A Supreme Court verdict on Scottish human rights that could backfire on Dominic Raab and Boris Johnson

Last week the Supreme Court delivered a verdict against Scotland’s government that gave Boris Johnson a victory to stop both Scotland and Wales giving new rights to children, women, disabled people and protecting ethnic minorities from discrimination.

Supreme Court. Pic credit BBC News

The Tories were triumphant that Suella Braverman, QC, the Attorney General, employing the Treasury Devil. Sir James Eadie, to argue successfully that neither Scotland nor Wales could bring forward legislation to implement in full the UN convention on the Rights of the Child nor a European Charter on local self government. The Daily Mail said that it was ” a humiliation” for Nicola Sturgeon and could be used to stop any Scottish referendum. Tories in Scotland accused her of manufacturing a row with the UK by proposing to implement the charter in full.

The decision has implications for three other UN conventions – the Convention on Eliminating All forms of Discrimination against Women (Cedaw); a UN Convention outlawing racial discrimination and one giving full rights to disabled people effectively saying that even in areas of law already devolved to Scotland and Wales neither Parliament can legislate to implement these rights. The Scottish government was planning to introduce legislation to do this.

The immediate effect will be that Holyrood will have to remove clauses in two bills unanimously passed by the Scottish Parliament to take out measures that give extra rights to children or the Queen will refuse Royal Assent to the measures.

Westminster overrides Scotland

The decision basically gives untrammelled rights to the Westminster Parliament to override the Scottish Parliament if it is thought its new law conflicts with lesser rights for children in England.

The issue was argued on constitutional grounds – not on any issues of the rights of any of these groups- who will now be denied these rights purely by the Westminster government saying it is outside the competence of Scotland to legislate in this way.

The judgement was made by five elderly and middle aged male judges and argued equally by a middle aged QC – he is 59 -the same QC who successfully argued before the Court of Appeal that the Department of Work and Pensions had no obligation to bother to tell women born in the 1950s and 1960s that they weren’t going to get their pensions until the age of 66 instead of 60. One is tempted to say ” male, pale and stale” government rules supreme in Westminster- though I may be guilty of ageism.

All male judicial decision

The five judges who unanimously took the decision are

Lord Reed, President, aged 65, a Scottish judge, Baron Reed of Allermuir
Lord Hodge, Deputy President, aged 68, Patrick Stewart Hodge
Lord Lloyd-Jones, aged 69, David Lloyd Jones, President of the Welsh Law Council
Lord Sales, aged 59, Philip James Sales
Lord Stephens, aged 66, Lord Stephens of Creevyloughgare, a Northern Ireland judge.

The full judgement is here. The key phrase is that the changes are outside the competence of the Scottish Parliament under the 1997, Scotland Act which limited the powers of the Scottish Parliament to legislate for certain matters. The judges were careful to say that this was not about the rights of children under the UN Convention only the manner the legislation . This might provide a loophole for the Scottish government.

Nicola Sturgeon – official portrait

Nicola Sturgeon the SNP leader and first minister, said in a tweet: ” The current powers of the @ScotParl leaves us unable to full protect children’s rights, even in devolved areas. If our Parliament was independent, no such restriction would apply.

” Anyone thinking this is an abstract argument should reflect that also today, the UK government is taking £20pw from the pockets of the poorest families- making it harder for many parents to provide essential for their children”.

John Swinney, deputy first minister, said: “While we fully respect the court’s judgment and will abide by the ruling, we cannot help but be bitterly disappointed. It makes plain that we are constitutionally prohibited from enacting legislation that the Scottish Parliament unanimously decided was necessary to enshrine and fully protect the rights of our children.

“The judgment exposes the devolution settlement as even more limited than we all – indeed the Scottish Parliament itself -­ had understood.  It sets out new constraints on the ability of our elected Scottish Parliament to legislate to protect children’s rights in the way it determines.

“There is no doubt that the implications of this judgment are significant from a children’s rights perspective. This Bill will not now become law in the form which our Parliament agreed, but we remain committed to the incorporation of the UNCRC to the maximum extent possible as soon as practicable.  Whilst the judgment means that the Bill cannot receive Royal Assent in its current form, the majority of work in relation to implementation of the UNCRC can and is continuing.”

What we have here is a warning shot of a huge row which could also become a centrepiece in the debate over the Scottish independence referendum.

Official portrait of Dominic Raab, Lord High Chancellor

For at the same time Dominic Raab, the new justice secretary, wants to scrap the present UK human rights legislation which still allows appeals to the European Court of Human Rights.

It looks like – whatever the spin – is that he wants to take away human rights from women, the disabled, children and those facing racial discrimination- just at the point when Scotland and Wales want to extend them. We therefore have a perfect storm which could end with the break-up of the UK which is why I say this victory by Boris Johnson could backfire. It could end up being a Pyrrhic victory.

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