Transcript of Human Rights Q and A: September 23 2015
This is a transcript of the Q and A from the First Minister’s speech on human rights in the Pearce Institute, Glasgow on September 23 2015. The event was hosted by Liberty’s Shami Chakrabarti and the event was attended by representatives of civic Scotland.
SHAMI CHAKRABARTI: Thank you. I am sure many of you will have contributions to make now, the more the merrier and the more succinct the more we will get in. I welcome questions, comments, comments framed as questions, and the way to do that is to lift your voice at the end of the sentence, like the French and Australians.
FROM THE FLOOR: Hello, First Minister I’m a member of the Scottish Youth Parliament and the Scottish Youth Parliament firmly believe in the rights of the child proposed by the UN. Would your government consider passing laws on this, and implementing The Rights of the Child into Scottish law, thank you?
FROM THE FLOOR: From the Howard League: We would be grateful for the news, Scottish Government support the Human Rights Act. The Convention rights are being tested when they are protecting unpopular groups like prisoners, it’s a question about whether when the franchise is fully… can we expect the government support in extending voting rights to some prisoners?
FROM THE FLOOR: Jake Wilson from Glasgow Caledonian University, Centre for Climate Justice. With regard to the refugees, fleeing the crisis in Syria, one contributor is the six years of consecutive drought which added to food shortages. …with worsening climate change we need to ensure the policy recognises the human impact of climate change and that human rights are an integral component of climate change justice.
FIRST MINISTER: Yes, we think the rights, encapsulated in the human rights Convention on The Rights of the Child, in all our legislation, we will ensure we are acting in line with those rights and how we further incorporate and embed those kinds of rights in how we take decisions in Scotland. Our approach to human rights mustn’t just be to protect what we’ve got, we have to look at how we expand and embed the human rights approach into every aspect of decision making. We don’t just have the wonderful Scottish Youth Parliament ‑ it has been behind some of the best things that have happened in Scotland in the last couple of years. It was the Scottish youth parliament that first campaigned for votes for 16 and 17 year‑olds which we’ve delivered for the Scottish elections. And the Scottish Youth Parliament that first campaigned for the same sex marriage. We also have the young people’s Children and Young People’s Commissioner in Scotland whose role it is to make sure the rights of children and young people are respected too. So the government will continue to try and do that.
Question on prisoner voting: We don’t have responsibility now for the franchise for elections. We did for the franchise for the referendum and took a decision you didn’t agree with which was upheld as being compliant with ECHR rights. As we get more responsibility for the franchise generally, of course we will have to consider the issue of prisoner voting. We haven’t got any proposals to put forward at this stage but that is something we’ll continue to consider. It’s incumbent on all governments not just to talk the language of human rights on all issues, to make sure that’s reflected in our decision making as well. As I said in my speech, these things will not always be comfortable for governments. Inevitably, governments, from time to time, will take a different interpretation around different matters but it’s important we take a human rights approach to all of these decisions.
Lastly, I do agree strongly that climate change and climate justice and seeing that from a human rights perspective is a very important part of everything we’re talking about, just now. We have in Scotland, as you know, a lot to be proud of in terms of how we’re going about making our contribution to tackling the effects of climate change through our legislation and the policies and practices that back that up. We have said early and firmly we will through the National Action Plan on human rights and through our performance framework we will seek to embed and deliver the sustainable development goals which will be discussed in the months to come. That’s got to be a central part of how we take these issues forward.
FROM THE FLOOR: Pam Duncan Glancy, Policy Officer for Independent Living in Scotland. I want to start by saying, probably welcome very much what you said this morning. My question is similar to the question on the Rights of the Child, around the UN Convention on the Rights of Disabled People, I’m interested to know, if you would consider incorporation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Disabled People into domestic legislation at any point in the future?
FROM THE FLOOR: Jill Keegan, from Article 12, in Scotland, we work with the Gypsy Traveller community in Scotland. As you know the Gypsy Traveller community are one of the communities that faces the worst Human Rights infringements in the UK. We were wondering what the Scottish Government can do to ensure their democratic participation especially in having some voice and influence over and above small NGOs and civil society?
FROM THE FLOOR: Dan, LGBTI magazine in Scotland. One of our readers were concerned about the appointment of the Saudi Arabian ambassador to be the head of UNHCR consultative committee on human rights. He opposes LGBTI equality and said. …any universal, human rights interference with internal country’s affairs. Would there be any comment from the First Minister on this appointment to such an important panel in the UN regarding human rights and particularly LGBTI rights internationally?
FIRST MINISTER: My answer to the first question is similar, yes we will consider, I’m a great believer we should look to embed and incorporate as much of the whole human rights infrastructure as possible. That goes way beyond the rights incorporated in the ECHR, but you know, notwithstanding debates about wholesale incorporation or not, we will act in every decision we take, as far as we can, in line with what we think those rights and those treaties demand of us. And we will continue to engage, as I hope you agree we do already, with groups representing young people and disabled people. It’s an important point to make and goes to the heart of what I said about the ECHR being a floor not ceiling and we have to look at how we build on that and embed that.
Jill, I would be happy to get into dialogue with the relevant Minister. We’ve a number of workstreams and initiatives looking at how we improve the situation of Gypsy Traveller communities in Scotland and ensure the needs and such like they have are properly catered for within our public services. You raise a point about democratic participation which is important for any community. I would be happy to have a further discussion about any suggestions you might have about how we improve that work we’re doing. The point you make about the Gypsy Traveller community being one of the most marginalised and possibly one of the most in need of human rights protections is an important one.
The third question, you know, in a sense this comes to you quoted comments there about universal human rights being an interference with how countries go about their business ‑ that is the argument I supposed the Tories here are making; the courts here shouldn’t be interfered with by a Strasbourg court implementing the ECHR, I take a completely different view of that. The importance of ECHR and UN rights based agreements are that they make the fundamental point that there are some rights that are universal and apply to all of us because we are human beings and they transcend different government priorities and different national cultures and approaches to things. I think that’s important across a whole range of issues, and you raised particularly LGBTI rights it’s important there, given the persecution and the discrimination that the LGBTI community continues to face in many different countries around the world.
SHAMI CHAKRABARTI: I would agree with that, I have huge problems with Saudi Arabia on gay rights and women’s rights and other people’s rights too, but at the same time Saudi Arabia is a wealthy country and country located in a part of the world from which many refugees are coming and I think one needs to engage with the Saudis in relation to the refugee crisis and in relation to the cost of it, as well as engaging on those human rights abuses and challenges that we are concerned about. I think we’ve got time for a couple of more.
FROM THE FLOOR: First Minister, Dave Watson from UNISON Scotland. You touched on the Trade Union Bill. We believe it’s a breach of several articles of the ECHR. Can I ask, in what practical ways do you think the Scottish Government and public bodies can use their HRA duties to oppose or not co‑operate with the bill should it be passed?
FROM THE FLOOR: First Minister, I was going to ask a question, I’m Ranald Mair, from Scottish Care. I was going to ask a question about the rights of older people, as you can imagine, but actually the danger that I perceive in this that it becomes a shopping list, we turn it into a shopping list for our particular interests. I suppose I wanted to say what is it we can do? What is the support that actually we want from the people in this room? We can all make our pitch for our particular constituencies, but I actually think there’s a bigger agenda here which we should be signing up to.
FROM THE FLOOR: My name is Glenda Watt from the Scottish Older People’s Assembly. My question links into Ranald’s about older people. I was pleased to hear you mentioned the fact that older people and sadly some older people are abused and neglected within the care settings, within their own homes or in care homes this is very very sad. I think the bigger context that Ranald referred to has to do with the implementation of the Human Rights Act and policies that local authorities and NHS wards are imposed are expected to implement but sadly still we have this neglect and abuse and so what can the Scottish Government do to continue to prevent these things happening to older people, in fact other people in care, as well? I’m concerned about the reduction of funds that are now not available to local authorities and care establishments to continue the caring that they should provide.
FROM THE FLOOR: Thank you very much, welcome to Govan. My name’s Danny Boyle from BEMIS Scotland, one of the intermediate bodies that work between the Scottish Government and diverse minority, communities, the latest, rendition of the anti-extremism or terrorist, legislation, … public services including, schools to keep an eye on citizens to ensure they are not displaying any tenets of what might be perceived as radicalisation. We’ve seen failures of anti-terrorist legislation in the past, which alienated and polarised communities in the 70s and 80s. But as that piece of legislation, process, we need a strategy, between, Scottish Government and the intermediary, bodies, BEMIS, SHRC to ensure we don’t repeat those mistakes and any implementation of that legislation is done sensibly. And cautiously.
FIRST MINISTER: The Trade Union Bill is a breach of human rights. There are three things we’re trying to do, different levels of opposition: Firstly, we want to make sure that we work as part of a united opposition in the House of Commons to oppose the bill. I’m not sitting here, saying I have massive expectations that that is going to be successful, nevertheless we heard last week Tory voices expressing concerns. I don’t give up on that, I don’t think we should be give up on that. Secondly, if the bill is passed we look at all opportunities the Scottish Government might oppose it after it’s passed. We’ll talk to the trade unions about what those options look like. I said last week, I have no intention of the Scottish Government co‑operating with the bill that breaches the rights of trade union members I stand by that. We need to look in detail at what those options might be.
The third thing, we’ll seek to progress this when the Commons returns after the party conference holiday, we’ll seek to amend the Scotland Bill to devolved trade union and employment law powers to the Scottish Parliament because, you know, we can do all of these things. But I would rather, as First Minister, I had the ability to say to you that our parliament will have legislation that takes the approach we want to take to trade unions and not the approach the Tory government have pledged. These are the three strands on the trade unions’ position we are keen to advance and we’re keen to talk to the unions, individually and collectively.
Ranald, you make an important point. On the one hand, we don’t want a disparate shopping list we’re talking about universal human rights but in a sense, in answer to your question, what can you do to help? It is, to some extent, to tell people that human rights, which sometimes are articulated in a way that sounds abstract, has actually got real relevance to particular groups in our society.
Now I think, human rights for people in police custody, in prisons are hugely important but we’ve missed the opportunity somewhere down the line to say, human rights have broader relevance than that: It is about protecting older people from abuse in the care homes. It is about making sure at every level of decision making we’re taking a human rights based approach. In some respects there is an importance to directly making it relevant to different constituency groups within the country.
I’m concerned about the funding climate, as you are. We’re trying hard, within a reduced budget, to protect health and social care services. I don’t want us to be in a position where we have to or say the only protection against abuse of older people or maltreatment of older people in care homes is the Human Rights Act. Don’t get me wrong. I want the way we run our health services and social care services to prioritise, dignity and respect and good care for older people but it is an important protection and goes back to Ranald’s point, when you say human rights ‑ to most people they’ll think of efforts to deport a suspected terrorist they won’t think of the older people in the care home who might be protected by human rights. It’s important we take the conversation on to that level as well.
Lastly, Danny, you raise an important point. Obviously we have all agreed that the battle against extremism and terrorism is hugely important to our safety and security here, but I think you rightly point to experience as we make, as we try to secure our safety and protection here we do that in a way that doesn’t alienate. I represent the constituency next door to where we are now, with possibly the biggest Muslim population in the whole of Scotland. I know, you know every time there’s a terrorist attack, every time there is renewed discussion around this, how difficult it is for that community who feel that they’re somehow being blamed and we’ve got to guard against that absolutely and learn from the mistakes in the past.
In terms of the specific issue you raised about the duties on public bodies; we’ve been working hard with the UK Government to say we accept this is a reserved issue but when it comes to placing duties on public bodies you have to listen to us about the best way to do that in Scotland. I’m not saying we’re always successful but we’ll continue to do that? Absolutely, you will have my assurance then, translating that in the practice we follow here we’ll continue to work with organisations like yours to ensure we get that right.
SHAMI CHAKRABARTI: The gentleman said: “What can we do?” Which is a wonderful thing to hear from an audience like this. I, of course, I would like you to join Liberty. We have lots of members here. Even a country led by this woman needs its active civil society and a bit of grit in the oyster. The UK Government will publish its plans for a British Bill of Rights, a so called British Bill of Rights, that would scrap and replace the Human Rights Act. This will probably be published this autumn and my hope is that you will join us and thousands of people across the country in responding to that consultation with a very very clear voice that we already have our Bill of Rights it’s not British or English or Scottish it’s a Human Rights Act for human beings. But in the meantime it just leaves me to thank the First Minister. I am from a cross‑party non‑party organisation and movement of human rights and I have waited a very very long time for a senior politician in power, rather than in opposition, to make a speech like yours. So on behalf of all of us, thank you.
Transcript with thanks to Éilis Murray and Heather Fisken.