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I was the Head of Policy and Public Affairs at UNISON Scotland until my retirement in September 2018. I now work on several policy development projects, so all views are very definitely my own. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

In defence of the Human Rights Act

Abolishing the Human Rights Act would diminish the UK's standing in the eyes of the world, and Scotland should use every means at its disposal to resist these Tory plans.

I was at yesterday's Scottish Government event on human rights in Glasgow at which the First Minister gave one of the best articulations of the case for the Human Rights Act that I have heard for a long time. As Liberty Director Shami Chakrabarti said: 'I've been waiting a long time for a senior politician in power to make a speech like that'.

Nicola Sturgeon argued that repealing the HRA would be a monumental mistake, damage our reputation overseas. There are already countries across the world who are using the UK government's position to justify not implementing human rights decisions, including Egypt and Russia. Winston Churchill, the post war driving force behind universal human rights, would indeed be appalled.

The UK was one of the first to ratify the treaty with cross party support. That support was largely sustained when a Labour Government introduced the Human Rights Act in 1998. I am not always positive about Tony Blair, but this is a legacy we can all be proud of. As Nicola Sturgeon said yesterday, human rights are not always convenient for governments. They are not meant to be, they are there to defend the poor, the vulnerable and the dispossessed.

She gave some very clear commitments on how the Scottish Government will respond. She will claim that the legislation requires a Legislative Consent Motion, which the Scottish Parliament is unlikely to grant. It has been suggested that the UK government may seek to get around this by excluding Scotland. However, she said that there will be no deal at Westminster and under no circumstances will she treat this as an English matter - human rights are universal rights.

She also used human rights as another reason why her government was opposing the Trade Union Bill. The proposals have been criticised by Liberty, Amnesty International and the British Institute of Human Rights who said in a joint statement:

"It is hard to see the aim of this bill as anything but seeking to undermine the rights of all working people. We owe so many of our employment protections to trade unions and we join them in opposing this bill."

I followed this point up in questions asking in what practical ways did she think the Scottish Government and public bodies can use their HRA duties to oppose or not cooperate with the Bill?

The First Minister said they would oppose the Bill, using all their powers and there would be no voluntary cooperation. She also said they would seek to amend the Scotland Act to devolve employment rights to the Scottish Parliament.

The Scottish Government's support for the campaign is very welcome and reflects their approach to industrial relations through the Fair Work Convention. I also agree that employment rights should be devolved although even if Labour changed its position, which I would urge them to do, it still doesn't deliver a Westminster majority. A more practical measure would be to require a Legislative Consent Motion as the First Minister committed to doing for the HRA. The Welsh Government has already led the way on this and I simply don't understand the Scottish Government's unwillingness to explicitly take a similar stance.

We all too often take the human rights we enjoy in this country for granted. Even allowing fringe legal decisions to let the narrative drift away from the essential purpose of the Human Rights Act. The First Minister is to be commended for her strong defence of human rights. The Trade Union Bill will be a test of how far we are all prepared to go to defend our essential liberties.



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