SNP ministers have been accused of “shamefully using children’s rights to play nationalist games” after they lost a court case they tried to exploit at the Holyrood election.
The UK Supreme Court today ruled a Scottish Government Bill on children’s rights was outside Holyrood’s powers and referred it back to MSPs for a second look.
The Court said parts of the the Bill, which is designed to incorporate the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into Scots law, were incompatible with the Scotland Act underpinning devolution.
It led to a furious row at Holyrood, where the Tories said the Scottish Government had “cynically engineered and manipulated the timing of the Bill to facilitate a pre-election stunt” and pick a fight with Westminster.
Deputy First Minister John Swinney, who ignored warnings the Bill was flawed, said the decision showed the weakness of devolution.
He previously said UK Government pleas to change the sections of the Bill – the same ones the Court declared flawed – were “menacing” and pushed ahead regardless before the election.
Nicola Sturgeon also used the UK Government’s decision to challenge the Bill at the Supreme Court to criticise the Tories during the Holyrood campaign, raising it in TV debates.
After SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford also raised it at PMQs to attack the Tories, Ms Sturgeon denied she was trying to “weaponise the issue of children’s rights” in order to pick a fight with Westminster.
Five supreme court justices, including the court’s Scottish president Lord Reed, today ruled unanimously that the legislation had been flawed.
The Court ruled four sections of the UNCRC Bill and two sections of a similar Bill on local government had been incompatible with Holyrood’s powers.
Tory MSP Donald Cameron MSP, said: “This unanimous Supreme Court judgement confirms that the SNP shamefully used children’s rights to play nationalist games.
“There was never any dispute over the substance of the policy, only the legality of parts of the Bill. The Scottish Conservatives supported this legislation from the outset whilst pointing out the legal problems.
“But the SNP sought to politicise it from the very beginning. They cynically engineered and manipulated the timing of the Bill to facilitate a pre-election stunt where they provoked a grievance with the UK Government.
“The instant response from John Swinney to this decision was to make it all about nationalism, instead of focusing on children’s rights.
“The SNP’s disgraceful approach has delayed a Bill on children’s rights that every party in the Scottish Parliament supported. We hope they will now hastily apologise for doing so and make the necessary changes immediately so that this legislation, that all MSPs support, can be passed.
“The Scottish Conservatives are building the real alternative to the SNP so we can end this era of divisive nationalism for good.”
Scottish Labour MSP Sarah Boyack said: “This damning verdict makes it clear that the SNP have been playing cynical political games at the expense of children’s human rights.
“This never should have been about petty constitutional bickering – it should have been about putting children’s rights front and centre and empowering our councils to make decisions in their communities.
“It is shameful that both sides have let this fiasco undermine meaningful and progressive legislation. Scotland deserves better.
“The SNP must act urgently to get these laws fit for purpose and in place, so we can focus on how to make these principles a reality.”
Mr Swinney, who is due to make a statement to MSPs on the ruling this afternoon, said: ”While we fully respect the court’s judgment, it lays bare the weakness of, and the limits in, the devolution settlement.
“The ruling means it is outwith the power of the Scottish Parliament to pass legislation it considers necessary to fully ensure the rights of Scotland’s children are protected.
“The UNCRC Bill was created to deliver a revolution in children’s rights, making sure children and young people are involved in decisions that affect their lives.
“The Bill was backed unanimously by the Scottish Parliament and celebrated as a landmark by campaigners across the country.
“Today’s judgment will require careful consideration. But one thing is already crystal clear: the devolution settlement does not give Scotland the powers it needs.”
Scottish Secretary Alister Jack, who urged Mr Swinney to change the sections ruled incompetent by the Court, said: “As set out in the Scotland Act 1998, the Scottish Parliament cannot legislate outwith its areas of competence.
“As we have been clear, our concerns were never to do with the policy of the Bills, but about whether they are within the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament.
“We will continue to work collaboratively with the Scottish Government to address any competence concerns with future Scottish Parliament legislation.”
The local government Bill had started life as a member’s bill put forward by then Green MSP Andy Wightman in the last parliament.
Scottish Greens human rights spokesperson Maggie Chapman said: “This is a dark day for democracy in the UK.
“The fact the UK Government has used the courts to overturn a decision by the Scottish Parliament to protect the rights of children reveals their disregard for human rights and their true intentions when it comes to respecting the will of the devolved nations.
“The idea that this UK government sees international law and human rights as a hinderance to their policy decisions is chilling.
“On top of this, they want to impose those values on Scotland.
“Boris Johnson’s government is rewriting democracy to ensure the Conservatives have an in-built majority across the UK and can ignore the devolved parliaments.
“It is becoming clearer than ever that Scotland needs a way out, to chart a different path as a modern progressive nation that respects human rights and looks after our children.”
Alba MP Kenny MacAskill said: “This was always going to be the outcome and is the inevitable consequence of Devolution. It is the reason why we need Independence.
“This ruling is a full scale assault on the powers of the Scottish Parliament denying as it does the power over children’s rights laid down in the UN Convention on the rights of the Child and in legislation passed unanimously by the Scottish Parliament.
“If ever there was an argument for Independence this is it. Instead of yet more grand standing from the Scottish Government we need action.
“Only Independence can defend the Scottish people and the Scottish Parliament.”
Pamela Nash, chief executive of Scotland in Union, said: “This was nothing but irresponsible gameplaying by the SNP.
“This Bill had cross-party support and could have been implemented with some minor amendments, but the nationalists saw an opportunity for a constitutional fight instead.
“The people of Scotland deserve better than politicians who put grievance ahead of governance.
“This ruling is a reminder to the SNP Government which wants to waste more taxpayers’ money on a court battle over a second referendum that it should instead focus on using its extensive existing powers and stop trying to undermine devolution.”
Josh Kennedy, chair of the Scottish Youth Parliament, said: “There’s no hiding that children and young people who have campaigned for UNCRC incorporation for years were hoping their rights would be protected in Scots law by October, when the Bill passed in March.
“The onus is now on the Scottish Government to address the judgement made by the Supreme Court and work to bring forward a revised Bill to Parliament as soon as possible.
“As the technical issues raised in the Court are resolved, it’s vital that the work to prepare for incorporation continues to be done with children and young people’s views at its heart.
“SYP will continue to advocate for incorporation at the earliest possible date and work with the Scottish Government and public bodies to prepare them for UNCRC incorporation.”