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.