Human Rights Act is vital and Tories' so-called Bill of Rights is an attempt by UK Government to make itself untouchable and erode devolution – Christina McKelvie MSP

Every week I work with people in my constituency whose stories underline the need for strong human rights laws.

The Human Rights Act helped campaigners for justice following the 1989 Hillsborough disaster discover the truth of what happened (Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
The Human Rights Act helped campaigners for justice following the 1989 Hillsborough disaster discover the truth of what happened (Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

What my constituents want, and what they deserve, are laws and policies that deliver fairness and justice, for themselves, their loved ones and for society as a whole.

The UK Human Rights Act is one of the vital pieces of legislation that performs exactly that role – by ensuring that human rights are respected, protected and fulfilled.

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It has facilitated everything from action on women’s equality to the protection of free speech and the right to protest. It has assisted the families of service personnel to obtain justice when their rights were breached, helped secure equality for LGBTI people, and supported families to challenge unfair welfare policies such as the bedroom tax.

As such, it is a source of profound concern that the UK Government intends to replace the Human Rights Act with a so-called Bill of Rights.

The Human Rights Act has proven to be highly effective, protecting our most fundamental rights and freedoms for more than two decades.

Consider the long fight for justice by the relatives of those caught up in the Hillsborough tragedy. The truth was only told because they were able to use the Human Rights Act to challenge the interminable obstruction and callous indifference of powerful public institutions.

Yet that is what the UK Government’s Justice Secretary, Dominic Raab, objected to in this newspaper when he spoke about removing “human rights obligations” and giving public bodies greater discretion on how they implement human rights.

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In setting out his case for UK Government reforms, Mr Raab presents a picture which few members of the Scottish Parliament, or civil society campaigners recognise.

The UK Government would have us believe that the Human Rights Act is a charter for criminals, rather than a safeguard for the fundamental rights and liberties that belong to every member of society.

UK ministers claim that the Act prevents the deportation of foreign nationals who have committed serious offences. But the reality is that the UK removes thousands of foreign nationals from the UK every year. In fact, there were almost 3,000 enforced returns in 2020/21.

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What matters in every one of those cases is that government decisions can, where necessary, be properly scrutinised by an independent court of law.

We need look no further than the Windrush scandal to understand why that fundamental principle must not be compromised. The bitter truth is that innocent, law-abiding members of society can indeed become the victims of arbitrary government actions.

One of the key proposals put forward by the UK Government is that cases which are “spurious” or “insignificant” should be prevented from coming before the courts.

But who is to decide which cases are trivial, and which are important? That is ultimately a question which can only properly be answered in the courts. It is certainly not a job which should be left to a government whose actions may themselves be in question.

In reality, our courts are already more than capable of identifying and dismissing human rights claims that have no real substance. They certainly do not need lessons from the UK Government on how to make legally sound decisions.

The safeguards built in to the Human Rights Act are a necessary part of the legal mechanisms that ensure we can access our rights, and the role of the courts is to uphold these where there is a claim.

Of course, the proposals being driven forward by the UK Government are part of a larger agenda. They need to be seen in context, alongside attempts at Westminster to restrict the right to peaceful protest and to erode Scotland’s devolution settlement.

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What we are seeing – as independent voices including Liberty and Amnesty International have repeatedly pointed out – is an attempt by the UK Government to make itself untouchable. The effect will be to roll back access to justice for everyone in the UK.

The proposals will also put us at odds, once again, with key European allies. The UK Government claims that none of its “reforms” will require the UK to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights. But the practical effect of weakening domestic human rights legislation will be to detach the UK – incrementally and by stealth – from the Council of Europe.

To do so at all is to abdicate the UK’s historic role as a leading proponent of human rights, democracy and the rule of law. And to undermine European institutions and co-operation at a time when peace and stability are under unprecedented threat is irresponsible.

Far from “reinforcing our core rights”, the plans put forward by the UK Government represent an unacceptable attack on human rights, constitutional certainties and the rule of law.

Our concerns are shared by ministers from elsewhere in the UK. The Scottish and Welsh Governments have issued a joint statement setting out our grave and deep-seated concerns in relation to these proposals.

The Human Rights Act is fundamental to each of the devolution settlements of the UK. So it is vital that nothing is done without the explicit agreement of the devolved parliaments.

It is ridiculous that this debate is even taking place. The UK Government’s own Independent Human Rights Act Review took evidence from some of the UK’s top legal experts and concluded there is no good case for making significant changes to the Act. Yet the UK Government is pressing ahead regardless.

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It is now up to the devolved governments, organisations such as the Scottish Human Rights Commission, and partners across the whole of Scottish and UK civil society to vociferously and unequivocally oppose any attempt to repeal or replace the Human Rights Act.

Christina McKelvie is SNP MSP for Hamilton, Larkhall and Stonehouse and equalities minister

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