Meeting of the Parliament
Meeting date: Thursday, December 8, 2022
Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Points of Order, Asylum Seekers (Support), Portfolio Question Time, Scottish Attainment Challenge (Local Authority Stretch Aims), International Human Rights Days, Decision Time
- General Question Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Points of Order
- Asylum Seekers (Support)
- Portfolio Question Time
- Scottish Attainment Challenge (Local Authority Stretch Aims)
- International Human Rights Days
- Decision Time
International Human Rights Days
The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-07133, in the name of Christina McKelvie, on international human rights days. I invite members who wish to speak in the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons.15:28
I am pleased to open today’s debate marking international human rights day and the international day of human rights defenders.
The dates of 9 and 10 December are important ones in the calendar. They remind us of the universal and inalienable human rights that belong to everyone and which were unanimously endorsed by the United Nations general assembly on 10 December 1948. These important days serve to celebrate the work of the thousands of campaigners, activists and human rights defenders who work around the world to promote and protect human rights.
Human rights are transformative in their intent and effect. They guide this Parliament in its work and they define a programme of action for the world at large. Let me quote the new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, who summed up the role and necessity of human rights. He said:
“Human rights are humanity’s common language”,
and they provide
“a distinctive voice of conscience, reason and wisdom in a fragmented world.”
He said that we need to implement human rights in a way
“that transforms us as a society, that shows us how we interact with each other, how we interact with communities, how we care for each other”.
The high commissioner’s call for conscience, reason and wisdom in a world of turmoil, and his emphasis on the transformative role of human rights, speak directly to all members of this Parliament, and we can all contribute to achieving that vision.
We mark international human rights day and international human rights defenders day because we believe in dignity, decency and humanity, and the values that inspired the universal declaration. The Scottish Government stands in solidarity with everyone who promotes and defends human rights. Today, I pay special tribute to the thousands of human rights defenders around the world who challenge human rights abuses and hold the powerful to account. They are deserving of our admiration and support, as well as our profound gratitude and respect.
In 2018, we established the Scottish human rights defender fellowship in partnership with the University of Dundee, Amnesty International and Front Line Defenders as a way to lend practical support to people who defend human rights. In the past five years, we have welcomed human rights defenders from 11 countries. This year, we are honoured to welcome Junia and Riska from Kenya and Indonesia respectively.
In Kenya, civil society and civic spaces are facing more attacks. In the face of that, journalists and women human rights defenders in particular continue to work courageously to expose human rights abuses and hold authority to account. In Indonesia, too, civic spaces are shrinking. On Tuesday, a new criminal code containing more than 600 articles was passed. That code, which has been described by Amnesty International as a “significant blow” to human rights in Indonesia, is far reaching and could further oppress or persecute minority groups such as LGBTI people.
All human rights defenders are at risk, but the risks to those who defend land, indigenous rights and communities that face the impacts of climate change are increasing. In the decade between 2012 and 2022, 1,733 land and environmental defenders were killed as a direct consequence of their work. As community organisers and advocates, women are often at particular risk.
Therefore, I am pleased that the Scottish Government has made available £50,000 of funding to create a new fellowship based at the University of Dundee. That announcement was made last month at the 27th United Nations climate change conference of the parties—COP27—by my colleague Màiri McAllan, the Minister for Environment and Land Reform. That new fellowship will build on existing Scottish support for human rights by giving women human rights defenders from the global south the opportunity to spend several months in Scotland, where they can continue their work in a place of safety and with support.
As a modern progressive nation, it is incumbent on us to demonstrate our own leadership on human rights. Scotland has a responsibility to lead by example to ensure that its human rights record meets the highest of standards.
It is now more than a year since the United Kingdom Supreme Court identified the changes that were required to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill to enable the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to be incorporated into Scots law. A year has gone by in which children have continued to be denied access to justice and rights. When can we expect those changes to be brought to Parliament?
I reassure Alex Cole-Hamilton that we remain absolutely committed to incorporating the UNCRC into Scots law, as far as that is possible within devolved competence, and to doing that as soon as practicable. We are currently engaging with the UK Government about the proposed amendments to the bill to establish whether it is broadly content that those amendments will bring the bill within legislative competence, and to reduce the risk of another referral to the Supreme Court. The timetable for bringing the bill back to Parliament for reconsideration cannot yet be confirmed, but I reassure Alex Cole-Hamilton that preparations are under way for that.
Will the minister take an intervention?
No, thank you. I will carry on, because I think that we are pretty tight for time. I might take an intervention from Mr Kerr at another point.
The Scottish Government’s human rights bill will give effect to a wide range of internationally recognised human rights. It will strengthen domestic legal protections by making them enforceable in Scots law. The bill will include provision to ensure that everyone—including LGBTI people and older people—has equal access to the substantive rights that are contained in the bill. In addition to incorporating rights from core existing UN human rights treaties, it will establish a new right to a healthy environment.
The Government has a clear vision for human rights in Scotland, which includes resolutely defending the existing Human Rights Act 1998 in the face of UK Government attempts to replace it with a British bill of rights. The 1998 act is one of the most important statutes ever passed by the UK Parliament. It plays a critically important role in protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms throughout the whole United Kingdom and is woven into the fabric of the constitutional settlements in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It has a 22-year track record of delivering justice, including for some of the most vulnerable people in society. It has ensured that gay couples have the same housing rights as heterosexual couples, protected the rights of disabled and older people who receive care and enabled victims of the Hillsborough disaster to obtain justice. In other words, the 1998 act has brought human rights home.
The UK Government’s ill-considered Bill of Rights Bill poses a clear and present danger to our most fundamental rights and freedoms. The bill has been roundly condemned by some of the UK’s most eminent legal experts and was the subject of repeated expressions of concern when the UK’s human rights record was reviewed by the UN Human Rights Council in November. Even Liz Truss, in her short-lived tenure as Prime Minister, seemed to understand the dangers posed by that bill. She halted its progress at Westminster and sacked the Secretary of State for Justice.
For the time being, the bill, and its principal architect, are back. The proposals in that bill are alarming. If passed, it would substantially change the convention rights embedded in the Scotland Act 1998 and put the UK on a collision course with the Council of Europe. That all remains uncertain: the bill might yet be shelved, for the third time, by a second Prime Minister. The Secretary of State for Justice has no mandate to force through the bill of rights because repealing and replacing the Human Rights Act 1998 act formed no part of the UK Government’s election manifesto.
On our part, the Scottish Parliament has repeatedly expressed its support for the Human Rights Act 1998. We have called on the UK Government to avoid any action that would weaken human rights protection in Scotland and throughout the UK.
The minister knows that the Scottish Government is the only Government in the United Kingdom to have been taken to court for violation of human rights. That was in relation to the rights to freedom of religion or belief granted under the European convention on human rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Scottish Government was found to have breached those rights in relation to the closing of churches and other places of worship. What is the Scottish Government’s reflection on that court decision and what will change about the way in which the Government views that particular human right?
I hold faith and belief in my portfolio and meet regularly with faith and belief leaders as part of my work. I emphasise to Stephen Kerr that this Government speaks to people. We understand their concerns and take them on board, unlike the Westminster Government that he supports. Many lawyers, academics, national human rights institutions and civil society campaigners have condemned the UK Government’s approach to human rights, so we will not take any lessons on the matter from the UK.
Eminent former judges such as Lady Hale, Lord Mance and Lord Sumption have all made their concerns clear. The UK Government, contrary to claims by the Secretary of State for Justice, is not listening to those concerns as we are. Rather, as Martha Spurrier, the director of Liberty put it, the Government
“repeatedly changes the rules to suit them”.
The UK Government is now planning to rip up the basic human rights and protections that we all rely on. I will not take any lessons from Tories in this place who talk about ripping up human rights protections when that is exactly what they propose to do. Their apparent intention is to make themselves untouchable. They are not untouchable in this place.
Our position is shared by our Welsh Government colleagues, who view the UK Government’s proposals as representing a serious regression in human rights in the UK, at a time when it has never been more important to uphold international law. Any changes affecting Scotland must not be made without the explicit and unequivocal consent of this Scottish Parliament.
I opened the debate with a quote from Volker Türk, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and I return to his words condemning human rights abuses. He called for
“a new energy that motivates young people around the world”.
I endorse that call to action. We must strive harder, with continued vigour and energy, here in Scotland and on the international stage, to realise the vision endorsed by the UN in 1948.
That is why I invite this Parliament to reaffirm our shared commitment to the fundamental principles and common values that are expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and to work resolutely to ensure that those rights are respected, protected and fulfilled.
That the Parliament recognises the significance of Human Rights Day and International Human Rights Defenders Day; reaffirms its own commitment to the universal and inalienable rights and freedoms originally set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; commends the work of human rights defenders in all nations and territories, and the importance of their work to ensure that human rights are fully respected, protected and fulfilled; recognises the Scottish Government’s commitment to giving full domestic effect to international human rights obligations through future human rights legislation within the limits of devolved competence; agrees that the Convention rights established by the Human Rights Act 1998, and embedded in the Scotland Act 1998, are fundamental to the Scottish Parliament and to Scotland’s devolution settlement, and reiterates its unequivocal opposition to the UK Government’s proposals to undermine and weaken the Human Rights Act 1998 through its flawed and misconceived Bill of Rights Bill.
On a point of order, Presiding Officer. When I asked my innocent question earlier, I forgot to refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests. I am a trustee of the Freedom Declared Foundation, which is a charity whose work is about the protection of freedom of religion or belief.
Thank you, Mr Kerr. That will be noted and is now on the record.
I advise members that we have time in hand this afternoon. I thought that I should point that out as it might encourage the accepting and making of interventions.15:40
Around the world there are, sadly, still so many examples of human rights abuses and violations happening every single day. Today, I will speak about just three places where we know human rights are under threat.
Just last week, we heard of the illegal arrest and assault in China of a BBC journalist who was in Shanghai to cover a protest. That is a shocking example of what can happen in China, but unfortunately it is nowhere near the worst of what has happened in recent years, as the country has slid further towards disgraceful restrictions on fundamental rights and freedoms. The suppression of democratic protests in Hong Kong was atrocious. The state was determined to exert a depressing show of force against normal people who bravely took to the streets to speak up for their own rights. The treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang has been despicable. We still cannot know the full extent of the evil acts that have taken place, but from what we know, there is more and more evidence of genocide.
I hope that every member in the chamber can support the Prime Minister’s recent statement in which he said:
“China poses a systemic challenge to our values and interests, a challenge that grows more acute as it moves towards even greater authoritarianism.”
We are also seeing, in what is happening in Ukraine, the tragic reality of a country that is controlled by a dictatorship. Russia’s war in Ukraine has brought the horror of war back to Europe for the first time in years. We have seen that Vladimir Putin’s army has, in town after town, committed horrendous acts against local civilian populations. No matter how much Russia tries to deny it and deflect from it, the reality is a litany of appalling human rights abuses.
I turn to Iran. I commend the immense bravery of the people there, especially the women who have decided that enough is enough and that they will no longer tolerate the systemic discrimination that they have faced. Violence against women and girls is a problem everywhere, but in Iran it has been state sponsored for decades. It is inspiring and upsetting in equal measure to see so many women risk their lives in the name of freedom.
Today’s debate is supposed to be on all human rights abuses and the people who strive to defend human rights globally. It is supposed to be a debate in which the Scottish Parliament unites as one to reaffirm our commitment to the universal and inalienable rights and freedoms in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is supposed to be a debate about international human rights days.
However, the SNP Government has decided that making a political attack at home is more important. It has decided that provoking grievance on these shores is better use of our time. It opted to use its motion for the debate to criticise the UK Government without foundation. Its playing constitutional politics with an issue such as this shows what the Government is about. For this Government, everything is a reason to increase division and provoke grievance—even international human rights day.
If the SNP wants to make the debate about issues that are closer to home, I suggest that it makes it about the vital issues right here in Scotland.
Will the member take an intervention?
Perhaps Karen Adam knows the point that I am about to make. Let us make this debate about the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill. If Karen Adam wants to tell me why the Scottish Government cannot produce a timetable so that we can implement the UNCRC, I will be very grateful.
I thank Rachael Hamilton for taking my intervention. Has she noted the Scottish Human Rights Commission’s comments on the Bill of Rights Bill?
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill would protect children’s human rights and was passed by the entire Parliament. All of us—the SNP, Conservatives, Labour, Lib Dems and Greens—backed that bill. However, the SNP chose to use it not to do good but to make shameless political points, by exploiting it to create a pre-election showdown with the United Kingdom Government. The SNP’s actions were an embarrassment to the people of Scotland.
Does Rachael Hamilton agree that the revelation—which was withheld from members—that the Scottish Government was told by officials that that bill might be outwith legal competence and subject to legal challenge was material information that we could have debated and could have led to our amending the bill so that it was legally competent and capable of avoiding that legal challenge?
In addition I ask, where is that bill now?
I completely agree with Alex Cole-Hamilton’s comments, which are supported by Bruce Adamson—the Children and Young People’s Commissioner—and others, who are specifically looking for the bill to be brought forward and for the Government to produce a timetable and lodge amendments, in order to progress it. For the life of me, I cannot understand why that is so difficult, given that there has been such a long period of time. We all worked so hard to get to this point.
Lord Reed said that the bill had been deliberately drafted in a way that went beyond the competency of Holyrood and would undermine the Scotland Act 1998. Despite being warned about the bill’s problems, the Government—the SNP—charged ahead, with the sole aim of pinning the blame on the UK Government. Despite knowing that the problems were purely legal and had nothing to do with the bill’s principles, it used the bill to attack the UK Government repeatedly. Despite all members agreeing, as we do today, that a legally competent UNCRC bill would be a positive thing, the SNP decided that creating a grievance was more important.
For proof that the SNP’s motivations were purely political, we can look at what has happened to the bill since then. It has not been passed by the Parliament, the Scottish Government has dragged its heels and its actions have delayed the bill from coming into law and, now, it is so distracted that progress on the bill has ground to a complete halt. Prioritising grievance over the protection of the rights of the child is hardly the progressive politics that the Government would have the country believe it stands for, and it is a shameful way to act.
Today, while Scottish Conservative MSPs raise human rights abuses and champion human rights defenders across the globe, we will also hold the SNP to account for its failures at home. It consistently points the finger down south, often without any justification, but when it comes to what is happening right here in Scotland, it stays silent—unless there is a way to attack the UK Government. By its actions, it has let down the Parliament and made a mockery of what we should be trying to achieve.
Too often, the Parliament is not focused on what really matters—on people’s priorities, including children’s priorities—and it does not make the necessary difference to people’s lives right here in Scotland. It is exploited by SNP members to further their own selfish political obsession, even if that means sidelining a children’s rights bill—which is absolutely disgraceful—or railroading a debate about international human rights day.
I move amendment S6M-07133.2, to leave out from “agrees” to end and insert:
“expresses concern for the abuse of human rights across the world, particularly in Ukraine, the Islamic Republic of Iran and the People’s Republic of China; welcomes the UK Government’s commitment of £2.3 billion in military aid towards Ukraine; recognises that the UK Government has been at the forefront of developing human rights laws and norms and expresses disappointment that the Scottish Government has politicised human rights, particularly when it comes to the rights of children, and, to this end, regrets that the Parliament has still not been provided with a timescale for the return of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill, over one year after the Supreme Court declared that the Bill had been drafted in terms that 'deliberately exceed the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament', and calls on the Scottish Government to make the necessary amendments to the Bill as a matter of urgency."15:48
This Saturday is human rights day—a day that is always special, but which is especially so this year, which is the 75th anniversary of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which sets out that human rights are inalienable, interdependent and indivisible. They are ours not because of our characteristics but because we are human. They belong to everyone.
That is why I am so angered by the Tory Government’s assault on human rights. Dominic Raab’s bill of rights project picks them apart, takes them away and undermines the fundamental principle that rights belong to everyone. A more accurate name could be the bill of wrongs.
This year, the theme of human rights day is “Dignity, freedom and justice for all”, but the Tory bill threatens all those things. A coalition of human rights organisations, including Amnesty International and the Human Rights Consortium, have said that the legislation is
“unnecessary, unevidenced, unworkable and unwanted”
and that it will disempower many people. I agree.
The Human Rights Act 1998 works well. It is one of Labour’s greatest achievements. Human rights do not discriminate, but the proposed bill of rights does. It threatens to create divergence between the rights that are protected in our domestic law and those that are protected by Strasbourg. Challenges to abuse of human rights will increasingly have to be taken to the European Court of Human Rights. That is a costly and lengthy process that prevents people who cannot afford to do so from defending their rights. That is why I support the commitment to further incorporation of international treaties into Scots law. Our doing so will empower people across Scotland to call out human rights abuses and it will allow them to claim their own rights. First, though, the Government must address the competency issues in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill.
In the years leading up to the introduction of the bill, a movement of young people led the fight for incorporation. They rightly celebrated an achievement that was very much theirs, and now they are frustrated, because the impact of that achievement has been quashed by an incompetent bill. That failure sits with this Government, and is made worse, the longer it takes the Government to fix the problem. As Martin Luther King said,
“A right delayed is a right denied.”
That is why our amendment calls on the SNP to set out a timetable for reintroduction of the bill. I urge it to do so, and to set out a process that delivers incorporation as soon as possible.
We must be clear that incorporation alone is not enough. The Government must also ensure that its laws and actions enable the realisation of human rights. It should be taking a human rights-based approach to policy making in all policy and budgeting. Not only can we not see whether the Government is doing so, but the lack of transparency over what it is spending makes it difficult to assess whether the Government really is using the maximum available resources to achieve the realisation of rights.
A look at the reality for many people in Scotland today makes clear the scale of the challenge that all of us in the chamber must rise to. The disability pay gap is 18.5 per cent. Disabled people are more likely to experience harassment and discrimination than their non-disabled peers, and they are more likely to live in poverty. They are not able to reach their full potential because they are being denied their rights.
Unpaid carers—the people who are stepping in, in the absence of a system that properly supports disabled people—are struggling to get by. The Scottish Government could take targeted action, but it has so far failed to do so in the cost of living packages that it has offered. It could support local authorities to offer respite care provisions, which can meet demand and allow carers time out—something that is impossible for many of them, which means that they miss out on so much.
I recently attended the launch of Baroness Helena Kennedy’s report on asylum provision in Scotland and the Park Inn hotel tragedy. The report highlighted the injustices that are faced by migrants, who wait years for proper accommodation and healthcare, and are left in hotels without any support.
People from Glasgow and Clyde Rape Crisis’s ruby project shared with me their concerns about the number of migrant women using their service who are receiving no help with their mental health. That is not a system that is empowering people to realise their rights; it is a system that is actively limiting those rights. We should use international human rights day to realise those rights and think about what more we can do. Although immigration is a reserved matter, the care, support, healthcare, housing and education of refugees and asylum seekers are almost wholly provided by local authorities, which are being underfunded by the Scottish Government, and by a health service that the SNP has led into crisis.
The list of human rights failures, sadly, goes on. Stonewall research found that 37 per cent of trans people have avoided healthcare treatment for fear of discrimination, and that 6 per cent of trans employees had been physically attacked at work. Only half of LGBT staff agreed that equalities policies in their workplaces offer protections to trans people.
None of that is being helped by the discourse around the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill, which has allowed trans people’s rights and women’s rights to be pitted against each other in the midst of a culture war that has been toxic for everyone involved. The truth is that women’s rights, like those of other groups that I have spoken about, are all being eroded by a Government that is underfunding services that exist to protect our dignity and safety, such as Glasgow and Clyde Rape Crisis, which is currently able to meet only a quarter of demand because it is not receiving enough funding.
Our rights are also being undermined by a refusal to properly pay social care workers, who are predominantly women. Women are also being let down by a legal system that does not provide victims of sexual assault with an advocate.
We can see that the challenge ahead is great; it is even greater as a result of the pandemic. Right now, people are not afforded the dignity and equality that human rights exist to protect. Scotland has an opportunity to fix that. Doing so will require transparency, accountability, meaningful participation and brave choices, if we are to achieve the full realisation of our rights. That is what Labour members expect.
The SNP has nailed the soundbites, but it must also put its money where its mouth is. This year more than ever, that is true. We will need action by our Government in our services, communities, streets, homes and pockets, because whether or not others suggest that we look further afield,
“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home”.
I move amendment S6M-07133.1, to leave out from “recognises the Scottish Government’s” to end and insert:
“notes the Scottish Government’s commitment to giving full domestic effect to international human rights obligations through future human rights legislation within the limits of devolved competence; agrees that the Convention rights established by the Human Rights Act 1998, and embedded in the Scotland Act 1998, are fundamental to the Scottish Parliament and to Scotland’s devolution settlement, and reiterates its unequivocal opposition to the UK Government’s proposals to undermine and weaken the Human Rights Act 1998 through its flawed and misconceived Bill of Rights Bill, and calls on the Scottish Government to publish its timetable for reintroducing its United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill in order to ensure children and young people’s rights are protected in domestic legislation.”15:55
I am grateful to Christina McKelvie for lodging the motion.
In 1948, with the memories of genocide and the atrocities of the Nazis still fresh in their consciousness, people from across the globe came together with one simple but far from easy task—to have acknowledged in legislatures, such as this one, around the world, an inalienable and immutable fact of human life, that all humans are “born free and equal”. It took an enormous amount of willpower, hard work and hope to create that Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which we celebrate today, as well as the defenders who back it up day in and day out.
Reflecting on the declaration, Eleanor Roosevelt, the first chairperson of the UN Commission on Human Rights, and the heart and driving force behind it, said:
“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home—so close and so small they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are in the world of the individual person”.
That epitomises what the universal declaration has done for us all. It has given individuals the agency to uphold their human rights in courts, which has created profound ramifications across the globe, not least on our shores. In Scotland, the UDHR has shone a light on and put a stop to horrific practices such as unlawful detention in our care homes and degrading conditions in our prisons, and introduced legal representation during police questioning.
Just as it is important to celebrate the huge progress that we have made, it is equally, if not more, important to acknowledge how far we have yet to go. This year, we have witnessed, in their most extreme forms, the dark forces that seek to destroy our human rights. To name but a few, we have witnessed a despotic leader seek to invade and snatch sovereignty from Ukraine, a world cup football stadium built on the deaths of hundreds of migrant workers, and China’s continued genocide towards the Uyghur people.
We have also witnessed the erosion of our human rights much closer to home. As has been mentioned, the Conservative Government is currently proposing to scrap the current Human Rights Act 1998 and replace it with a bill of rights. If such legislation passes, it will have huge ramifications for individual human rights in our country. We should make no mistake that that bill seeks to undermine the same fundamental principle of human rights that Eleanor Roosevelt and dozens more fought hard to enshrine all those years ago.
The Bill of Rights Bill would limit the ability of people in prisons to bring forward human rights claims, make it even harder for people to seek asylum and make it significantly more difficult to bring human rights cases to courts. What is more, that bill has the potential to undermine the very parameters of our competences in this Parliament. That is nothing short of a disgrace to our history, our traditions and, most importantly, the people whom we serve. Suffice it to say that the Liberal Democrats in Scotland and the rest of the UK condemn the proposal whole-heartedly, and I am heartened to hear similar condemnations in this place.
I find it incumbent on me to point out that it is not just from Westminster that Scottish human rights are sometimes threatened. It has been revealed by research, which was undertaken by my party, that more than a dozen councils in Scotland are using Hikvision cameras. That equipment is linked to Chinese surveillance and facial recognition technology that has been used to persecute the Uyghur people. The cameras’ continued use risks not only funding an oppressive regime but endangering the human rights and civil liberties of our citizens.
That is part of a pattern of the Scottish Government being too complacent when it comes to human rights. As we have heard several times, it has been more than a year since the Government was advised that the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is workable into Scots law under the remit of devolved power, but our children are no closer to the protections that it is within the reach of this chamber to offer them. This Government has form on children’s rights.
Does the member agree that one of the tragedies in relation to the UNCRC is that we are no clearer about the discussions on the amendments that are taking place with the UK Government? Indeed, if the discussions were published, the Government might find that the influence and ideas of those who are outside the discussions—but who have been consulted before—would help speed up that process.
I entirely agree with Martin Whitfield. It is surprising that a Government that in previous years has been so vehement and passionate about children’s rights should be silent on them. Indeed, the same happened when, with much fanfare, the Government took us from being one of the worst countries in the world in holding children as young as eight responsible for their crimes to a country where, under the Age of Criminal Responsibility (Scotland) Act 2019, the age of criminal responsibility was raised to 12. However, at the same time, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child lifted the international floor to 14. That was an embarrassment, because we still have an age of criminal responsibility that is lower than those defenders of human rights, Russia and China. When it comes to human rights, we cannot lead the world from the back of the pack.
I realise that I must close, Presiding Officer, but the fact is that we need to take human rights seriously when we are considering, say, whether to sign a memorandum of understanding with a Chinese company with a dodgy human rights record. I remember when Alex Salmond refused to meet the Dalai Lama for fear of upsetting Chinese diplomats.
The slogan of international human rights day is “Stand up for human rights”. Today, we celebrate human rights defenders in their entirety, whether they be in Hong Kong, faraway Isfahan or here in Scotland. It is not enough simply to acknowledge the progress that we have made or the progress that we still need to make; instead, we need to fight for it, individually and collectively, without prejudice and without borders. Only then do we uphold the equality and freedom with which we are all born.
We move to the open debate.16:00
Earlier this week, the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee heard from the Scottish Human Rights Commission on, among other things, the UK Government’s Bill of Rights Bill. Commission chair Ian Duddy told us that the Human Rights Act 1998 is working well in Scotland and that the commission is concerned about the bill’s regressive effects as well as its specific implications for Scotland, given that the 1998 act is enshrined in Scots law. Indeed, I think that Alex Cole-Hamilton has just covered that point.
Such concerns, however, are not limited to the commission. This week, MSPs received a briefing from Amnesty International; JustRight Scotland; CEMVO Scotland; Making Rights Real; Together, the Scottish Alliance for Children’s Rights; and the Scottish Commission for People with Learning Disabilities. They have all warned that the HRA and the European convention on human rights are “foundational” to the devolved settlement; that proposals to scrap the HRA have
“scant regard for the distinct operation and administration of law in Scotland”;
and that there is a risk of creating “increased legal uncertainty” relating to
“shifting, diverging and more restrictive interpretation of rights.”
All of those together will create “additional barriers” for people who seek justice through exercising their human rights.
All of that puts today’s Tory amendment into context. Rachael Hamilton’s amendment, particularly the reference to the incorporation of the UNCRC into Scots law, clearly shows the brass neck of the Scottish Conservative Party. This Parliament unanimously supported the incorporation of the UNCRC, and all parties were clear that it should be as far reaching as possible to ensure that Scottish children and young people could exercise their rights in all aspects of their lives.
Given that Mr FitzPatrick is so passionate about the issue, can he tell those of us in the chamber who are desperate to know when incorporation is going to happen why the timetable has not been published and why the amendments and the detail have not been shared with the Parliament? We are all waiting.
If the Conservatives truly support the principles for which this Parliament unanimously voted, I challenge them to call on their Tory colleagues at Westminster to incorporate the UNCRC into UK law, ensuring that every child across these islands has the full protection that this Parliament wants for children and young people in Scotland. [Interruption.] I say to Rachael Hamilton that this is not funny—it is incredibly serious. Her party has the power to take this forward. Instead of challenging the Scottish Parliament’s decisions, it could have worked with this Parliament to ensure incorporation across these islands.
This really is a tale of two Governments. We need only contrast the actions of the UK Government with the Scottish Government’s forthcoming human rights bill.
Will the member give way?
I have to make a bit of progress.
As the minister has set out, the bill will, as far as possible within devolved competence, seek to incorporate into Scots law multiple international human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, alongside three further UN human rights treaties that will strengthen protections for women, disabled people and people of minority ethnic backgrounds, while also protecting LGBTI people and older people. I look forward to the introduction of the bill and its scrutiny in this Parliament.
Will the member take an intervention?
I have to make progress. If the Presiding Officer says there is time, then perhaps.
As you have prayed the Presiding Officer in aid, I can say that there is a bit of time in hand this afternoon. Of course, it is up to each member whether they take an intervention.
Okay. I will make a bit of progress and, if you still think there is time, Presiding Officer, I will take some interventions.
Whatever we do in law means nothing if people cannot exercise their rights, so I want to briefly touch on the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee’s exploration of human rights budgeting.
Human rights budgeting means that decisions on how money is raised, allocated and spent are determined by the impact that all of that has on human rights. The committee has been considering the work of Scottish Parliament information centre research fellow Rob Watts, who has been looking at the application of human rights budgeting in the year-round budget process. I am grateful for his work and the work of others in SPICe, which I commend to members.
The minister and Opposition spokespeople have spoken about human rights abuses abroad, and I am sure that others will, too. Unfortunately, I think that my speaking time is limited, but I share in the condemnation of the egregious human rights abuses taking place across the world and support this year’s call to action, which is that we should all stand up for human rights.
For the avoidance of doubt, I remind members that we have some time in hand across the afternoon, should members wish to take and/or make interventions, which is, of course, a matter for them.16:06
I welcome the opportunity to speak in today’s debate. With international human rights day fast approaching, we have a unique opportunity to reflect on the progress on human rights and, indeed, the challenges that are associated with it across the globe.
As others have said, this year’s theme is dignity, freedom and justice for all. Looking around the world, from Russia’s illegal annexation in Ukraine and China’s relentless pursuit of zero Covid to Iran’s violent repression of protests, we can see that we face a multitude of challenges concerning human rights. Let us be clear: around the world, human rights are being trampled upon. The issue is even more stark considering that it is almost 75 years since the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We must be clear in our condemnation.
The UK has been at the forefront of developing human rights laws and norms on the international stage. Indeed, we played a leading role in the creation of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, and we must continue to honour the spirit of the agreement today. That is why I am proud that, where we see human rights abuses across the globe, the UK is making its influence felt on the world stage. Through our support to Ukraine, we are standing up to Vladimir Putin and the Russian Government’s illegal invasion. That goes beyond words. As the UK is the second-largest military donor to Ukraine after the United States, we are offering essential practical support to the Ukrainians to stand up to Russian aggression and the untold damage that that has already caused.
Does Annie Wells accept the hypocrisy of Westminster using one hand to donate money to the Ukraine efforts but using the other hand to keep asylum seekers—many of whom are fleeing wars—in inhumane conditions in the Manston immigration centre, where children go missing, there have been diphtheria outbreaks and people have died?
We have an unprecedented number of migrants coming into the country and we can judge whether our measures have been successful. These people are being exploited by human traffickers and gangs, so we need to put in place measures now, and we can judge their effectiveness in the future.
In Iran, where the Government has engaged in attempts to use violence against its own citizens, the UK Government has also sanctioned many of the people who are responsible for authorising those unacceptable acts of repression.
Focusing on human rights should be a principle that unites this chamber.
Does Annie Wells agree that it is a bit despairing in such a debate to have the Scottish National Party spend all its time talking about Tories, Westminster and all the rest of it? Why cannot we just come together as Scots to say that we stand up for human rights?
I agree with Stephen Kerr. I, too, am disappointed that the SNP has chosen to politicise the issue, and the Scottish Conservative amendment makes clear our disappointment. Through its constitutional blame games, the SNP has already managed to land the taxpayer with a bill of almost £200,000, due to legal fees that are related to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill, which it knew was outside the Scottish Parliament’s remit. Conservative members will take no lessons from the SNP, which has in the past been guilty of playing cynical games and politicising the issue.
In conclusion, as we prepare to mark international human rights day, with an eye to the 75th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Conservative members reaffirm our commitment to supporting the UK and our allies in defending human rights across the globe. The senseless and brutal war in Ukraine has issued a stark reminder to us all that we can never take for granted human rights that have been so hard fought for. It is more important than ever that we play a leading role in defending them.16:11
Consensus is great, and it is fantastic to work on a cross-party basis in any kind of collaboration, particularly when it comes to human rights. However, I can never work with anyone who would vote against the rights of LGBT people.
International human rights day marks the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, as the minister said. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a milestone document that proclaims inalienable rights that everyone as a human being is entitled to.
It is really sad to see the political attacks in here. We are accused of talking about the Tories and the UK Government. We have to say that, unfortunately, we have another Government that has influence over the Scottish Parliament—but not for long. I have heard the SNP mentioned many times. I appreciate the ad, but that is not what we are here to talk about.
The theme for this year is dignity, freedom and justice for all. Unfortunately, I recognise that, for some, today is yet another day of torment, torture and denial of the very rights that we celebrate. It is shameful that there are people around the world, including in Scotland, who seek to deny others those inalienable rights.
The motion rightly applauds those who bravely speak truth to power at great personal cost, wherever they are in the world. We are aware of recent examples of people who have placed their lives in danger in doing that so that others may have a tomorrow full of basic human rights and protections. For example, who could not have been impacted by the activism and boldness of Iranian women? I applaud the courage and determination of protesters in Iran and elsewhere who are challenging police brutality and the deep-seated misogyny of their legal systems.
One of the protesters in Iran is Mahnaz Parakand, who is an Iranian lawyer and activist. She recently stated why she does what she does. That could easily apply to what the day really represents. The statement is as bold as it is beautiful. She said:
“I suffer from seeing other people’s discrimination as much as those individuals themselves suffer from it. It is our responsibility to clear the way for the recognition of the humanity of all human beings, regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, beliefs, ethnicity ... and to respect all human beings and human rights. I consider the struggle for human rights and justice not as a duty, but as a part of my identity.”
That has to be our struggle, our journey and our identity.
As the First Minister stated to women in Iran who are fighting for basic human rights, “We stand with you.” Scotland should be a home for all, committed to delivering a shared vision in which everyone can have a life of human dignity. It should be a nation in which human rights are respected and protected. I am pleased to see that the Scottish Government remains committed to supporting the rights of women and girls on an international stage as well as at home.
The Human Rights Act 1998 brought convention rights home by enabling people to raise human rights issues in Scottish courts. That legislation also places a duty on public bodies to comply with human rights in everything that they do. However, the act is under threat, as the Tories at Westminster have proposals to replace it with a new Bill of Rights Bill that would weaken the protections in the Human Rights Act 1998 and put the UK in breach of its international obligations.
By contrast, work is well under way in Scotland to incorporate into law the human rights that are contained in a number of other international human rights treaties that cover economic, social, cultural and environmental rights and stronger protections for the rights of women, disabled people, trans people, black and ethnic minority people, older persons and children. I agree with the Scottish Human Rights Commission that
“the UK Government’s Bill of Rights Bill threatens to damage Scotland’s progress in developing a human rights culture”
“undermine the UK’s international reputation”—
or, at least, what is left of it.
Scotland has ambitions to be a global leader in human rights with integrity and an identity that is rooted in compassion, empathy and understanding. I stand with everyone who is battling every day for their basic human rights and challenge us all to be better allies to the people who desperately need it.16:16
I join my parliamentary colleagues in marking international human rights day this coming Saturday. It is a day that always reminds us of how far we have to go to realise the dream of human rights for all at home and abroad.
I am pleased to talk on the issue for my party. Labour has a long and proud history of taking action to protect and defend human rights. It was a Labour Government that brought in the Human Rights Act 1998, ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Disabled People and built human rights into the Scotland Act 1998.
We can almost all agree that the Tory attacks on the Human Rights Act 1998 are cruel and completely regressive. I dare say that quite a few of our Tory colleagues in the chamber even think that, and it would be welcome if more of them would stand up and say so.
The narrative that eradicating human rights would somehow benefit our economy or strengthen liberty has always been completely wrong and it shocks me regularly that so many people would be willing to do away with such progress. We must resist that narrative entirely and build on the hard-won rights that exist, not degrade those that have been won through years of struggle.
I join my Scottish Labour colleagues in calling on the Government to introduce the changes to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill. That will provide a necessary impetus to guarantee that children and young people’s rights are protected in domestic legislation that cannot be done away with so easily. That would be a progressive and promising use of the Parliament’s time and provide a bedrock for future developments that can help the people who need it most.
The Scottish Human Rights Commission published a report in November with a series of recommendations for the Scottish Government on its compliance with human rights law. We have only a short time to debate the matter, but I ask the Government to respond to the points on poverty. The report points out that the Scottish Government is still not on track to meet Scotland’s child poverty targets. Food and fuel poverty persist and Scottish research highlights the fact that a household is made homeless every 19 minutes. Many of them are families with children. I think that the minister will agree that, if we have one move to make in the Parliament, it is to meet the targets on child poverty.
I take a moment to reflect on how easily human rights are disregarded when proper scrutiny does not take place and proper accountability is absent. I call on all of us to remain vigilant in protecting those principles. We can see right now the world cup going on in Qatar. That allows a regime that has no time for the concerns of workers, women and many others and has a cavalier attitude to human life to be flaunted on the world stage. All the while, the people who died are forgotten. If such countries are rewarded for dismissing human rights, what message does that send to others? We must always think about these things.
I agree with the member’s point 100 per cent. Does she share my dismay at FIFA’s derecognition of the Afghan women’s team, which left Afghanistan and was in Australia? FIFA has derecognised the team at the Afghan Government’s request.
I thank the member for his intervention and I am glad that he made that good point.
In a similar vein, only four years ago, the same competition went to Russia, where LGBT+ people are third-class citizens; we looked the other way when it came to Putin’s actions in Ukraine at that time, and we can all see where that led.
I am sure that, as we approach international human rights day, we will be remembering those who have fought and lost their lives. Human rights are not a solution on their own, but they certainly provide a foundation for lasting peace and decency. I trust that we will all remember that in the difficult years ahead.16:20
It is a privilege to speak in the debate to recognise international human rights day and the international day of human rights defenders. Ever since the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, that milestone recognition of the inalienable universal rights that all human beings should be afforded has been instrumental in promoting, enhancing and devolving our understanding of those rights across the globe.
However, as we approach the declaration’s 75th anniversary, it is perhaps apt that we highlight the words of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, when he speaks of the situation today and the very real need to
“regain the universality of human rights, the indivisibility of human rights, and ... to find a new energy that motivates young people around the world.”
Universality was optimistically hoped for in the aftermath of the second world war and the human rights abuses that had been witnessed across the globe. However, those abuses are being committed again, from the theatre of war in Ukraine, to the continuing abuses that are being committed in Palestine and beyond. Although it is true to say that a lot has been achieved, it is also true to say that, if we do not renew our commitment to universal human rights and speak out against abuses, those achievements can be lost. We should all be concerned about that—we should all condemn abuses, wherever they take place, and we should never stand up for one and not another. Abuse is abuse—wherever, whenever and by whoever. If we lose sight of that, we lose sight of the very founding principles that the declaration was intended to promote.
That is why, in my view, this year’s theme is particularly relevant: dignity, freedom and justice for all, with a focus on the legacy, relevance and activism of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As I have said, the declaration has much to be proud of since its inception, and it is just as relevant as ever, if not more so. As the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights notes, it has been under
“a sustained assault in recent years ... from pandemics, conflicts, exploding inequalities, morally bankrupt global financial system”,
and the ravages of climate change.
Those challenges highlight the renewed need for activism, and it is why I, too, commend the work of human rights defenders in all nations and territories. Their work and tireless commitment to defending human rights is essential to the fight that we face at present, as we look to the challenges that we face in future.
Recognising its work, I was proud to welcome the Scottish Government’s Scottish human rights defender fellowship, which was established in 2018 and will provide rest and respite from the daily dangers and threats that are inherent in the defenders’ work. It also provides opportunities for study, training and research to support human rights work. Such initiatives are essential to supporting and encouraging activism in the field. Perhaps the minister will take the opportunity to update us on that initiative, as well as providing further information about other initiatives that the Government might consider to support and encourage activism.
I suggest that education, as always, is the key. I would like to see more work being done to promote human rights education in schools. Although a lot has been done in that area, many studies still show that there continue to be further opportunities to mainstream human rights awareness, beginning in early years education through to primary and secondary schooling, and beyond. Scotland has a proud history of defending and upholding human rights. By helping our children to understand those rights from an early age, we will create the defenders of the future.
Finally, I think that, if asked, everyone who is in the chamber would say that they are committed to human rights and that they would defend them. As we have already heard in the debate, that is why, regardless of political party, we in the Parliament should oppose the UK Government’s proposed Bill of Rights Bill, which would weaken, rather than strengthen, human rights. An attack on human rights is an attack on everyone and one that we need to defend against as one by supporting the motion.16:24
Saturday 10 December is international human rights day, and it also marks the end of the 16 days of activism against gender-based violence. I thank colleagues across the chamber and individuals and organisations across Scotland for their contributions in highlighting the importance of those 16 days and the work that we still must do.
I also acknowledge the members’ business debate that some of us contributed to earlier today, on “How Will We Survive? Steps to preventing destitution in the asylum system”. I thank Bob Doris for giving us the chance to consider how we might better enable asylum seekers to realise their rights. No one is illegal.
Human rights day is celebrated every year on 10 December, the day on which, in 1948, the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As many in the chamber would like to remind us, the UK indeed played its part. One member of the declaration’s drafting committee was Charles Dukes, who was a socialist, a trade unionist and an imprisoned first world war conscientious objector.
Seventy-four years later, when this UK Tory Government has so dishonoured that tradition—so forgotten the basic meanings of “universal”, “human” and “rights”—we would do well to look seriously at the declaration and at why it was, and still is, critical. The context was a world broken by war, suffering and loss. Worst of all, as the preamble sets out, it was broken by the silent horrors brought about by ideologies of
“disregard and contempt for human rights”.
Without recognising that we are all human and share the inherent dignity, equality and inalienable rights of which the drafters wrote, we have no hope—any of us—of achieving real freedom, true justice or deep-rooted peace. Those human rights—our human rights—were so important that even the member states of the United Nations, representatives of Governments far from radical, acknowledged that, without human rights protection, people would be
“compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression”.
Those who complain that human rights, or this debate, are being politicised have once again completely missed the point. Human rights are always political, because they are always there to protect the weak from the strong, the poor from the rich, and the excluded from the comfortable and complacent. If politics is about anything, it is about power—
Will the member take an intervention?
No, I am not going to take an intervention from you.
Human rights seek to redress imbalances of power, mitigate unequal distribution of resources, lift up the oppressed and provide dignity, freedom and justice to all.
The new Tory idea of rights has been shamelessly paraded in its ludicrously named Bill of Rights Bill, which would be more accurately described, I think, as the rights removal bill. According to that conception, rights are not really rights at all; they are rewards for being on the right side—rewards for being adult, healthy, British, cisgendered and fortunate enough not to have experienced persecution, forced migration, disability, mental illness, homelessness or imprisonment. Rights are the icing on the cake for those who already have the cake.
In fact, it is worse than that. In the looking-glass world of Tory ideology, privilege itself is renamed in the language of rights. The privilege of owning another person’s home, having a loud media voice, indulging in gender gatekeeping and having the time and money to travel are somehow placed in the scales against real fundamental rights to a home, to freedom from persecution, to a private and family life, to join a trade union, to strike and to protest. The rights that we stand for are not just the comfortable ones—the ones that do not impinge on our prejudices, our inherited assumptions or our convenience.
Next year will be the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I want to stand here then, celebrating the demise of the Tories’ shameful rights removal bill, welcoming our further embedding and extending of human rights in Scotland, especially for children, and looking ahead to the next challenges, because human rights are universal, for all of us as humans. Until we make that real, here and everywhere, our work must continue.16:29
It is, as always, a pleasure to follow Maggie Chapman and her powerful speech. She reminded us that this Saturday brings to an end the 16 days of action—many people in the chamber today were here at its start—and she spoke about 10 December, the 75th anniversary, dignity, freedom and justice for all.
I thank the minister for quoting Volker Türk. I took the section about people finding a new energy that motivates young people around the world as Volker pointing to the fact that our young people have that energy and that it is for the rest of us to find similar levels of energy to fight for human rights wherever they are at risk or breached.
In the short time that I have, I want to discuss the UNCRC, and I make no apology for that. I thank Rachael Hamilton for drawing attention to the wording of the judgment from the Supreme Court, because that saves me two minutes by not having to revisit it. That gives me the opportunity to take us back 18 months, to 16 March 2021, when members of this chamber voted to incorporate the UNCRC. Then, as we have heard, on 6 October 2021, the Supreme Court knocked back the bill for exceeding the powers of the Scottish Parliament.
I want to draw attention to some events that have happened since then. At a meeting of the UNCRC embedding in public services guidance sub-group on 9 August 2022, it was told that the
“first reports under the UNCRC Bill”
—not act, but bill—
“would be due as soon as practicable after the 31 March 2023.”
People will be expected to report on a bill and to spend funds on creating that report, even though they do not have the statutory authority to do so, by 31 March next year.
Let us move to 25 August 2022, when the UNCRC strategic implementation board minutes show that the bill will be
“brought back to and passed by Parliament by the end of this calendar year.”
Martin Whitfield is making a very important point. At the start of his excellent remarks, he mentioned the fact that young people have the energy to drive towards their rights. Does he agree that the Government’s heel-dragging in not bringing the bill back to Parliament does not replicate the energy of our young people and is similar to what is happening in relation to the age of criminal responsibility?
We are, of course, lacking the enthusiasm, the energy and the passion of our young people, and that is reflected in the anger that young people outside this place feel about the fact that the UNCRC bill has not come back here.
On 25 August, the strategic implementation board was told:
“This will be dependent on amendments being prepared, no significant concerns being raised by UK Government, and the Parliamentary process itself”,
the parliamentary process being, of course, what happens in this place.
On 27 September, the strategic implementation board was told:
“We are still on track to have the reconsidered Bill passed before the end of the calendar year, but that will depend on whether the relevant Committees would like to schedule time to scrutinise the amendments.”
It was also told that stakeholder engagements on the proposed fixes had taken place and were completed between 25 May and 11 June.
I raise those points because I would like to ask the minister where we are with the bill. Is it correct that amendments are sitting with the UK Government, which the Scottish Government—not the Scottish Parliament—is waiting to hear back from? Has the Scottish Government set a timetable for the UK Government to respond? I ask because I have seen what is in those minutes and I know that the Scottish Government is meeting very important stakeholders that represent our young people, for whom the UNCRC bill was so heralded. The bill rightly needs to come on to the statute book, but the Parliament seems to be getting blamed, as it is said that its committees cannot find the time.
I might be able to shed some light on what the member is trying to find out. Until the motions and amendments are lodged, the committee cannot scrutinise them. The committee is being told that the motions and amendments are not being lodged, so it is the Government that is holding things up, not the committees.
I am very grateful for that intervention, because the member has confirmed what I feared. I am concerned that, in meetings with stakeholders outside the chamber, there is discussion about the Parliament and the committees holding things up. Instead, what I believe to be the case is that there is discussion between the Scottish Government—
Will the member take an intervention?
With respect, Mr Kerr, I will not pause now.
The Scottish Government and the UK Government appear to be at loggerheads over something, which is why, in my earlier intervention, I requested sight of the draft amendments so that we could speed through the process.
We are now in December 2022, two sitting weeks away from the end of this year. My understanding—I am happy for the minister to correct me—is that there was an intention to bring back the timetabling motion in October, but that was rightly postponed because of the events following the death of Her Majesty. If that is the case, this must be—and should be—ready to go.
I can think of no better day than the 75th anniversary of human rights day, which was founded at the end of the most appalling war—well, we will not meet on 10 December, so I will give the minister until 12 or 13 December—to see the timetable for bringing back to the chamber the UNCRC bill.
I am grateful for your patience, Presiding Officer.
Thank you, Mr Whitfield.
I call Paul McLennan, who will be the last speaker in the open debate.16:35
I thank the Scottish Government for bringing the debate to the chamber this afternoon.
As members have said, human rights day is observed every year on 10 December—the day on which the United Nations general assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.
The UDHR was, and still is, a milestone document, which proclaims the rights that
“everyone is entitled to as a human being, regardless of race, colour, religion, sex, language, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status.”
As has been mentioned, the 2022 theme is about dignity, freedom and justice for all, and the 75th anniversary of the UDHR will be celebrated over the weekend.
In the decades since the adoption of the UDHR, human rights have become more recognised and more guaranteed across the globe. However, that has been challenged all over the world and in the UK.
The Scottish Human Rights Commission sent us a briefing for today’s debate. It considers that
“the UK Government’s Bill of Rights Bill threatens to damage Scotland’s progress in developing a human rights culture, by undermining the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) protections available under the Human Rights Act and the Scotland Act, unsettling Scottish devolution and introducing confusion and uncertainty for Scotland’s public authorities”.
In addition, the SHRC considers that
“The Bill of Rights and its supporting publications fail to acknowledge the complex implications of the proposed measures for Scotland”,
and it states that
“The Bill of Rights threatens ... the UK’s international reputation.”
Indeed, the commission notes the
“comments from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights that the UK risks going back on longstanding human rights commitments”.
It also highlights that the
“overall objectives as set out by the UK Government are at odds with the UK’s international obligations and domestic support for the HRA, particularly in Scotland.”
I turn to the Scottish Parliament. The Parliament has acknowledged the requirement to embed human rights across its work. In 2018, the Equalities and Human Rights Committee set out a human rights roadmap for the Parliament, which has a vital role to play in ensuring that the Scottish Government and other public bodies are upholding the protections of the European convention on human rights and of other international human rights standards.
Work is now well under way in Scotland to incorporate into law the human rights that are contained in a number of other international human rights treaties, covering economic, social, cultural and environmental rights, and stronger protections for the rights of women, disabled people, black and ethnic minorities, older persons and children.
There has been considerable progress in the development of a human rights culture in Scotland, and the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Scotland Act 1998 have together played a key role in that progress.
That is a noble list of different groups and all their rights. However, does the member agree with Rachael Hamilton and Martin Whitfield’s points about the need for the SNP member’s Government to introduce the amendments that have been discussed, so that we can get on with incorporating the UNCRC? Does he agree with my colleagues and friends?
I believe that the minister mentioned that point in her opening speech and I am sure that she will reference it in her closing speech, too.
The Scottish Human Rights Commission
“strongly encourages Parliament to support the human rights of all people in Scotland and to ensure that access to justice and human rights-based approaches are strengthened rather than weakened.”
I, along with other colleagues of the Social Justice and Social Security Committee, attended human rights training in the summer, which the commission offered. My colleagues and I found that training very helpful, as it helped us to refocus on bringing a human rights approach to everything that we do. Consequently, I asked whether human rights training for parliamentarians could, and should, be embedded as a matter of course—especially in the induction of new MSPs. Will the minister consider supporting that idea?
That suggestion would probably need to go through the Presiding Officer or it might be for the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee to recommend that steps are taken in that regard. As I said, the training was very helpful and it has allowed me and other colleagues to look at our work on the committee in a different way.
In 2018, the then Equalities and Human Rights Committee produced a report entitled “Getting Rights Right: Human Rights and the Scottish Parliament”. One of its key recommendations regarding international human rights reviews states:
“We ask Scottish Parliament Committees, assisted by the Scottish Parliament’s Research service, to utilise the Universal Periodic Review recommendations and the Scottish Government’s timetable for action to inform their scrutiny work.”
Perhaps the minister could comment on that as well.
The Scottish Government is committed to ensuring that convention rights remain protected from Westminster’s regressive proposals for a UK bill of rights so that Scotland has a strong and enduring commitment to securing democracy, the rule of law and human rights around Scotland and the world.16:40
It is a pleasure to close the debate for Scottish Labour. Much has been said in the debate on which my party can agree.
As has been mentioned, 10 December is the anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations. My colleague Pam Duncan-Glancy has already highlighted the themes of dignity, freedom and justice for all, and noted how those are currently threatened here.
Much has already been said about human rights, and several members, including Alex Cole-Hamilton and Karen Adam, have saluted human rights defenders. I will use my time to focus on the context of those rights. I will turn first to their universal nature.
The UDHR was the first major attempt to enshrine human rights around the globe. It builds on the rights in the UN charter to detail the rights that every human being should be able to expect, and it was the beginning of international human rights law as we know it today.
We all know that the work to develop and recognise international law has not had a straightforward path. In the aftermath of the second world war, that was a revolutionary act. It was an attempt to ensure that the crimes that had been committed in the preceding decade would never be repeated.
While we mark the beginning of this era of international law and universal rights, I fear that we are sleepwalking into the end of it, and it pains me to see the UK Government playing its part in that.
The disregard for international law since Brexit has been clear for all to see: we had a UK minister acknowledging that the UK Government’s legislation would break international law in a “specific and limited way”; we have an existential threat to the Human Rights Act 1998; and the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill is threatening to tear up an international treaty. Further, as the Scottish Refugee Council told the cross-party group on Europe earlier this year, the UK Government seems to be trying to ensure that the refugee convention has no effect. What conclusion are we supposed to draw from a Government that behaves in such ways, if not that it has a dismissive attitude to international law? I fear that it does not realise the signals that it is sending to the rest of the world.
The reality is that the UK is a shining light in these matters. Consider, for example, last year, when we had a net migration figure of more than 500,000. That is a result of the generosity of the peoples of these islands in welcoming people from Hong Kong in the face of a brutal and repressive Chinese regime and in welcoming the people from Ukraine who have come here. We greet them with open arms, so to paint the United Kingdom as a repressor of the rights of refugees is a travesty.
That is a debate for another day, but, in my view, we need to treat everyone equally.
Rachael Hamilton highlighted some of the human rights abuses around the world, but when even the British Government starts ignoring international law that it does not like and it starts tinkering with treaties and saying that some rights are more universal than others, what example does that set? The Tories are eroding our ability to be taken seriously.
I turn back to the motion. Scottish Labour agrees with its points about the rights in the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Scotland Act 1998. As my colleagues have noted, those are good pieces of Labour legislation. However, we encourage the Scottish Government to bring back to Parliament the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill, so that those rights can be enshrined in Scottish legislation as well.
You must conclude, Mr Choudhury. I call Pam Gosal.16:46
I am pleased to be able to close the debate on behalf of the Scottish Conservatives.
Every year, appalling human rights violations are committed around the world. Those dreadful acts remind us of the importance of setting out a firm stand in favour of human rights.
I commend colleagues across the chamber for making a number of thoughtful and important contributions to the debate, some of which I will take a moment to mention. Christina McKelvie paid special tribute to all the human rights defenders around the world. We must not forget all the great work that they do.
My colleagues Rachael Hamilton and Annie Wells spoke about the three places where we all know that human rights are under threat: China, Ukraine and Iran.
Pam Duncan-Glancy highlighted that the incorporation of laws on its own is not enough and that there must be a human rights basis for policy making and budget setting.
Alex Cole-Hamilton and Carol Mochan reminded us that, although so much has been done on human rights, so much more remains to be done.
It was interesting that Joe FitzPatrick talked about the Conservative Party having a “brass neck”. Maybe he can help to push the Scottish Government to announce some key dates on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill, which everyone is desperately waiting for, and which everyone has acknowledged—
Will the member take an intervention?
I would like to carry on; I have only just started.
Karen Adam rightly applauded the courage of Iranian women.
Martin Whitfield spoke passionately about the UNCRC bill, highlighting key dates. He asked how organisations can be expected to report on a bill by 31 March 2023 when we have no timeline for when the Scottish Government intends to lodge a motion and publish its amendments.
Rachael Hamilton and Annie Wells spoke about Putin’s atrocious crimes during the war in Ukraine. I am proud that the United Kingdom has been the second-largest donor to Ukraine—it has committed £2.3 billion to its cause in 2022. As a country that has been at the forefront of protecting human rights around the world, it is only appropriate that the UK has led the way in Europe in opposing Putin’s barbaric war.
Will the member take an intervention?
I am sorry, but I do not have enough time.
Our amendment refers to children’s rights and the Scottish Government’s UNCRC bill. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is said to be the most complete statement of children’s rights ever produced. It is also the most widely ratified international treaty in history.
As has been mentioned today, the Scottish Government received support from all parties when it introduced the UNCRC incorporation bill during the previous session of Parliament. However, it was clear that there were potential legal issues with the bill. Last October, the Supreme Court declared that the UNCRC bill exceeded the competence of the Scottish Parliament. The SNP deliberately drafted the bill that way, using children’s rights to play nationalist games, just as today it is using human rights to provoke another grievance with the UK Government in a cheap and low attack with no substance behind it.
Last year, the Deputy First Minister stated that the Government was
“absolutely committed to implementing the legislation at the earliest possible opportunity, after addressing the remedies that are necessary.”—[Official Report, 6 October 2021; c 27.]
In last year’s debate on human rights day, I raised the fact that Parliament still had no idea of the timescale for the bill’s reconsideration stage. A whole year has now passed, but the bill has still not returned to Parliament. During a committee meeting earlier this week, I was able to ask the Scottish Human Rights Commission about the issue and was told that clarity is needed from the Government. Once again, we call on the SNP Government to treat the children’s rights bill as the priority that it should be and to return it to Parliament as soon as possible.
This Parliament has a moral obligation to continue using its fullest powers to advance human rights. We cannot stand here again in a year’s time, still waiting for the SNP to act on children’s rights. Parliament must stop seeking grievance with the UK at every turn and must focus on what really matters—passing the children’s rights bill. We cannot just highlight examples from abroad; we must do what we can here, on our doorstep, to promote human rights. I urge members to support the amendment in Rachael Hamilton’s name.16:52
I am delighted to conclude the debate and thank all members for their contributions. When it was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1940, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights set out to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights and in the dignity and worth of the human person. We have heard today from many members, including in a great speech by Foysol Choudhury, that the Scottish Parliament shares those fundamental principles and reaffirms its commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Many points have been made about the UNCRC. I recognise the passionate commitment of colleagues from across the chamber to the UNCRC. The Scottish Government did not deliberately bring forward a UNCRC bill that was outwith our competence. The whole Parliament, all its members and the Presiding Officer at the time agreed that the bill was within our competence. This is a complex issue and one that involves the devolution settlement and a detailed and complex Supreme Court judgement.
We want to incorporate the UNCRC, as far as is possible within our legislative competence, and we want to do so as soon as possible, but we must minimise the risk of a further referral to the Supreme Court. We make no apology for engaging with the UK Government on this matter or for taking time in May and June to engage with young people who campaigned so passionately to bring this about. We have taken the time to hear their voices and anticipate that that engagement will conclude in the near future.
Joe FitzPatrick is absolutely correct. He clearly demonstrated the brass neck of the Tories in this place. I, too, challenge them to incorporate UNCRC rights across the UK and perhaps to abolish the two-child cap and the rape clause while they are at it, before they bring their crocodile tears to this Parliament.
Many MSPs highlighted Russia’s illegal war of aggression in Ukraine and the appalling war crimes and atrocities that Russia has committed. We stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine.
Kaukab Stewart called out again the Tories’ and the UK Government’s hypocrisy. If refugees are being exploited by traffickers, they should give them a safe and legal route to come to this country instead of those people having to take a route through traffickers.
Since the conflict began, over 21,800 people have arrived in the UK. We are proud to be able to support so many people who have fled war. I am appalled that there is any need for that, but I am also appalled, like Maggie Chapman and others, at the UK Government’s attitude to refugees. If Tories in this place want to show any integrity, they should sort out the disgraceful no recourse to public funds policy.
We are also committed to playing our part in welcoming and supporting people from Afghanistan. I have had the honour of meeting Mursal Noori, who fled Afghanistan last August and who campaigned in Afghanistan—and is now campaigning in Scotland—for women and girls there to be able to access education and elected office. Last month, at Mursal’s former school in Afghanistan, 46 of her classmates were killed by a suicide bomber. Her campaigning acts as a vital reminder to all of us of the very real threats that women and girls in Afghanistan face.
I join Karen Adam and others in paying tribute to Mahsa Amini, the 58 children and the many hundreds of other victims of the latest waves of repression in Iran. Wearing the hijab should be a matter of personal choice. We applaud the courage and determination of protesters who are challenging police brutality and the deep-seated misogyny of laws such as the one that requires women to wear a hijab.
Alex Cole-Hamilton, Carol Mochan and Joe FitzPatrick picked up on the concerning reports about deaths of migrant workers and the treatment of LGBTI people in Qatar. Human Rights Watch described the world cup as “exciting, lucrative and deadly.” The Scottish Government condemns human rights abuses wherever they occur and we stand in solidarity with those who face discrimination and persecution. Like Joe FitzPatrick and Carol Mochan, we also condemn the derecognition of the Afghan women’s football team.
As my tiny mark of defiance, I have worn my rainbow laces since the beginning of the world cup and they will be on until the end of it, because small acts of defiance can show solidarity with people around the world.
Such abuses remind us just how fragile the post-1945 international order remains and how real the threat to human rights and global peace is.
There is ample evidence, including from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, that China has committed gross violations of human rights in Xinjiang.
We must dedicate ourselves to meeting the highest standards of human rights and we must continue to strive for equality and human rights here in Scotland and the UK.
As Joe FitzPatrick and others said, we have heard from civil society organisations about their concerns about the bill removing rights. I have heard those calls. That is why we must oppose the UK Government’s regulatory race to the bottom and its regressive policies, which seek to remove our rights and threaten some of the most vulnerable people in our society.
Let us talk about the disgraceful points made by Scottish Tories in this place, because the following is who they are, and who they are is the thing that we must reject. We have the UK Home Secretary’s dream of seeing the front page of the Telegraph showing a plane taking off to Rwanda. Her dream is a nightmare for the people who are at grave risk of torture and death. We must also be clear that this Parliament does not share the justice secretary’s desire to destroy the Human Rights Act 1998 and replace it with a dangerous and ill-conceived bill of rights.
The Scottish Government will continue to robustly oppose all attacks on the Human Rights Act 1998. As members of this Parliament, we have made it very clear that there must be no changes to that act without our explicit consent.
James Dornan spoke about human rights defenders. He paid tribute to young people and talked about what we should be doing in education. Members should look at Together’s human rights defenders, who are providing the lived experience of young people in the work that we are doing for our human rights bill, which will come forward soon.
The Scottish Government’s ambition is to be a good global leader—one that supports democracy, the rule of law and human rights. We are demonstrating our leadership through the introduction of our human rights bill. The next key milestone will be a public consultation on proposals next year.
I was delighted to hear from Paul McLennan about the continued embedding of human rights across the Parliament and its committees. As the convener of the committee whose report he referenced, I am happy to support his call for all members in this place to take part in that human rights training.
So much is achieved for human rights around the world by brave individuals who are prepared to stand up for the principles that are set out in the UN Declaration of Human Rights. For our part, the Scottish Government will continue to do everything that we can to uphold those values, to make rights real for people in Scotland and to stand up for human rights wherever they are under threat.