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3 May 2006

S2M-3908 Scottish Commissioner for Human Rights Bill: Stage 1

Scottish Parliament

Wednesday 3 May 2006

[THE PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 14:30]

... ... ...

Scottish Commissioner for Human Rights Bill: Stage 1

The Presiding Officer (Mr George Reid): The next item of business is a debate on motion S2M-3908, in the name of Robert Brown, that the Parliament agrees to the general principles of the Scottish Commissioner for Human Rights Bill.

14:41

... ... ...

14:54

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I start by telling the minister that there are no sceptics of any kind on the SNP benches when it comes to the importance of human rights. The consensus to which the minister referred was genuine, based on the statement that I have just made. However, only the title of the bill that we have before us today—if we are to be cynical about it—relates to that previous consensus. The content is the issue that we are discussing today, and it was the content and detail of the bill that exercised the Justice 1 Committee—other members of which will no doubt express their views during the debate—when, for the first time since the Parliament was reconvened in 1999, the committee failed to recommend to Parliament that an Executive bill be supported. The committee has not, of course, said that the bill should be voted down, because we hope that the minister can rescue the bill from the sloppy thinking that currently characterises it.

Some of my SNP colleagues do not take the softly, softly approach that I have just outlined, as they see little merit in the bill. However, we must move forward. The SNP will not support the bill at decision time. We will abstain and wait to see whether the minister can construct a bill that is worthy of support. One million pounds or so is allocated for the bill, but we see little value in what it is intended to spend that money on, so we will not support the financial resolution either.

We have several concerns. First, much of what we think the bill will do appears to be the job of members of this Parliament. The minister referred to people trafficking and land rights, subjects with which this Parliament has engaged and which touch on human rights.

The "Code of Conduct for Members of the Scottish Parliament" places upon us as parliamentarians a public duty

"to act in the interests of the Scottish people and their Parliament".

That is but one of the duties. The fourth paragraph in the key principles of our code of conduct outlines our "Duty as a Representative". In that regard one of our roles is to assist people to exercise their human rights.

A challenge that the minister faces as the bill goes through the parliamentary process is to persuade members of the Parliament that he is not simply trying to take a burden off our shoulders and place it on another's so that our life as MSPs is simpler and less involved with human rights. It is fundamental to what we do as members of the Parliament that we carry the burden of human rights on behalf of our constituents and others.

Mr Jim Wallace (Orkney) (LD): I appreciate that Stewart Stevenson was not in the Parliament at the time, but he might recall that the first legislation ever presented to it was the Mental Health (Public Safety and Appeals) (Scotland) Bill, to block a loophole in mental health legislation. I was responsible for that bill. We had to be careful, given the nature of the legislation, that it was ECHR compliant. I remember that representations came from his party about the fact that there was not an independent body to which it could go to check whether the Executive's claim that the bill was compliant with human rights was accurate. Does the member not think that a human rights commission could be a useful resource that would enable the Parliament to improve and enhance its work rather than, as Stewart Stevenson suggests, substitute for it?

Stewart Stevenson: I understand why Jim Wallace might say that, but I am not at all clear that that is the purpose of the bill. The commission is being created to book advertising space and to guide and mentor public authorities. Incidentally, it will not guide and mentor private authorities and private companies, although they may arguably be responsible for more human rights abuses than public services, which generally achieve high standards.

Mr Swinney: Will the member give way?

Phil Gallie (South of Scotland) (Con): Will the member give way?

Stewart Stevenson: John Swinney asked first, but I will come back to Phil Gallie.

Mr Swinney: In response to Mr Wallace's point, will Mr Stevenson reflect on the fact that our own Presiding Officer has a responsibility, in respect of the Parliament's legislative process, to guarantee that all our legislation is ECHR compliant? Does that not give us an assurance with regard to our legislation of which we should not only be proud but should vigorously defend?

Stewart Stevenson: Mr Swinney makes a good point. Of course, our Presiding Officer bases his decisions on the legal advice that he receives.

Phil Gallie: I want to make a point similar to John Swinney's. The fact is that the legislation to which Mr Wallace referred is still with us. It was shown to be compliant without the need for a human rights commissioner.

Stewart Stevenson: One of the interesting things that the minister said in his opening remarks was that the courts are the first recourse. The Justice 1 Committee also comments on that in its report. With European developments, 38 Scottish cases have touched on the matter of human rights since 1999.

I wish to pose a genuine question. What are human rights? That is perhaps not yet fully understood. A variety of people have commented that one of the roles of the human rights commissioner—or the commission as it now appears to be—might be to disabuse the public of its belief that certain things are human rights. One example that has been much debated recently is the "human right" to smoke in a pub, and thus contaminate the air breathed by people who are not smokers. To talk in terms of the commission or commissioner downplaying what people think of as their human rights is perhaps to turn the argument on its head. It would be useful to hear more of the positive advantages of such a body. In paragraph 90, the committee talks about the promotional and awareness-raising role, saying:

"Members of the Committee have concerns that the laudable aims which lie behind the Bill may be outweighed, in practice, by a number of unwelcome consequences."

That is what I have been talking about. What is this human rights culture? The public simply does not know what human rights they have.

There is also the difference between what Westminster is doing and what is happening in the bill. For a variety of reasons, the two will be unhappy bedfellows. Getting our commission and the Westminster commissioner located in the same building will be a useful way of moving forward and of ensuring that we at least have some good working relationships.

The minister said that at the core of the bill is support and assistance in policies and practices for public authorities. If that is all that we are doing, we are simply not lifting our eyes high enough or being ambitious enough. A million pounds' worth of advertising will not change the human rights culture in Scotland; it will not make a real difference, if the Executive believes that we have to make one. The Scottish National Party is withholding its support from the bill in its present form. The minister has every opportunity to lodge amendments that will cause us to support it at a later date but he has a long road to travel before that happens.

15:03

Stewart Stevenson
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