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Holyrood legal warning on UN children’s rights as UK Government steps in

Deputy First Minister John Swinney.
Deputy First Minister John Swinney.

Holyrood laws enshrining UN children’s rights in Scotland could be blocked after a legal warning from the UK Government.

Scottish Secretary Alister Jack said he does not have a problem with the policy aim but said MSPs might have overstepped parliament’s powers in key areas.

The move ignited another argument on where powers should lie just as the Scottish Parliament shut down for the election campaign.

Mr Jack, a Scottish Conservative MP, also raised concerns over legislation incorporating the European Charter of Local Self-Government in Scotland.

He wrote to Scotland’s deputy first minister, John Swinney, asking for changes and confirming law officers could refer both Bills to the Supreme Court.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child was passed at Holyrood on March 16. It made Scotland the first “devolved” nation to put it into domestic law.

I would have preferred not to have been in this situation.”

Alister Jack

The convention makes it unlawful for public authorities to act against its requirements.

The UK Government argues it constrains Westminster, which has ultimate power, from passing some laws in Scotland – which is against the devolved settlement.

In a letter to Mr Swinney, the Scottish Secretary said he would use the four-week period from the passage of a Bill in Holyrood until it receives royal assent to decide whether it should be blocked or referred to the Supreme Court.

The last time this happened was in a row over Brexit legislation passed at Holyrood.

‘Different views’

Mr Jack wrote: “While the UK Government and Scottish Government have different views on the benefits of incorporating conventions into statute, as set out above we respect Scottish Parliament’s ability to legislate on this in devolved areas.

“However, doubt about the competence of specific provisions in the Bill serves no one.

“I would have preferred not to have been in this situation. We do all we can to respect the devolution settlement and resolve disputes.”

children's rights
Alister Jack.

“This need for clarity, not just for us, but for the children the UNCRC Bill is intended to protect and the stakeholders who represent them, is why I think it is essential that both governments respect the devolution settlement and we work collaboratively to resolve issues.”

Mr Swinney referred to the potential flashpoint during a speech on the UN convention on March 16.

He accused Mr Jack of writing “menacing” letters and claimed Holyrood’s powers are under “sustained assault” – an accusation the Scottish Secretary said is “in no way the case”.

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