Cautious welcome for human rights proposals in the Independence White Paper

Press Release from Scotland Against Criminalising Communities (SACC)
Wednesday 27 November 2013
For immediate release

SACC welcomes the emphasis on human rights that runs through the Scottish Government's White Paper on Independence, published this week. But we are disappointed that the White Paper does not give a clear indication that an independent Scotland would move quickly to repeal repressive legislation created by successive Westminster governments. We welcome the Scottish Government's promise to close Dungavel detention centre, but we think that further steps are urgently needed to protect the rights and welfare of asylum-seekers in Scotland.

SACC campaigns in Scotland in defence of human rights and does not take a view on whether or not Scotland should be an independent nation.

Richard Haley, Chair of SACC, said:

"Successive Westminster governments have talked about human rights with the sort of distaste that unscrupulous factory owners show for health and safety legislation. So it's a breath of fresh air to find that the Scottish Government's document warmly embraces human rights principles. And it's very encouraging to find that years of campaigning have paid off and that the Scottish Government will close Dungavel if it gets the chance.

"But I'm sorry to see that the Scottish Government has made no commitment to repeal or reform the repressive legislation that an independent Scotland would inherit from the UK – in particular the confused mass of anti-terror laws that have had such a damaging effect on the lives of minority communities in Scotland.

"I'm disappointed that the White Paper contains no firm measures to alleviate the hardship suffered by asylum-seekers in Scotland.

"And I'm frankly alarmed by the ambitious proposals put forward for a new Scottish intelligence and security agency, working closely with the discredited intelligence agencies south of the border and other partners – which would presumably include the US. The Scottish Government says that it would put the agency under democratic control. But it will be very difficult to control an agency as powerful as the one that the White Paper seems to envisage.

"People in Scotland need a security agency that will protect us from intrusion by agencies abroad, not one that will help other governments to spy on us."

Full Statement from SACC on the Scottish Government's White Paper on Independence

SACC is pleased to find that the Scottish Government is showing a firmer sense of its obligations towards asylum-seekers than any Westminster government has demonstrated for decades.

We are also pleased that the Scottish Government has undertaken to dispense with the secretive, dysfunctional and abusive collection of state intelligence outfits that currently operate in the UK and instead to set up a single, more or less democratically accountable, security and intelligence agency. But we find some of the capabilities promised for the new agency rather alarming. And we are disappointed to find a relentless emphasis on co-operation with external intelligence agencies, and no indication at all that Scotland's intelligence and security agency would act to protect the privacy of Scottish citizens from the intelligence agencies of other states.

Scotland will have a lot of work to do if it is to evolve into a country where everyone's rights are safe from abuse by the authorities. An independent Scotland will inherit from Westminster a large body of junk legislation dealing with immigration, asylum, extradition, terrorism and related matters. This legislation will remain in force under the principle of "continuity of laws", administered and enforced by Scottish authorities. All of this junk legislation needs to be repealed or overhauled.

Terrorism Legislation in Scotland

SACC has campaigned for a decade for the repeal of Britain's oppressive terrorism laws. Our London-based sister organisation, CAMPACC, has been campaigning against these laws for even longer.

Only a handful of people have been charged in Scotland with serious offences under the terrorism laws. Only one of these people – Mohammed Atif Siddique – was found guilty (in 2007). The offences for which he was convicted related mainly to activity on the internet and to possession of CDs and videos, and not to any specific plan to carry out an act of violence. His conviction for the most serious of these offences was overturned on appeal, leading to his immediate release from jail.

The only recent act of violence in Scotland that is generally attributed to terrorism was the incendiary attack on Glasgow airport in June 2007. The surviving attacker - Bilal Abdulla - was convicted in London of conspiracy to murder. Anti-terrorism powers didn't prevent the attack, and anti-terrorism laws were superfluous to the charge brought against Bilal Abdulla.

A large number of people have had to endure being questioned at Scottish ports and airports under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000, without the benefit of the right to silence that they would have if questioned by police in any other circumstances.

Many more people – especially Muslims – live with the risk of prosecution in connection with their political views as a result of the wide, vague, and politicised way in which offences are defined under the terrorism laws.

The banning under the Terrorism Act 2000 of a number of organisations that pose no terrorist threat to Scotland and are widely seen as liberation movements has undermined the political and cultural life, community cohesion and resilience of diaspora groups in Scotland. It has also given a green light for very serious and widespread human rights abuses by overseas regimes determined to suppress these groups. The massacre carried out by the Sri Lanka government in 2009 in the final stage of its war with the LTTE ('Tamil Tigers' – banned in the UK) is perhaps the most serious single incident of this kind to date.

Britain's terrorism laws are doing serious damage to civil society in Scotland. There isn't a shred of evidence that they have done anything at all to make people in Scotland safer. The repeal of these laws would be a straightforward matter and SACC would like to see an undertaking from the Scottish Government that, in an independent Scotland, it would introduce early legislation to achieve this.

Asylum in Scotland

SACC welcomes the commitment set out in the White Paper to close Dungavel detention centre. We and other groups have been campaigning for this for many years. SACC also welcomes the statement that "detention by default, along with the practice of dawn raids, would not form part of the current Scottish Government’s proposed approach to asylum."

We hope that the Scottish Government will now make it clear that it agrees with us that asylum-seekers should never be detained except in circumstances under which a British citizen would be detained, for example while awaiting trial on criminal charges.

The Scottish Government says in its White Paper that asylum applications in an independent Scotland would be overseen by a Scottish Asylum Agency. This is a welcome move that should help to create an official culture that focuses on meeting the needs of asylum-seekers instead of viewing them as a threat to the security of our borders. It is to be hoped that the Scottish Asylum Agency would be less likely than the UK Home Office to reject asylum applications on unreasonable, arbitrary or inhumane grounds. However, any appeal by an asylum-seeker against refusal would be made under the terms of current UK legislation that is heavily skewed against asylum-seekers. It is disappointing that the White Paper contains no indication that the Scottish Government would introduce fairer asylum laws.

The pattern of settlement by asylum-seekers in Scotland is at the moment mainly determined by UK Government policy. The overwhelming majority of Scotland's asylum-seekers enter the UK south of the border. Any asylum-seekers entering the UK at Scottish ports or airports must travel to Croydon to lodge their asylum claim. Wherever they enter the UK, unless they have friends or family they can stay with, they are sent to live at a location chosen for them under the UK government's dispersal policy.

If the current pattern of settlement by asylum-seekers continues up to the Scottish Government's proposed independence day in March 2016, Scotland will most likely inherit around 2000 asylum-seekers living in poor housing and poverty in Glasgow. And it will inherit an unpredictable but substantially smaller number of asylum-seekers who are facing absolute destitution under UK legislation that deprives them of publicly-funded support if they have been refused asylum and don't either have a new claim or an appeal in progress, or agree to co-operate in their own deportation.

An independent Scotland could deal with this legacy in a variety of ways, for example by granting an "amnesty" to allow current asylum-seekers the right to stay in Scotland and/or by making an immediate change to the law to provide adequate support for all asylum-seekers in Scotland. It could allow asylum-seekers the right to work. Disappointingly, the White Paper sets out no measures of this sort.

The Scottish Government says that it "will continue Scotland’s present approach of promoting the integration of refugees and asylum seekers from the day they arrive, not just once leave to remain has been granted (as is the case in the rest of the UK)."

But continuing the present approach isn't enough. An independent Scotland should use its sovereignty to tackle the desperate material barriers that asylum-seekers must overcome if they are to integrate.

Regrettably, it seems that the Scottish Government intends to give asylum-seekers no more access to the welfare system than they have at present. The Questions and Answer section of the White Paper says:

"Asylum seekers and immigrants will have access to the welfare system. On independence, existing UK rules will apply."

State intelligence and security in Scotland

The Scottish Government's plans to re-shape the intelligence and security apparatus in an independent Scotland are broadly to be welcomed. However, some of the proposals in the White Paper raise the prospect that Scotland will simply re-create the kind of overweening intelligence apparatus that blights life in the UK, the US and other countries. For example, it says:

"As well as traditional covert capability, we will invest in the means to analyse the vast amount of information which is openly available, and to develop our capacity for strategic assessment."

It isn't entirely clear what this means, but it may suggest that the security and intelligence agency in an independent Scotland would massively and intrusively aggregate, store and analyse data openly available on social networks and through other internet services.

The Scottish Government says:

"In an independent Scotland, legislation will set out clear arrangements for investigatory powers, building on – and updating where necessary – the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (Scotland) Act 2000. Our planned legislation will ensure that law enforcement agencies have the powers that they need to do their job and keep Scotland safe, while also clarifying the limit of those powers and the extent of the controls over them."

But the Scottish Government has a lacklustre track record on protecting privacy. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers (Scotland) Act 2000 reproduces those parts of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, introduced by the Blair government, that relate to devolved matters. It covers surveillance activities by local councils. The Scottish Government has not yet used the powers that it already possesses under the current constitutional arrangements to protect Scottish people against this kind of surveillance. It has yet to match even the modest reforms introduced south of the border in 2012 through the Protection of Freedoms Act.

The Scottish Government says that, in an independent Scotland, it "will bring democratic control of our national security to Scotland for the first time." But the White Paper also places a strong emphasis on co-operation and intelligence-sharing between Scotland's security and intelligence agency and "international partners", especially the UK.

It seems inevitable, in view of the hubris and overreach of British and US intelligence agencies, that Scotland's democratic institutions will find themselves in collision with the security and intelligence agency's wish to work closely with international partners.

Regrettably, the Scottish Government has so far shown little capacity to uphold democratic values in the face of pressure from the British state. It has not used the powers that it already possesses to investigate the possible role of British and Scottish officials in the misuse of Scottish airports by US rendition flights. And it has not used the powers that it already possesses to hold an inquiry into the flawed police investigation into the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, the unfair trial of the bombing suspects conducted by a Scottish court sitting in the Netherlands in 2000-2001, and the rotten role played in these events by Scotland's Crown Office.

The White Paper on Independence holds out the promise of a decent Scotland in which all our rights are protected. But it also gives a taste of some of the issues on which democratic forces need to challenge the Scottish Government.

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More Information

The Independence White Paper