Liberty at the SNP conference: Unequivocal support for HRA

Posted by Sara Ogilvie on 19 October 2015

Liberty’s inaugural fringe event at the SNP Conference took place on Friday in Aberdeen. Chaired by the Guardian’s Scotland correspondent Libby Brooks, a packed audience questioned MSPs Alex Neil and Humza Yousef, MP Joanna Cherry, and Liberty’s Director Shami on a range of issues covering Scotland, the UK, and international affairs.

Refugee crisis

One of the biggest themes of the evening was the response to the humanitarian tragedy affecting refugees fleeing civil war and persecution in Syria. Shami reflected on the evolution of attitudes to refugees in the UK, and warned that “Governments have turned refugees into statistics - Calais didn't happen overnight. Britain must do more.”

Calling on the UK Government to play a more substantial role in helping Syrian refugees, Humza Yousef described his recent trip to Lesbos as unlike any other humanitarian crisis he has ever witnessed: “The sights and scenes I witnessed on Lesbos will stay with me. Women, children, the elderly. Desperate.”

The sights and scenes I witnessed on Lesbos will stay with me. Women, children, the elderly. Desperate.”

But he also asked the audience to play their part in ensuring that all parts of the UK constitute a welcoming environment for those in need of our help and support: “Scotland is not a utopia - we must challenge racist attitudes wherever we meet them.”

Turning to the UK Government’s Immigration Bill, Joanna Cherry was clear that the SNP in Westminster will use their numbers to oppose the Bill and Alex Neil was scathing about placing obligations on landlords to check the immigration status of their tenants: “Landlords should not have to act as a form of border control.”

Named person scheme

The audience was keen to challenge the SNP on its record in Government. Asked to defend the Scottish Government’s controversial “named person” scheme, under which each child in Scotland will be appointed a state guardian, Alex Neil explained that the scheme was a response to a number of highly publicised failures to protect children from abuse and neglect. He said: “We must ensure all agencies work together effectively for vulnerable children.”

But Shami warned that: “the best intentions can often go awry as regards personal privacy” and vowed that Liberty will scrutinise the effects of the scheme.

Stop and search

The use of stop and search in Scotland was also questioned, and from the floor, prominent human rights lawyer Aamer Anwar raised the worrying incidence of deaths in custody of Police Scotland.

Humza Yousef explained that he shared concerns about both those issues, telling the audience that he has been stopped and searched on five occasions at airports and asking the audience to trust that the justice system will uncover the truth about the death of Sheku Bayoh, a Sierra Leonean man who died in police custody in Fife in May.

Human Rights Act

What's the HRA done for us is like the Monty Python sketch, what have the Romans ever done for us!”

The panel repeated the SNP’s unequivocal support for the existing human rights framework and vowed to protect it both at Holyrood and Westminster.

Joanna Cherry warned about the international repercussions of proposals to repeal the HRA: “A good argument against repeal of HRA is the signal it sends internationally - all parties can unite about that” and Humza Yousef raised a laugh with “what's the HRA done for us is like the Monty Python sketch, what have the Romans ever done for us!”