In its weighty tome, Scotland’s Future, the Scottish Government promises that at its heart, an independent Scotland will have “the respect, protection and promotion of equality and human rights.” Furthermore, this will not be just an empty gesture but will be “enshrined in a written constitution to bind the institutions of the state and protect individuals and communities from abuses of power.” The promise is also made that as an independent state, Scotland will live up to its international obligations on equality and human rights. Furthermore, protections already enjoyed will continue in a written constitution. These will include the rights contained in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) but other rights will also be considered for inclusion. Specifically mentioned are the rights contained in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and principles designed to “deliver greater equality and social justice.” Any new rights or future changes will be developed in “full consultation with the people of Scotland”. It is also promised that Scotland will continue to have its own human rights body.
If the intention is to encourage a “yes” vote from those basing their vote for or against Scotland’s independence on human rights protection alone, this is a very good start. Leaders of the major political parties in the rest of the UK find it difficult to mention the words “human rights” let alone make promises to improve the legal protection of human rights or explore the possibility of adding new rights to those already protected by the Human Rights Act (HRA). Officially, the most recent pronouncement was from the Commission on a Bill of Rights which reported in 2013. Unable to agree on much, a majority of the Commission concluded that there was a strong argument in favour of a UK Bill of Rights which would build on all of the UK’s obligations under the ECHR and provide no less protection than was contained in the HRA. However, a different majority concluded that socio-economic rights were not something that should be included and that the present declaration of incompatibility contained in section 4 of the HRA should be retained as “there was no desire for conferring on courts a power to strike down inconsistent Acts of Parliament.” There has been very little progress on human rights law reform since.
By contrast, whilst the details are limited, the Scottish Government’s promises about human rights would address at least three of the problems with the current state of legal protection of human rights in the UK which the Commission on a Bill of Rights failed to do. First, as the Scottish Government itself recognised, whilst Scotland’s current equality and human rights framework is strong, that framework’s future cannot be guaranteed under current constitutional arrangements. The same goes for the rest of the UK. Once campaigning gets under way for the 2015 UK general election, it is likely that the repeal of the HRA will once again be a feature of the Conservative Party’s campaign as it was for the 2010 general election. Including human rights protection in a written constitution offers much more effective protection from the political winds of change than that offered by a mere Act of Parliament. Although it is likely that politicians would continue to criticise politically unpalatable judgments, such as those concerning prisoner voting, such criticism would be unlikely to be accompanied by promises to repeal or amend the constitution, particularly if the new constitution occupied a special place in the hearts and minds of the Scottish people. The experience of other countries demonstrates that including human rights protection as a key part of a written constitution also improves knowledge of and respect for human rights law, particularly if changes to present arrangements are developed in full consultation with the people of Scotland.
Second, whilst the details are not clear, it is likely that a written constitution containing human rights protection would mean that the legislation of the new independent Scottish Parliament would be vulnerable to legal challenge in the courts were it to be incompatible with human rights law. Whilst under the Scotland Act 1998 this is the situation at present in relation to the devolved legislation of the Scottish Parliament, it is not the situation in respect of the laws of the Westminster Parliament. Under section 4 of the HRA all a court can do is issue a declaration of incompatibility and wait for government, and Parliament, to change the law with all the delay and uncertainty that this entails. And finally, given the traditionally strong commitment to social justice in Scotland and willingness to include in the written constitution rights additional to those in the ECHR such as children’s rights and principles designed to “deliver greater equality and social justice”, it is likely that by contrast to the rest of the UK, human rights protection in an independent Scotland would extend to justiciable economic, social and possibly cultural rights. As appreciated during the lengthy process towards a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, often such rights have a more concrete meaning for people than civil and political rights and can help to muster support for human rights law generally whilst providing much needed protection for vulnerable individuals in an era of growing inequality.
Involving the people of Scotland in the future of human rights law, entrenching the outcome in a written constitution to which the legislature was subject, extending protection to economic, social, cultural and other human rights and support for a strong independent human rights commission would undoubtedly place an independent Scotland in the leading position on the protection of human rights when compared to the remaining countries of the United Kingdom. Were the HRA to be repealed following the next general election, the comparison would be even starker. But before planning a move to Scotland, it is important to be realistic about what will actually be achieved in relation to human rights protection were Scotland to achieve independence.
With a limited portfolio, it is fairly simple for the present Scottish government to be positive about human rights protection. Issues which have caused consternation for politicians at Westminster, such as the detention, control and deportation of terrorist suspects, have not arisen in the Scottish legal or political system. An independent Scotland would have responsibility for all matters including immigration and national security and much more difficult human rights questions would arise. Whilst it may be resisted, there would be a strong temptation to water down promised human rights protection in the face of public perceptions that human rights law is a “villain’s charter” an “obstacle to protecting the lives of citizens” and “practically an invitation for terrorists and would-be terrorists to come to Scotland”. Such notions have been prevalent in the UK print media over the last 14 years, including Scotland. Much initial work would have to be done to essentially rebrand the idea of human rights in the minds of the public, ensure sufficient education and promotion and encourage respect for the human rights parts of the written constitution. As the experience of other states demonstrates, the budget for an “open, participative and inclusive constitutional convention” would be considerable.
A related issue is what relationship Scottish courts in an independent Scotland would have with the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) when adjudicating on human rights claims. It is assumed that Scotland would be a party to the ECHR and thereby accept the right of individual petition to the ECtHR. Were the new constitution to be silent on the matter, it is also likely that Scottish judges would make full use of the jurisprudence of the ECtHR. Whilst there is considerable political mileage in the idea of a “Scottish” approach to human rights interpretation and application, which would garner respect and a margin of appreciation for Scotland before the ECtHR, again it is necessary to be realistic. It is only in a small minority of claims that there is actually room for a national approach. A recent example is the UK broadcasting ban on political advertising which was upheld by the ECtHR in Animal Defenders International v United Kingdom 2013. Other attempts to seek respect for a UK approach to human rights from the ECtHR, the blanket ban on prisoner voting for example, have not been successful.
In relation to the range of rights to be protected, it is important to appreciate that there exists a strong narrative force in the UK, and other national jurisdictions, against making economic and social rights justiciable in the same way as civil and political rights. As noted above, this was the conclusion of the Commission on a Bill of Rights and despite the promise of the Scottish government, the result of further consultation with powerful interests groups may mean that this promise is impossible to deliver. As it was for the HRA, a first step may be simply to offer protection to the rights contained in the ECHR and Protocol No.1, as noted in Rights Brought Home, the White Paper accompanying the Human Rights Bill, “ones with which the people of this country were plainly comfortable”. And finally, it is not clear from Scotland’s Future how the written constitution would limit the power of the Scottish Parliament to legislate. It is possible that human rights protection may afford Scottish judges something more than a declaration of incompatibility but less than a strike down power raising similar problems of delay and effectiveness which have bedevilled section 4 of the HRA.
Whatever the outcome of the referendum, by making the protection and promotion of equality and human rights as a part of a written constitution one of the issues for consideration, the Scottish Government has set an excellent example. Should the vote be for independence, those with the power to embrace and reform human rights law in the rest of the UK should take careful note.
Merris Amos is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Law, Queen Mary, University of London. This post first appeared on the UK Constitutional Law Blog.