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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)

Meeting date: Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Agenda: Human Right to a Healthy Environment, Portfolio Question Time, Scotland’s Railway, Testing Strategy, Business Motion, Domestic Abuse (Protection) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Domestic Abuse (Protection) (Scotland) Bill, Scottish Land Commissioners (Reappointment), Standing Order Rule Changes (Urgent Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body Questions), Standing Order Rule Changes (Public Petitions System), Standing Order Rule Changes (Equalities and Human Rights Committee Remit), Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Clydebank Blitz (80th Anniversary)


Human Right to a Healthy Environment

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame)

Good afternoon. I remind members that social distancing measures are in place in the chamber and across the Holyrood campus, and to take care to observe those measures, including when entering and exiting the chamber. Please use only the aisles and walkways to access your seat and when moving around the chamber.

The first item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-24212, in the name of Ruth Maguire, on the human right to a healthy environment. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes the recommendations of the First Minister’s Advisory Group on Human Rights Leadership, which were published in 2018; welcomes the subsequent establishment of the Scottish Government’s National Taskforce for Human Rights, which has focused on developing these into specific recommendations for legislation; looks forward to receiving the Taskforce’s recommendations and to advancing the discussion of how to further human rights in Scotland’s devolved context; notes the view that the concept of a Human Right to a Healthy Environment must be central to these developments, given what it considers has been the recent progress in international thinking on environmental rights, including the UN’s Special Rapporteur’s “16 principles”; notes what it sees as the unequal impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have been in putting important aspects of environmental rights in the spotlight, including the need to care for global biodiversity and the importance of access to good quality and local greenspace, particularly as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill progresses through the Parliament; acknowledges the importance of the right to a healthy environment for children and young people’s human rights, including in Cunninghame South, and welcomes the reported plan to bring forward proposals for a human rights bill in the next parliamentary session, to help underpin what it believes is Scotland’s role as a world leader on environmental matters.


Ruth Maguire (Cunninghame South) (SNP)

I thank members across the chamber who signed the motion and enabled the debate to go ahead. I am also grateful to all the organisations that provided briefing materials and shared their views on the topic of a right to a healthy environment. In particular, I acknowledge the Environmental Rights Centre for Scotland, Scottish Environment LINK and Movement for Health.

The pandemic and measures that have been put in place to keep everyone safe have shone a light on existing inequalities and fragilities in some of our systems, and our citizens who are already in vulnerable situations—they are often those with the least resources—have undoubtedly been most at risk of harm. However, even prior to the pandemic in Scotland, people living in our communities with the greatest economic challenges disproportionately suffered from the impacts of polluting factories and proximity to contaminated, derelict land and landfill. Those least responsible for causing environmental damage—children, the elderly and those suffering from ill health—are, in turn, most negatively impacted by environmental health hazards. In that way, an unhealthy environment exacerbates existing health inequalities. Furthermore, the Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated the inextricable links between human and ecosystem health.

Now, more than ever, our need for a healthy environment must be protected in law as a human right. After a momentous day for human rights yesterday, when the Scottish Parliament unanimously approved the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill, it is a pleasure to highlight that, if re-elected, a Scottish National Party Government will introduce a new Scottish human rights act that will include a right to a healthy environment for everyone. The proposed framework will demonstrate global human rights leadership and place Scotland at the forefront of human rights legislation and, most importantly, practice.

The unequal impacts of the pandemic have brought important aspects of environmental issues to our attention, from global biodiversity loss to the importance of local access to good-quality green space. I want to concentrate my remarks on the importance of local access to quality green space and the relationship between the environment and our health. In doing so, I want to talk specifically about walking and wheeling.

I acknowledge the blog of the chief officer of Paths for All, Ian Findlay, which I read this morning. Sadly, Ian passed away on 5 March. I know that he was very highly regarded, and I note that Paths for All intends to honour his legacy by working to make Scotland a happier and healthier place. I think that we can all get behind that.

As Ian said in his blog, human health

“has 3 dimensions, physical, mental and social health.”

We know that being physically active has a huge positive impact on all three, particularly when we manage to get outdoors. We also know that being physically active has an immediate and positive impact on our resilience by enhancing our immune system.

People who exercise regularly have a lower risk of developing many long-term conditions, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke and some cancers. Research shows that physical activity outdoors can also boost self-esteem, mood, sleep quality and energy, as well as reduce symptoms of stress, depression and dementia.

As much as 40 per cent of long-term conditions can be caused by inactivity. Physical activity improves physical function and cognition. It may improve quality of life in adults with schizophrenia and physical function in adults with intellectual disability, and it improves quality of life in adults with major clinical depression.

Access to the natural environment has an important role to play in health. Accessible parks, paths and green space, walking, wheeling and outdoor play, which is important for our children and young people, are available to all at low or no cost to citizens, and deliver huge benefits to society. Investment in protecting and sustaining our natural environment and ensuring that it is accessible to all could save our healthcare system money and, more important, could save lives. Ensuring that everyone can access their local parks, paths and countryside is critical from the perspectives of both healthcare and equity.

The right to a healthy environment is a large and important topic, so it has been possible for me to touch on only one aspect in the time that I have. Of course, recognising such a right is only one part of the Scottish Government’s bold and ambitious plans for a human rights act.

It is clear that taking a human rights-based approach to policies and decisions on embedding and progressing a human rights culture, in which such rights are placed at the heart of our society, will improve the lives of the people of Scotland. That cannot be done by the Government alone. I know that such ambitious plans will require us all—rights holders, local authorities, health boards, courts, the judiciary, scrutiny bodies, the third sector and the Scottish Parliament—to come together. I hope that that can happen as soon as possible following the election.

I again thank colleagues for their support for the debate. I look forward to hearing their contributions.


Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

I congratulate my colleague Ruth Maguire on bringing this important debate to the chamber.

Like many other members, I have closely followed the work of the First Minister’s advisory group on human rights leadership, and I welcomed its recommendations made in 2018. Equally, I am sure that the Scottish Government’s national task force for human rights leadership will provide many valuable insights when it presents its recommendations on the furthering of human rights in the context of Scotland’s current devolution settlement.

Our view that everyone has a set of inalienable rights and freedoms is relatively modern. If we look to history we can see that advances in such protections often came in times of turbulence, when social and political rights that had previously been taken for granted were jeopardised. That is true from early discourses on the American and French revolutions to the post-war development of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the impact of the civil rights movement.

The establishment of internationally recognised human rights is, without doubt, one of the defining achievements of the 20th century. However, they reflect our lack of recognition, at a global level, of the scale of the risk posed by environmental damage. United Nations member states have never formally recognised the human right to a healthy environment in a global instrument.

That is not to say that there has been no progress. The Stockholm declaration that followed the 1972 UN conference provided a non-binding set of principles and recommendations for environmental policy. As a result, more than 100 countries now have a constitutional right to a healthy environment. The United Kingdom participated in Stockholm but, almost 50 years later, still does not recognise such a right in law. If human rights are born from a recognition of jeopardy to our fundamental needs, given the climate crisis we have surely reached the point where we can no longer deny the existence of such jeopardy. Climate breakdown has already led to increased coastal erosion and landslides, biodiversity is under severe threat, and in parts of Scotland air pollution is at levels that are damaging to human health.

Without a healthy environment we cannot thrive. As we look ahead to a new parliamentary session, it is vital that we show our commitment to protecting the environment through the recognition of an inalienable right. Defining the human right to a healthy environment in law is both necessary and an incredible opportunity. Under the Scottish National Party Government’s leadership, Scotland has worked hard to cultivate a reputation as a world leader on environmental matters. I believe that proposals for a human rights bill should be considered by the Scottish Parliament early in the next session. Crucially, such a bill must contain details of the right to a healthy environment.

With the 26th UN climate change conference of the parties—COP26—taking place early in the next parliamentary session, all eyes will be on Glasgow and Scotland. Recognising the human right to a healthy environment at national level would cement Scotland’s desire to engage with climate policy on the global stage and enable us to push for decisive international action.

Tackling the climate crisis must involve worldwide effort, and Scotland’s contribution is important. However, the benefits of a well-defined right to a healthy environment would be felt at all levels. We are witnessing a cultural change, with growing demand from citizens and grass-roots organisations for environmental sustainability—for people to be able to walk in clean streets and parks and on clean beaches. Through the success of the Lamlash Bay no-take zone in my constituency, I have seen the hugely positive impact that progressive environmental policy can have. National acknowledgement of the right to a healthy environment would enable policy and decision makers across Scotland properly to consider the impacts of our actions on our environment.

If we are to survive the climate crisis, we must act now, and we must all act. This is a huge and daunting task with no easy answers. However, a commitment to recognising the right to a healthy environment fundamentally paves the way for real change. I look forward to reading the recommendations of the Scottish Government’s task force, and hope to be back in the chamber in the next parliamentary session debating how best to incorporate the right to a healthy environment into our human rights legislation.

Once again, I thank my colleague Ruth Maguire for bringing the debate to the chamber.


Maurice Golden (West Scotland) (Con)

The pandemic has shown us the value of a healthy environment for our physical and mental wellbeing. Conversely, we recognise more than ever the impact that environmental damage can have on us. I therefore welcome Ruth Maguire’s motion and thank her for giving us the opportunity to debate this important issue. I also congratulate her on securing the debate.

A healthy environment is especially important for the most vulnerable people in Scotland, those who are living in areas of high deprivation, children, the elderly and—more evidently than ever during the pandemic—those who have poor health. The irony is that, although they often contribute the least to environmental damage, they suffer the most from it.

Environmental damage such as dangerously high levels of air pollution can exacerbate existing health conditions. In 2019, six of Scotland’s streets were above the legal limit. In fact, 2020 was the first year in which Scotland did not record illegal levels of air pollution, but that was thanks to a nationwide lockdown rather than any environmental work.

Rubbish piles up as councils struggle to maintain clean streets with ever-smaller budgets. As the binmen are forced out, rats and other vermin move in, often in the poorest areas. We see green spaces being bulldozed, farmers being denied the support that they need to care for our countryside and Scotland’s biodiversity being threatened. All of that is putting our natural heritage at risk at a time when the pandemic has shown us how important it is for our physical and mental wellbeing.

If we are all agreed on the need for a healthy and resilient environment for all, we need to stop talking about it and make it happen. I have made many proposals during the past year. I have suggested having air quality monitors at every school, as well as setting a biodiversity baseline, establishing nectar networks, holding a mass urban tree-planting effort, providing fair funding for councils and giving communities the ability to say no to losing their green spaces.

That last point leads me to an important aspect of any right to a healthy environment, which is that individuals must be empowered to defend it. Despite the SNP Government’s assertions, Scotland has been criticised for not properly implementing the Aarhus convention, which protects people’s right to access and enjoy the environment. Specifically, Scotland has breached the category on access to justice because of the often prohibitively high cost of bringing legal action. For example, the John Muir Trust was forced to abandon an appeal relating to a wind farm when the legal bill climbed to £500,000.

Why did the member vote against equal rights of appeal?

Would the member care to repeat that? I did not hear what he said.

Why did the member vote against equal rights of appeal in the planning process if he is so concerned about the rights of communities?

Maurice Golden

The planning process needs further reform, and I hope that we can take care of that during the next parliamentary session. I am sure that the member will be lobbying me in that regard, and I would be quite happy to look at any improvements that would protect our natural environment.

This is an important point, because there is little point in declaring that people have the right to a healthy environment if it cannot be enforced. Fortunately, now that we have left the European Union, we have the opportunity to address that through the establishment of a new environmental court that will specifically handle environmental cases, widen access to justice and speed up proceedings.

With COP26 in Glasgow and the pandemic giving us the chance to build back better, it is absolutely right that Scotland has these conversations. We have a duty to protect the environment so that we each have the right to benefit from it.


Sarah Boyack (Lothian) (Lab)

First, I add my name to those congratulating Ruth Maguire on securing this important debate, especially as Parliament is running out of time. The speeches that we have heard so far have been a really good contribution to the debate.

In her opening remarks, Ruth Maguire paid tribute to Ian Findlay. He was a fantastic leader of Paths for All, he made a huge contribution to public life in Scotland and he will be sadly missed.

In stating that

“Our house is on fire”,

Greta Thunberg established the link between the climate emergency and every one of us as citizens. There are people who live in an environment in which, day by day, the quality slips further from what many would define as healthy. That makes the debate really important. I agree with the key principles in Ruth Maguire’s motion and wish that we had more time to flesh out the topic in Parliament.

It is good to see international co-operation on the issue and that the UN has created a framework that we can move forward with. I hope that, in the early days and weeks of the next session of Parliament, we will see legislation come forward so that we can have an urgent debate and the next Government can set out the framework whereby we will see those environmental rights implemented.

The other thing that we will need is funding for proactive policy initiatives to make that framework a reality. We do not want to wait until legal cases are brought. World-leading legislation will mean very little to people who are living in poor conditions and needing to engage in legal battles if they do not have access to legal aid. Therefore, we need the legislation, the policy implementation and the funding to ensure that people have recourse to legal support.

It is great that the motion specifically references

“the need to care for global biodiversity and the importance of access to good quality and local greenspace”.

As colleagues have said, the pandemic has shown how important it is for people to have regular access to high-quality and attractive green spaces near their homes.

A key issue that we need to see action on is air quality. As we build our recovery from the pandemic, enabling people to have clean air must be a priority. I note the points that Maurice Golden made about the reduction in the amount of traffic during the pandemic, which has improved our air, but we need to focus on the fact that recovery from the pandemic might see people less keen to use public transport and more tied to their cars. Therefore, we will need to see action on public transport as well.

Enabling people to recover their health and wellbeing must be a real priority in the next session of Parliament. The World Health Organization states:

“Air pollution is a major environmental risk to health. By reducing air pollution levels, countries can reduce the burden of disease from stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and both chronic and acute respiratory diseases, including asthma.

The lower the levels of air pollution, the better the cardiovascular and respiratory health of the population will be, both long- and short-term.”

At the moment, too many people live in areas where the streets are polluted by traffic. I hope that the minister will address that issue specifically in his summing up.

I want to see immediate action on the aspects of the environment that impact on other rights, which I hope will be included in the human rights bill that is mentioned in the motion. That means taking a joined-up approach to improving housing environments, so that we retrofit and make older homes as energy efficient as possible using heating systems that are good for people’s air quality; build new housing to the highest energy performance standards; and link homes to heat networks to end fuel poverty and ensure that we have good-quality air around people’s homes.

We need to look at food, too, and shape our food industry so that it benefits our environment and ensures that not a single person in Scotland goes hungry.

The UN framework talks about action. Our framework must take a human-rights-based and people-centred approach and not be just a legal framework. The job of our next Parliament will be to act swiftly to reduce inequalities and ensure that access to a healthy environment is a right for every citizen in our country.


Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

I, too, thank Ruth Maguire for bringing the motion to the chamber for debate. As the last environment debate, it is a really fitting end to the session. Establishing a right to a healthy environment could create an incredible legacy for future generations.

I, too, associate myself with Ruth Maguire’s comments about Ian Findlay. He made an incredible contribution to communities across Scotland, and his legacy will not be forgotten.

Human rights are born out of struggles against slavery, colonialism, sectarianism and patriarchy. Often, when our societies are in crisis and our rights are under threat, that provides the impetus to enshrine those rights in law. We are under threat as we have never been before in human history. The global picture is grim—we are currently on track for 3°C of global warming by the end of the century. The mass extinctions and the uninhabitable regions of the planet that will result are unthinkable. There has never been a more important time to enshrine in law a right to a healthy environment. My only concern is whether it is coming too late, but we have to act now and do what we can.

Throughout my time in politics, I have been privileged to work with communities that have come together to fight environmental injustices. In this session of Parliament, I have been privileged to work with communities that are living in the shadow of Mossmorran. They are struggling to get a good night’s sleep and even to exist because of the noise pollution that comes from the plant. I am proud to have worked with communities that are trying to protect their green spaces and to protect the marine environment, whether from the dredging of kelp forests or from the clear threat of ship-to-ship oil transfers in our seas.

Throughout that time, I have noted the effort and sacrifice that communities have to make for years—often for decades—to fight those injustices. Often, those communities need to become experts in planning and environmental law to make their case, and they have to crowdfund for judicial reviews and public inquiries. Therefore, it is welcome that the Environmental Rights Centre for Scotland has been established. It underlines the fact that, alongside a substantive right to a healthy environment, we will also need procedural rights. Citizens need democratic tools with which to protect their environment. The Aarhus convention should give us those tools, access to information and access to decision making, as well as access to justice. The cost of securing legal representation is a great burden for many communities, which is why, in the next session of Parliament, my party will be pushing further the case for environmental courts.

The global crisis also affects individuals. I will conclude by talking about one individual, in particular. Ella Kissi-Debrah lived in Lewisham. By all accounts, according to those who loved her, she was a funny, busy, clever, curious, sporty and musical child. She was a very healthy child until the age of seven, when she contracted a rare and life-threatening form of asthma. Ella died in 2013 at the age of nine. The inquest into her death was held only last year, and its damning conclusion was that the pollution in Lewisham had been illegal for years but successive Governments had failed to provide vulnerable people such as Ella and her family with the information that they needed, and they had failed to take action to lower the pollution levels.

Ella’s was the first legal case to find that pollution levels had directly caused a death. However, there are tens of thousands of other people across the country who die far too young due to air pollution and hundreds of thousands more who have poor health as a result of air pollution. Often, in black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, people are living in poverty and next to congested roads. For the memory of Ella and for the sake of millions of people across the world, they deserve the right to a healthy environment, they deserve justice, and they need to see them in the next session of the Scottish Parliament.


The Minister for Rural Affairs and the Natural Environment (Ben Macpherson)

I record my thanks to Ruth Maguire for securing this important debate. I am sorry that I am not in Parliament in person today, but it has been excellent to listen to all the contributions, including the important and constructive points that have been made by colleagues on the various themes in the motion.

The Scottish Government welcomes the publication of the national task force report and all 30 recommendations that are contained in it. On my own behalf, and on behalf of colleagues, I say that we will carefully consider the findings of the report.

Our ambition is that a future Scottish Parliament will agree to a new world-leading human rights act in the coming session, thereby putting Scotland firmly at the forefront of global human rights leadership. We are hopeful that all parties will work to deliver that ambition in the next session.

Colleagues have, understandably, made points about the Aarhus convention. The Scottish Government has committed to working with stakeholders and to introducing a bill on legal aid reform, which will include consideration of court fees for Aarhus cases. That will form part of the procedural aspect of the human right to a healthy environment. Members have made important points in that regard.

Our collective response to the task force’s recommendations will build on our existing work to protect our environment. Last year, the Scottish Government launched our 2045 environment strategy vision, which describes our long-term ambitions for restoring Scotland’s natural environment and playing our full role in tackling the global climate and nature crises—the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss.

The vision highlights that adapting to live within the planet’s sustainable limits will require transformative changes across our economy and society. In implementing those changes, we can transform our country for the better and ensure that everyone benefits from the rich natural resources that we have here in Scotland. We can build a stronger and more resilient economy in building on our green recovery from Covid.

We can tackle the inequalities that colleagues have mentioned, and we can improve the health and wellbeing of Scotland’s people. As we do so, we can meet our moral obligations to tackle climate change and to act as good global citizens.

The task force’s report marks an important step in our journey towards implementing a strengthened and ambitious framework for human rights in Scotland, including the pioneering recognition of the human right to a healthy environment. By including that right, we seek to ensure that everyone benefits from the healthy ecosystems that sustain human health, wellbeing and children’s development, as well as to ensure that they can access information, participate in decision making and access justice. Environmental rights are an important element of human rights, and they deserve to be recognised clearly in our strategies and delivery.

Scotland’s natural environment is our life-support system and provides the essentials that we need to survive and thrive—from the air that we breathe, the food that we eat and the water that we drink to the materials that we use to build our houses and make our clothes. Our environment supports our health and wellbeing in countless ways by providing free spaces for exercise, play and inspiration. It also underpins our economy by supporting the productivity of many sectors and thousands of jobs.

However, recent global assessments have clearly shown that our natural world is in crisis, with the health of the planet’s ecosystems declining faster than it has at any point in human history. We therefore need to work collectively to restore the resilience and richness of nature in Scotland—for its own sake as a good in itself, but also because it is fundamental to our health, wellbeing and prosperity. We need to ensure that everyone can enjoy the life-supporting benefits that our environment provides.

Our commitment in the Scottish Government to high environmental standards and to increasing wellbeing and equality in Scotland is world leading. We have the toughest and most ambitious legislative framework on climate change in the world; we are all obliged to make the changes that we have set out in law happen.

The right to a healthy environment is already implicit in our environment strategy. As we work to deliver our ambition for a healthy environment that

“supports a fairer, healthier, more inclusive society”,

we will explore opportunities to ensure that everyone in Scotland can access the essential benefits of a healthy environment and all that it provides.

From tackling health inequalities in relation to air quality, to accessing green space, to promoting active travel, connection with nature and outdoor play and education, the human right to a healthy environment will be central to the Scottish Government’s approach.

The introduction of a new environmental governance regime under the UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Continuity) (Scotland) Act 2021 will help us to maintain our high environmental standards, in line with the European Union, following the UK’s recent—and unfortunate, in the view of many, including the Scottish Government—departure from Europe. As colleagues will know, the continuity act commits Scottish ministers to reviewing the efficacy of the new governance arrangements, including consideration of whether the law on access to justice in environmental matters is effective and sufficient.

As several colleagues, including Kenneth Gibson, mentioned, there is an international dimension to all this. Although we in Scotland have done much to implement the international standards that are included in the report, including the framework principles on human rights and the environment and the Aarhus convention, there is more that can, and must, be done. Development and implementation of the framework will be complex, and we will require to consider carefully some aspects in particular if we are to do it justice.

It is vital that we are not complacent, and that we continue to push ourselves. We have heard from members today about our collective commitment to do more to ensure that human rights are embedded in everything that we do. In responding to that challenge, we must live up to the call from the task force report to improve the everyday experience and lives of individuals and communities, and to improve wellbeing across communities in Scotland.

We look forward to working with stakeholders, and with the next equalities committee, to ensure that we can deliver on our ambitious goals in a way that is best for the people of Scotland.

Today’s debate has been important and useful, and we will undoubtedly need to continue the discussion—as we should—in the next session of Parliament, with the involvement of those who will be elected in a number of weeks.

I thank all members who have contributed to the debate. In particular, I thank the Equalities and Human Rights Committee and Ruth Maguire for bringing the debate to the chamber. I, along with my fellow ministers who have responsibility for the various aspects that the motion covers, look forward to continuing to work together to bring about the change that we collectively seek.

13:32 Meeting suspended.  

14:00 On resuming—