Speech on our rights in Europe

Last week Clare spoke in the Parliamentary debate “Scotland’s place in the European Union; Protecting & Promoting Human Rights & Fundamental Freedoms“. You can see her contribution below. Full transcript below.



Without the benefits of EU human rights legislation, there is a strong possibility that I would not be here in this chamber; and it is not a stretch of the imagination to believe that many other women MSPs might not be here today either. EU legislation has ensured that my rights as a woman, an employee and a parent are all protected. In my working life before coming to Parliament, I was protected from employment practices in the workplace that would have discriminated against me and my family. Those rights continue to protect people in all walks of life every day, to ensure that equality is maintained, discrimination is tackled and, above all, fairness is enshrined in our legal system.

In the workplace, women are more likely to be in part-time work: 40 per cent of us work part time, compared to 12 per cent of men who do so. The EU has helped part-time workers gain equal pay and benefits to bring them into line with full-time colleagues. That, like so many progressive European policies, helps us all but benefits women and children most. EU law underpins the right of women to get paid time off for antenatal appointments, safeguards the rights of pregnant women in the workplace and guarantees maternity leave for mothers. I not only experienced those benefits as a working mother but, as a nurse in what is a predominantly female profession, I saw so many examples of other working mothers for whom time off and pay protection meant having both a career and a family.

The introduction of parental leave, which guarantees 18 weeks of leave for parents to care for and bond with their infant, was also a direct result of EU law; as is the right for parents and carers to take emergency leave to care for their children. Without those progressive measures, women would have remained second-class citizens in the workplace and the care of many thousands of children would have suffered. Although all workers have benefited from the protections guaranteed by Europe, women have doubly benefited. First, women’s legal protections rose to equal those of men, then all workers’ protections improved.

The Equal Pay Act 1970 was a landmark piece of legislation that prohibited unequal treatment of men and women in the workplace in terms of pay and conditions. The events that made that 1970 act happen were not exactly the forces of progressive leadership but a reaction to hard-fought industrial action by women and, ultimately, the UK’s impending obligations on joining the EEC. Progressive policies and workers’ rights have been hard won in Britain, but they are often underpinned by European legislation that absolutely requires the UK to comply. We should all be concerned that, without the pressure of the obligations that the UK is required to uphold as a condition of single market membership, progressive policies on workers’ rights will be at substantial risk from successive Administrations at Westminster.

As Ross Greer mentioned, we have already witnessed attacks on trade unions through recent legislation. We are in a period of uncertainty about the legal basis of so many of the rights that have improved the lives of everyone in this country. The repeal of the Human Rights Act 1998—an absolutely vital piece of legislation that further protects the rights of people in the UK across many areas, including employment—has already been promised by the Lord Chancellor. There is no better symbol of the Tories’ desire to shred the rights of ordinary working people than their commitment to repeal the Human Rights Act. Its promised replacement, a British bill of rights—who knows what that will contain—is of huge concern to all of us who care deeply about the impact of repealing the 1998 act. We are clear about who will be writing the legislation, and I have little confidence that Theresa May’s Government will draft a bill that provides the same level of protection for ordinary people. Thankfully for Scotland, European convention rights are embedded in the devolution settlement, and I am certain that many members in the chamber will not allow fundamental rights and freedoms to be removed at the whim of a UK Tory Government that we in Scotland did not vote for.

Even if we can, for a moment, take various Conservative ministers at their word when they say that our existing rights would not be cut back after leaving the EU, what guarantee do we have that the on-going development of rights on the continent would be matched here in the UK? The direction of travel in Europe for the rights of the individual is clear. Just one example is the EU’s spending nearly €6 billion between 2014 and 2020 on promoting gender equality, and there are repeated examples of the clear commitment to the rights of the individual that is core to the European project, going back to the Treaty of Rome in 1957. Maintaining and further developing individuals’ and workers’ rights will simply not be at the top of the agenda in Westminster for the foreseeable future. With the likelihood of UK Tory Governments for the next decade, whom should we in Scotland trust with the protection of our rights—the Scottish Government, which is doing all that it can to maintain connection and parity with Europe, or the Brexiteers, who are determined to cut what they see as red tape and the rest of us see as basic human dignity?

I am heartened to hear the Scottish Government’s determination to either retain our rights or ensure that this Parliament can legislate on these issues after Brexit. I think that most of the members in the chamber today will agree with me that the fundamental protections that are underwritten by Europe have been overwhelmingly positive for workers and for women. I whole-heartedly support the motion that seeks the retention of the hard-won rights of the people of Scotland.


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