Commissioner for Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill

– in the Scottish Parliament at 3:30 pm on 26 March 2003.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party 3:30, 26 March 2003

The next item of business is a debate on motion S1M-3862, in the name of Karen Gillon, that the Commissioner for Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill be passed.

Photo of Karen Gillon Karen Gillon Labour 3:44, 26 March 2003

It is with great pride and honour that I will move the motion on behalf of the Education, Culture and Sport Committee. I begin with some wise words from Sir Walter Scott.

Photo of Karen Gillon Karen Gillon Labour

The words good and Tory are not ones that I would naturally put together, but let us move on.

Sir Walter Scott stated:

"Children know—instinctive taught, the friend or foe".

What our bill will do is to create a friend—a powerful friend—for all of Scotland's children and young people.

The bill provides us with a once-in-a-generation opportunity: it gives us the chance to make a real difference by creating an independent, high-profile and influential post. The Commissioner for Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill will, I believe, prove the most significant legacy that we, the members of the first Scottish Parliament in 300 years, can leave our children and our children's children.

Children form one fifth of our population; they are the future on which Scotland will be built. Henry James said:

"To believe in a child is to believe in the future".

We will establish a commissioner who believes in children. In return, the commissioner will, I hope, come to justify the trust and respect that are placed in them. Our bill will put in place a commissioner armed not only with statutory powers, but with what my colleague Ian Jenkins called a "moral authority".

The very ethos of our bill is that the commissioner will be answerable to children and young people. The post of children's commissioner will be significant: it will give children and young people a voice and a power that have previously been denied to them. It is intended that the commissioner will make a difference to them and to them alone.

At stage 2, I recall that one member of the ad hoc committee queried the title of the bill and asked whether something more child-friendly might not be preferable. Drafting convention does not allow us to call the commissioner post a "children's friend", but I assure the chamber that our bill will not create a mere ombudsman or faceless functionary. If that were the case, I for one would not have supported the bill that is before us today. I believe that we are putting in place an advocate, a campaigner, a champion—even a tsar. We are putting in place someone who will take the views of children and young people seriously and will put them at the top of his or her agenda.

To reiterate our position, I want to address briefly two other issues that were raised at stage 2. The first comes under the heading of co-operation. The job of the commissioner will be to promote rights—encouraging change rather than imposing it. In other words, we are talking about mainstreaming. To do that job well, the commissioner will need to develop working relationships with others to avoid duplication, minimise overlap and enable their post to perform effectively.

The second issue concerns investigations, which was the subject that generated most external comment on our bill. Given the onus on mainstreaming, we expect investigations to be a small but important part of the commissioner's work. The commissioner will not be able to investigate matters that are covered by the functions of other organisations; that is explicit in the bill. In doing so, the commissioner could allow other organisations to renege on their responsibility to take the views of children and young people seriously. However, there is nothing to prevent the commissioner from providing an input into an investigation by another body. That point brings me back to the importance of co-operation in the development of the children's commissioner post.

I want to convey some much-deserved thanks. First and foremost, I thank all the children and young people who contributed to our inquiry, some of whom are in the public gallery today. They deserve our particular thanks for the perspective and consideration that they brought to the bill. I hope that those children and young people will be happy with the work that the Parliament has done for them.

I also thank the agencies who gave evidence to the Education, Culture and Sport Committee under the Scotland for Children banner and others who have campaigned on the issue for more than a decade. Some of them are present in the public gallery today and their input and support were crucial.

Strangely, I thank members of the Scottish media who have raised awareness of the issue in many different quarters over the past number of years. Members of the Scottish media took the issue seriously and analysed it in some detail. They may not always have agreed with everything that was proposed, but they gave us the opportunity to have the debate in public. I thank them for that.

I also thank all members of the Education, Culture and Sport Committee, past and present, who made my life as convener a lot easier. I pay particular thanks to Jackie Baillie and Irene McGugan, who did such a great job as reporters to refine our policy and prepare the detailed amendments. I thank our wonderful clerks, past and present, who kept us right throughout the inquiry. I assure members that that was not an easy job.

I never thought that I would find myself thanking Kay Ullrich, but I do so for her capable stewardship of the ad hoc committee at stage 2. I also thank all members of the Commissioner for Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill Committee for their time and detailed scrutiny of the issues.

I thank the Minister for Education and Young People, whose support and enthusiasm we have very much appreciated, and I thank the Deputy Minister for Education and Young People for the work that he has done. I also thank the former minister, Sam Galbraith, whose input originally led us to consider our inquiry. I thank Alison Cleland, the adviser who saw us though most of the inquiry and our first report. Alison had a clear grasp of the subject and helped the committee to develop the arguments that we are making today. I thank our draftsman, whose excellent work produced such a clear and concise bill. Last, but not least, I thank the non-Executive bills unit, whose tremendous work rate and commitment to seeing the bill through enabled us to get to this point although many either hoped or believed that we would not make it. Our thanks go to all those without whom we would not have made it to this point.

Let me provide a brief reminder of how we arrived here. The Education, Culture and Sport Committee began its inquiry into the need for a children's commissioner in the spring of 2001. It reported in early 2002, produced a further report in the summer of 2002 and introduced the bill at the end of 2002. Should we agree to pass the bill this afternoon—and I guess that we will—a commissioner could be in place early in 2004.

The committee has always striven to make the process as accessible as possible. A press release at stage 1 from Scotland for Children said that the committee should be congratulated on its approach. It said:

"All of those involved have been impressed with the level of transparency, openness and consultation that has accompanied the progress of this Bill ... the Committee has clearly listened to the wide range of evidence presented by children and young people themselves, along with a wide range of agencies".

I have also been told that the manner in which we produced the bill is exactly what was hoped for from the new Parliament—and that comes from those in the voluntary sector, who have such high expectations of us. I think that we can take some pride in that.

I underline the fact that this is a committee bill and emphasise the benefits of the Parliament's ability to initiate legislation. It gives the committees the power, and the responsibility, not only to identify problems, but to come up with solutions and, rather than just talk about them, put them into practice. It gives those who are not members of the Scottish Executive the power to make positive changes, and it encourages members of committees to work constructively together, as it is only in that way that a committee can hope to produce its own legislation.

The Education, Culture and Sport Committee's approach to the bill has been one of consensus and co-operation. It takes more than rhetoric to develop policy and produce something useful and workable. I believe that we have done just that, and that we have shown that the new politics can work if we let it—something that will perhaps be forgotten in the coming month.

I will do a bit more name dropping, although I would not try to outdo Mike Russell's column in The Herald. Oscar Wilde said:

"I am not young enough to know everything."

How true. He also wrote:

"Few parents nowadays pay any regard to what their children say to them. The old-fashioned respect for the young is fast dying out".

We would be foolish not to accept the fact that children and young people have a superior knowledge of their world. Life has changed a lot since even I was a teenager, 16 years ago, and we must acknowledge and try to understand that change. Children and young people need to know that their knowledge is valued and that their opinions are worthwhile. We want a commissioner who will listen to their views, so that something can be done about their views instead of their being sprayed on a wall. In return, we should be able to expect children and young people to take their responsibility in the process seriously and to engage with the new post.

So, what does the bill do? I do not intend to dwell on the detail; we have been going over it for a long time. In short, the bill establishes a commissioner who will be independent; publicly funded; remitted to promote the rights of children and young people; obliged to encourage the involvement of children and young people in his or her work; and under a duty to report to the Parliament with any recommendations. To whom will the work of the commissioner be most relevant? Naturally, it will relate to school children, teenagers, young people in care, toddlers, everyone up to the age of 18 and those up to the age of 21 who have been looked after by a local authority. Of course, the bill will be of interest to parents, teachers, child care workers, social workers, community education workers, health professionals and anyone who works or deals with children. Undoubtedly, the bill will also concern us, as politicians, and our officials, service providers and the media—in other words, all of us who make and shape policy.

Children are not only our future, they are our present, and we must start to take their views seriously. We must give them every opportunity to speak and we must listen carefully to what they have to say. We must encourage them to participate in the decision-making processes that affect their lives. The principles of consultation, participation and accessibility underpin the bill.

Of course, we can always learn from the experience of others. We took evidence from children's commissioners throughout Europe, including Wales, and we have kept an eye on developments in Ireland. Recently, I met Trond Vaage, the Norwegian ombudsman for children. He highlighted several approaches that our commissioner might follow: flexibility, creativity, innovation, agenda setting and having children rather than professionals in the driving seat. He also emphasised the fact that there should be no hidden agenda if the commissioner is to have credibility, which is crucial for earning children's trust.

As I have said in previous debates, I was originally in the sceptics' camp on the need for a children's commissioner. I did not believe that we should create another talking shop. The evidence that I heard during the committee's inquiry changed that view. Becoming a mother perhaps also played its part. I want us all to consider the bigger picture and to take a cultural perspective because, as a society, we have a rather contradictory view of children and young people. We regard them either as angels or as devils, who are to be protected or punished.

The unhappy reality is that children tend to be treated in the adult world as if they were invisible beings and not even seen, never mind heard. That is true for all children and young people, but particularly for those who are marginalised and vulnerable. We believe that the commissioner, in speaking for all children, must ensure that all voices are heard. The fantastic Dr Seuss once suggested that adults are obsolete children. I hope that we will stop treating our children as incomplete adults.

I have a final quote. According to Robert Louis Stevenson, "Youth is wholly experimental." If that is the case, let us do everything possible to make it a safe, happy and successful experiment for clann na h-Alba, which, for Mike Russell's information, is Gaelic for children in Scotland.

It gives this obsolete child great pleasure to move the motion. I move,

That the Parliament agrees that the Commissioner for Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill be passed.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

I call Nicol Stephen to speak for the Executive. I will give everyone else a notional five minutes, but we have a bit of time in hand.

Photo of Nicol Stephen Nicol Stephen Liberal Democrat 3:58, 26 March 2003

I congratulate Karen Gillon and the other members of the Education, Culture and Sport Committee on the work that they have done in progressing the bill to establish a commissioner for children and young people.

At the start of her speech, Karen Gillon talked about "wise words" in reference to Sir Walter Scott. I give special mention to Ian Jenkins and thank him for his many wise words in the committee and the chamber. [Applause.] He is about to stand down from the Parliament, but I emphasise how much I have valued his support and how widely respected, I believe, is his contribution to the work of the Education, Culture and Sport Committee and the Parliament.

The Education, Culture and Sport Committee responded to a request from the Scottish Executive to consider the case for establishing a children's commissioner in Scotland, but I guess that the committee decided to go one better than that by driving forward and creating a children's commissioner. The committee made the case effectively and has progressed a bill that will ensure that Scotland will have a commissioner for children and young people. I think that MSPs from all sides of the chamber will strongly support the bill; indeed, I am reliably informed that what might appear to be the rather unusual combination of Margaret Ewing and Jim Wallace pushed—during the progress of the Children (Scotland) Bill in 1995—Lord James Douglas-Hamilton to introduce a children's commissioner.

In the final week of the parliamentary session, it is worth reflecting for a moment on Parliament's achievements. Parliament's creation has allowed us to consider children's issues in a way that was not possible previously. Many would argue that there was a gap of too many years after 1995—until the new Parliament—before children's issues returned to being high on our list of priorities. The creation of the Scottish Parliament has allowed us to introduce legislation that will meet the needs of children and young people—children should be at the heart of Parliament's agenda. The Executive is committed to building a Scotland in which every child matters and in which every child and young person can realise their potential. That is why we all support the establishment of the new commissioner.

The commissioner for children and young people will help to give a powerful voice to the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children in Scotland and will help to tackle child poverty and exploitation. Too many tragic and harrowing cases of the system failing children in Scotland still occur. It is important that we support all children and young people, but the commissioner will be able to make the greatest impact by focusing on our most vulnerable children.

I welcome the bill's emphasis on involving and consulting children and young people. I was interested in what some young people said when they were asked about the role of a commissioner for children and young people. They said that they wanted a commissioner who would "change people's attitudes", and who would

"help children be heard in Scotland".

They wanted a commissioner who would

"promote the rights of children. Make sure everyone knows."

One participant said that

"children might have ideas which could change Scotland but how will they know" if nobody asks.

The Parliament has a good record on including children and young people, but it must go further. A commissioner for children and young people will help us all to drive forward the agenda. It is vital that our commissioner engage with children and young people to find out what matters to them and what their priorities and concerns are. Only by doing that effectively will a commissioner reflect the views and priorities of children and young people.

It is important that the commissioner should do all that is reasonably possible to include children who might be harder to reach, such as children who might have communication difficulties, whose first language is not English, who are from an ethnic minority or who have disabilities.

The commissioner will need to build strong links with other agencies to avoid duplication of work and to ensure that he or she adds value and is used in the most effective way. I am sure that a commissioner will want to build on the expertise of existing organisations and to develop solid co-operative working arrangements with other agencies and ombudsmen. A strong focus should be placed on the commissioner's work with the many excellent voluntary sector organisations that work with young people.

I am convinced that a commissioner can make a major difference to the lives of children and young people; the bill sets the framework for that. Today marks the end of the bill process and the start of a major new development for Scotland's children. I am pleased to support the establishment of the first commissioner for children and young people in Scotland.

Photo of Irene McGugan Irene McGugan Scottish National Party 4:03, 26 March 2003

Anyone who needs to be convinced of the varied nature of the legislation that the Parliament is passing could do worse than look at our business programme for this afternoon. In the space of an hour or two, we have considered the Council of the Law Society of Scotland Bill, the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries (Consolidation) (Scotland) Bill, the National Galleries of Scotland Bill and the Commissioner for Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill.

All members of the Education, Culture and Sport Committee share my satisfaction that we have successfully produced our first committee bill, which is an achievement in itself, but we are also mindful that the bill is significant. It has special significance not only for the MSPs who were involved in shaping it, but for the many individuals and organisations throughout Scotland that campaigned for such a post for many years.

The committee took a deliberate decision early to involve as many representatives of children's organisations from all sectors as possible when the bill went through its earlier legislative stages. That had benefits for everybody concerned, because information was shared and concerns were raised in an on-going and open way. I have no doubt that that is why stage 2 was short and sweet and why there have been only three amendments today. I whole-heartedly commend that process to any other committee that initiates a bill.

It would be remiss of me not to thank the ministers and the Executive for their support. Progress would undoubtedly have been considerably slower and much less smooth without such endorsement of our intentions. I also endorse the convener's thanks to everyone else involved, especially the committee's clerking team and the non-Executive bills unit, whom I thank for their considerable assistance.

However, as others have said, the most important contributors were, perhaps, the many children and young people who participated in our consultation events, focus groups, videos and all the other things that we arranged: their views have been very influential. I hope that they know that and realise that their contributions have been genuinely valuable.

I, too, am pleased that so many young people have been in the public gallery this afternoon. Of course, their contribution does not stop with the bill. We have made great efforts to incorporate into the bill the ethos that their continuing input is vital. The office's work will at all times be informed by the views of children and young people; indeed, the bill contains a duty to involve them.

There was initially some concern that the commissioner might be merely another layer of bureaucracy. That is not the case: the commissioner will be a new, significant and unique office and will provide a focused approach to promoting and safeguarding the rights of children and young people. The provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child will underpin the work.

The commissioner will also be powerful. That power will derive from being a statutory creation, from being independent of the Executive and the Parliament, from being credible—with children and young people driving work and prioritisation—and from the political input that exists in a direct route to Parliament through the commissioner's duty to report. That will all contribute to the establishment of a real champion of children's rights who is genuinely in touch with the issues that are of concern to young people and the organisations that represent them.

A number of young people have asked when the bill will become law and the commissioner will be in office. If the Parliament agrees today that the bill be passed, a commissioner could be in office by early 2004. After so many years of waiting, it is very good to have such a definite time scale.

The bill can be a lasting legacy of the Parliament for future generations. There can be no better role for a Parliament than to improve the situation of Scotland's children and young people, to promote their involvement in the legislative process and to encourage them to see the Parliament's relevance. We trust that that will contribute positively to how our young people relate to wider society.

As one young person said,

"The Commissioner isn't someone standing up for you, it's someone to help you stand up for yourself."

I hope sincerely that that will be the case. I ask members to vote for the bill.

Photo of Brian Monteith Brian Monteith Conservative 4:08, 26 March 2003

I am pleased to support the bill. I remember Jackie Baillie's reaction the first time I announced my support—I swear that I saw her face change. My support did not seem to be quite right and she was rather surprised because I, like Karen Gillon, had been in the sceptical camp. However, the bill and the preceeding inquiry convinced me that the bill was the right way to proceed.

The bill needed to be limited in its ambition. A number of people felt and still feel that the bill should go further, but it has struck the right balance in seeking to provide for a commissioner for children and young people who will, in general, seek to safeguard children's rights.

The bill is a model for future committee bills, especially given the way in which its market or consumers—the children—were consulted. We should pay due regard to the work of the clerks and the parliamentary officers in helping to organise that consultation.

For Conservatives, one of the advantages of committee bills is that they allow us to have a hand in shaping the legislation that reaches the statute book while we are in Opposition. Of course, we will not need to use committee bills for that after 1 May. [MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I was just trying to lighten the debate a little there—[Laughter.]—and I appreciate the laughter, canned or otherwise.

The bill has achieved what it set out to do—it does what it says on the tin. There was, initially, some disagreement in the Education, Culture and Sport Committee, but we have achieved what committees are often conceived to do: we achieved consensus. In this case, consensus was not achieved by sacrificing principles, but by debating and discussing the issues and finding out what we agreed on. That is what consensus should be about.

It is important that we pay tribute to the non-Executive bills unit, which worked so hard for the committee, and to the clerks that supported the committee. We should also pay tribute to Jack McConnell who, after some lobbying, decided that it was better that he did not take it upon the Executive to take charge of the bill. It was good that he did not do that, because I fear that it might then have become a more partisan project, which would not have benefited Scotland's children.

For all those reasons, I am pleased that the bill has reached this stage. The bill has good intentions behind it; I think that it will live up to those intentions and that it is worthy of Parliament's support.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour 4:12, 26 March 2003

I welcome all converts, even Brian Monteith, but I doubt that I will ever again be surprised by his actions.

What do children have to do with politics? In some cases, everything and, in others, very little. It is time for that to change. Almost every time the Parliament passes a bill, it has an impact on children somewhere along the line. With a few notable exceptions, children are often overlooked in the decision-making process, so I am proud to say that the Commissioner for Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill is one such exception. Children have been listened to during the drafting of the bill and we can now ensure that they continue to be heard.

I believe that a commissioner will make a significant difference to Scotland's children. The commissioner will be an individual who has access to policy makers and who has listened to children. The commissioner will be a champion for children and will advocate their views and concerns. As we have heard, the bill is the product of long consultation of children and those who work with children.

I take this opportunity to add my thanks to all those who took the time to help us in the bill's development, from voluntary organisations—who have campaigned for such legislation for at least a decade—to local authorities and children of all ages. The bill shows the considerable potential of Parliament's committees. Committees can—I point out to Brian Monteith—do more than provide an opportunity for party-political rantings. There has been a great deal of co-operation and consensus on the bill at every stage.

I echo the comments that were made by the convener of the Education, Culture and Sport Committee: we owe a special debt of thanks to the non-Executive bills unit which was, I confess, pushed to the very limit of its endurance. However, its staff came through on the other side still smiling. I also thank the committee's clerks, who helped to keep the show on the road. It is also necessary to thank the Minister and Deputy Minister for Education and Young People and the Scottish Executive for their support in getting the bill through.

Let us step back, however, and remember why we are doing this. The Labour party has long believed that the provision of good co-ordinated children's services is key to the delivery of our social justice agenda for children. We believe firmly that there must be a clear and accountable approach to children's services, which is why we support the establishment of a children's commissioner as a champion who will fight for children's interests. We are doing this in recognition of the facts that the protection of children is an on-going issue and that, as the social environment changes, so do the challenges that are faced by children.

Although a host of new opportunities are available to children today, there are also new dangers through the internet, drugs or crime, and children are now more likely than ever to be brought up in broken families. Consequently, they are more likely than ever to need support and they must, as vulnerable members of our society, be protected. It is all too easy for us, as politicians, to get caught up in an adult-centric world. A children's commissioner will keep us in touch with our children's changing world.

We are also introducing the measure because we do not want to wait for a fatal inter-agency communications failure. As yet, no individual or office has been dedicated solely to children, with the job of monitoring the system as a whole and constantly working to improve it. We have the opportunity to change that and to take seriously our commitment to children's welfare. Yes—the commissioner will have the power to investigate underperformers, but improving services is about more than naming and shaming. With so many dedicated and efficient staff in the children's sector, we must learn from each other and share best practice. The commissioner's role in supporting research to develop our service will be very important.

It is crucial that the commissioner's post has been developed with a proactive role in mind. He or she will work to promote children's rights not only with services but with members of the public. The commissioner's independence will ensure that the welfare of our young is never marginalised. Rights are rights, not only when the political climate is right and there is space on the agenda, but all the time and every time.

It seems that it is a day for quotations, so I will continue that theme. Cyril Connolly said:

"Always be nice to those younger than you, because they are the ones who will be writing about you".

Kids are much more sophisticated these days. Sweets might have done the trick for our generation, but if we want to be remembered kindly we had better aim a bit higher. Perhaps the appointment of a children's commissioner is a reasonable start. However, I can think of better reasons to support the bill. Those reasons include the 11,000 children without a voice who are looked after by the state, the 9,000 runaways each year and the 2,000 children who went through the children's hearings system last year for youth crimes. Those children need the support of quality services and of a society that respects their rights and we can make that happen today. I urge the Parliament to build on the work that the Executive has already done to improve the lives of children throughout Scotland and to support the bill.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

It might be of assistance if I say that five members have indicated that they would like to speak in the debate. It is possible that we will reach decision time between 25 and 30 minutes from now. I call Ian Jenkins, to be followed by Mike Russell.

Photo of Ian Jenkins Ian Jenkins Liberal Democrat 4:18, 26 March 2003

I intend to be kind to the younger people, as every other member of the Education, Culture and Sport Committee is younger than I am.

I am grateful to the minister for his kind remarks and endorse the comments that all my colleagues have made. I do not intend to keep the chamber long. Over recent months, we have rehearsed fully the arguments in favour of the appointment of a commissioner for children and young people. I am sure that today we will move to put the bill firmly on the statute book.

I add to the tributes that have been paid to our clerking team, our advisers and the many witnesses—including the children—who contributed to our thinking on this matter. I pick out for special mention Karen Gillon's leadership of the Education, Culture and Sport Committee. The comprehensive and powerful speech that she made today brought that to a head and showed the invaluable work that she has done. I also commend the invaluable work that Irene McGugan and Jackie Baillie did with the non-Executive bills unit and the work of the ad hoc committee that brought the bill to its final stage.

I will not discuss all the principles of the appointment, but I take this opportunity to remind the chamber that the idea of a children's commissioner was suggested in the House of Commons in 1995 by Jim Wallace, during consideration of the Children (Scotland) Bill. It is, therefore, a particular pleasure to be here when the commissioner's post, which is a Liberal Democrat policy, will be established. I believe that this Parliament—including Nicol Stephen, ministers who are not here and past ministers, together with the Education, Culture and Sport Committee—has a good record in considering the interests of children in our legislative programme. I believe that the establishment of a commissioner is a fitting conclusion to our work in this first session of the Scottish Parliament.

As we were reminded in the title of a recent policy document, it is everyone's job to see that our children are well looked after. Behind the bill lies a principle, which is the parliamentary equivalent of the biblical evocation:

"Suffer the little children to come unto me."

We mean all the children of Scotland, because we owe it to them and to ourselves to cater for the poor, the disadvantaged, the weak and the vulnerable and to ensure that their rights are protected and maintained.

In an earlier debate, I was reluctant to say, although it was true, that the establishment of the commissioner would be a monument to our work in the Education, Culture and Sport Committee. The word "monument" seemed too lifeless and static. I was also reluctant to say, although it was true, that he or she would be a figurehead, because that too might have suggested a lack of mobility and positive action. However, I believe that the creation of the commissioner's post can rightly be regarded as a symbol of the Parliament's commitment to children and to providing justice and opportunity for all our children. I am convinced that that symbolism is important.

Nevertheless, the commissioner himself or herself and the young people with whom he or she will interact will provide the driving force to give the proposals the strength and the comprehensive status that we and others have envisaged in the creation of the post and, as Karen Gillon reminded me, the moral authority that we intend the post to have. For that reason, I sincerely hope that the Parliament will go on in the new session to appoint a strong commissioner who establishes a positive rapport with the Parliament and with all the agencies that have responsibility for looking after children in Scotland.

The independence of the commissioner is vital, and I have every confidence that he or she will value and cherish that independence. I hope that we as politicians will also cherish it and will not seek to influence the commissioner's agenda for any purpose other than the better protection and welfare of children in Scotland.

As I come to the end of my service on the Education, Culture and Sport Committee, I feel privileged and proud to have played a part in the work of the committee and the Parliament. At the risk of offending and upsetting some of my party colleagues and others around the chamber, I wish all members of the committee good fortune in order that they and other colleagues can continue in the next session the good work that we have started in this one. Let us go ahead and pass the bill to produce a champion for children and young people in Scotland.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

Contrary to what I said before, I call Fiona McLeod, to be followed by Donald Gorrie.

Photo of Fiona McLeod Fiona McLeod Scottish National Party 4:23, 26 March 2003

Yes indeed, I am not Mike Russell. Nor am I Irene McGugan; Irene and I are often confused with each other and I am delighted that we have, over the past few years, been able to work together on children's issues. I am not Margaret Ewing, who, as Margaret Bain, championed the cause for a children's commissioner when she was in Westminster.

I am absolutely delighted that we can have this debate and that we are considering the bill. One of the things that delights me most about the bill is the fact that it is underpinned by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. I support many articles in that convention, but article 12, which says that we must listen to and hear what young people say, is one of the most important and is fully integrated into the bill.

We all know that young people have strong opinions, not just on what happens to them but on the world around them. Recent events have shown just how articulate young people can be on all sorts of important issues. I am glad that that underpins the Commissioner for Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill.

I am also glad that the establishment of the commissioner's post comes from a positive desire, rather than, as Jackie Baillie said, as a reaction to a terrible situation in which other agencies have failed our children. We know that failures in the past have motivated many of us towards the appointment of a commissioner. It is exceptional that we are appointing a commissioner for all the positive reasons.

In the past few weeks, as we have come to the end of the parliamentary session, I have been asked by journalists and members of the public which of the achievements of the past four years we in the Parliament are most proud of. I am sure that many other members have been asked that question, too. The appointment of a commissioner for children and young people in Scotland in our first Parliament in 300 years must rank near the top of our list of such achievements.

If my reading of the business bulletin is correct, the Commissioner for Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill will be the final piece of legislation to be passed in the first session of the Parliament. That will be a fitting end to the first session.

I wish any future commissioner well and I wish her or him many happy hours of debating with the young Scots of Scotland what they want. I would like to issue the first invitation to the commissioner. When she or he takes up the appointment, I ask her or him to come to the big sister room of Westerton junior youth club to hear the demands for leisure facilities for young people in Westerton.

Photo of Donald Gorrie Donald Gorrie Liberal Democrat 4:26, 26 March 2003

As someone who—before the Parliament was set up—was involved with the various youth organisations in planning to achieve what we are achieving today and someone who has not taken any part in all the hard work in the Parliament, I pay great tribute to the people who have done that hard work and have produced an excellent result.

To avoid trespassing on the excellent comments that have already been made, I will pick up on two points. First, I pay tribute to the various lobbying and pressure groups that are involved with young people and children. They are among the more successful groups that come to try to persuade us in a certain direction. It is very important that they keep up their good work.

Secondly, I hope that the commissioner will assist in a process that has started but still has a long way to go—the process of encouraging young Scots to have more self-confidence and self-esteem. One of the great tragedies of Scotland in recent decades has been that many young people have not fulfilled their potential because of peer-group pressure and fear of standing out or of putting their head above the parapet. That has meant that they have not achieved what they could have achieved.

In many ways, the commissioner will be able to promote that aim and to give people the self-confidence to play a real part in the community, to take on leadership, to develop ideas and to influence their communities, for example. That is already beginning to happen; I am sure that members have experienced it at local level. However, there is a long way to go and I hope that the bill, through the creation of the commissioner, will help. The commissioner will prod us into doing the right things, will prod various communities and will prod groups of people into not talking down young people, but encouraging them to fulfil their potential.

The work that we are doing today is very important and I strongly commend the bill.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party 4:28, 26 March 2003

I echo the minister's tribute to Ian Jenkins, who is the only member of the Education, Culture and Sport Committee who is choosing not to return to the Parliament. It has been a great pleasure to work alongside him. Members who know him well know about his idiosyncratic approach to deciding how to vote in any committee. Most of the time, one is on tenterhooks wondering whether he will vote with one or against one. Sometimes he manages to do both. He will be greatly missed by many of us.

The bill illustrates two aspects of the Parliament, one of which is a determination to achieve things for the people of Scotland. Brian Monteith was right to say that, when the committee received the Executive's memorandum about a children's commissioner, it decided that the best way to tackle that important issue would be to work across the parties to see whether progress could be made in such a way that there was no division in the Parliament. By and large, we have achieved that and the bill is a testimony to that.

I will not echo every thank you that the convener gave, although I agree with them all, but I want to pick out three people in particular who should be thanked. The first is the convener, Karen Gillon, who steered the process through. She did that first as deputy convener and then as convener of the committee—although she has been absent on two occasions for the best of reasons. Latterly in particular, she has had a difficult task in getting the bill through in the time available and she has done remarkably well. I also pay tribute to Jackie Baillie and Irene McGugan, who took on the burden of the work connected with the bill by being involved in the long, detailed and never-easy negotiations with the non-Executive bills unit and the Executive. They did exceptionally well. Those people and the committee have shown that, where there is a will, things can be done.

The other thing that the bill says about the Parliament is the historical continuity in which we stand. The last bill that we will pass today, on a fairly remarkable afternoon, is a thoroughly modern bill, which, as Fiona McLeod indicated, has its roots in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is particularly important to reflect on that today, at a time when the rights of children in other parts of the world are being threatened. What we do here this afternoon is concerned not only with Scotland, but with showing the determination of many people to support the rights of children throughout the world. We are taking a thoroughly modern and contemporary action.

Only an hour ago, we were repealing one part of the Theft Act 1607, which was passed before the Act of Union 1707. Members all know this, so perhaps there is no need for me to repeat it, but the bit of that act that we repealed was concerned with the theft of fish and bees. However, members will be pleased to know that the bit about the stealing of bees has been retained on the statute book—I mention that in case any members were thinking of trying to get away with stealing bees this afternoon.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

It is not a capital offence as yet—although, with the present Prime Minister, one never knows what will happen next.

There is a historical continuity in this Parliament, which stands in a direct line of succession to the Parliament before the Act of Union 1707, and which stands as a Parliament for the future of Scotland, however that future may turn out. There are differences on that issue across the chamber, but however they turn out, the type of action that we have taken this afternoon is an important part of the process. We have established something new in Scotland that will serve the children of Scotland well. However different that pre-union Parliament was, it too contained people who wished Scotland to do well.

I want to finish with one thought, which I hope is not a sour note—I will try not to make it one—about the four bills that we have considered this afternoon. One of those bills was introduced two weeks before the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Bill, one was introduced two weeks after it and one was introduced three weeks after it. Certain people in the Parliament believed that we did not have enough time to pass that bill, but, as I have said, where there is a will, there is a way. I hope that the Parliament finds the will before too long to do some good for the Gaelic-speaking people of Scotland as well.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

I have received a request late in the day from Robin Harper, who wants to contribute. There is time in hand, so I will allow Robin Harper to speak.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green 4:33, 26 March 2003

As someone with an involvement in youth work from the age of 16, and as a former member of the children's panel and a member of the cross-party group on children and young people, I want to record my party's enthusiastic support for the bill, which is a forward-looking and extremely useful piece of legislation. I also record my admiration for Ian Jenkins and wish him well in the future. I pay tribute to Irene McGugan and Jackie Baillie. In particular, I thank Irene McGugan for her wonderful work on the cross-party group for children and young people.

Photo of Cathy Peattie Cathy Peattie Labour 4:34, 26 March 2003

I thank all the members who have contributed to this afternoon's debate. Karen Gillon has already given thanks and appreciation to the list of all the folk who worked on the bill. As Ian Jenkins said a few minutes ago, it is also worth thanking Karen Gillon for her work in stewarding the bill and ensuring that it was going in the right direction. She brought her personality and enthusiasm to the task and took time to speak to the young people when they were gathered here in the chamber. The way in which she established a rapport with the young people is worth noting.

A number of members commented on the role of the Parliament's committees. Brian Monteith suggested that the way in which the bill has been handled should be a model for future committee bills. As others have noted, committee members worked well together. There were areas on which we did not agree, but we managed to find common ground and to work together in a spirit of consensus to progress the bill.

I hope members will forgive me for what I am about to say but, although the Parliament's committee system is important, I believe that the bill would never have reached the stage that it has reached today were it not for the fact that 37 per cent of MSPs are women. Some of the legislation that has been passed and some of the debate that we have had have happened because we women are here. We are good for everyone else. I hope that the percentage of women will rise above 37 per cent following the election.

I turn to the issues that members have raised and I thank them for their contributions. Nicol Stephen said that the commissioner will challenge attitudes about children. That is important, because we have a negative attitude towards our children. Our society seems to fear its children and we must do something to change our attitudes in relation to children and young people.

Irene McGugan praised young people for gathering evidence. There are young people in the gallery today and they have been with us through every discussion on the children's commissioner. They have told us what they want to be included in a children's commission.

Many children and young people, voluntary organisations and others have been involved in giving us their ideas of what should happen with a children's commissioner. I do not think that we would have been reached this stage without their help, particularly the help of the voluntary organisations that ensured good participation with young people. They ensured that young people were not herded in and talked at for a few hours in the spirit of consultation, which seems to be the norm for consultations in this country. We managed to change some of that and we can use that good practice in future consultations.

The children's commissioner will be a new, significant and unique office, providing a focused approach to the promotion of the rights of young people and children. The office will be significant, because the commissioner will be in a position to influence decision making at the highest level. The office will be unique, because the commissioner will combine breadth of remit, independence and statutory status. It will cover all children and its work will be informed by children and young people. It will also have powers to conduct investigations. The commissioner will be a focal point for children's issues for the media and policy makers and will be able to make a real difference to the lives of young people in Scotland.

As I said, we live in a society that seems to be afraid of children and young people. Many are happy to discuss youth justice, and that is often quite right, but such discussion means talking about a small minority of children and young people. We have to get beyond talking about young people to a stage where we are talking with them and listening to what they have to say.

The commissioner will build networks with those organisations that have an interest in children and young people. More importantly, the commissioner will build communication links with kids in our country. All children, including those who are harder to reach, should have a voice.

As Jackie Baillie said, children today are open to all kinds of exploitation—political, from the media, the private sector, the internet, and drugs. Our children are facing all those issues. We must give them a voice and an opportunity to have that voice heard. As has been said, the commissioner's role will be not just to speak up for children, but to help them to speak up for themselves. That is one of the most important parts of the bill.

As Mike Russell said, we are at an historic stage. We are implementing new and positive legislation that will promote the rights of children and young people in this country.

I thank all members for their support and I urge them to support the bill. With their support, there will be a commissioner for children and young people in Scotland.