Dignity, equality and Human Rights for all
Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities Angela Constance
Scottish Parliament - 19 September 2017
I have great pleasure in opening today’s debate on dignity, equality and human rights for all.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights - proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 – articulates a self-evident truth:
“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”
There is a sense in which any debate on dignity, equality and human rights necessarily begins - and ends - right there, with that simple statement.
Almost everything else we need to do in the world of government and public policy and legislation - and in our roles as elected representatives - can be derived directly from our acceptance of that single sentence.
In fact, nothing that we do, and nothing that we seek to achieve, can ultimately have meaning if it does not strive – above all else – to give practical effect to the principles of freedom and equality, to human rights, and the overriding obligation to secure human dignity.
It is certainly a truth that shapes our collective response, in Government and in this Parliament, to critically-important domestic challenges.
From the elimination of poverty, ill-health and inequality to the delivery of inclusive, and environmentally-sustainable, economic growth, these universal principles directly inform our work.
It is a truth that lies at the heart of how we confront, as a nation and as a society, the prospect of life post-Brexit.
And it is a truth that reminds us – if reminder is needed – of the monstrous tragedy we see unfolding in Myanmar. And of the continuing scandal of modern, wealthy nations which fail in their duty to alleviate the suffering of refugees cast up on European shores.
Of course, the work of both government and of this Parliament is also shaped by our common responsibility to do more than simply acknowledge big principles.
We also have a shared duty to get the details right – to ensure that we achieve the outcomes the people of Scotland have tasked us to deliver.
Doing so requires a human rights approach. It demands ways of working that embed dignity and rights and equality in everything we do.
It recognises that such action is more than just a policy choice or the consequence of the most recent manifesto commitment.
Giving practical effect to equality and human rights - and securing human dignity for all - is a core function of Government.
As it is also of this Parliament.
As Scotland’s Government we have a particular responsibility not only to lead that work but to be accountable for our record in delivering.
That is why the Programme for Government we set out on 5 September provides an ambitious roadmap for long-term progressive change.
It builds on the actions we have already taken to make human rights real in Scotland, and to enable all members of our society to live with dignity and equality.
We have made clear that the Scottish Government will maintain our resolute defence of human rights and equality in the face of threats posed by the UK Government.
We will work to prevent existing and future human rights protections – including the Charter of Fundamental Rights – being eroded by the impact of Brexit.
We are determined also to take every opportunity to give further and better effect to economic, social and cultural rights for all of Scotland.
These are rights which include fair work, an adequate standard of living, decent housing, health, social security and access to education.
That is why we are establishing an expert advisory group to make recommendations on how Scotland can continue to lead by example.
That group will be chaired by Professor Alan Miller, former head of the Scottish Human Rights Commission.
Its work will be founded in participation, and a deliberative approach – one that reaches beyond those who already have easy access to power and influence.
Human rights belong to everyone in our society and it is essential that voices from all walks of life and from every corner of our nation are heard.
We are also continuing to put the rights of children and young people at the heart of our Programme for Government – including by conducting a comprehensive audit of ways to further embed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in domestic law.
Scotland has a strong track record in empowering and involving children and young people, so that their voices too can be clearly heard.
This Government has been explicit in recognising social security as a human right.
That commitment remains at the heart of our programme. Scotland’s new social security system will be founded on dignity and respect.
We are determined too that Scotland should be a place where disabled people can live with real opportunity to realise their potential, free from the barriers that hold them back.
That commitment to disabled people’s rights was acknowledged by the United Nations last month when it welcomed publication of our disability delivery plan.
Later this year we will publish an action plan which will drive positive change for minority ethnic communities in Scotland.
We will also publish our delivery plan for Equally Safe - detailing our programme to tackle violence against women and girls.
We are implementing Scotland’s Human Trafficking and Exploitation Strategy - supporting victims, identifying perpetrators, and addressing the causes of trafficking and exploitation.
And we have set out an ambitious programme of work to take forward the recommendations of the Independent Advisory Group on Hate Crime, Prejudice and Community Cohesion.
Many of these issues feature among the 227 recommendations made by the UN Human Rights Council following its review, in May, of the UK’s human rights record.
Over the last two-years the UK has been examined by UN committees on its record under 5 of the 7 core international human rights treaties.
In relation to disabled people in particular, the UK has been found to have engaged in “grave and systematic violations”. Indeed, such are the concerns that the UK has been ordered to report back on progress next year.
Members of the UN Human Rights Council have made clear their own concerns that the legal protections in place in the UK to safeguard human rights are increasingly at risk.
Those are concerns and criticisms which this Government shares – and which we remain committed to addressing, not just for Scotland but, where we can, by intervening constructively at the UK level.
This month marks twenty years since the referendum vote for a Scottish Parliament.
That vote was a watershed moment for Scotland and for its democracy.
From the outset equality and human rights were embedded in the very fabric of this institution – as founding principles for Scotland’s new Parliament.
In the twenty years since, those principles and ambitions have remained firm and have informed all that we do.
Much work does still remain to be done – across the whole spectrum of human rights, equality and human dignity.
But I am proud of the commitment this Government and Parliament has made to equality, to human rights and to the fundamental importance of human dignity. And I am proud of the stance that has been taken to protect those rights.
We can be confident that the self-evident truth articulated by the Universal Declaration will ultimately triumph – if we work diligently and in partnership to give it full and meaningful effect.
That is work to which I know this Government and Scotland’s national Parliament are both fully committed.
I move the motion in my name.