Jim Wallace: Human rights can never be wrong

As the time approaches for another Queens speech, human rights will be under the spotlight once again. Picture: AP
As the time approaches for another Queens speech, human rights will be under the spotlight once again. Picture: AP
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THERE are fundamental questions over the Conservatives’ so-called British Bill of Rights, writes Jim Wallace

For decades as a Liberal and Liberal Democrat candidate and MP, I supported campaigns to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into our domestic law. “Bringing Rights Home” was our call; and so I understandably welcomed the passing of the Human Rights Act 1998 and its hardwiring into Scotland Act after the 1997 referendum. It never occurred to me during all the years of campaigning, that I would be the first government minister in the UK to end up on the wrong end of a decision under that Act. Yet on 11 November 1999 that’s exactly what happened.

As justice minister in the newly established Scottish Government, I had inherited a sheriff court administration which relied on temporary Sheriffs to keep the system in working order. However, the Scottish Appeal Court ruled, in Starrs & Chalmers v Ruxton, that such Sheriffs were unable to meet the standards of a right to a fair trial and, as a result, I was forced to suspend every temporary Sherriff overnight.

I am not going to pretend that, in the midst of all that, there were not moments where I wished none of it had happened. After all, losing the case put significant pressure on resources and made, for a time, the operation of our sheriff courts more difficult.

But here’s the thing – in the cold light of day – the court was right. The system had come to over-rely on the use of such temporary judges. What was happening was wrong and, because of the Human Rights Act, it was fixed.

For all the difficulties this decision caused me, officials and indeed the public, I would far rather live in a country where there is such a human rights check over decisions and actions of ministers, than in a country where ministers and the executive can ride roughshod over our rights.

I believe that the state has the power to improve people’s lives, but also the power to damage them and such power, therefore, should not operate in a vacuum- there must be a check on the ability of state to wield its power. And that is what the Human Rights Act does for us every day.

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And let’s be clear, when I say that the Human Rights Act gives us the ability to challenge the state, I do not mean in some arcane philosophical debate. I mean on ordinary, day-to-day issues people often take for granted. The right to life isn’t just about life being protected by the state. This right has ensured justice for the families of victims of domestic violence, and families of hospital patients who were not properly supervised who then, tragically, took their own lives.

The prohibition of torture has ensured that the use of restraint on an older woman in hospital was able to be challenged, and ensured that the authorities are accountable for failing to protect children who are being abused.

The right to liberty and security has ensured that people with mental health problems are not unlawfully detained.

The right to respect for private and 
family life has often been lamented in the press as a block to deporting foreign criminals. But this right helped a couple who had been married for 59 years to live in the same nursing home when their local authority threatened to move one of them to a nursing home too far away for the other to visit. It also secured proper support from a local authority for a child with Down’s syndrome.

These are examples of what our human rights mean in practice, and what our Convention Rights allow us to protect when the state over-reaches. These are the examples of how we reflect our British values in the country we wish Britain to be.

So as we approach the Queen’s Speech and the likely inclusion of a so-called British Bill of Rights, my question to the government is, which of these rights are they so keen to get rid of? Is it protection of freedom of speech? Is it the right to a fair trial? Is it the right of religion or freedom of assembly? Or the right to a private life? Which one of these freedoms and rights would not be in the Conservatives’ Bill of Rights?

There are fundamental questions too over what the Tory plans would mean for devolution settlements in Northern Ireland and Scotland. The implications of the changes that the Tories are proposing outside of England seem hardly to have been considered. In a letter to Michael Gove, the Irish Justice Secretary, warned that “The Good Friday Agreement is clear that the European Convention on Human Rights must be incorporated into law. It is my government’s view that, while a domestic bill of rights could complement incorporation, it could not replace it.”

The core pillars of human rights are their universality and indivisibility. They are there to stop the state just doing whatever it feels like without being called to account. We cannot stand by and watch them diminished and here in Scotland all of us must stand together to oppose human rights protections being ripped away against our will.

• Lord Wallace of Tankerness is leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords and former Deputy First Minister of Scotland