The Secretary of state for Scotland and the Scottish parliament's justice secretary today united to condemn 'ugly' Conservative plans to repeal the Human Rights Act.
Lib Dem Alistair Carmichael and the SNP's Kenny MacAskill also raised the prospect that Scotland could remain bound by the European Convention on Human Rights even if England and Wales abandon it.
Speaking in Edinburgh at the Law Society of Scotland’s flagship conference, MacAskill said he is ‘deeply concerned’ by the prospect of the UK being ‘sidelined’ along with ‘the likes of Belarus’ by abandoning the convention.
It is unclear whether a British bill of rights would automatically apply north of the border, because the Human Rights Act is enshrined in the Scotland Act of 1998 which set up a devolved Scottish Parliament.
Asked by the Gazette whether the Westminster parliament could seek to repeal that part of the act and remove Scotland from the ambit of the ECHR, along with England and Wales, MacAskill (pictured) said: ‘The truth is we do not know.’
He added that Scotland’s position on the act and the ECHR is clear and he will be reiterating Holyrood’s fierce opposition to repeal to justice secretary Chris Grayling.
MacAskill replaced outgoing first minister Alex Salmond as keynote speaker at the conference, convened to discuss the future of the law in Scotland following last month’s ‘no’ vote in the independence referendum.
He told 350 Scottish solicitors: ‘I heard Dominic Grieve [former attorney general] on the radio this morning and I never thought I would be applauding what he had to say. But I saw this coming when Chris Grayling once remarked to me that “we are still in the ECHR – for the moment”.
‘They have been on this trajectory for some time. We should not accept this as diktat. This is not a trajectory that a European democracy should be proceeding along in 2014.’
Carmichael, meanwhile, assured the conference that the UK will not abandon the Human Rights Act while the Liberal Democrats remain in government.
Following MacAskill on to the platform, he said: 'Let me be quite clear. This is the position of the Conservative Party; it is not government policy. The coalition agreement was clear that we would not repeal the Human Rights Act. As a [legal] practitioner and as a politician I have seen for myself the protections that come to our citizens through the ECHR. The act and the convention rights more generally have a general place in Scotland's devolution settlement.
‘All actions of the Scottish government must comply with the European Convention on Human Rights and this is something of which I am proud.
'The Human Rights Act cannot be altered or repealed by the Scottish parliament. Any attempt by a future UK to repeal the act or withdraw from the convention would have serious implications for devolved government in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
'This proposal rears its ugly head every time an election draws near or Nigel Farage appears on the Conservatives' radar screen. It is one thing to throw some red meat to Conservatives on the right, but if that means the loss of universal rights enforced through UK courts to the benefit of every man, woman and child of the country, that price is too high.'
Carmichael added that justice secretary Chris Grayling has 'done Scotland a favour' with the proposal by placing at the top of the agenda the 'entrenchment' of the Scottish parliament's constitution so that its decisions cannot be overruled by notionally 'supreme' Westminster.
Asked if he foresaw any constitutional problems were Scotland to seek to keep the HRA if England and Wales abandon it, Carmichael responded: 'No, I don't.'
The Scottish secretary also suggested that retention of the act could be part of the consultation undertaken by Lord Smith of Kelvin, who is overseeing the process of devolving more powers to Scotland following the 'no' vote.