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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament 08 December 2020

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Business Motion, Covid-19, Brexit Readiness, Covid-19 (Education), Parliament’s Evolving Scrutiny Function, Presiding Officer’s Statement, Decision Time, Human Rights Day (70th Anniversary)


Contents


Human Rights Day (70th Anniversary)

The final item of business today is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-23220, in the name of Ruth Maguire, on the 70th anniversary of human rights day. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament acknowledges the 70th anniversary of Human Rights Day; understands that 10 December 2020 marks 70 years since the UN invited states to celebrate an international Human Rights Day marking the adoption of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights in 1948, and asking states to continue increasing progress in human rights; further understands that the day is an international reminder of what it considers the critically important progress that still needs to be made to protect and realise human rights to their fullest extent; believes that the COVID-19 response has highlighted states approaches for human rights globally, with governments balancing the need for restrictions with the potential impact on the human rights of their citizens, and has also highlighted that respect for human rights across the spectrum is fundamental to the success of the response to, and recovery from, the pandemic; endeavours to respect, protect and fulfil human rights going beyond the immediate response to COVID-19 through the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill, which it considers demonstrates the Scottish Government’s commitment to fully realising children’s rights; acknowledges the National Taskforce for Human Rights Leadership, established by the First Minister following the recommendations made in December 2018 by the First Minister’s Advisory Group on Human Rights Leadership, which is working to establish a new statutory framework for human rights that can bring internationally recognised human rights into domestic law and protect the human rights of every member of Scottish society, and reaffirms what it sees as Scotland’s role in promoting international dialogue and respect for fundamental human rights, and the commitment to ensure that the rights of the people of Scotland and respected, protected and fulfilled.

18:33  

I am grateful for the cross-party support from members in acknowledging the 70th anniversary of human rights day and allowing the debate to go ahead.

Thursday 10 December 2020 marks 70 years since the United Nations invited states to celebrate an international human rights day to mark the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Human rights day is an international reminder of the critically important progress that still needs to be made to protect and realise human rights to their fullest extent, and a day on which we look to states to continue to increase their progress on human rights.

With that in mind, I take the opportunity to echo concerns that have been raised about the United Kingdom Tory Government’s intention to review the Human Rights Act 1998. We must be alive to the threat to human rights protections in Scotland, and the weakening of citizens’ rights across the UK, post-Brexit. It is crucial that we receive clarity on the scope of that review and its impact on devolved matters and Scotland’s separate legal jurisdiction.

My understanding is that there has been no consultation with the Scottish Government. Perhaps the Minister for Older People and Equalities could, in summing up, speak to that and update members on what action the Scottish Government intends to take in that regard. Scotland is a country that is committed to standing up for human rights, and the European convention on human rights is hardwired into the Scotland Act 1998. Any plans from the UK Government to bypass the devolved Governments or water down protections must be robustly challenged.

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted states’ approaches to human rights globally, with Governments being required to balance the need for restrictions to save lives with the potential impact of those restrictions on the human rights of their citizens. This year, as we live through the pandemic, we have seen deep-seated inequalities that have stubbornly persisted for decades highlighted and, in many cases, exacerbated. The harms that the pandemic has caused, and those resulting from the measures that have been put in place to manage it and save lives, have not been felt equally, and our Governments’ responses should continue to reflect that. In the decisions that are made, the importance of ensuring fairness and quality of life for all our citizens must be not only considered but acted on.

However, among all those things, we have seen wonderful work executed speedily, with the needs of our people right at the centre. For years, campaigners have called for dignified food provision, accessible information, online classes and support for those who are affected by loneliness and isolation. This year, in a matter of weeks, those things became really quite mainstream. More than that, we got to a place where no one had to sleep rough on the streets.

However, endeavours to respect, protect and fulfil human rights go beyond the immediate response to Covid-19. At the same time as the Tory Government seems to be intent on weakening citizens’ rights post-Brexit, the Scottish National Party Government is instead working to strengthen them.

During its passage through Parliament, the important United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill has received widespread support from a range of stakeholders, and—perhaps most importantly—from children and young people themselves. It demonstrates our Government’s commitment to human rights and to the full realisation of children’s rights.

I end by acknowledging the work of the national task force for human rights leadership, which was established by the First Minister. The task force is working to establish a new statutory framework for human rights that will bring internationally recognised human rights into domestic law and protect the human rights of every member of Scottish society.

Scotland has an important role to play in promoting international dialogue and respect for fundamental human rights, and I thank every single human rights defender in our country who helps to do just that. I ask us all to use human rights day to reaffirm our commitment, lead by example and ensure that the rights of the people of Scotland are respected, protected and fulfilled.

I apologise that we did not set the clock at the beginning of your contribution, Ms Maguire—you perhaps did not need to speak as fast as you thought you did.

We move to the open debate, and I call Jeremy Balfour, to be followed by Bill Kidd.

[Inaudible.]

Excuse me, Mr Balfour—you are on mute. Please give us a moment to see whether we can fix that.

I am terribly sorry, but we have a sound malfunction—in other words, we cannae hear him. We will go to Bill Kidd first and try to get Mr Balfour’s sound sorted out.

18:39  

I thank Ruth Maguire for creating an opportunity for us to formally recognise the anniversary of an important and historic event: the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I know that she has constantly and continually used her role in the Scottish Parliament to promote the furthering of human rights, so I appreciate the subject being brought to the forefront of business in the Scottish Parliament today.

This Thursday will mark 70 years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted. That may seem like a long time, and the ideas underpinning human rights may seem quite obvious now, but we must remember that they grew out of the most tumultuous period in human history. The impression of the weightiness and security of the idea of human rights is evidence of the conceptual success of the declaration.

Appeals to human rights are embedded across societies, and citizens now expect that making an appeal to human rights as a way of explaining an injustice is an effective way in which they can make positive change happen. I have personally seen that approach work effectively in the field of nuclear disarmament. One of the reasons why it is so effective is that human rights are built from a true conception of morality and ethics.

The truth underpinning human rights is that people are born with inherent value, and there is nothing that can add to or be stripped from that inherent value. If someone is born with certain wealth or status, with a certain ethnicity or gender or with a disability, none of those things makes them more or less valuable, and that never changes. That is the fundamental ethic of human rights, and it is fully true. Human rights afford freedom of thought and belief—that is, the opposite of control, repression and subjugation. They are the lifting up of the subjugated and a calling to accountability for those people or states that would curb those fundamental freedoms and that personhood.

Human rights were born in the aftermath of the Holocaust, the fall of empire, the nationalisation of states and the formation of the United Nations. There was a collective effort by people around the world to promote the plight of the marginalised and those without a voice. Human rights recognise personhood and provide room for our concept of personal liberty. They underpin the values that are important across the banner of Scottish politics—all our Scottish politics.

However, while the concept of human rights may proliferate in our society, those rights are not yet accepted globally. That is why we have to fight to protect human rights and shore up the integrity of the thought system behind them. Freedom of thought, freedom of speech and personal liberty are paramount in a system of thought that means that individuals are valued, no matter what their creed.

Scotland is a place of refuge for many who have fled repression or come to live in security without fear of conflict and war and the consequent persecution of their families on the basis of ethnicity or faith. I am proud to live in such a country and to represent some of its people.

We must continue to fight for human rights both in and outwith Scotland. That means addressing continued inequalities, the main one of which is poverty. In practice, that means reducing child poverty, fuel poverty and the attainment gap, and building good-quality homes that are genuinely affordable. It also means protecting free intellectual thought, discussion and debate, because that fundamental principle is the cornerstone that upholds all our human rights.

We will try again to bring in Jeremy Balfour.

[Inaudible.]

Oh dear, Mr Balfour—I am sorry, but we are still not hearing you. I will go to Mary Fee next, but we will persevere.

18:44  

I, too, thank Ruth Maguire for bringing this important debate to the chamber. Human rights day is a time for both celebration and reflection. During my time in Parliament, I have championed human rights and they have always been at the centre of everything that I do. That is because, when we put human rights at the foundation of our decision making, we all reap the rewards of a more equal society.

Although we celebrate human rights day, we must remember that, for billions of people, human rights are not a given but must be advocated and campaigned for every day. Those rights are not handed to us; we are afforded them only when we fight for them.

On this 70th human rights day, one group of people need us to fight for them and their access to human rights now more than ever. Transgender people across the world, including here in Scotland, face unprecedented levels of discrimination. The fear and hatred that trans people contend with every day just to live as themselves is unacceptable. There are some people who do not believe that the rights to life, privacy, freedom of thought, conscience and religion should be extended to trans people. That is a dangerous thought and one that we must confront. That poisonous bigotry must end.

Health is a human right. Trans people’s health rights are attacked daily across the globe. That is an attack on their human right to health and life. We must condemn it. Healthcare for trans people in Scotland requires more resources and support. The most recent figures show that average waiting times to access a gender identity clinic in some areas were 260 days for adults and 314 days for young people. That is far too long to wait for an initial appointment. Services should be more localised and we need more staff to provide support for those who are working under strained circumstances.

In preparing for our post-Covid world, we must put human rights first. Scotland’s first Covid vaccine was administered today. That shows that, when we work together to find a solution and to put an end to pain and suffering across the globe, we can do anything. There is much more work to do. We face a crisis in jobs, the climate and mental health. Human rights must be at the core of the solutions to those problems.

We should always aim for the next 70 years, looking ahead to the day when someone who may not yet be born stands here to celebrate the 140th human rights day. I hope that they can look back and remark on how the world pulled together and brought us back from the brink. I hope that they will live in a world where human rights and equalities lead the way in everything that we do.

Thursday is human rights day, but we must approach every day as a human rights day.

18:48  

I thank Ruth Maguire for bringing the debate.

We see every day how important human rights are. They must be protected. The Justice Committee is scrutinising two pieces of legislation in which rights are important. One is about defamation. We know that the right to freedom of expression is not an absolute; it comes up against the right to protect one’s reputation. Similarly, in the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill, the right to utter expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule and insult comes up against the right not to be a victim of hate. The term “chilling effect” has often come up in our scrutiny of each of those pieces of legislation. If we fail to get the balance of those competing interests right, someone’s human rights will suffer and nothing will change for the better.

An unwillingness to address an issue—perhaps because we wrongly fear that a change might tread on our rights or because it is too controversial or complicated—can have a similar chilling effect.

There is no wee boy in Vietnam whose ambition it is to cultivate cannabis in a bungalow in the north of Scotland, all the while being told by his controllers, who literally hold his life in their hands, that he is in debt to them for taking him to London, which is where he believes he is. Likewise, no wee girl in west Africa sets out with the goal of having her body treated as a commodity to be used and abused by men in Scotland. She is a victim. Let us be very clear: she is a victim of men in Scotland who pay for her services. Is that not a vile euphemism? Those men provide the market for human traffickers and make those human traffickers their sordid fortune.

I recognise that issues such as abortion and medically assisted suicide, both of which engender strong views, are legitimately viewed as being about an individual choosing what to do with their body. If that is a decision of someone of sound mind, fully aware of the issues and in control of themselves, then it is none of my business. However, the same cannot be said in relation to sexual exploitation, as the owner of the body is unable to exercise choice or free will; they are trapped and it should be everyone’s business to end such suffering.

I wrestle to reconcile arguments about the so-called sex industry and the graphic facts of human traffic. Last week, the increase in trafficking in Scotland was described by Police Scotland as “exponential”: the police identified 84 women forced into prostitution and nine of the supported victims were under 18—the youngest was a 13-year-old child. I abhor what one victim described as “the trade in trauma”.

I want to understand how we can better address the issue. Is there a hierarchy of rights in Scotland? Do Scotsmen’s perceived purchasing rights trump those of a trafficked girl from Sierra Leone or Stirling? Whose rights are we going to prioritise? As a man who condemns gender-based violence and who recognises the gender power imbalance that fuels so many societal problems, would I try to find a rights-based justification for the men in Scotland who abuse women and girls—the so-called customers—whose actions fuel the globalised crime industry of human trafficking?

As I have got older, I have found that my right to change my mind has become more important. In recent times I have witnessed first hand the inability of medicine to control pain, which has changed my mind on the issue of medically assisted suicide. I am increasingly confronted with the sexual exploitation of trafficked souls, which means that I must rethink everyday language, including the term “the sex industry”. Men have no right to buy another human and to use and abuse them for their sexual gratification. Scotland’s laws must change to reflect that. Any meaningful human rights impact assessment of that tragic situation will evidence that that is the right thing to do.

18:53  

Today we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I thank Ruth Maguire for leading the debate and for the wonderful work that she does as convener of the Equalities and Human Rights Committee. I know that she is very committed to the issue.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the cornerstone document of the United Nations. The declaration is unequivocal:

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

The declaration is inextricably tied to development, setting out the rights of all to

“a standard of living adequate for ... health and well-being”,

including the right to education, to work and to social security.

I also thank Alan Miller, Scotland’s first chair of the Scottish Human Rights Commission, for the work that he has done in leading the national task force for human rights leadership and in establishing a new strategy framework for human rights in Scottish domestic law.

We have heard some good speeches tonight. Mary Fee talked passionately about the rights of trans people and John Finnie gave a wonderful speech about the scandal of human trafficking and gender-based violence. As always, Bill Kidd talked passionately about the rights of asylum seekers. I agree with Bill Kidd that Scotland should be a refuge for people fleeing conflict and violations of their basic human rights.

The declaration includes many other articles, including the right to marriage and to have a family, to own property, the freedom of belief and religion and the freedom of opinions and information. There are many others.

Some communities have been disproportionately affected during the pandemic, and I will highlight some of those groups. Initial analysis of the direct impact of the coronavirus by ethnicity and disability has shown greater impacts for some ethnicities.

There has been a very poor level of information available about the impact of Covid-19 on ethnic minorities in Scotland. Because of that, a full picture of the impact on people from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities is still not available. We must protect our BAME communities and their health by applying human rights to the situation that we face now.

Despite the fact that less than 1 per cent of the population of Scotland live in care homes, deaths from coronavirus in care homes have made up two fifths of the national total. I raised the scandal of the “Do not resuscitate” orders earlier in the session, and I have highlighted their use during the pandemic. I do not believe that we have got to the bottom of the matter, but I want a declaration that no future Scottish Government will allow such a policy to be enacted ever again. Age Scotland has called for a parliamentary inquiry into the handling of “Do not resuscitate” notices, and I look forward to the outcome of that.

I turn now to the group of young adults who have been shielding throughout the pandemic, who have been especially badly hit. The 18-24 age group in particular—a group who have had to give up their freedoms and jobs in order to protect themselves and their own health, as well as helping to protect the country by not transmitting the virus—have experienced reduced social contact with their peers, and the situation of that particular group really needs addressing in relation to mental health services. Human rights must be applied to them in a meaningful way.

For the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to mean anything in our lives, we must try to apply its articles and the values that we believe in as best we can in the daily work of the Scottish Parliament and in our daily work as politicians.

We will try to hear from Mr Balfour again.

Unfortunately, we cannot hear from Mr Balfour, as we have had some technical problems. I can say for the record that Jeremy Balfour tried very hard to contribute to this debate, and we are sorry that we are unable to hear from him.

We will therefore move on to hear from Christina McKelvie, who will respond to the debate. You have around seven minutes, minister.

18:57  

I conclude today’s debate by thanking all members who are marking and celebrating the 70th anniversary of human rights day on 10 December by demonstrating Scotland’s strong and unwavering commitment to protect, respect and fulfil human rights.

As we have heard from all members who have spoken in the debate, 2020 also marks 70 years of the European convention on human rights, which was opened for signature on 4 November 1950 and signed by the United Kingdom on the same day. The convention brought a new commitment to and awareness of human rights and fundamental freedoms. As Bill Kidd said, it came from one of the most tumultuous times in modern history, a place that we never wanted to go back to.

In the week that marks this anniversary, the UK Government launches yet another review of the Human Rights Act 1998. The safeguards that are provided by the 1998 act protect every member of society, ensuring that public institutions uphold our most fundamental rights. That means that we all have freedom of expression and the right to a fair trial. We have privacy, and we can all challenge decisions that affect us. Those rights are central to the law of Scotland, and they are at the heart of the devolution settlement. They demonstrate our commitment to protecting human rights, internationally, for people everywhere.

As others have indicated, the Covid-19 crisis has brought all that into sharp focus, in an unprecedented way. There is a clear necessity for human rights to be at the forefront of all our policy making and to be embedded throughout it. We have made clear our continued commitment to ensure that during the Covid-19 response and beyond.

The Human Rights Act 1998 is critical to achieving that, and that is why the Scottish Government vehemently opposes any attempt to undermine or weaken it.

Given the UK Government’s review report on the

“balance between the rights of individuals, our vital national security and effective government”,

my fear is that that is exactly what the UK Government is trying to do, and has been threatening to do for some time.

Ruth Maguire is correct that there has been no consultation with the Scottish Government, but we believe that we have a Scottish representative on the panel and will continue to push to ensure that we have full and continued involvement in the process. I am happy to restate that point, and Ruth Maguire should be in no doubt about it.

Rather than launching yet another attempt to rewrite the 1998 act, the UK Government should focus its efforts on making rights real for everyone in UK society. We need to champion international standards, not retreat into Brexit isolation. The Scottish Government will continue to champion and progress human rights leadership wherever we can by enhancing the rights and freedoms that we all enjoy. We want to go forwards, not backwards, on human rights, and we want to do so with the people of Scotland in an open way that fully aligns with a human rights approach. Current legislation in the Scottish Parliament will bring the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child into Scots law, and our national task force, which will report next year, is actively developing proposals to extend human rights law even further.

It is essential that the UK Government review group fully consults Scottish interests, including not only the Scottish Government, but this Parliament, the wider public sector, civil society and the general public. It must not become another exercise that undermines devolved powers or the constitutional settlement.

Mary Fee gave us a powerful reminder of how fragile our rights are, and she is absolutely right with her message that we must all hear and take action. The national task force for human rights leadership, which is taking forward proposals for new human rights legislation in Scotland, is working collaboratively and openly across our society with a wide range of people who represent the broadest range of rights, including disabled people, older people, people from minority ethnic communities and people from lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex backgrounds. That extensive engagement and outreach work, which has been taking place over recent months, will be essential in informing and shaping the legislation.

I reassure Mary Fee and John Finnie that any hate crime is completely unacceptable to the Scottish Government. It will not be tolerated, whether it relates to race, religion, disability, sex, sexual orientation or transgender status. It is already clear that there is a strong breadth of support for the task force’s work, and there is wide recognition that the Covid-19 pandemic, although felt by us all, has had a particular impact on people who might already face challenges in realising their human rights. As the task force’s work progresses, we will work hard to ensure that we bring everyone with us on the journey to implement a strengthened and ambitious framework for human rights in Scotland.

We aspire to be a world leader in human rights, and we demonstrate leadership and share practical experience of a human rights approach to policy making and delivery. As part of our continued commitment to the internationally renowned human rights defender fellowship, this year, we have doubled the grant for the programme, thereby supporting human rights defenders nationally and internationally. It is one important way that we can hold duty bearers, including the Scottish Government, to account. John Finnie gave us a powerful testimony on why being a global leader and supporting international human rights defenders is incredibly important, and I agree with him

As part of our commitment to human rights, we want to ensure that children are treated fairly and equitably, and are respected as equal citizens. By introducing the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill to the Scottish Parliament, we have taken the first important steps to making that a reality. The bill fully and directly incorporates the UNCRC into Scots law to the maximum extent possible with the Scottish Parliament’s powers. Alongside the bill, the programme for government outlined our intention to incorporate the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which, during the 16 days of activism, I am sure that members will welcome.

Bill Kidd talked about personhood, and the lifting up of rights, and I am sure that he will be pleased that we will also actively consider the incorporation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. We are working closely with stakeholders in those sectors, and on the task force.

Today, we celebrate all the important improvements that we have made to the lives of people in Scotland and Europe since 1950. When we think of human rights, the obvious monumental advances come to mind—for example, the Equality Act 2010—but we have also made huge strides this year, and we still have huge strides to make.

The coronavirus pandemic has further demonstrated to us the importance of embedding a human rights approach. It has affected different groups of people in different ways, and has had a particular impact on some groups, but our sustained commitment to human rights has ensured that we continue to protect all society for everyone in Scotland.

The strides in development are significant, and Scotland will do whatever it can to continue to be a leader in human rights. I thank my colleague, and the convener of the Equalities and Human Rights Committee, Ruth Maguire, for bringing the debate to the chamber today.

Meeting closed at 19:05.