Tory human rights plan provokes Holyrood rebellion

Under Grayling's plan Supreme Court would be final arbiter. Picture: Getty
Under Grayling's plan Supreme Court would be final arbiter. Picture: Getty
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A MAJOR stand-off is looming between Westminster and the Scottish Parliament over controversial Tory plans to scrap human rights legislation.

The Scottish Government last night joined condemnation of Conservative proposals to repeal the Human Rights Act – which enshrines the European Convention on Human Rights in domestic law – should the party win next year’s general election. The move would require the consent of the Scottish Parliament and MSPs will be called on to block the move, the Scottish Government said.

If Westminster still wanted to proceed, it would then have to rewrite the Scotland Act, the legal foundations of the Scottish Parliament.

UK Justice Secretary Chris Grayling yesterday outlined plans to repeal HRA and introduce a British Bill of Rights. This would make it clear that UK judges were not obliged to take European Court of Human Rights’ rulings into account, with the UK Supreme Court becoming “ultimate arbiter”.

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Mr Grayling said the “mission creep” of the Strasbourg courts had become intolerable and they would have to accept becoming an “advisory” body.

But the Scottish Government said it was “strongly opposed” to the move, and would invite the Scottish Parliament to refuse it.

Legal affairs minister Roseanna Cunningham said: “Human rights protections, and the Human Rights Act, are central to the law of Scotland and we intend to do everything in our power to ensure those protections remain in place.”

Ms Cunningham said safeguards in the act had been used to protect the “everyday rights of ordinary people”, including helping to challenge the controversial bedroom tax.

Earlier, justice secretary Kenny MacAskill said scrapping human rights legislation would risk leaving Scotland “sidelined and marginalised along with Belarus”, when it should be “up there” with European democracies.

Both Labour and the Lib Dems are likely to support moves in Holyrood to prevent scrapping the legislation.

Scottish Labour’s justice spokesman Graeme Pearson said: “Most of Scotland would support that, not only the parliament. We’re about protecting the rights of ordinary citizens.

“I’m very concerned by the Conservative proposal, which seems to be driven by the need to appeal to Ukip voters.”

Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie said: “Putting human rights at the heart of the Scottish Parliament was endorsed by the people of Scotland in the 1997 referendum. Any attempt by the Tories to rip human rights out of the Scotland Act would betray the people in that referendum.”

Last night, a Scottish Conservative spokesman said: “The UK government has said that it will work with the Scottish Parliament to make sure this is an effective settlement. We support that approach.”

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Dominic Grieve, a Tory MP and former attorney general, said the proposals had so far failed to give due consideration to Scotland or Northern Ireland.

“It’s noteworthy the [Tory] paper makes no reference to the devolution settlement or the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland. Both enshrine the requirement that the European Convention on Human Rights should be observed. We’re still a United Kingdom and yet Chris Grayling has just written a paper which makes no reference to this issue and how it might be solved,” he said.

Edinburgh advocate Joanna Cherry QC said that as the sovereign power, the UK parliament could seek to enforce its will on Scotland, but would perhaps baulk at doing so.

“What Westminster giveth, Westminster can take away,” she said. “Although as a matter of political reality, it remains to be seen whether that would happen as there would be an outcry.”

The Tories rejected criticisms of their plans, and insisted current attorney general, Jeremy Wright, believed they were “fine, viable and legal”.

Mr Grayling was fleshing out the Conservative position after Prime Minister David Cameron told the party’s conference he would no longer put up with meddling on issues such as whether prisoners can vote.

Mr Grayling said: “We will say we’re going to do things differently. We will continue to adhere to the basic principles of human rights in the original convention. We hope you [Europe] can accept this. If you don’t accept it or you can’t accept it then we will withdraw from the [convention].”

Professor Alan Miller, chair of Scottish Human Rights Commission, said “playing politics” with human rights was “irresponsible” and “set a dangerous precedent to other states”.

BACKGROUND

Pros and cons of the act Churchill championed

THE Human Rights Act was introduced by Labour in 1998 to enshrine the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) in domestic law.

The ECHR was drawn up in the aftermath of the Second World War, and drafted by British lawyers, with the political support of one Winston Churchill.

It enshrined human rights applied equally to all, both the innocent and guilty parties.

Rights enshrined include the right to life, liberty and security, privacy and the right to a fair trial. It also covers prohibited activities such as torture and slavery.

The UK signed up to the agreement and to the Council of Europe, whose members work co-operatively on human rights matters and law across Europe.

A condition of membership is abiding by the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights.

However, the Tories have pledged for a decade to abolish the 1998 Human Rights Act.

A number of high-profile cases have been highlighted by critics.

• These include prisoner voting rights triggered when John Hirst, jailed for manslaughter for killing his landlady with an axe, won a 2005 case at Strasbourg after arguing it was a breach of human rights to deny prisoners the vote.

• Convicted multiple-murderer Jeremy Bamber successfully argued last year that whole life terms breached his rights.

• Failed Iraqi asylum seeker Aso Mohammed Ibrahim won a rights case in the UK courts blocking his deportation for killing schoolgirl Amy Houston in an uninsured car in Blackburn. Ibrahim had children with a British woman after release from prison, and judges ruled he could not be sent back to Iraq as he had a right to family life.

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