In a speech at the Pearce Institute last year, Nicola Sturgeon fired a warning shot across the UK government’s bows by criticising its proposals to replace the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) with a British Bill of Rights. During the speech, Ms Sturgeon said that: “…if you weaken human rights protections – and this is contrary to how things are sometimes portrayed – you’re not striking a blow at judges in Strasbourg , lawyers in London or politicians in Scotland. You’re striking instead at the poor, the vulnerable, and the dispossessed.”
Well, Amen Nicola! Human Rights documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the ECHR have their origin in Judeo- Christian morality. Born after the tragedy and horror of the Second World War, they were intended to protect against a tyrannous state.
For the sake of removing any question marks over Ms Sturgeon’s passion for the ECHR, at the start of her speech she said: “And so today I want to talk about the importance of the protections granted by the European Convention of Human Rights and by the Human Rights Act.”
I accept her commitment at face value. It is a narrative she and other politicians often adopt. Given this zeal for the ECHR and our First Minister’s staunch determination to defend it against any attempts by the UK Government at Westminster to replace it with a British Bill of Rights, Nicola Sturgeon must be feeling really quite embarrassed right now. After all, not that long ago the UK Supreme Court ruled that the Scottish Government’s flagship Named Person legislation in parts actually breached Article 8 of the ECHR which guarantees the right to a private and family life.
This should not have come as a surprise. The Scottish Government was warned by various legal bodies and charities back in 2013 that the data sharing provisions in the Named Person scheme breached the ECHR. So it’s not as if The First Minister and her Ministers were unaware of the legal arguments. They just ignored the warnings.
The First Minister in the Pearce Institute speech extolled the merits of the ECHR: “The European Convention of Human Rights is a considerable achievement of post-war Europe – perhaps the finest achievement of post-war Europe.”
She also made it clear that in her view: “The European Convention of Human Rights sets out minimum standards for civilised societies that we should actually be looking to build on.”
Funnily enough, ever since then the First Minister has been strangely quiet, making no public comment after the Court’s ruling that the data sharing provisions in the Named Person scheme were illegal.
Instead, we had John Swinney on our TV screens to explain what the Scottish Government would do next. Recently, he wrote to MSPs to tell them that the Named Person scheme is on pause while civil servants and Ministers desperately scramble to try and address the issues raised by the Court’s ruling.
I can’t help but feel that Mr Swinney is facing mission impossible. The Scottish Liberal Democrats and Scottish Labour have also been hugely supportive of the ECHR and are likewise concerned by the UK government’s possible plans to replace it with a British Bill of Rights.
Both parties were enthusiastic supporters of the Named Person scheme, but are now finally expressing reservations.
• James Mildred is Press Officer for CARE for Scotland