Britain is Broken ScotRef

Supreme Court ruling shows devolution is not enough to protect children’s rights

Written by Richard Walker

Conservative politicians have been queueing up since the first independence referendum to tell us they have made Holyrood one of the world’s most powerful devolved parliaments. Those claims lie in tatters today.

The UK Supreme Court has slapped down the Scottish government, making it clear that there are clear legal restrictions on its power and that the devolution settlement always considers Westminster the sovereign power.

Former leader of the Scottish Tories, Ruth Davidson

The ‘’one of the most powerful devolved parliaments in the world’’ claim was made just weeks after the first indyref in 2014 by then Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson. Her claim followed the publication of the Smith Commission recommendations on Holyrood powers.

David Mundell, then Scotland Minister, repeated the same claim in January 2015. He described the Smith Commission recommendations  as ‘’the biggest transfer of powers to the Scottish parliament and Scottish ministers since the start of devolution’’.

David Cameron, Tory Prime Minister until he resigned in a huff after England and Wales voted for Brexit, repeated the claim about Holyrood’s power in September 2015, on the independence referendum’s first anniversary. He said: ‘’Let me be crystal clear: Scottish devolution is woven into the very fabric of our United Kingdom.’’

The suggestion that Holyrood is one of the world’s most powerful devolved parliaments has become a Conservative mantra

Since then the suggestion that Holyrood is one of the world’s most powerful devolved parliaments has become a Conservative mantra, wheeled out whenever they want to argue that Scotland is so strong it doesn’t need to bother with independence.

But yesterday the UK Supreme Court showed the emptiness of that argument by putting a block on – of all things – Holyrood moves to enshrine children’s rights in law which were passed unanimously by all MSPs.

It’s a clear indication of the strict limits placed on devolution by the UK and of the hypocrisy of opposition parties who are now accusing Scottish ministers of playing ‘’cynical political games over the issue’’ after unanimously voting for the new legislation themselves.

The vote at Holyrood would have made Scotland one of the first countries in the world to incorporate the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child  (UNCRC) into domestic law.

When MSPs unanimously voted for the move – and for another bill on local self-government – there seemed nothing controversial about it. However, UK Conservative ministers challenged both bills in the Supreme Court.

How Believe in Scotland reacted to the UK Supreme Court ruling yesterday

Of course Westminster insisted its move was nothing to do with the substance of the bills. Even Conservative ministers know that standing in the way of giving children legal rights is not a good look. So instead they argued that the bills were not legally competent.

But whatever the semantics, the Supreme Court’s support for Westminster’s decision means that those rights will not now become law in this way. Westminster have blocked moves to give children legal rights just to prove a political point that Holyrood is subservient to the wishes of the UK government.

Children’s rights campaigners had supported the Holyrood moves. Scotland’s Children and Young People’s Commissioner Bruce Adamson described Holyrood’s moves as showing ‘’real human rights leadership’’. He added: ‘’It is the most important thing we can do to protect and uphold the rights of children and young people’’.

It’s difficult to find the words to describe politicians who block protections for vulnerable children just to make a legal point

Yesterday Mr Adamson described the Supreme Court decision as a ‘’setback’’ but insisted:  ‘’The protection of children’s human rights must still happen. It’s a matter of how we do this, not if we do this.’’

The bills will now go back to the Scottish pariament for more work.

It’s difficult to find the words to describe politicians who block protections for vulnerable children – protections with which they purport to agree – just to make a legal point about the respective powers of two governments.

It’s instructive to look at the background to the UK government’s move. It comes as it attempts to strip Holyrood of spending powers and the Prime Minister clearly wants to strip back devolution. We should by rights be seeing a furious fightback even from opposition MSPs we should assume wanted these legal protections for children enacted. After all, they voted for them. So far that support has not been forthcoming.

Whatever the Conservatives say motivated their legal challenge it has stopped – at least temporarily –necessary protections for Scotland’s vulnerable children from becoming law. In what world is that a good thing?

Scotland’s powers under the current devolution settlement are clearly not strong enough to enact legislation agreed by every MSP and clearly not strong enough to protect children from a UK government more interested in attacking our parliament than in standing up for their rights. Only independence will give us those powers.


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Richard Walker

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