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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, December 9, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament 09 December 2021

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Human Rights Day 2021, Portfolio Question Time, Culture, Budget 2022-23, Decision Time


Human Rights Day 2021

I remind members of the Covid-related measures that are in place and that face coverings should be worn when moving around the chamber and across the Holyrood campus.

The next item of business is a member’s business debate on motion S6M-02301, in the name of Fulton MacGregor, on human rights day 2021. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament acknowledges that 10 December 2021 marks Human Rights Day; notes that the theme this year relates to Equality and Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”; understands that the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is the most widely ratified human rights treaty in the world, and recognises that it sets out the specific rights that all children have to help fulfil their potential; welcomes what it sees as the Scottish Government’s commitment to the incorporation into law of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child to the maximum extent possible as soon as practicable; believes that a rights-based approach to key social policies is crucial to a future that is based on tolerance, equality, shared values, and respect for the worth and human dignity of all people in Coatbridge and Chryston, Scotland and beyond; notes the work of the First Minister’s Advisory Group on Human Rights Leadership and the recommendations of the National Taskforce for Human Rights Leadership, and welcomes the Scottish Government’s commitment to introduce a new Human Rights Bill in this parliamentary session.


It is a real privilege to bring this members’ business debate to the chamber, and I thank those members across the chamber who supported the motion.

Tomorrow, 10 December, marks human rights day, which is the day in 1948 that the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As members will no doubt know, the declaration was, and still is, a milestone document that proclaims the unchallengeable rights that everyone is entitled to as a human being, regardless of race, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, language, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or any other status.

The theme this year relates to equality and to article 1 of the UDHR, which says:

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

The principles of equality and non-discrimination are at the heart of human rights. Now, more than ever, we need to show that human rights are at the centre of everything that we do. The pandemic has shown that, as we make a recovery, people and their rights have to be front and centre, to ensure that nobody is left behind.

Just the other day, for example, in the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee, during an evidence session on women’s unfair responsibility for unpaid care and domestic work, we heard quite clearly what I think that we already knew, which is that almost every aspect of the pandemic has affected women more than men, from the virus itself to the restrictions imposed. Examples of that include working from home, balancing childcare and home schooling; our front-line workforce being mainly women; and even very simple things, such as women taking their one hour per day of exercise less often than men did. I encourage members to read the Tuesday 7 December evidence session, as I have given just a snippet of it.

Whether it is based in the scientific advice or political decisions, it is clear that the structural bias is there—we cannot get away from that. The fact that restrictions were similar around the world shows that the issue goes beyond individual advisers and Governments.

As we consider more restrictions, we must not make the same mistake. When—or, I hope, if—more restrictions are put in place, we must ensure that they do not unequally harm women and that lessons are learned from the past two years.

More generally, we need to build back and through the pandemic with a human rights grounding. As we remobilise our health services, improve our justice system, move to net zero and take the opportunity to reshape our education system for our children and young people—as we all know, they have sacrificed so much—children must be first and foremost in our considerations. I was glad that reopening schools safely was prioritised above all else earlier this year. On young people and human rights, the Government has shown its approach through its commitment to the incorporation into law of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to the maximum extent that is possible, as soon as is practicable.

I was a member of the committee that considered the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill in the previous parliamentary session. The Parliament agreed unanimously to pass the bill, which sought to remedy any human rights violations that children and young people experience from Government and/or public bodies, to provide for other reporting mechanisms for children’s rights violations and to address how Scotland can best protect its young people and their rights. Members do not need me to remind them that the United Kingdom Government went to court to stop the bill. Perhaps that tells us all that we need to know about the values and priorities of the United Kingdom Government and of the Scottish Government.

The First Minister’s advisory group on human rights leadership was established in 2017 to make recommendations on how Scotland can continue to lead by example in human rights. It took a multidisciplinary approach and discussed human rights through economic, social, cultural and environmental factors. In December 2018, the group published its full report, which made seven key recommendations. In response, the First Minister welcomed the proposal of a new statutory human rights framework for Scotland, which would be delivered by an act of the Scottish Parliament. As we know, the Scottish Government also made a commitment in its 2018-19 programme for government to prioritise actions that could be taken to address the human rights and equality impacts of Brexit. The cabinet secretary might speak a bit more about that.

As the motion says, we have seen action through the establishment in 2019 of the national task force for human rights leadership, which took forward the advisory group’s recommendations. The task force’s remit was to design and deliver detailed proposals for the new statutory human rights framework for Scotland, together with the associated requirements for a public participatory process and for capacity-building initiatives.

The final report of the NTFHRL—if the Presiding Officer does not mind me calling it that—was published on 12 March 2021 and made 30 recommendations, which the Scottish Government has unanimously accepted. When the report was published, Professor Miller noted how remarkable Scotland’s increasing confidence in its internationalist approach to human rights leadership is and noted the progress that has been made since devolution. He talked about his experience throughout the process of developing human rights in Scotland from pre-devolution to the present, and he noted that the UK’s exit from the European Union, and the Covid pandemic, have put human rights into sharp focus at the forefront.

The establishment of such a new statutory human rights framework is an urgent and essential part of Scotland’s values-based and sustainable post-Covid recovery. The UN’s view is that the experience of Covid has taught all countries that the societies that coped better were those that had already embedded economic and social rights, which meant that they had increased economic and social resilience. Societies that have already made efforts to reduce structural inequalities are faring better in response to the pandemic.

Out of that work comes the Scottish Government’s commitment to introduce a new human rights bill in this parliamentary session. That shows how serious we are about our promise of ensuring fairness for all. So far as is possible within devolved competence, the bill will incorporate into Scots law the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, alongside three further UN human rights treaties, which will strengthen protections for women, disabled people and ethnic minority people. It will include a right to a healthy environment, ensure that older people have access to their human rights so that they can live a life of dignity and independence and include provision to ensure equal access for everyone to the rights that are contained in the bill.

I thank the cabinet secretary and Christina McKelvie for their work in leading on the bill so far. I also wish Christina McKelvie a speedy recovery and return to Parliament to continue leading that work with the cabinet secretary. I am excited about the prospect of the introduction of another transformational bill soon.


In 1946, two years before the United Nations declaration of human rights was adopted, Eleanor Roosevelt became chairperson of the UN Commission on Human Rights and went on to become the author of the UN declaration. It is remarkable but singularly appropriate that a woman led one of the most important international declarations ever made. In her speech of 1948 in Paris, she said that

“Basic human rights are simple and easily understood: freedom of speech and a free press; freedom of religion and worship; freedom of assembly and the right of petition”

and freedom

“from arbitrary arrest and punishment.”

The words are simple and clear but, regrettably, they remain unfulfilled in many and perhaps most corners of our world, 73 years later. Why, for example, is there still arbitrary imprisonment of the likes of Aung San Suu Kyi, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Zhang Zhan? Why do we still have to struggle to enshrine the most basic of rights? I think that the answer lies in the words of Elie Wiesel, who is a Holocaust survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps. It is a problem of profound indifference. Back in 1999, he said:

“The political prisoner in his cell, the hungry children, the homeless refugees—not to respond to their plight, not to relieve their solitude by offering them a spark of hope is to exile them from human memory. And in denying their humanity, we betray our own.”

As members may know, I am concerned about the indifference that is shown by some towards the hard-won rights of women. Rights that have always merited some attention but do not compromise the rights of others are coming under increasing threat. Too often, we are all guilty of that; we pursue the rights of those with whom we sympathise but in such a way that we deny or compromise the equally important rights of others. That is not the path to universal human rights. Freedom that is gained by denying freedom to others is no freedom at all and the antithesis of human rights.

Nelson Mandela was one of the most remarkable men to understand the tyranny of seeking to gain power in order to deny the rights of others. His words at his trial in 1964 are as relevant today as they were then:

“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.”

It is not enough to celebrate human rights day—we need to stop our indifference to the suffering of others, and we need to aspire to be remembered as Eleanor Roosevelt was remembered by Adlai Stevenson:

“She would rather light candles than curse the darkness.”


I am honoured to represent the Scottish Conservatives in the debate. I support the motion and welcome the Parliament’s acknowledgment of human rights day. We must reflect on our progress on human rights and inequalities in our society, but let me be clear: we have vast room for improvement in our goal to become a world leader in human rights.

Throughout this parliamentary session, we have heard from various MSPs, advocacy groups and charities, for example, about the impact that the pandemic has had on many people in Scotland. All of them have been impacted by the pandemic in one way or another. Some stories have been hard to listen to. There are people who have been especially hard hit by the pandemic—young people, women, black and minority ethnic groups, low earners, people with disabilities and lone parents. It must be a priority of the Parliament to ensure that we place a rights-based approach at the heart of our recovery from the pandemic.

Like Fulton MacGregor, I am proud to serve on the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee, and to see the hard work conducted by all the organisations and individuals involved. Their dedication and commitment deserve nothing but our praise and thanks.

The pandemic has further exposed the structural inequalities that exist in Scotland. We now have a unique opportunity to learn from that. It goes without saying that I recognise the work conducted by the First Minister’s advisory group on human rights leadership and its recommendation on a national task force for human rights leadership. I support the Scottish Government’s commitment to introduce a human rights bill that is based on the recommendations and I eagerly await further details.

However, we must not forget those children who have been needlessly affected by the pandemic and who continue to be affected, even today. I think that I speak for everyone across the chamber when I say that children’s rights are of the utmost importance. Distressing evidence suggests that, during the pandemic, there have been increases in child abuse, neglect, exposure to domestic abuse, educational inequalities and digital exclusion. The evidence reminds us of the importance of the incorporation into domestic law of the UNCRC to the maximum extent possible to maximise children’s rights across Scotland.

The Scottish Conservatives supported the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill at all stages and worked constructively to amend and improve it throughout its passage through Parliament. Fulton MacGregor mentioned that the Parliament unanimously voted to pass that bill. It was his party that ignored the advice that it was exceeding its legislative competences, and it is his party that is responsible for delaying the incorporation of children’s rights into domestic law and delaying the passing of that bill, as we have yet to hear when the bill will return to the Parliament. [Interruption.] I am on my last sentences. I am sorry.

The longer we await a revised bill, the longer those rights will be unprotected by domestic law. I call on the Scottish Government to act with urgency and bring the bill back to the Parliament. With my Conservative colleagues, I await further news of when that will be.

I fully support the motion, and I welcome the Scottish Government’s commitment and the cross-party commitment to advancing human rights in Scotland. Everyone here has a responsibility, and we must continue to work together across the chamber to advance human rights in Scotland.


I welcome the commitment to incorporate into law the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. That is a measurable and moral step that we must take together as a country, and I thank Fulton MacGregor for bringing the debate to the chamber. However, no one will be surprised to hear me say that we can always do a lot more. I would like to focus on some tangible rights that we should be pursuing at home, but first I must briefly reflect on a broader concern.

I would love to see human rights become a universal standard with which we can build a better world—however, in reality, that is far from happening. We need only cast our memories back to a fortnight ago, when 27 people drowned in the English Channel trying to reach our shores. Far too many people have already forgotten about that news story—it has been pushed aside by the daily churn of the 24-hour news cycle.

What happened to the rights of those 27 people? Did they disappear when they left home for a better life? The situation is truly shameful, and we must keep their story in the spotlight. Their fate does not surprise me, however, given that a Tory Government at Westminster thinks that it is funny to ignore its own rules and to laugh at Covid restrictions while people die. We can only imagine its lack of concern for people beyond our borders. Their story must remain in the spotlight.

To return to matters at home, I do not need to tell my fellow MSPs that children in schools are too hungry to concentrate, and that parents are not eating meals so that their children can be fed. In 2019, 31 per cent of single-parent households in Scotland reported being food insecure. One in 10 people living in the UK is, or is at risk of being, malnourished.

Labour-led councils in North Lanarkshire and North Ayrshire have taken positive steps towards addressing hunger during school holidays, with the club 365 and summer voucher schemes. I am sure that all members welcome those steps, but the Scottish Government has to do more and to be more radical in ensuring that they are rolled out across Scotland.

The fact that we need those schemes confirms the desperate need for a right to food, which is not currently enshrined in Scots law. Fortunately, thanks to my colleagues Rhoda Grant and, previously, Elaine Smith, we will soon have the opportunity, here at home, to secure that right. I ask that all members—particularly Government backbenchers—support that at the first opportunity.

Linked to that, as part of a wider concern about health, the UNCRC states that children should have the right to leisure, play and culture, and that Governments must play an active role in ensuring that that happens. How are we doing in Scotland? A report commissioned by the Observatory for Sport in Scotland highlighted that

“there is evidence of decreasing participation rates in sport outside school lessons and high levels of drop-out by girls as they move into their teenage years.”

We also know that, between 2014 and 2018, the average charges per hour increased for five-a-side football, badminton, squash, table tennis, golf, and swimming for kids. Furthermore, participation in physical activity and sport among those living in the most deprived areas is considerably lower than in the least deprived areas. That division will last past childhood, and it accounts in part for increased mortality at all stages of life. The Scottish Government must do more if it seeks to claim that it is taking an active part in realising children’s right to leisure, play and culture.

It is positive that the Scottish Government appears keen to adopt the UNCRC into Scots law, but it is equally concerning that hunger is on the rise and that the cost of sport in Scotland is unaffordable and getting worse. If we recognise the importance of securing formal rights that will push us forward as a country and give the next generation a platform from which it can flourish, we can begin to change that trajectory. The UNCRC is a welcome start but, as I often say in the chamber, we have plenty more to do.

I again thank Fulton MacGregor for bringing the debate to the chamber.


I thank my colleague Fulton MacGregor for bringing the debate to the chamber. As has been said, tomorrow we celebrate human rights, in commemoration of the day in 1948 on which the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That declaration forms the backbone of the human rights architecture of our societies. Each of us, without discrimination, has the right to live and thrive in peace and safety.

Since the adoption of the declaration, laws and policies embracing human rights have made us freer. Children can assert their needs. Women can make their own choices. Persons with disabilities can live more independently. We all now enjoy safeguards against tyranny and abuse. However, those privileges are not to be taken for granted; worse, they are under threat.

Human rights are far more than legal concepts; they are the very essence of humanity. To deny them is to deny a person’s humanity. They are inalienable. Yet, too often, people try to divide us. We are told that those on the margins of society are like aliens from another planet. Too often, we hear the word “them” instead of “us”.

Such narratives, propped up by the right-wing media and reinforced by the policies of some so-called democracies—including that at Westminster—must be challenged. Human rights must be put at the centre of economic policy, housing, healthcare and education. By doing that, we can create a human rights-based economy that supports better, fairer and more sustainable societies for present and future generations.

In order to embed a culture of human rights that puts those who are most marginalised at the centre of policies, we must incorporate rights into law. In Scotland, we will incorporate four international human rights treaties into law through the proposed human rights bill, which will make those rights enforceable and real.

As we recover from the pandemic, we have the chance to reset—and yet, at this most pivotal juncture, as Scotland looks to close the gaps in rights provision, the UK Government is moving in the opposite direction, showing time and again a willingness to abandon human rights.

Earlier this year, the Scottish Government unanimously backed the enshrining of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in Scots law, to ensure that there is accountability when things go wrong, but that was challenged by the UK Government. Last night, the Nationality and Borders Bill passed its third reading in the UK Parliament. The bill judges a person’s right to claim asylum according to how they arrive in the UK, not on the basis of need or the level of danger that they face. It proposes that millions of dual nationals could be stripped of their citizenship by the Home Office without warning, thereby creating a second-tier category of citizenship in the UK. Discrimination is at the heart of such proposals.

With that bill, coupled with the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which will seriously restrict the right to peaceful protest, the UK Government is heading in a dangerous direction, and we must push back. In Scotland, we have an entirely different vision, in which we treat all those who find themselves living among us with dignity and respect. We remember the events in Kenmure Street, where ordinary people stood up for their neighbours who had been detained in a Home Office raid. That was a heartening show of solidarity, and local communities must continue to unite against cruel and divisive immigration policy.

The way in which we treat those who are on the margins determines how we progress as a society. Our actions reflect who we are and who we want to become. That is why I campaign for an independent Scotland that is grounded in civic nationalism: a Scotland that embraces an open and outward society; that is empowered to tackle the root causes of injustice; and which incorporates a human rights approach to governance that leaves no one behind.


Like other members, I thank Fulton MacGregor for lodging his motion and bringing the debate to the chamber today. Tomorrow is human rights day, and also marks the end of the 16 days of activism against gender-based violence. I take this opportunity to thank colleagues from all sides of the chamber for their contributions in recent debates on women’s rights during those 16 days.

This year’s human rights day theme relates to equality and article 1 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states:

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

The principles of equality and non-discrimination are at the heart of human rights, but we know only too well that, in Scotland and around the world, people are not all born equal. A baby who is born in Somalia faces an infant mortality rate that is nearly 25 times higher than that for a baby who is born in the United Kingdom. Women are more likely to bear the brunt of global health crises in every aspect of their lives, from employment to access to healthcare. People who are fleeing war and famine are drowning in the English Channel, as we have heard, because of inhumane and uncompassionate approaches to foreign policy. Black people in Scotland are more likely to face discrimination in the workplace and in access to housing. Trans people face exclusion from, and barriers to accessing, vital, life-saving health services.

Inequality is everywhere we look, but none of that is inevitable. The structural inequalities that exist are a product of political and economic choices, and we can make different choices. Putting equalities and human rights at the centre of what we do can help us to identify the different, and better, choices that we can and must make.

The experiences of individuals and communities around the globe, never mind the history of the past century, show us the importance of the centrality of human rights in all that we do. We know that we want a Scotland in which people understand their rights and those of their neighbours; where they feel valued and included; and where they are empowered to claim their own rights and to stand in solidarity, compassion and justice to help others to achieve theirs too. We want Scotland to play a role in ensuring that that vision does not stop at our borders—we must play our role in fighting for equality around the world.

During the coming year, we will see the beginning of the consultation on how to embed those principles in the important work that we will be doing. The human rights bill that we want to bring in will, as far as possible within our devolved competence, incorporate key human rights treaties into Scots law. We have already heard about many of them this afternoon, including the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, but there is also the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. I mention them by name because they are important, and that legislation will be world-breaking when we deliver it.

Beyond those international treaties, we must also ensure that we follow international best practice in including a right to a healthy environment, as Fulton MacGregor mentioned. Equal access to the rights in the bill for all—especially for older people and for LGBTQI+ people—must also be in the bill.

Then we must act. Putting human rights into law is only the start of the work that we must do. We will need decisive, bold action to design and implement the policies, services and institutions that will make those rights a reality—not only for us in Scotland, but further afield too. Our vision, and our imperative for action, is a Scotland that is fairer, more inclusive, more progressive and more equal. It is a Scotland that can also play its part in making the world fairer, more inclusive, more progressive and more equal. That is our work.


I thank Fulton MacGregor for securing this important debate to acknowledge human rights day, which will be marked around the world tomorrow. I also draw members’ attention to my declaration of interest as a trustee of the Freedom Declared Foundation, a charity that supports the right of everyone to freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief. I also draw the chamber’s attention to my membership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Given the history and origins of my church and its earliest adherents, members will understand that freedom to live in peace, according to one’s beliefs and conscience, devoid of offence toward others, is a matter of deeply felt importance to me. The first president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Joseph Smith, declared the human right to exercise

“that free independence of mind which heaven has so graciously bestowed upon the human family as one of its choicest gifts”.

There are 30 articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. All are worthy of reflection and consideration but, due to time constraints in the debate, my focus will be on article 18, which reads:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

I want to talk about an important aspect of freedom of religion or belief, and that is the way in which the Scottish Government has treated public religious worship during the pandemic. Since my election to Parliament, I have asked ministers many questions about places of worship, including about the differentiated set of restrictions that are still applied to places of worship compared with other indoor settings, specifically in relation to the wearing of face coverings. I cannot see any evidence to justify those differences, and I am afraid that answers come there none.

There was also widespread alarm at the Scottish Government’s order to close places of worship, and what it implied about how ministers perceive the human right of freedom of religion or belief. The Court of Session subsequently ruled against the Scottish Government’s ban on public worship. Referring in his ruling to the European convention on human rights, Lord Braid said:

“it is not clear that the respondents have fully appreciated the importance of article 9 rights. They have admittedly paid lip service to article 9 by referring to it, but there is no evidence that they have accorded it the importance which such a fundamental right deserves.”

What lessons has the Scottish Government learned from that, and what steps have been taken or are being taken to increase the levels of appreciable religious literacy among ministers and their officials?

In the western world, the growth of aggressive secularism is, in my view, an undisguised attempt to marginalise religion in the public sphere. Only last week, we heard about the memo sent by the European Union to member states asking them, in the name of inclusivity, to stop using the word “Christmas”. That is an absurd statement. Removing the word “Christmas” excludes Christians who want to talk openly about their faith. We should not regulate what members of the public can and cannot say, and we must allow the expression of faith in the public sphere to flourish.

I agree with Bishop John Keenan, who recently said that although freedom of religion or belief is enshrined in law in the UK, it is not always respected by society. Last week, a group of young British Jews were celebrating Hanukkah on Oxford Street in London. During the celebrations, a group of young men started spitting at them and making Nazi salutes—an appalling antisemitic attack. Earlier this year, vandals damaged the Lourdes cave at the Carfin grotto in Motherwell.

I listened with interest to the speech in the House of Commons last month by the new member of Parliament for Airdrie and Shotts, Anum Qaisar. It was a deeply personal speech about Islamophobia and she listed many shocking incidents including the petrol bombing of her mosque.

We do not need to agree with someone to respect them for who they are and what they believe—respect is a fundamental human right. The United Kingdom is rightly seen as a global leader in promoting and defending freedom of religion and belief, but we must see that freedom of religion or belief is not only protected in law, but respected, appreciated and embraced as fundamental to our values as a people.


It is a privilege to follow Stephen Kerr, who has for many years talked about the protection of religion and non-religion. He raises the interesting point that we hear so much talk about human rights and the intention of human rights, but we also need to look at the results and how we are empowering people to enforce their human rights.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate, because I fear that we are living at a time in which there is an erosion of human rights when, instead, we need to strengthen and advance them. The way to do that is by reducing inequalities and by pursuing equality, as this year’s theme reminds us. At the heart of equality, as we have heard, is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; from that declaration, people with disability, our carers, our young, our old, and all individuals feel that they have the ability and are supported to contribute to their full ability—and because of that, human rights must also be at the heart of our fight against inequality.

The motion talks of the Scottish Government’s commitment to incorporate the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child into Scottish law to the maximum extent possible, as soon as practicable. Where is that commitment in action? It is just in words at the moment, so let us focus on what we can do in Parliament to implement the UNCRC in Scotland in real ways. Most importantly, the focus should be on the lives of the children that it impacts and having their rights incorporated into Scottish law and protected.

I mention that, because there is a need to respond to the Supreme Court ruling. Why has that not been done? It is turning into a debate about anger with Westminster rather than one about how we can best protect our children and pursue a better, more equal future for them. I think that members can agree that the issue of human rights is not a constitutional battleground, but is about what we can give our young people, here in Scotland. It is of the utmost importance that the Scottish Government follows through on its commitment, because it is our young people who are of the utmost importance. It should still be a priority; it should not become a tick-box exercise because something was completed and then lost in the Supreme Court.

We are reminded today that having human rights at the centre of our policy and action is the best way to fight inequality. It is of particular significance to the children and young people of this generation—the Covid generation—who are at greater risk of being left with extreme disparity, poverty and inequality. That is why the UNCRC is so important for building a better and more equal Scotland for the future.

What is the Scottish Government doing tomorrow on human rights day to ensure that our children’s rights are championed and protected? Surely, as Michelle Thomson says, the Government cannot just show profound indifference. I hope to hear an announcement on when the bill will return to Parliament, where I fervently believe it will have cross-party support to become law, so that children can start to be empowered not only to demand and hear talk about their rights, but to have a vehicle to enforce them.


I thank my colleague Fulton MacGregor for bringing the debate to the chamber. I am delighted to conclude a debate that has been mainly constructive, with some very good speeches from members on all sides of the chamber.

When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, it set out the fundamental human rights that form

“a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations”.

As we have heard today, it also proclaimed a principle that is central to the purpose and practice of the Scottish Parliament: the universal truth that

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

Human rights day is, therefore, a reminder of our duty to respect, protect and fulfil human rights. As Michelle Thomson said, the need to end indifference to the plight of others is crucially important. Carol Mochan reminded us of the plight of asylum seekers and refugees, and the recent tragedies that we have all witnessed. Stephanie Callaghan was right to highlight concerns about the UK Nationality and Borders Bill. Ensuring that internationally recognised human rights are given practical, everyday effect is a core function of the Scottish Government and, as we heard from members today, the Covid-19 crisis has brought that duty into sharp focus. Pam Gosal gave some powerful examples in that regard.

We are determined that human rights should be at the forefront of our on-going work, and in the coming year we will begin consulting on a strategy to embed equality, inclusion, and human rights across the whole public sector. That will be critical in helping Scotland to recover from the impact of Covid and to build back better in a way that delivers for every member of society, including those who have been worst affected and who have suffered the greatest disadvantage. Fulton MacGregor outlined the disproportionate negative impact of the pandemic on women, as did Maggie Chapman.

As members have mentioned, we are currently developing a new human rights bill for Scotland as part of our implementation of the bold and ambitious recommendations that the national task force for human rights leadership presented in March. The new bill will enhance economic, social, and cultural rights, and rights for women, disabled people, minority ethnic people, older people and LGBTI people. We recognise that the bill is an opportunity for all of Scotland to lead on human rights, and we have therefore established internal and external governance and engagement forums as part of its progression. That includes an executive board comprising senior decision makers from across the public sector, and an advisory board comprising a range of key stakeholder groups with expertise in the rights that will be included in the bill.

We are also continuing to give priority to ensuring that the voices of people with lived experience of facing barriers to accessing their rights are at the heart of the bill, are heard and—importantly—inform its development and delivery. The Scottish Government has committed to consulting on the human rights bill in the coming year, and we will ensure that the consultation is developed with the assistance of stakeholders to enable us to listen and learn from their feedback and make the consultation process as accessible as we can.

Carol Mochan referred to food. The Scottish Government’s view is that a right to food is best considered and taken forward in the context of the new human rights bill rather than in a separate bill, as that would risk creating a fragmented approach to the incorporation of human rights.

Many members have mentioned the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill. We remain committed to the incorporation of the UNCRC in Scots law to the maximum extent possible, as that will—as Fulton MacGregor described—deliver a revolution in children’s rights in Scotland. We are therefore urgently, but carefully, considering the most effective way forward for that important legislation following the UK Supreme Court judgment. The Deputy First Minister will come back to Parliament with our proposals on that as soon as is practical.

I am extremely grateful to the cabinet secretary for giving way. Will the UNCRC be incorporated through other legislation?

As I said, there are complex legal issues that many of us have been involved in looking at. What is important is that the issues are considered carefully, and that proposals are brought to Parliament as soon as possible. I am sure that the member and others will be informed of the timetable for that as soon as possible. I gently point out to Pam Gosal that we would not be in this position had the UK Government not gone to the Supreme Court in the first place. However, the debate has been mainly consensual, and I want to keep it that way.

This year, 2021, also marked the 70th anniversary of the UK’s ratification of the European convention on human rights, which was incorporated into UK law by the Human Rights Act 1998. It is no exaggeration to say that that act—in combination with the Scotland Act 1998—has transformed human rights in Scotland and is a central pillar of Scotland’s constitutional settlement, albeit that there is further work to be done. I therefore urge the UK Government, which is currently considering its response to the independent review of the Human Rights Act 1998, to step back from any attempt to undermine or erode existing human rights protections.

The Scottish Government will of course robustly oppose any attack on the Human Rights Act 1998.

Will the cabinet secretary give way?

I invite members to reaffirm the long-standing view of the Parliament that there must be no changes to that act without our explicit consent. I am sure that Stephen Kerr will agree with that.

Given that the cabinet secretary is running short on time, I ask her to reflect on the questions that I asked about freedom of religion or belief in relation to the Court of Session judgment, and the general appreciation of that freedom by ministers and how that will be enhanced.

I heard what Stephen Kerr said. Difficult decisions have been and are still being made during the pandemic. Such decisions are not made to single out a particular community or to do things that are deliberately difficult. The public inquiry will be an important forum in which to consider any lessons that can be learned across the board. Stephen Kerr might wish to pursue the points that he raises through that route. We should learn the important lessons going forward.

In marking human rights day, it is important that we look at rights across the board. 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 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For our part, the Scottish Government will continue to do everything that it 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.

13:32 Meeting suspended.  

14:30 On resuming—