Better Human Rights Together?
The election of 31 Conservatives to the Scottish Parliament creates opportunities for campaigners who oppose the UK Government’s plans to abolish the Human Rights Act and replace it with a Bill of Rights. As a consequence, we may have some lively and better informed debate so that the public recognises the benefits of equal human rights protection and knows it is the Council of Europe that has responsibility for the European Convention on Human Rights, not the EU.
Whereas the Scottish Conservative election machine sought to distance itself from the UK government agenda and carve out a narrative of ‘just vote to keep the union’, that mantra will no longer survive as it is forced to decide on where Scottish Conservatives sit on the future of the Human Rights Act (HRA). Also, will the political ideology be consistent such as we all pay the same tax in the UK being translated into we should all be covered by the same human rights?
The consultation on whether we should withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), abolish the HRA and adopt a Bill of Rights, has been repeatedly delayed despite threats to publish it within 100 days of the UK government’s election in May 2015. The UK political rhetoric has been loud but the reality is that abolition is riddled with constitutional sinkholes, most notably that the HRA is part of the Scotland Act. Importantly the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament have repeatedly gone on record articulating why they support the equal enjoyment of the ECHR. Add to that the Good Friday Agreement, which is part of international law, included a promise to introduce a Bill of Rights in Northern Ireland which consecutive UK governments have failed to deliver. A UK Bill of Rights will not deliver on this obligation.
Commentators are suggesting a UK fudge may be proposed with an opt in for Scotland, and the other ‘nations’, to the new UK Bill of Rights. Therefore the Conservative government will have the dubious credit of enabling fresh constitutional divisions within the UK.
The EU Justice Committee of the House of Lords has just published its report on the Government’s proposal to introduce a UK Bill of Rights and says “the evidence they received makes ‘a forceful case’ for the Government to think again”. The Committee concludes that the ‘Bill will not depart significantly from the existing HRA and is likely to “affirm” all the in the ECHR [as Stated by the Secretary of State] in his evidence. Therefore it is unclear why a Bill of Rights is necessary.’
If the consultation is eventually published after the European referendum, the debate may be more complex: if we vote to stay in then our EU membership is conditional on us supporting the ECHR; if we vote to leave we must still abide by international law and that includes UN treaties that we have ratified on children’s rights, economic social and cultural rights, rights of disabled people, the Convention Against Torture etc, etc, etc.
Ultimately removing ourselves from the international framework for human rights protection will be a national embarrassment and will cause domestic disharmony. At a time when unity is the declared political purpose, the impact seems to be delivering the complete opposite. Maybe then it is an opportunity for the leader of the Scottish Conservatives to show leadership within the UK party and call a halt to any change at all.
Members of the Human Rights Consortium Scotland (HRCS) met on 1st June and agreed on a co-ordinated campaign to defend the Human Rights Act (HRA), and to promote human rights for everyone in everyday situations. Human rights standards and principles reflect our basic values of fairness, respect, equality and dignity.
Despite recent press coverage, members agreed not to be complacent and recognised that abolition of the HRA and potential withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) remain very real possibilities. Following the UK Government’s announcement in the Queen’s speech that “My Government will bring forward proposals for a British Bill of Rights”, some thought that the case for the HRA had been won, but HRCS members thought the result would actually be a weakening of human rights enforcement and protection as further information was provided in the Queen’s Speech Briefing Pack:
“The Government will bring forward proposals for a Bill of Rights to replace the Human Rights Act. This would reform and modernise our human rights legal framework and restore common sense to the application of human rights laws, which has been undermined by the damaging effects of Labour’s Human Rights Act. It would also protect existing rights, which are an essential part of a modern, democratic society, and better protect against abuse of the system and misuse of human rights laws.”
Carole Ewart from the HRCS spoke at the meeting and said:
“The real issue for politicians is to ensure the general public enjoy and can equally assert human rights in everyday places. A campaign of demonization against human rights only makes sense if you want to create public hostility to rights that should in fact empower us all, as well as the weakest in our society, and offer us all protection against failings in public services. Human rights belong to public service workers too and can be used within organisations to deliver more effective, people centred services.
The meeting was addressed by Kevin Hanratty from the NI Human Rights Consortium who pointed out:
“The HRA was a cornerstone human rights protection of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and the new Assembly it set up, just as it was for devolution in Scotland and the Scottish Parliament. The Human Rights Consortium (NI) is determined to work with our colleagues across the UK like the Scottish Human Rights Consortium to defend this important legislation, which acts as a fundamental protection for the most vulnerable in our society”
Marianne Scobie from Glasgow Disability Alliance pointed out that welfare reforms and changes in the delivery of social care to disabled people had raised significant human rights issues but there was not a throughput of legal cases to change public sector behaviour. “When people do assert their human rights that case is individually fixed but what we want to see is a change in policy, practice and culture for us all. We look forward to working with other organisations to ensure the HRA realises its potential.”
Aidan Collins from HIV Scotland outlined how the protection afforded to its members by the HRA had changed how individuals approached public services and influenced their expectations about how services are delivered as well as which services should be available.
The next HRCS event is its national conference on 25th June ‘What Next for Human Rights’ which will be addressed by the Cabinet Secretary Alex Neil.
- The Human Rights Consortium Scotland (HRCS) is a civil society network established in January 2010 to address the gap in knowledge of human rights and to build capacity on applying human rights principles and standards to the delivery of publicly funded services. The HRCS was borne out of an unmet need and in response to specific problems. The need for the HRCS is proven and we are committed to developing our work across Scotland. Our membership has increased to over 180 organisations and individuals. To join go to www.hrcscotland.co.uk
- The Queen’s Speech Briefing Pack is available on the Ministry of Justice website and quote appears at page 75.
- UK Government policy appears to contradict Scottish Government Policy which was affirmed at the Scottish Parliament on 11th November 2014: “…expresses its confidence in, and support for, the Human Rights Act 1998 as a successful and effective implementation of the convention in domestic law, and believes that the principles and values that inform the convention, the rights and freedoms that it enumerates and the Acts that incorporate it into law, should be a source of unity and consensus across the whole of society and should enjoy the unequivocal backing of all who are committed to upholding human rights, democracy and the rule of law.”
- The conference on 25th June runs from 9am – 4.15pm in the Scottish Universities Insight Institute, Collins Building, 22 Richmond St, Glasgow, G1 1XQ
The Scottish Review has featured Jimmy Reid in its online, oral archive of 6th May 2015.
‘Storm the heavens’ was recorded in front of an audience of young people with Jimmy Reid on politics in Scotland. There is an introduction by Kenneth Roy
(6 mins 57 secs)
The Foundation’s sister organisation Scottish Left Review, co-sponsored a fringe meeting at the STUC congress on challenging austerity and highlighting the cumulative misery and suffering caused to the poorest and most vulnerable in our society.
It was standing room only as we heard from UNITE, RMT, PCW, the acting Editor of the Morning Star and striking porters from Ninewells Hospital in Dundee. The meeting discussed human rights as workers rights, ending austerity to make social justice a reality for all and highlighting attacks on basic trade union rights such as participating in union activities and more insidious attacks on the general right to protest.
A report on the meeting also appears in the Morning Star, a co-sponsor of the meeting, which can be found at http://www.morningstaronline.co.uk/a-5ff6-STUC-2015-Austerity-is-not-designed-to-work-for-us-hears-fringe#.VTogyT-BGzw ”
Industrial Democracy and General Election Predictions Dominate
18 Articles offer informative, provocative and constructive comment in the latest Issue of Scottish Left Review (SLR) http://www.scottishleftreview.org/
Contributors look forward to the STUC Congress in April and demand industrial and economic democracy as unions understand – no matter which party is in office – they need full rights and powers. The revelation, to some, of the hundreds of thousands of people who are in work but poor, has created a momentum for all political parties to adopt progressive policies to improve individual employment rights and address economic inequality. Effectively challenging the cost of living crisis and decline in real wages requires a wider commitment to remove the restrictions on union recognition and representation enabling them to have the freedom to organise and bargain collectively.
The May General Election is regarded as the halfway mark in a journey that will determine our political settlement for some years to come. Realistically, we will only be clearer about how politics has evolved after the referendum when the result of the Holyrood Elections is announced in May 2016. Gregor Gall, Editor of Scottish Left Review (SLR) points out:
“The main beneficiaries of people’s political disillusionment will be the likes of the SNP and UKIP. Sooner or later, the hopes placed in them will be disavowed as their ideologies are but mere variants of neo-liberalism. In the case of the SNP, it’s called social liberalism which depends on growing the capitalist economy but obvious problems are weak economic growth for the moment, and for the foreseeable future, continuing government austerity and the power of capital to make governments bend to their will.
Moreover, there are growing concerns about the SNP government’s tendencies towards centralisation so that the democratic part of any alleged social democracy is also being called into question. It appears not only is managerialism taking over but internal enhanced devolution is not on the cards either. Will there be a revolt within the SNP against this social liberalism from those on the left that have recently joined?”
Articles are available for re-production subject to full acknowledgement.
The People’s Assembly Scotland Against Austerity has a petition against
austerity cuts. To find out more go to
The Project Board has agreed the direction and detail of the Foundation for the next six months which includes:
- A project on the integration of health and social care in Scotland;
- Update of existing policy papers on Procurement, Industrial Democracy, Democracy and Universalism.
The latest Edition includes 13 articles including one from Neil Findlay setting out why he is standing for the leadership of Scottish Labour, the STUC’s submission to the Smith Commission, Book Reviews, letters and the regular ‘Vladimir McTavish’s Kick up the Tabloids’. http://www.scottishleftreview.org/
I first met Ailsa when we approached her to become a Board Member of the Reid Foundation. I immediately liked her. As a professor of economics she was of course a very bright woman, capable and with a sharp and original mind. The Foundation benefited greatly from her knowledge, particularly on issues of welfare and welfare economics. She was a passionate advocate of feminist economics as anyone who heard her wonderful speech to the Radical Independence Conference would appreciate. In fact, I spoke to one female delegate afterwards who told me that she’d never taken any interest in economics before that but that she saw things completely differently now.
Ailsa was instrumental in providing the economic case underpinning the Scottish Government’s proposals for free, universal childcare. She chaired our inaugural Jimmy Reid Memorial Lecture which was given by Alex Salmond. Childcare came up as a topic of conversation over coffee before the lecture. When the First Minister later asked her to do some work on childcare economics her response (as she later told me) was so typically Ailsa – “are you serious about doing this? If you’re serious about this policy, if you mean it, then I’d be delighted. But you have to mean it.”
People use phrases such as ‘no nonsense’ and ‘to the point’ about strong women. That wasn’t the Ailsa I got to know. She was full of fun and mischief and when we met for a coffee to talk economics we often failed to get to ‘the point’ for ages. What she wasn’t was small-p politic – if you suggested a daft idea to her there would be no pause before she made clear you knew it was daft. It was that combination of brightness, directness and fun that made Ailsa so pleasant to spend time with.
I met her quite a few times after the cancer diagnosis. Determined doesn’t begin to describe her attitude. She was as clear as could be; “I’m not lying down for this, not without a fight”. The last time I met her was a few weeks ago over lunch. She was planning all the work she wanted to do, the contributions she wanted to make to Scottish life. We’re all the worse off for that fact that she won’t be able to deliver it.
She leaves behind a young family; all our thoughts are with them.
But she also leaves behind one last policy contribution. The last contact I had with her was at the end of last week when she signed off the joint authorship of a major Common Weal report on welfare. I think it is one of the most important contributions to the welfare debate in Scotland and it represents exactly the caring, compassionate – and passionate – thinking that characterised Ailsa.
She will be greatly missed by us all. She is very greatly missed by me personally.
Comment on White Paper by Reid Foundation Director in the Daily Record
I was prepared to be underwhelmed by the Scottish Government’s White Paper. I am pleasantly surprised.
It proposes we should radically change economic policy to create a high-pay economy, make the primary purpose of government greater equality among citizens, place dignity and respect at the heart of welfare policy, renationalise Royal Mail, offer free childcare for every family, give employees a right to sit on the boards of their companies, see trade unions as a partner, remove nuclear weapons in four years, have a written constitution, end tax evasion by corporations, focus on growing Scottish industrial base and much more.
If a UK political party was offering this it would be called the most radical and people-focussed manifesto since the Atlee Government set up the welfare state and the NHS. Ed Milliband has been praised highly by some for offering much less.
What I was looking for was a promise that between a Yes vote and the first democratic election in 2016, the SNP wouldn’t behave like it had the right to design a new country all by itself. The paper promises we will all get to play a part in writing a constitution and that its opponents will be included in the negotiating team that agrees the deal we get when leaving the UK. So I am reassured.
That does not mean the Scottish Government has got everything right. It is wrong on cutting corporation tax, it is wrong on keeping the UK’s terrible banking regulation and in my opinion it is wrong to join NATO. But these are all issues that will only be decided after a democratic election so I and everyone else in Scotland will get to have a say about it.
Has it answered every question? Well, the thing is the size of a doorstep and a genuine effort has been made.
Will you be convinced? That’s up to you. The Scottish Government is in the position where if it tries to answer questions that have no definite answers it will be accused of lying and if it doesn’t it will be accused of hiding. With this report it is certainly not hiding.
And that is where Better Together looks weak to me. Alastair Darling has just been on TV suggesting that since he thinks Alex Salmond is a liar, no-one should trust him or his answers. But does Darling honestly think we trust him, that we’ll take his word for it?
I don’t think it’s going to be that easy. Whatever you think of it, this White Paper sets out a vision for a high-pay society with a strong welfare state. That is a leap forward from anything we’re being offered by the UK.
I and many other experts believe this vision is realistic. I don’t think shouting ‘liar’ will be enough to get Better Together off the hook if it rejects it.
If you want certainty, get a digital watch. If you want a better country, judge people on what they are offering.
Yesterday a big gulf opened up between the two futures we are being asked to choose between.
Will working people have enough confidence to jump that gulf and take a chance on a new future?
You’ve got about nine months to decide.