Stuart C. McDonald (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East) (SNP)
The debate today is about preventing crime and delivering justice. We heard the Home Secretary’s claim, delivered without any sense of irony, to belong to the party of law and order, but this Government’s record is one of seeking out every opportunity they can to put themselves beyond justice and above the rule of law. We have had a decade of successive Tory Governments obsessed with chipping away at any institutions or activities that constrain or hold them to account: trade unions, charities, the Electoral Commission, our courts and, obviously, our EU member-ship. Now, it is human rights and protesters yet again in the firing line. To this Government even international law is almost inconsequential, broken quite readily, whether in a specific and limited way or by a complete trashing of the refugee convention.
This is a Government too often pursuing pet obsessions and short-term headlines instead of dealing with the basics. While people struggle to heat their homes and put food on the table because of the cost of living crisis, the Government, instead of taking the action we need, imagine up a Brexit freedoms Bill. Six tortuous years after the Brexit referendum, they are still trying to scapegoat Brussels.
There were newspaper reports of a Cabinet rebellion to stop imports of foie gras being outlawed. How about a rebellion to protect workers’ rights or human rights, or to help our constituents to heat their homes and put food on the table? This is a Government who are out of touch. Those skewed priorities are just as evident in the sphere of justice and home affairs, with two Departments cut to the bone by a decade of austerity pursuing obsessions, pet projects and ridiculous headlines instead of taking the action and making the investment required to deliver the decent public services we need them to deliver. This Government are just not getting on with the job. People just want their passports delivered on time! Despite all the fuss made by Brexiteers, it does not matter what colour the passports are if they arrive too late. The Home Secretary very generously agreed to take away individual cases, but I think she will find that her inbox will be absolutely overflowing with thousands of emails if we take her up on that.
If the Government are to insist on Ukrainians applying for visas—we continue to argue that they should not—then they need to be delivered speedily and efficiently, because leaving those fleeing war in limbo is unforgivable. The Home Secretary seemed to talk up the fact that 19,000 had arrived here. I salute the generosity of the British people in opening their homes, but there are already 27,000 in Ireland, a country that is about one-thirteenth the size of this country. The bureaucracy put in place by this Home Secretary is not allowing this country to step up to the plate. In fact, the whole asylum and immigration system needs to be sped up, with decision making improved and the hostile environment ditched. For those who are victims of that hostile environment, we need an overhaul of the Windrush compensation scheme, because it is appalling that people continue to die without seeing a penny of what they are due. If the Government are serious about the lessons learned from that disaster, we need a more serious set of actions to implement Wendy Williams’ recommendations, including a migrants commissioner.
All those very basic issues need to be addressed, but instead what we get in this Queen’s Speech are further attacks on our rights. Before I turn to the main offenders in the legislative programme, let me highlight the Bills for which we will offer some support and bring some light to the Home Secretary’s afternoon. An overhaul of espionage laws is badly overdue, as we know from the Russia report, the Law Commission and various other sources. We need a more resilient state with espionage laws that are fit for the 21st century and able to keep pace with the ever-changing threats that we face. However, we will always watch out for proper oversight and mechanisms to ensure that the powers are not abused by Government, and we will press the case for a public interest defence.
We welcome the economic crime Bill. Again, that is long overdue, with my hon. Friends, including my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), among the voices that have been calling for action for years. We have welcomed the online safety Bill and we recognise that it is now truer than ever that feeling safe requires regulation of the online as much as the offline.
We also support the ideas mentioned in relation to the modern slavery Bill, particularly around action on supply chains, but any modern slavery Bill worthy of the name should repeal some of the provisions of the odious Nationality and Borders Act 2022, which was passed just last month and which will undoubtedly make life worse, not better, for victims of trafficking, including those who face being sent to Rwanda. We will engage positively, though cautiously, with discussions about the Protect duty and that draft Bill. However, these are not the dangerous obsessions or pet projects to which I referred. Those come in the form of the legislation to meddle with the Human Rights Act and to undermine yet again the right to protest.
The Human Rights Act
“works well and has benefited many”.
The Government know this as they were told so by their independent review body, which noted that many so-called problems with the Act are more to do with perception than reality, requiring a remedy through a focus on human rights education, not a radical overhaul. The Joint Committee on Human Rights has also done excellent work in highlighting the “enormously positive” impact of the Act on the protection of human rights in the UK, concluding firmly that no case for reform had been established.
This is about people being able to have a practical means of enforcing our human rights, challenging unlawful Government policies and securing justice. It is about ensuring that people interacting with the state, whether that is the police or in care homes or hospitals, are treated with dignity and respect. Our public services are better, not worse for being fully accountable to our constituents in the courts here, instead of their having to travel to Strasbourg to vindicate their rights. That is what the Government risk undermining and damaging, not delivering justice but seeking to protect themselves from it. We will oppose the proposals every step of the way.
The proposals tell us something much more fundamental about the British constitution, because the Human Rights Act is, after all, a piece of legislation that is absolutely crucial to the devolution settlements. That has not been recognised at all in this debate. Along with the Scotland Act 1998, it is absolutely fundamental in setting out what the Scottish Parliament and Government can and cannot do. It is the same for Wales and it is pivotal, too, for Northern Ireland.
Not for the first time, here is a Tory Government fixing up the balance of powers in the United Kingdom not through negotiation, agreement and endorsement, but unilaterally, without consent and absolutely without cause. In most states and most countries, such fundamental changes would require agreement; approval in all the impacted legislatures; sometimes even double majorities; sometimes endorsement through referenda. But here in the UK, the Tories can rewrite the constitutional settlement to suit themselves in the blink of an eye, such is the lack of checks and constraints on them.
A Home Office focused on Scotland would tear up the immigration system that has served us so badly, left us without the people we desperately need for our economy and public services, and undermined the rights and security of so many of the people we already have welcomed. It would utterly reject an asylum system that is expressly and increasingly designed to make people suffer.
If we really wanted to prevent crime and deliver justice, we would overhaul the out-of-date Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, which exacerbates one of the most persistent and difficult public health challenges that we face today. This is the scourge that is inextricably linked with so much crime, overcrowded prisons, serious and organised crime groups, county lines, modern slavery, drugs deaths and ruined lives. The Misuse of Drugs Act is not working and, in too many respects, is now undermining efforts to tackle all those fundamental problems. Even very obvious evidence-based policies, such as overdose prevention facilities, remain hugely difficult because of that Act. There were some very welcome steps in the Government’s drugs strategy, but for real progress to be made, we continue to make the case for that Act to receive a radical review and overhaul.
Those are just some of the things that we desperately need from this Home Secretary and this Government, but they will never be delivered. They are a Department and a Government that deliver nothing of substance for the people of Scotland, instead undermining our rights and undermining the Scottish Parliament. This Government will not deliver. More than anything, this Queen’s Speech shows us that we in Scotland need to get on with delivering for ourselves.