,
“systematic violations of the rights set forth in the Convention”.
Indeed, about three weeks ago, the same committee, as part of its multi-annual monitoring process, agreed a report that recommended 85 actions for the UK in relation to a range of rights, some of which have been mentioned, such as the rights to healthcare, social welfare, education, participation in society and an adequate standard of living. Those are substantive rights on their own—they are more than the right simply to enjoy services on a non-discriminatory basis, which is something completely different.
In all the debates that we have in this Parliament, I think that there is a lot of commonality around the view that we should be an inclusive society, in which nothing should mark someone out as unable to participate. If a UK Government has put in place mechanisms that prevent people from participating, that is very damning.
The committee found “systematic violations” of rights in relation to, for example,
“Living independently and being included in the community”,
and having an
“Adequate standard of living and social protection”.
If legislation is about anything, surely it is about protecting people and enabling people to be in employment.
The committee was clear on the cause of the violations—that was identified unequivocally: they are a result of the welfare reforms that have been introduced in the context of austerity. In that regard, the committee identified specific measures and their combined impact, including the loss of access to Motability cars under the roll-out of personal independent payments, which replaced disability living allowance. Many of us will recall the Conservative leader joyriding on a Motability scooter during the recent election campaign; we will also recall that many people found that distasteful. The committee also referred to employment and support allowance, the high level of recipients who are placed in the work-related activity group and the high number of participants in that group who are sanctioned.
The committee singled out impact assessments, which are clearly pivotal for understanding the consequences of the policies that we enact and which are conducted by the state. Although an adverse impact on disabled people was foreseen, the policies were still implemented. That, too, is damning. The committee also highlighted the absence of a cumulative rights-based impact assessment.
Now that I have laid out the report, it is only fair to set out what the UK Government has said about it. It dismissed the committee’s findings as “patronising and offensive”. What I find patronising and offensive, as will anyone who holds surgeries or has members of the public come through their door seeking assistance, is the treatment of disabled people at the hands of the UK Government. The UK Government claims to spend £50 billion a year on welfare for disabled people. That figure is hotly disputed—instead, the spend is thought to be £37 billion.
We could—and should—talk about a range of rights. Pauline McNeill alluded to access to justice. The recent Supreme Court ruling in the case brought by Unison about employment tribunal fees is a good example of where the courts found in favour of the law. There has been mention of the Civil Litigation (Expenses and Group Proceedings) (Scotland) Bill, which is taking forward Sheriff Principal Taylor’s review. The phrase “David versus Goliath” is often mentioned and, as has been said, who was going to pay the sums of money to the employment tribunals to deal with some of the issues there?
On environmental rights, the Scottish Government is still found to be lacking on the Aarhus convention—indeed, in recent days, it has been reprimanded in Paris for that. The current protective expenses orders are insufficient.
I move amendment S5M-07740.1, to insert at end:
“; notes the report of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) on its inquiry into violations of rights in the UK, which was issued on 6 October 2016, and its report on its concluding observations under its reporting cycle, which was issued on 29 August 2017; expresses grave concern that, in its October 2016 report, the UNCRPD found systematic violations of the rights of disabled people; acknowledges that one of only two positive findings in the August 2017 report concerned measures taken in Scotland; expresses concern at the absence of action and the dismissive attitude of the UK Government regarding the 85 recommendations made by the UNCRPD in August, and is resolved that dignity, equality, and human rights for all cannot be realised as long as disabled people continue to experience violations of their basic rights under the policies adopted by the UK Government.”
As we have heard already, significant progress has been made in recent times in this Parliament when it comes to human rights for all. Years of campaigning by the Liberal Democrats—and others—paid off when the Scottish National Party Government finally announced earlier this month that it would increase the age of criminal responsibility. We will now meet the minimum standard set by the United Nations. The Government should have answered our calls years ago, but at least it has finally caught up.
Likewise, after Liberal Democrat campaigning, we now have properly regulated police stop and search procedures.
Recently, the Scottish Government has said that it will no longer oppose giving children equal protection from assault. That is a welcome change. Although there is a long way to go, there has been much progress in Scotland when it comes to inclusivity and welcoming diversity.
Our celebration of the progress that we have made should not distract us from the work that we still need to do and the areas that have been so far neglected. The Government seems to have a pick-and-mix approach to human rights, shouting loudly about any successes and falling silent where there is inaction.
The fact is that Scotland continues to fall short of international human rights standards. That has been the finding of respected bodies, including the Scottish Human Rights Commission. Its most recent report concluded:
“The Scottish Government has been vocal in its support of putting human rights at the heart of government and opposing the repeal of the Human Rights Act. Nevertheless, significant human rights challenges continue to be felt in people’s day-to-day lives in areas like poverty, health, education, social care, disability and detention.”
There is a wide range of areas in Scotland where human rights need to be significantly improved. Those are complicated challenges, often interlinked, but we should not shy away from the task for fear of criticism in the newspapers or elsewhere.
Does the member believe that the idea of non-discrimination on the grounds of religious belief should be upheld? That would mean, for example, that practising Catholics would have the right to bear witness to their faith in a country that seems to be becoming increasingly intolerant of religious belief.
I agree—we need to be tolerant. I am not even sure that I like the word “tolerant”; I am not quite happy with it. We need to be all-encompassing and to make sure that we treat everybody with respect. Elaine Smith’s point is a fair one.
Unfortunately, as with nearly all the challenges that the Parliament faces, the problems that I have outlined are exacerbated by the uncertainty, cost and impact of the UK’s impending exit from the European Union. When the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations surveyed its members, 80 per cent of them felt that leaving the EU would have a negative impact on human rights and equality. Slightly more of them believed that Brexit would also worsen poverty and social exclusion.
Although the nature of what a potential Brexit will look like remains to be seen, there is plenty that the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government could do right now to improve rights for our citizens. In particular, the blanket ban on prisoner voting and the inadequacy of mental health services continue to tarnish Scotland’s reputation as a leader in human rights and equality. I urge the Scottish Government to rectify the situation immediately and ensure that international human rights agreements and legal obligations are actually enacted here in Scotland. Put simply, the blanket ban on prisoner voting is indefensible. It flouts international law and is neither fair nor progressive. Outside of these islands, no other western European democracy does it.
Unfortunately, I am in my final minute; if I were not, I would give way.
The Scottish Parliament has the power to deliver change but, thus far, it has ignored repeated domestic and international calls to do so. The Liberal Democrats lodged amendments to give some prisoners the right to vote in the independence referendum and the 2016 elections, but our attempts were voted down here in this chamber, and I think that that was shameful.
We know that, to reduce reoffending, more must be done to prepare offenders to rejoin our communities. An important part of that is ensuring that they are more aware of their responsibilities as citizens; we should not alienate them altogether.
There is so much more that we need to do to ensure that everyone has the chance to get on in life, from delivering a step change in mental health treatment to changing the law to ensure that children have equal protection from assault, as well as ensuring that we accept the legal requirement to end the blanket ban on prisoner voting. We do not need just fine words from the Scottish Government; we need action, and we need it this day.
I move amendment S5M-07740.2, to insert at end:
“; recognises that there are areas where Scotland continues to fall short of international human rights standards, as highlighted repeatedly by bodies such as the Scottish Human Rights Commission; welcomes that the Scottish Government has now agreed to raise the age of criminal responsibility to the minimum standard set by the UN and that it will not oppose giving children equal protection from assault; considers, however, that issues, from the blanket ban on prisoner voting to the inadequacy of mental health treatment, continue to tarnish Scotland's reputation as a leader in human rights and equality, and urges the Scottish Government to rectify these immediately and ensure that international human rights agreements and legal obligations are enacted without reservation in future.”
If Mr Rumbles is not sure about toleration, he should probably go and read some John Locke
. If even the Liberals in this Parliament are not sure about toleration, we are really in trouble.
The ban on prisoners voting is not a blanket ban. It is a ban on voting by prisoners who are convicted of criminal offences who are serving terms of imprisonment in jail. It is not a ban on voting by prisoners on remand and it does not extend after prisoners are released from prison, so it is not a blanket ban.
I will support the Government’s motion and the Labour Party’s amendment to it, but not the Liberal Democrat amendment or the Green Party amendment. Even though we support the Government’s motion, I make it clear that no nation—not even Scotland—can afford to be overly self-congratulatory about its human rights record. In Scotland, welcome measures are being taken; the cabinet secretary alluded to a number of them in her speech. However, there are also serious and significant flaws in the Scottish Government’s human rights record, and Mr Rumbles referred to a few of them.
There is the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012, with its bizarre and incoherent restrictions on aspects of free speech. There is the named persons legislation, which was unanimously held by the Supreme Court, only a year ago, to be a disproportionate interference with the fundamental human right of protection for families. The bill that has been introduced in the past few months to rectify that legislation—the Children and Young People (Information Sharing) (Scotland) Bill—does not go anything like far enough, as lawyer after lawyer has pointed out to the Education and Skills Committee.
On inequalities, one of Angela Constance’s legacies as a former education secretary is the dismal fact that, in the 30 per cent most deprived communities in Scotland, only 54 per cent of primary 7 schoolchildren perform well in numeracy and only 56 per cent do so in writing. Half our primary school leavers in the most deprived communities in Scotland cannot write to the required standard and cannot count properly. That is not a human rights record to be proud of.
When we turn from educational inequalities to those in health, the picture is just as stark. Scotland has the widest mortality inequality anywhere in western Europe. Scotland suffers from severe health inequalities in health and wellbeing areas such as suicide rates, cancer survival rates, stroke mortality, alcohol-related deaths, teenage pregnancy and childhood obesity. To my mind, it is a damning indictment of 20 years of devolution that, under Labour and nationalist Administrations, more has not been done to address and confront those problems.
It is not a human catastrophe for disabled people that there are now 600,000 disabled people in work in Britain who were not in work when David Cameron became Prime Minister in 2010; that the United Kingdom Government spends £50 billion supporting disabled people in our economy; or that the United Kingdom’s groundbreaking Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which was passed by a Conservative Government under John Major and on which the UN convention is largely based, was one of the world’s first, and is still one of the world’s leading, pieces of anti-discrimination legislation with regard to disability.
None of those things is a human catastrophe but, as usual, Ruth Maguire wants to talk Britain down.
I turn to the Social Security (Scotland) Bill, which the cabinet secretary referred to in her opening speech. We all know that the bill seeks to place devolved social security on a human rights footing with dignity, fairness and respect at its heart. That is tremendous. However, among our human rights is the right to effective legal and judicial protection, which is enshrined in article 13 of the European convention on human rights and is at the heart of EU law. What, therefore, are we to make of the evidence that the Social Security Committee has already received from a variety of sources in its stage 1 inquiry into the bill that shows that the Scottish Government is seeking to talk the talk of social security being a human right, but not to walk the walk? For example, Professor Tom Mullen, my colleague at the University of Glasgow’s law school, said that
“It is difficult to work out” the Government’s intention, because, if the legal status of the charter, in particular,
“is not clarified, citizens and their advisers may be unsure what their rights ... are”.
Inclusion Scotland added that
“it appears that the Charter planned will not be about rights but instead” will be about service delivery.
I hope that we will hear a little bit more detail from the minister when he winds up about exactly how the social security rights that the bill seeks to enshrine can be judicially enforced and compatible with article 13 of the ECHR; otherwise, it does not really take a human rights-based approach to social security.
Adam Tomkins raised the issue of suicide, but as a member of the Social Security Committee, he was there at the meeting at which representatives from the black triangle campaign gave evidence about people who have committed suicide because of what happened with the cuts to their benefits. I am sure that he will take that on board.
A cornerstone of the Scottish Government’s approach to social security is the principle that it is a human right, as has been identified by the United Nations. That will help to eradicate the stigma that is associated with accessing benefits. Our system will be the first in the UK to reflect the UN principle that such systems should
“be established under national law and ensure the right of individuals and organisations to seek, receive and impart information on all social security entitlements in a clear and transparent manner.”
This Parliament should be proud of that.
Earlier, the minister announced the creation of agency offices in Dundee and Glasgow and the opportunities that those will bring. I thank the minister for that and for answering my questions regarding whether staff should reflect the diversity of our communities. That is an important issue that we should take on board.
I sincerely believe that members of Parliament, regardless of their political party, want to create a system that is effective and based on dignity and respect. We do not want to see stigmatisation of people who access the social security system.
That that happens has been highlighted on many occasions, not least by the welfare conditionality project, which is based at the University of Glasgow, and is being done in collaboration with other institutions. It has been almost a year since I highlighted its research in the chamber, but the situation has not changed much. I want the Opposition Tories to listen to the following and to take it back to whomever they want to take it back to in the UK Parliament.
The UK Government is continuing to punish people who are most in need, while its back benchers in Westminster describe the rise in food-bank use as “uplifting”. To describe such a situation in that way only reinforces to me and many others how completely and utterly out of touch the Tories are with the reality of the effect of their ideological policies on the people who are on the receiving end of those policies.
Researchers looked at two main areas: how effective conditionality is in changing the behaviour of people who receive welfare benefits and services, and the circumstances in which the use of conditionality is and is not justifiable. The findings were, and remain, a stark reminder of the complete and utter failure of the Tory Government to provide meaningful support to those who need it.
I know that I have to conclude shortly, Presiding Officer, although I have much more to say.
This boils down to a question about what kind of society we want to live in. Is it one that protects and supports those who need it, when they need it, or is it one in which we actively work to demonise those who are in need? I will always opt—as, I am sure, others will—for a society in which we protect, support and nurture, and in which there is a commitment to respecting and implementing human rights. That is the way forward, and that is what is going to happen in this Parliament. As I said before, I am sure that all members of this Parliament, of whatever party, will support that absolute basic right, but I would like to hear it confirmed, particularly by the Opposition Tory members, that they will stand up for the people who are most in need. They are the people who are being hurt most by the UK benefits system.
Upon seeing the cabinet secretary’s motion, I was aware of the breadth of topics that would be brought to the debate today. Underpinning the debate and intrinsic to any Government policy, at the centre of thinking, should be dignity, equality and human rights. That is why I will be supporting the Scottish Government’s motion today. I welcome the appointment of Professor Alan Miller as chair of the new expert group that seeks to enhance human rights in Scotland.
We have recently celebrated 20 years of devolution, and the Scottish Parliament is rightly recognised as a pillar of everyday life in Scotland that takes decisions that can help to build a fairer Scotland. I am sure that all of us in the chamber want that.
I want constructive debate when it comes to discussing issues such as social security, the rights of children and human rights more generally. I want, at least, recognition from the Scottish Government that it has had 10 years of governing over fully devolved areas including health and education, which are pillars of people’s everyday lives that are fundamental to bringing about equality.
I will get back to basics. Just this weekend, analysis by Professor Jim Gallagher, an expert at Nuffield college at the University of Oxford, found that schools and health are two of the public sector areas that have lost out most on spending since the SNP came to power a decade ago. The First Minister has not once, but twice, made education her priority, but we have seen no narrowing of the attainment gap.
In science, maths and reading, Scotland’s poorer children are nearly three years behind children from affluent backgrounds, and by the time Scotland’s children have reached university age, just 10 per cent of the poorest 20 per cent of Scots go to university, compared to 18 per cent in England and 16 per cent in Wales and Northern Ireland.
When it comes to health, Scotland has among the highest mortality rates in western Europe. In my region—Glasgow—discrepancies between the life expectancies of people in different areas of the city are truly shocking. In areas such as Jordanhill, Hyndland and Partick men and women can expect to live on average until 78 and 84 respectively, but in areas in the south-east of the city the figures drop to 64 and 72.
If we look across Scotland, we see vast gaps between the people who live in the most-deprived and those who live in the least-deprived parts of the country when it comes to the health fundamentals. A child who lives in a deprived area is twice as likely to be obese, and a teenager there is five times as likely to get pregnant. A person who lives in a deprived area is 42 per cent more likely to die of a stroke and six times as likely to die from alcohol-related issues.
Those issues are absolutely fundamental to tackling inequality in Scotland. They are the pillars of people’s everyday lives and they are so fundamental to creating a level playing field for everyone in Scotland.
To finish, I reiterate my support for the Government’s motion. No one would deny that the promotion of human rights for all has become intrinsic to our values as a country, and the concern is shared across parties. That is why it is absolutely vital that the Scottish Government recognises that it has the economic and social levers at its disposal to do this. We can then have a constructive debate on all sides in Parliament.
Human rights are fundamental to everyone’s existence and there can be absolutely no question of diluting them. Before I go into the substantive part of my speech, I alert Mr Rumbles and Mr Tomkins to the work of the Equalities and Human Rights Committee on prisoner voting rights. I would welcome any contribution that they would like to make to that. Parliament is taking action on it.
That is why the motion is so important. It is absolutely intrinsic to our strongly held views on equality, justice, dignity and respect. We need to lock down those rights permanently. Clearly, the same does not apply to Theresa May’s Government. If Mr Tomkins is such a fan of Scots law, maybe he can find out from his pals at the UK Government why a paper on justice, home affairs and Brexit makes no reference to Scots law.
Make no mistake about it, our human rights are under threat from the seen and unseen consequences of Brexit, and from the internal politics of the Tory party, of which we have just heard some. The UK Conservative Government has twice already—once in its 2010 manifesto and once in its 2015 manifesto—promised to scrap the Human Rights Act 1998. I will repeat that. Not once, but twice it has pledged to scrap the Human Rights Act 1998, in nothing more than a showpiece—a pandering olive branch offered to the same right-wing faction that forced the hand of David Cameron and brought forward an unwanted, unnecessary and damaging referendum on the European Union. The fact that 71 per cent of Scots would now vote in favour of remaining in the EU if there was a referendum today reveals just how much the lies of the leavers impacted on the vote in June last year.
Reality is biting now. The realisation is setting in that our fundamental human rights are at risk as a result of Brexit. If anyone cannot see that, I am sorry. They must be blind to the effects of it.
We all have the right to life, to freedom from violence and degrading treatment, to freedom from discrimination, to freedom from fear and to freedom from want. We have the right to an adequate standard of living, to a safe home and to support for good physical and mental health. The Scottish Government has given explicit pledges in its 10-year mental health strategy, which is a welcome and progressive step that shows that Scotland is leading the way in human rights.
When I was on the Social Security Committee, I saw the effect that welfare reforms are having on people from the black triangle campaign and people who come to my surgeries.
We also have the right to self-determination: I pledge my support to the Catalan people and their right to self-determination in a referendum that is free from interference. I hope that my colleagues in the chamber will do the same.
We have also led the way in clamping down harder on human trafficking, on criminalising revenge porn, on recognising the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community and on protecting refugees, especially those who are fleeing persecution.
However, we have people in this country who are fleeing persecution—people who are fleeing Tory persecution. This is about the rights of all, including the rights of persons with disabilities. I will not shy away from saying this; it should be said over and over again. The UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has laid out plainly that not only have there been “grave and systematic violations” of the human rights of people with disabilities, but it is now a “human catastrophe”.
The EU referendum shone a light into some regrettably dark corners. It showed us some inequalities. It showed poverty, exclusion, and discrimination, and it gave us a rise in xenophobia. In Scotland, we reject those attitudes. In Scotland, we have proved our will—not with words but with actions. We will lead where others will follow and we will act where others, including the UK Government, will not. I—along with the Scottish Government—will defend and promote our human rights, which are underpinned by our long-held values of respect, dignity and equality for all. Maybe the Tories in Parliament should try to do that.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate and I thank the Scottish Government for bringing these important issues to the chamber to discuss.
Dignity, equality and human rights for all should be at the heart of all democratically elected Governments and Parliaments across the world. Unfortunately, in too many parts of the world, they are not. To me, “Dignity, equality and human rights for all” is much more than the title of a motion; it is what drives me in my politics and when fighting for my constituents. Our human rights have been fought for and won over many years and to make any attempt to strip them back would be an affront to our standing in the world and an assault on our shared decency.
I cannot take comfort in the idea of the Tories replacing the Human Rights Act 1998 with a British bill of rights. The thought of a Tory Government meddling with basic rights is horrendous and we as a Parliament must use our strength to resist any attempt to repeal the 1998 act.
On issues such as LGBT rights, our Parliament has been a shining light over the past 20 years. From repealing section 28 to the introduction of equal marriage, we have always sought—and will continue to seek—to do the right thing.
On disability rights, we have united in opposition to shameful actions imposed by the Tories. From welfare cuts that withdraw the basic needs of disabled people to supported employment being stripped away, we have made our voice clear that people with disabilities deserve much better. Recently the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has expressed its dissatisfaction with the Tory Government over its treatment of some of the most vulnerable members of our society. In assessing the welfare cuts imposed on disabled people, the CRPD has previously said that the welfare reforms have led to “grave and systematic violations” of disabled people’s rights.
No, I am sorry—I am not prepared to do that.
The motion asks for Parliament to support
“embedding a human rights-based approach” in our public services. Our amendment adds to that in calling for human rights to be viewed as a broad-based principle, encompassing workers’ rights. This is the right path to take and my discussions with equality, disability and human rights groups also inform me that the Government’s approach is the right one.
During the summer recess, I visited the asylum seeker housing project in Glasgow, which helps asylum seekers with their accommodation rights. I was appalled to learn of the treatment that many asylum seekers face, not from the community that they reside in but from the organisation that is contracted to accommodate and support them.
If we are serious about embedding a human rights approach into public services, we must call on the UK Home Office to respect that decision and to treat people fleeing persecution, war and terror with much more respect and to provide the rights that we expect for ourselves.
I thank the Scottish Government for holding this debate and I welcome the statements made by the First Minister during the programme for government on protecting our human rights and guaranteeing them for all those who live in Scotland.
I want to talk about the quality of life and the rights of those who live with a disability and their families. I ask some members on the Conservative benches, particularly Adam Tomkins: please, when we are having this discussion, let us be very careful with the language that we use. To use an analogy such as “walk the walk” in talking about people living with a disability is extremely offensive and is a typical example that shows why the Tories are as toxic as they are.
Ms McKelvie was explaining that Mr Tomkins cannot see that what the Tories are doing is wrong. I ask Mr Tomkins and his colleagues to stand up and say that their position is wrong. Mr Tomkins used language that was totally unacceptable during the debate, but that is nothing unusual for the Conservative Party.
When I was a councillor in Renfrewshire, I was the council’s representative on the Renfrewshire access panel, and I am now a member of it. I also work with the Scottish Disabled Supporters Association. I have worked with people with disabilities, and I have heard their stories about their struggle, and never have those stories been more vivid or more scary than when they have been about having to contend with Tory welfare reform, which is nothing more than an attack on the most vulnerable in our society.
Does Mr Adam recognise that we have to be careful with our language and that, when we talk about disabled people, that means lots of individuals with lots of different experiences? For example, I talked to a lady on Saturday who was not entitled to DLA but who is now entitled to PIP. We have to be careful not to put everybody into one group. We have to talk about individuals.
I really do not need to listen to Mr Balfour on that, because my wife has multiple sclerosis, which can be an invisible disability for many, or it does not always show. I will take no lectures from a Tory on language or on how we talk about people with disability. My wife’s family have lived with that since she was diagnosed at 16 years old.
When we talk about the Tories, we only have to look at some of the situations that people have got into. The Social Security Committee heard from the black triangle campaign that people have got so desperate because of Tory reforms that they have talked about taking their own life and, in many cases, they have done so. A Tory Government minister came to the committee and said that he thought that that was not the issue. He also said that he knew people who had multiple sclerosis—obviously, he had been briefed that my wife has it.
The Tories at Westminster have got their approach totally wrong. I would give Opposition members the opportunity to come in if I thought for one minute that one of them would say that it is wrong, but the wee Westminster Tory drones are not going to do that. For too long, disabled people have had to deal with a Department for Work and Pensions that has talked at them and not listened to them, all because the Tories believe that their reform is the way that we must go. We need only look at the people who have been going through the migration from DLA to PIP, which has ensured that they have lost their cars and the amounts of money that they were getting. That migration has been an absolutely unmitigated disaster since its inception, and it has caused people with disabilities in Scotland absolute heartache and financial hardship.
The UN stated that the Tories have created a “human catastrophe”. I got involved in politics for a number of reasons. One was to protect my community from Tory excesses in the 1980s—well, some things never change, and they are still the same. The other was to build the type of future that I want my children and grandchildren to live in. I will keep working towards that future; I only hope that the Tories and other members will join me and build that future.
As a newcomer to the Parliament and such debates, I will begin by drawing on the words of Bruce Crawford, who said in the chamber back in March of this year:
“Members have a special responsibility and a public duty to show leadership and to show respect to each other in how we conduct the debate.”—[
, 21 March 2017; c 27.]
He also quoted the head of the Scottish Consortium for Learning Disability, who noted:
“If we characterise our opponents as divisive we will divide. If we use the language of hate we will create bitterness.”
That intervention rightly drew applause from the chamber. His words were spoken in the debate on Scotland’s choice, but they are just as appropriate and just as resonant in today’s and, indeed, in every debate that we have here. Unfortunately, when I sat in on last week’s debate on housing, I feared that his eloquence had not gained traction with some of his colleagues and I fear it again today. Last week, we heard expletives, accusations of false motives and, worst of all, assumptions of ignorance and contempt for the people in greatest need based purely on where a member sits in the chamber. I truly hoped that this debate would not be visited by such conduct. It reflects negatively on all members, all political parties, and on the Parliament as an institution of democracy.
In that spirit of positive engagement, the Scottish Conservative members support the motion. Of course we are committed to creating a fairer Scotland that is underpinned by respect for human rights. Of course we want to protect, promote and implement human rights and the equality of all people throughout Scotland. Of course we are proud of the strides that Scotland has made in entrenching in law the rights that are set out in international treaties. Nevertheless, it is the most vital role of the Opposition to hold the Government to account whenever necessary.
As my colleague Annie Wells said, the Government must do better in its approach to tackling inequality. When it comes to health, as my colleague Professor Tomkins indicated, Scotland continues to have the widest mortality inequalities in western Europe, with cancer and stroke mortality rates, and alcohol-related deaths, significantly higher in the most deprived areas.
It does not help. That is the bottom line. The point of introducing sanctions was to ensure that people did what they were expected to do within the remits of the benefits that they got. None of it is about trying to harm people; it is about people stepping up to the responsibilities that they have.
We cannot look at rights in isolation. We need equal emphasis on the parallel responsibilities that accompany such rights. To ignore that balance will not produce a generous, inclusive and trusting society.
I draw attention to those issues not for the purpose of political point scoring but to ignite a productive debate about the path that we should take. That comes from a desire for co-operation and getting the right path, not condemnation. Although, in the Parliament, we might differ in our approach to achieving and safeguarding equality, dignity and human rights, we stand united behind our belief in those principles. The common ground between us is vast but too often disregarded by members on the Scottish Government benches. On issues of such fundamental importance as equality and human rights, let us disagree humbly, debate constructively and work tirelessly towards a better, more equal Scotland.
Joseph Knight sought the freedom to leave the employment of John Wedderburn of Ballendean and claimed in his pleadings that the very act of landing in Scotland freed him from perpetual servitude, as slavery was not recognised in Scotland. He had been brought to Scotland many years earlier as a slave, having been bought in Jamaica, and he feared that Wedderburn wished to take him back to Jamaica to sell him as a slave in the colonies. In defence of his position, Wedderburn argued that, in Scots law, even though Knight was not recognised as a slave, he was still bound to provide perpetual service in the same manner as an indentured servant or an apprenticed artisan.
In its ruling, the Court of Session said:
“the dominion assumed over”
“under the law of Jamaica, being unjust, could not be supported in this country to any extent: ... the defender had no right to”
“service for any space of time, nor to send him out of the country against his consent”.
Knight succeeded in arguing that he should be allowed to leave domestic service and provide a home for his wife and child. In doing so, he gave the Court of Session in Scotland the opportunity to declare that slavery was not recognised by Scots law and that runaway slaves could seek protection from the courts if they wished to leave domestic service. That wonderful judgment changed Scotland in 1777. It seems so long ago today.
To be absolutely clear, I make no comparison between slavery of the past and what is happening today—indeed, the appropriation of that history would be entirely inappropriate; no comparisons can be made to the excesses, misuses and injustices of that time. However, I think that the rights that were won by Joseph Knight in this country have parallels today. His story touches on many of the injustices of modern Britain, such as the fears of European Union and other nationals who have chosen to make Scotland their home and are no longer secure in their status. Joseph Knight established the right to work fairly in Scotland, which is reflected in many of the fair work pledges that have been made by the Scottish Government in the interests of the creation of a fairer Scotland and in the words in the Labour amendment. I feel that many people who are subject to the rules around universal credit, under which sanctions can be imposed on people who refuse to take on a zero-hours contract, would have something to say about perpetual service and indentured servitude, as would those in Scotland today who are subject to human trafficking and modern-day slavery. Further, those who are seeking asylum in Scotland can only look with envy at the ruling that Joseph Knight could not be returned to a country whose law was deemed to be unjust by Scotland.
This Government is taking leadership in the area of human rights and equality. We cannot let the rights that we have be diminished, and it is incumbent on all of us to work towards a Scotland that is fairer and recognises the human rights of all.
I welcome the appointment of Professor Alan Miller and I look forward to working with people across the chamber who hold human rights and equality at the core of what they do here.
Before going into the main body of my speech, I will comment on a couple of things that have been said by our Conservative comrades—that is not a term that I use to describe them often. I am delighted that they are supporting the Government’s motion—we should all take some comfort from that—but it is difficult to take that seriously when every one of them who has spoken has used their speech to deflect attention from the Government that has 85 per cent of the welfare powers and which could make this a much more equal society. Adam Tomkins made a desperate attempt to deflect attention from that Government by bringing in the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012.
It seems that it is okay to talk about education and health, but we must not talk about welfare, sanctions or immigration—those subjects should be taboo, because this Parliament does not have control over them. It is true that we do not, but we are still responsible for people who are suffering because of the actions of the Government that Conservative MSPs represent in this Parliament, and yet those MSPs have refused point blank to mention such people.
I will start with a quote from a very unusual source for me, which is Winston Churchill—there are many quotes from him that I would be unhappy to use. In a speech that he gave at the University of Zurich on 19 September 1946—71 years ago today—he urged the nations to form a
“United States of Europe” so that they could
“dwell in peace, in safety and in freedom.”
That speech marked the beginning of the Council of Europe—a monumental project that still rightly describes itself as being the leading human rights organisation on our continent. In many of the speeches today, the Council of Europe's greatest achievement—the European convention on human rights—has been commended, and I think that most members would agree that it is as vital today as it was when it was drafted in 1950. Enshrined in the Scotland Act 1998, it is fundamental to safeguarding our human rights. However, it is now under severe threat from the Tory Government at Westminster.
In their general election manifesto, the Conservatives committed to remaining a signatory to the ECHR only for the lifetime of the current UK Parliament. The convention has been absolutely instrumental in safeguarding our human rights, and it is for that reason that the SNP manifesto reaffirmed our commitment to the Council of Europe, the ECHR and their institutions. Thanks to the ECHR, victims of domestic violence have been able to get better protection, LGBTI people have used human rights provisions to overcome discrimination and, as we have seen with regard to the bedroom tax, disabled people have been able to fight against cruel welfare reform. However, the UK Government will not commit to the ECHR’s long-term future.
I appreciate the support that we are getting from the Conservatives, but it is telling that they have not lodged an amendment. They have conceded that their track record on human rights is nothing short of shambolic and is almost impossible to defend. On the other hand, the Scottish Government’s record is one to be proud of. Its consistent application of the principles of equality, dignity and respect ensures that fundamental human rights are guaranteed for every member of Scottish society.
Against the backdrop of Brexit, the Scottish Government will ensure that existing and future human rights protections that are provided for under EU law are maintained, and we will not allow the Tories to undermine human rights as they drive us off their Brexit cliff. As others have said, the Tories’ austerity economics, abolition of the independent living fund, cutting of employability programmes and reforms to the welfare state caused the UN last year to accuse them of “grave or systematic violations” of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Adam Tomkins said that the UN has got it wrong, just like the Tory Government down south said that the EU has got it wrong. It is the Tories who know better—not the people who suffer from the actions that they take. Only the Tories know best.
That is why, in our programme for government, we have, for example, committed to working further with the fantastic time for inclusive education campaign, which is at the Parliament today. It is campaigning to combat homophobia, biphobia and transphobia with inclusive education. The Scottish Government’s great work in upholding the rights of the disabled, children, women and our LGBTI community is only the tip of the iceberg. We will continue to do great work across the whole of our society while the Tories try their hardest to drag us back to Victorian times.
I was surprised that, unlike all the other Opposition parties, the Conservative Party did not feel it necessary to lodge an amendment to the Scottish Government motion. Perhaps it felt that it did not have anything specific to add, which is entirely up to it.
Despite some of his comments, I welcome Adam Tomkins’s contribution to the debate and I acknowledge his expertise in the field. Given that expertise, it is more puzzling that there is no Conservative amendment to debate, but there we are.
Adam Tomkins’s comment that there is no blanket ban on prisoner voting was bizarre. Some would say that the professor may be dancing on the head of a pin. He said that, since those who are remanded by our authorities and those who have been released from prison have the vote, there is no blanket ban. I am laughing because it is obvious that prisoners who are serving short-term sentences in prison face a blanket ban on their right to vote. That position is quite indefensible if we are concerned about effectively reintegrating prisoners into society when they are released.
In response to an intervention by Elaine Smith, I said that I am not convinced that “tolerant” is the best word to use in the context of human rights. Should we simply be tolerating? Is it not better to use a different word? I always think of “tolerating” as meaning “putting up with”. I do not want to put up with everyone’s human rights; I want to support and celebrate those rights.
I hope that you are tolerating me now. I would expect that from the Conservatives.
Labour’s amendment focuses on improving the rights of disabled people in relation to education, employment and public transport. Those things are interlinked. I will highlight one example in my region, which is North East Scotland. At Insch railway station there is no disabled access to the northbound platform, which affects people’s ability to access employment and education and their ability to socialise.
Yesterday, the north east of Scotland transport partnership unanimously agreed to fund a £25,000 feasibility study into changing the situation because it is not part of the programme for the Aberdeen to Inverness railway. I have met Humza Yousaf, the transport minister, who also fully supports the initiative. Councillor Peter Argyle, who is the chair of Nestrans, said yesterday:
“It’s not acceptable to have a station in the 21st Century which a substantial amount of the population find difficult to access.”
I could not agree more. Improving the rights of disabled people, especially on our public transport, is essential. I am confident that in my region that is just one example of addressing disabled people’s human rights.
I am conscious of time, Presiding Officer, so I say in conclusion that the Liberal Democrats will support the Government’s motion and the amendments at decision time. I would have liked to say that I would support a Conservative amendment, but the Conservatives decided not to lodge one. I question whether that was the wisest thing to do.
Our amendment covers the report by the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and I make no apology for returning to that and saying again that that committee singled out the fact that impact assessments that the state conducted foresaw an adverse impact on disabled people, but policies were still implemented. That was not a neglectful position but a conscious one in the face of evidence.
Before I go on to how that has manifested itself, I thank the various people, which I did not do in my opening address, who have been in touch with me and given me briefings and information. Here is one point: between 2011 and 2014, 2,380 people died shortly after being found fit for work. Their final days were marred by the stress and indignity that were imposed by the UK Government’s policy on disability benefits and employment and support allowance.
It is sometimes helpful to put a face on an example. One case involves a former soldier—we understand that the UK Government would, historically, have supported the armed services. The former soldier died from a lack of insulin after he could not keep his insulin at the correct cool temperature following being sanctioned and having his electricity cut off. I apologise for giving the following detail, but it is important to know that a post mortem found that his stomach was empty. That is an example of the manifestations of a policy that assesses something but then disregards that assessment. It is appropriate that the Tories all have their heads down at this point. I would be happy to take an intervention if any of them wanted to justify the situation that I described.
A number of issues require to be addressed, such as changing the age of criminal responsibility. That is welcome, and it is churlish to be involved in a profession that is about persuading folk to change their minds but then to be disrespectful to people when they do that. I welcome the position that the Scottish Government has taken on the age of criminal responsibility, which many people have campaigned for a change in. On a personal level, I welcome the support for the legislation on equal protection. Outside bodies have suggested that it is the right thing to do, but let us do it because we want to do it. That is the general direction of travel.
I do not always agree with my colleague Mike Rumbles, but I entirely agree with him on prisoners’ voting rights. In the previous parliamentary session, a relatively small group of us who were looking at issues in relation to the independence referendum lent our support on those rights. Members of the Justice Committee will be familiar with the fact that one of the elements involved in putting people in prison is punishment. That is clear, but it is also clear that people are sent to prison for rehabilitation. If we do not encourage prisoners to engage with external society, how will we progress their rehabilitation?
I talked in my opening speech about access to justice and about equality of arms being important, which is why we need the fallback of state intervention. I first raised the issue of the Aarhus convention in the chamber in 2011, and it is disappointing that it took until the final weeks of the previous parliamentary session to have a consultation. I hope that the Government will look at what has been said most recently about the issue, because I know that there is a will to ensure that there is no access to justice issue. It is certainly my view and that of others that an issue arises with the Aarhus convention. What does that mean? The implications are that those who have the necessary finance have impunity, but we do not want that.
There is an important role for equality impact assessments.
Nothing has been said in the debate about Gypsy Travellers. A lot has been said about them in recent times. I think that we would all agree that this is the one area where people still feel that they can say what they wish, even though, if we were to transfer what was said to other categories, they would not feel that. There is a long way to go. There have been two strongly worded reports on the subject from the Parliament to the Government. That situation applies to our Roma residents, too, who are welcome here, as are fugitives from justice. James Dornan talked about Winston Churchill and the history of a lot of rights, which was about assisting people who were fleeing persecution. That is a laudable aim.
I welcome Professor Miller’s appointment and wish him and his team well. I understand that they will hold the Scottish Government to account. That is also the role of the Opposition, the nasty party aside. I think that there is a progressive consensus in the Parliament, and we will support the Labour and Lib Dem amendments.
The Human Rights Act 1998, the EU charter and the European convention underline the human rights protection that everyone in Scotland rightly deserves as citizens. Human rights are regularly portrayed as a negative and as a problem caused by Europe. They have consistently been the focus of right-wing press misinformation since the 1998 bill was enacted by Labour. We are committed to standing up for people’s rights. That is why we introduced the Human Rights Bill and why we have consistently pledged to fight any attempt to water down the protection that the 1998 act brings. It brings home our rights, giving our most vulnerable citizens a powerful means of redress and protecting us all against the misuse of state power.
The European convention on human rights was not imposed from abroad. It was drawn up by our lawyers, drawing on our philosophy, to set international standards of respect for common humanity after the second world war. Our voice in the world is a reflection not only of the size of our economy but of the moral leadership that we demonstrate on human rights. We must continue to urge others to respect the rule of law and the freedoms and rights that every human being is entitled to—in Myanmar and everywhere else.
We welcome the importance that is given to dignity, equality and human rights in the latest programme for government, including the commitment to a comprehensive audit of the most effective way to further embed the principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into policy and legislation. The Government is right to oppose any attempt by the UK Government to undermine the Human Rights Act 1998 or withdraw from the European convention on human rights, and it is right to commit to ensuring that existing and relevant future human rights protections that are provided under EU law are maintained following UK withdrawal.
However, we believe that the Scottish Government should do more. Its failure to include some key guarantees in the Social Security (Scotland) Bill, including a ban on private sector contractors and the uprating of payments in line with inflation, could see the commitment to dignity and respect being undermined by future Governments, and it provides no certainty that the new Scottish agency will be—and will continue to be—better than the DWP.
SNP speaker after SNP speaker rightly criticised the Tory Government for its treatment of disabled people, but they seem to forget that full power over disability benefits still lies with Westminster because this Government delayed full devolution of them until the end of the decade. When 26 per cent of people in poverty in Scotland are disabled, which is the second highest rate in the UK, it is wrong that the Government willingly left powers over disability payments in the hands of the Tories. I ask SNP speakers to reflect on that.
The most recent Scottish Government hate crime statistics show an increase in both sexual orientation and transgender identity aggravated crime charges. Transgender identity aggravated crime charges were up a shocking 33 per cent year on year. Earlier this month, Stonewall Scotland reported that 17 per cent of LGBT respondents who were surveyed had suffered abuse because of their sexuality, which was up from 9 per cent in 2013. The survey also found that almost half of trans people had experienced a hate crime or incident in the previous 12 months because of their gender identity. The Government should publish a full breakdown of LGBTI hate crime statistics in Scotland so that we can fully understand what is happening and prevent those attacks from continuing.
Finally, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities must be enshrined in law and significant progress should be made in this parliamentary session to improve the rights of disabled people in the areas of education, employment and public transport.
The Scottish Conservatives decided not to lodge an amendment because, in principle, there is nothing to disagree with in the wording of the motion. That is simply because most members, I am sure, are able to find consensus when it comes to human rights and dignity.
I want to touch on some of the contributions that have been made, which have been quite wide ranging and varied in the short time that we have had to debate the issue. It is fair to say that the Conservatives are committed to engaging constructively in these debates because we, too, want to help to shape a better future for Scotland. However, people who are listening to this debate outside the chamber will have noticed quite a substantive difference between the way that we have approached the debate and the way that some of the other parties have approached it.
We did not lodge an amendment, we will vote with the Government at decision time, we accept Labour’s additional wisdom in the debate, and we gave collaborative speeches. I will not name names, but a number of members took the debate as nothing more than another opportunity to pull a speech out of the folder called “Tory bashing/anti-Westminster.” Such speeches come out week after week in this Parliament, every time that we try to have a meaningful debate about something that matters to people in Scotland.
My colleague Adam Tomkins opened his remarks by touching on some very important issues. There are already inequalities in Scotland in health, education and access to public services. Adam Tomkins pointed out legislation in which the Scottish Government has failed to meet its own human rights obligations. He talked about the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012 and the named persons scheme, to name but two things. The Government can sit there and blame Westminster for the ills of the world but, in its policy making and legislation making through the bills that it puts before the Parliament, it has the ability to make access to equality better in Scotland.
My colleague Annie Wells spoke about some of the huge health inequalities that are experienced by our poorest communities.
If we had another hour, we could talk about inequalities in Scotland. In fact, we have debated that in the chamber on a number of occasions, and I have spoken in a debate about some of the long-standing issues that affect Scotland. I would be very happy to have a meaningful debate about the complex issue of poverty in Scotland. If Mark McDonald is happy to do so, we can have that debate after this one.
I want to focus on one particular speech that said a lot about how the Parliament debates these issues. The speech by my colleague Michelle Ballantyne was excellent because she said that we will work constructively with other parties and other members in the Parliament if we are able to respect one another’s differing points of view. Many members in this chamber are absolutely incapable of doing that. Michelle Ballantyne made a very good point about the tone with which we approach issues such as equality. I thank her for that speech.
No, I will not.
I want to touch on some of the cabinet secretary’s comments. She made valid points about some of the factors that can help to address inequality in Scotland, such as economic growth—I was pleased to hear her mention sustainable economic growth—tackling ill-health and access to education. The Parliament already has a number of triggers and levers, but there is no mention of them in the Government’s motion. That is my only criticism of it.
We are unable to support Mr Finnie’s amendment or the Liberal amendment, but I think that the Labour Party made a very valid contribution about some of the additional inequalities of disabled people in Scotland—it is absolutely right that we should address those.
Too often in Parliament, we fall into the trap of saying that, simply by talking about issues, we will resolve them. Our limited time in this place will be better served by debating and discussing how to use the powers that are already at our disposal to tackle the challenges in Scotland.
In my closing seconds, I wish that I had more time to talk about some of the other contributions.
A minute—that is perfect. In that case, I was pleased to hear some of the contributions, such as that by Clare Adamson, which was meaningful and thoughtful. I may not agree politically with everything that she said, but I respect the approach that she took to the debate and I thank her for her contribution.
In the spirit of being constructive, I close by asking the Government front bench not to overlook the challenges that we face in Scotland in health and education, and to use the powers that Parliament already has to tackle some of those inequalities. I urge the Government to work constructively with other parties to build a consensus on some of the key issues that the debate has focused on. We want bold action and real substance, not just words. If the SNP is serious about addressing inequality in Scotland, it should step out of its glass house before it throws stones at others.
The debate has been wide-ranging, as one might expect. Earlier today, I met pupils from Sciennes primary school in Edinburgh, who discussed with me the mural that they have created on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is the result of children’s rights seminars, and it is their distillation of how they see the issues that affect children and young people in relation to their rights.
The mural begins with a picture that they call “The Policy Factory”; it depicts adults making policy as they debate and discuss how those policies will affect children. It also depicts children on the outside looking in, unable to give effect to, or have their voices heard about, their rights. The mural moves through a series of pictures to the end picture, which they call “The Meadow of Rights”, which is a much more harmonious picture that demonstrates the benefits of taking a more collaborative and listening approach to the rights agenda, as it pertains to children.
That is the approach that I intend to take as a minister in relation to how we will give effect to, and embed further, the UNCRC. I have, as part of the upcoming year of young people, made a commitment that I will be out across the communities of Scotland discussing directly with young people their rights and how they can participate. That commitment extends further the approach that we have taken as a Government to the shaping of our social security agenda. The experience panels that the Minister for Social Security, Jeane Freeman, has convened will help us to design a system that will give effect to the rights and wishes of people who have lived experience of social security in respect of how the Scottish social security system will be shaped.
A point that was made eloquently by Clare Adamson and Mary Fee is that human rights and the position that we have arrived at in relation to them is not something that happened at the beginning of time; it has evolved over time and has been hard fought for and hard won by a number of individuals throughout history. Therefore, it is exceptionally important that we continue to fight to ensure that those rights are protected and advanced wherever possible. That point was brought up by a number of members who spoke about the potential threats to the current rights framework.
We have made it very clear that we want to ensure that justice is accessible, in the broadest sense. We are committed to that. I take on board Pauline McNeill’s point.
Where we can take a collaborative approach, we will do so, as I think we have demonstrated in some of our actions on the rights agenda.
In her speech, Pauline McNeill made a point about being refused entry to a place of detention. The cabinet secretary has written to Robert Goodwill and his successor, Brandon Lewis, on that matter. The Scottish Government is very much alive to the issue and is seeking to ensure that the UK Government takes a different approach.
John Finnie was right to highlight some of the challenges that have arisen as a result of the examination of the UK in relation to the UNCRPD. The issue was the subject of a quite extraordinary exchange in the chamber. Ruth Maguire asked Adam Tomkins—she was right to do so—whether he agrees with the conclusion of the chair of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, that the UK Government is presiding over a “human catastrophe”. Until then, Adam Tomkins had been saying that the Scottish Government needed to take its medicine when it was told that it is not achieving what it should be achieving in relation to the rights agenda. I point out that the cabinet secretary in her speech, and the First Minister in her programme for government, have clearly recognised that there is work to be done—which is why we convened the expert advisory group and committed to an audit in relation to the UNCRC. Adam Tomkins responded to Ruth Maguire by saying, basically, “I reject the UN’s findings in relation to the UK Government, and here are the reasons why disabled people in the UK have never had it so good.”
That crystallises a point that has been made in the debate. To look only at examples such as Adam Tomkins gave and not at the totality of the experience of disabled people in the UK is, I think, to be ignorant of the facts and of the genuine experiences that are being inflicted on many disabled people.
Jamie Greene said that we might be better served by having a wider discussion about inequality. The Conservatives brought the issue to the table when they spoke about the attainment gap and health inequalities, which we are committed to addressing. The point remains that those inequalities are underpinned by systemic societal inequality: this Parliament has only so many powers available to tackle systemic societal inequality. If our Parliament, our health services, through our hospitals and general practices, and our education system, through our early learning centres, schools, colleges and universities are, across the country, having to fight against the chaotic circumstances that surround people who are at the margins of our society, we can advance only so far. We have to ensure that when people leave the health or education systems, they find themselves in an environment that works with those systems to deliver the best possible outcomes for them. If that is not the case, we will not be able to make progress. That is the underlying point.
It is fine for the Conservatives and other Opposition parties to say that the Government must do better in certain areas. We accept that there are journeys to be travelled in respect of educational attainment and health inequalities. However, the Conservatives cannot ignore the detrimental impact of the wider macroeconomic and social security policies that their Government administers on our ability to close those gaps and improve outcomes for people in Scotland.
This has been an important and welcome debate that has touched on a number of areas in which we recognise that there is still a road to travel. However, we must also acknowledge our significant progress in Scotland in taking forward the human rights agenda.
We recognise that there is work to do collaboratively across Parliament, which is why we will be happy to support the Labour and Green amendments. We will not support the Liberal Democrats’ amendment. It is fine for Mike Rumbles to say that only now has there been action on, for example, the minimum age of criminal responsibility and equal protection, but I gently suggest that he should have a little humility, given that his party had a role in governing this country from 1999 to 2007 and failed to make meaningful advances in either area. A little humility sometimes goes a long way.
We recognise that there is a road still to be travelled, but we must acknowledge the progress that we have made in getting to this point.