SNP seeking 'political fight' over children's rights amid calls for UNCRC Bill to return to Holyrood
Scottish ministers are asking the UK Government to make “significant changes” to the devolution settlement as part of its move to reintroduce a flagship children’s rights Bill that was judged to be beyond the powers of Holyrood by the Supreme Court.
The Bill, which sought to incorporate the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) into Scots law, was passed unanimously by MSPs, but was referred to the Supreme Court over concerns it could place legal obligations on UK ministers in reserved areas.
The SNP have promised to return the UNCRC Bill to the Scottish Parliament as soon as possible. However, letters show ministers are also attempting to convince the UK Government to “enact the Bill as originally passed”.
However, an exchange of letters passed to Holyrood’s equalities committee show UK Government opposition, with Scotland Secretary Alister Jack stating this would “imply significant changes to the devolution settlement”.
It comes as the Scottish Liberal Democrats criticised the SNP’s “stalling” of the Bill, accusing the Scottish Government of preferring a “political fight” with Westminster than advancing the rights of children and young people.
The party’s education spokesperson Willie Rennie said it was Scottish Government “blunders” which led to the Supreme Court decision, with the SNP now seeking to “re-run old arguments over where power lies”.
He said: “The Supreme Court was clear about which changes can be made by the Scottish Parliament.
"Given that his Government have frequently failed to make progressive changes on issues like child restraint and the age of criminal responsibility, the only explanation for [Deputy First Minister] John Swinney’s determination to dig in now is that he cares more about being seen to have a political fight with the Government in Westminster than he does about putting a fresh UNCRC Bill through Parliament and enshrining these rights in law.”
Letters state the Scottish Government has “identified potential routes to increasing the effectiveness of incorporation, beyond those that are now available to the Scottish Parliament alone”.
The letter from Mr Swinney to Mr Jack continues, adding this would include ensuring UK-wide acts in devolved areas such as education were “meaningfully subject to international human rights standards”.
In his response, Mr Jack states: “I feel it is important to be clear at the outset that the UK Government’s position is that the current devolution settlement strikes the right balance, and that amendments to the Bill and any other proposals would need to be within the parameters of the devolution settlement as it stands.”
Engagement with officials from both governments to “maximise incorporation” will take place “in tandem” with the Scottish Government returning the Bill to Holyrood, Mr Swinney’s letter to the equalities committee states.
A Scottish Government spokesperson said it remained “committed” to UNCRC incorporation to the “maximum extent possible as soon as practicable”.
They added: “It is vital that we work through the complex issues raised by the Supreme Court judgment to ensure that incorporation can happen as quickly as possible with confidence that any amendments to the Bill do not attract further challenge.
“One aspect which we have been pursuing is engagement with the UK Government to explore whether powers under the devolution settlement can be used to give the UNCRC Bill greater effect than is possible under the Scottish Parliament’s current powers.”
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