John’s Speech as Justice Committee Human Rights Rapporteur

John Finnie:

I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests, which states that I am a member of Amnesty International.

As the Justice Committee’s rapporteur on the SNAP process, I welcome the opportunity to close the debate on behalf of the committee. Like our convener and the other members, I am pleased that the committee is engaged in the SNAP process and I am delighted that we have secured this inaugural debate, which comes a few days before international human rights day.

I, too, am glad that the SNAP process is up and running. I congratulate Professor Miller and the SNAP leadership panel on a productive first year. I commend the panel on a first-class annual report and I echo many members’ comments about its user-friendly nature. Perhaps that is a point on which other public bodies could act.

It was particularly encouraging to hear from Professor Miller last week that the human rights approach that is taken in Scotland is perceived internationally as being one of the most collaborative in Europe. Having spoken to Professor Miller today at another meeting, I know that he has just returned from the Ukraine. It is great that Scotland’s position on human rights is viewed positively on the international stage.

Securing this debate has been a positive development and I have enjoyed listening to the speeches.

The convener spoke about the comprehensive résumé of SNAP and outlined the role that the Justice Committee plays in that regard. Of particular significance was the phrase, “all the time”, because we consider human rights as regards all aspects of our undertaking.

I welcome the cabinet secretary to his new portfolio. I commend his use of the words, “protected, respected and realised”. That is terribly important, and he certainly outlined values that everyone in the chamber would sign up to, not least those of democratic renewal and the gaps that are to be filled. Like others, I welcome the announcement. Raising awareness is terribly important.

Elaine Murray talked about the Human Rights Act 1998 and the recent vote that we had. She said that human rights are not embedded in our law and listed some of the challenges that that gives rise to. She also talked about the need for cultural change—particularly with a gender perspective—around a number of women’s issues. That was important.

Margaret Mitchell referred to the action plan as being inclusive and collaborative in approach, which is entirely right. She went on to talk about the effect that that has on ownership of the plan, describing it as a live and vibrant plan. She laid out some of the criminal justice challenges that come with human rights. I commend the apologies legislation to which Margaret Mitchell alluded and welcome Conservative Party support for the motion.

Roderick Campbell talked about the need to protect the individual citizen and the wider role of human rights in that, particularly with reference to care homes. The suggestion of a career structure for workers in that important industry is an important one. Roderick Campbell also talked about the commitment of civic Scotland to human rights and the approach that we have seen there.

If I understood him correctly, John Pentland commendably said that he would oppose any attempt to undermine human rights, and I hope that we would all subscribe to that. He talked about the connection between violence against women and slavery and, like him, I hope for the bill that has come out of Jenny Marra’s hard work in that field.

Alison McInnes talked about why rights matter and awareness. She mentioned the issue that has exercised a number of committees: stop and search and the voluntary versus statutory nature of that. That particular example highlights the competing element of the rights-based approach. She also talked about the measuring process and the rights of the disenfranchised, citing mental health patients. That is a recurring theme.

David Stewart (Highlands and Islands) (Lab) Intervention: 

Is the member aware that the Public Petitions Committee, which I have the honour of convening, has recently heard a petition that argues that the lack of legal aid for defamation cases breaches human rights? Does the member agree?

John Finnie: 

Access to justice is a fundamental human right and there are challenges around the financing of such legal aid along with competing demands. Certainly if access to justice is not achieved it is a right denied.

Graeme Pearson talked about freedom of information and the fact that the citizen needs to trust the authorities. That is very important.

The action plan is a bold and holistic vision covering a number of policy areas that are being looked at. Health and social care was mentioned along with the rights in there that are used to justify the safety of individuals. The work that is being done to ensure justice for the victims of historic child abuse is particularly welcome, as is the development of a comprehensive human rights strategy on violence against women, and I think that we will hear more about that later this afternoon.

The action that SNAP is taking to embed human rights in the structures and culture of policing is obviously of considerable interest to the Justice Committee and the sub-committee on policing. We will watch developments there with interest, particularly as we consider the issues of stop and search and armed police. We certainly welcome SNAP’s focus on those key areas.

The Justice Committee has sought to consider human rights in our everyday work. We have asked difficult questions of decision makers on issues such as police complaints and investigations, prison monitoring and visiting arrangements, women offenders, modern slavery and, of course, stop and search. As we consider the Prisoners (Control of Release) (Scotland) Bill, human rights considerations will be at the forefront of our minds, as they will be when we consider the human trafficking legislation and the legislation on fatal accident inquiries.

As rapporteur, I will continue to meet Professor Alan Miller to discuss the progress of SNAP. The committee will continue to engage constructively on those issues. As the convener said, we will be a critical friend of the process and will support the leadership panel in delivering SNAP while holding it and its partners to account to ensure that its objectives are delivered.

The second Secretary-General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjöld, said:

“‘Freedom from fear’ could be said to sum up the whole philosophy of human rights.”

As a Parliament we want to help to build a Scotland of confident and fearless citizens who are able to reach their potential free from fear, free from barriers and free from discrimination. With the European convention on human rights incorporated into Scots law under the Scotland Act 1998, this Parliament has human rights embedded in its DNA.

I very much enjoyed today’s debate. I welcome the SNAP annual report and the fact that there have already been tangible results. I welcome the fact that SNAP is gaining international renown and I welcome its ambition for a sustainable human rights culture in all areas of our lives.

I hope that we as a Parliament, we as a Justice Committee and we as individual members and citizens can help to turn that ambition into reality by 2018.

I support Christine Grahame’s motion.

John finds it worrying that armed officers routinely attend non-firearms incidents

20th May 2014:

The failure of Police Scotland to recognise any possible downside to deploying visibly armed officers to non-firearms incidents is worrying.

I have invited my fellow Highlands and Islands MSPs to join my meeting with Assistant Chief Constable Higgins this coming Friday, in Inverness to discuss this situation.

Today I asked the Cabinet Secretary for Justice about this issue during topical questions, you can read the transcript below.

Question to Cabinet Secretary for Justice -Topical Questions

John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) (Ind): Was a community impact assessment undertaken in the Highlands and Islands before the decision to deploy armed response vehicle officers overtly carrying firearms to routine non-firearms-related incidents?

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice (Kenny MacAskill): I cannot answer that. Mr Finnie would have to ask the former chief constable of Northern Constabulary, Mr Graham, now retired, and the former board of the Northern Constabulary. It may be that he would want to speak to former board members; he may be acquainted with some of them.

You can watch the exchange here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=osHMx1uNHJY&list=UUMfSH3HULOeoeEbxHkqF21A#t=603

16th May 2014: I wrote an article written for ‘Sunday Mail’ on the 18th of May, you can read it below. 

“My background as a former police officer with 30 years’ service means that I am frequently approached by constituents about police matters.

Several weeks ago a mother spoke to me after her sons told her they’d seen ‘police with guns’ walking through a supermarket car-park.

I assumed at the time that the boy had made a mistake and he had seen the officer’s baton and handcuffs rather than any firearm.

Last week I received a complaint from a member of the public that armed officers were to be seen in the streets of Inverness when nightclubs close in the early hours.

I was then informed by Police Scotland that a decision had been taken- following the creation of the single national force a year ago – to allow a limited number of trained ARV (Armed Response Vehicle) officers to overtly deploy their sidearms.

I was alarmed by this significant change in police firearms policy and wondered how, as a Member of the Parliament’s Justice and Police Committees, I was not told.

When the former Strathclyde force sought to routinely deploy Tasers those interested in police accountability, such as Amnesty, were rightly outraged.

Policing by consent is a foundation-stone of the Scottish Police Service and the community style of policing of the north of Scotland has played a significant part in ensuring good public relations, making it the safest place in the UK.

The former Northern Constabulary had an armed response vehicle.

Should a firearm related incident need their attendance, the officers on patrol would seek authorisation from a senior officer to remove their weapons from the locked safe in the boot of the vehicle.

This worked very well so why the change?

I have posed a considerable number of questions to Police Scotland including who was consulted and whether a community impact assessment was done.

The threat to the Highlands and Islands didn’t suddenly increase at midnight on the 1st April last year.  Quite the reverse, we were all assured that our excellent community policing model would be retained, indeed enhanced by the availability of all the additional shared resources.

I have already had a meeting with Police Scotland with another planned for next week to which I have invited all Highlands and Islands MSPs – this is a community relations, not a party political issue.

We need to understand how guns can now be seen on our streets.

Police Scotland must provide the answers rather than question those now raising legitimate public concerns.”

13th May 2014: I wrote to Assistant Chief Constable Bernard Higgins asking him the questions below.

  • Who took the decision?
  • Based on what criteria?
  • Following discussion with whom?
  • Was a risk assessment prepared and, if so, is that risk assessment available to the public?
  • What community impact assessment was made?
  • What part, if any, did the changed policy play in the compilation of local policing plans?
  • Whilst recognising the managerial ease having a single system apply across Scotland brings, what regional factors, if any, were considered prior to reaching the decision?
  • Crucially, are you suggesting that the prior to the change of policy that residents of the Highlands and Islands were somehow at risk as a result of Northern Constabulary’s ARV policy? If so, it would be helpful if you could please outline the specific short-comings and what implications there were for the public.
  • In stating “standing authority also allows them (ARV officers) to deal with an immediate threat as a result of an unexpected encounter” you can please outline how unarmed officers are expected “to deal with an immediate threat as a result of an unexpected encounter”?

 

12th May 2014: Article from ‘the Herald’:  http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/home-news/highlands-row-over-armed-police.24188744