Children's Hearings (Scotland) Bill

– in the Scottish Parliament at 4:00 pm on 25th November 2010.

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Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party 4:00 pm, 25th November 2010

The next item of business is a debate on motion S3M-7399, in the name of Adam Ingram, on the Children's Hearings (Scotland) Bill. I point out to members that time is very limited, so they will need to stick to the time limits.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Scottish National Party 4:05 pm, 25th November 2010

I am delighted to open this stage 3 debate on the Children's Hearings (Scotland) Bill—passing it will be quite a landmark achievement, considering how long it has been in the pipeline, and quite a relief, given that, as a Parliament, we have spent nearly 30 hours considering it.

Our consultation with partners has shaped the bill considerably and is greatly appreciated. In fact, some partners have attended parliamentary sessions so often that they may now qualify as honorary MSPs.

I thank members of the Finance Committee, the Subordinate Legislation Committee and the Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture Committee. The diligent scrutiny of the bill by members of the Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture Committee in particular has helped, as it should, to shape the final form of the bill. There have been a few areas where we have not agreed, but the important thing has been the way in which we have worked together to resolve the issues.

I thank the committee clerks who have worked so hard to support the work of the committees. Finally, I thank my officials, as well as the Government and parliamentary legal teams, for their work on the bill. They have worked extremely hard on what has been a demanding and challenging bill.

The Government has undertaken a significant programme of engagement in developing the bill. There have been a number of areas on which we have found consensus with partners: the value placed on the system; updating the system to take account of the European convention on human rights and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child; improving consistency and standards nationwide; and updating and simplifying procedures.

I am sure that members would agree that it has been difficult to achieve common ground on many issues in the bill. The children's hearings system is highly valued by a wide range of partners and that breadth of interests does not lend itself to achieving consensus on every point. There has been no united voice among our partners on many matters and that has been very tricky to overcome.

When I brought the bill to Parliament in February, it represented the outcome of a lot of hard work to carefully balance the views that the Government had heard. As members of the Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture Committee will know, that balancing act does not stop during the parliamentary process. If passed today, the bill will contain a number of compromises, but even those will not accommodate all the views of all partners. To be frank, it cannot—on some issues opinion has varied greatly.

However, the bill has always represented our genuine efforts to improve outcomes for Scotland's most vulnerable children and young people. It will ensure that those making often life-changing decisions are fully and consistently supported by modernised legislation to enable them to deal with the challenges presented today and in the future.

The system now deals with more than 10 times the number of care and protection cases that there were nearly 40 years ago. The number of children and young people referred to the reporter in 2009-10 was 42,532. Although that represents a reduction of nearly 10 per cent from the number referred in the previous year, it is still 4.7 per cent of the Scottish child population.

The bill brings change to the system to ensure that it is strengthened for the future. Importantly, it retains and protects overarching elements that are treasured within the system.

The system will continue to abide by Kilbrandon's principles, protecting the ethos that children who offend and those who require care and protection are equally deserving of being considered as children in need. The welfare of the child continues to be of paramount importance.

To ensure that our cherished hearings system stands strong for the future, it is imperative that this bill addresses concerns and criticisms that have manifested themselves over the years. The bill will achieve that by introducing new roles and responsibilities that are currently lacking. For the first time, we will have a figurehead to represent panel members and ensure consistency of support throughout the country.

The bill also strengthens children's rights, which is important. The impact of offence-related behaviour in later life is addressed and, for the first time, the development of an advocacy service specifically for children in the hearings system will be required so that the voice of the child can be heard as strongly as possible.

The bill simplifies a number of procedures for those involved in hearings and introduces new processes. Interim compulsory supervision orders, for example, have been warmly welcomed, and the feedback loop has been embraced by partners who are keen to learn about successful interventions that can contribute to better outcomes for children and young people.

The bill is not the only element of our work. The wider reform programme will provide much of the detail to support the implementation of the framework and the hard work will continue over the coming years as we implement the bill to ensure that Scotland's children and young people can have the best start in life and are ready to succeed.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees that the Children's Hearings (Scotland) Bill be passed.

Photo of Karen Whitefield Karen Whitefield Labour 4:11 pm, 25th November 2010

I welcome the passing of the Children's Hearings (Scotland) Bill today. The journey has been long and often arduous, and there have been a few false starts along the way. As the minister has said, there is no doubt that some will retain reservations about whether the bill will really deliver the positive changes that we have all, I am sure, been seeking, but I believe that all parties—committee members, the minister, and those with a specific interest in the children's hearings system—have acted in good faith to try to improve matters for some of our most vulnerable young people.

With that in mind, I thank everyone who has contributed to the passing of the bill. I thank the committee clerks, who, as ever, provided committee members with excellent support and assistance during all stages of the bill process, and our external adviser, Kenneth Norrie, who provided support for the committee during the early stages of the bill process. I also thank all the organisations that gave evidence and lobbied strongly to ensure that the Kilbrandon principles remained at the heart of the bill. Indeed, it is worth recognising the hard work and commitment of the hundreds of panel members throughout Scotland who give up their time and energy to serve their communities and to help to protect vulnerable children and young people. I say an extra-special thank you to the panel members who sat through every single meeting of the Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture Committee in which the bill was discussed and who are even with us here today. Finally, I thank the minister and his officials for their assistance and perseverance with what has been a rather complex and difficult bill.

We can be rightly proud of our children's hearings system in Scotland, which is the envy of many other countries. It ensures that the welfare of children and young people remains at the heart of any decision that is made that affects their life. As a result of the bill's introduction of the feedback loop, we will not only be able to believe that; we will, probably for the first time, be able to prove it as well.

The children's hearings system could, in other circumstances, be a very legalistic and confrontational judicial system, but it is a system that ensures that the needs and problems of the young people concerned are focused on. It uses the experiences and knowledge of local people to ensure that the circumstances surrounding a young person's referral to the hearings system are understood and appreciated by those who make important and powerful decisions about their lives.

The bill's central aim is to improve the children's hearings system by bringing it into line with current ECHR legislation while protecting its underlying principles and values. It aims to strengthen the children's hearings system by ensuring the independence of the decision-making process, making the system more consistent across the country and improving levels of accountability. I think that the bill has achieved that aim to a large extent.

Concerns have been expressed about the possible overcentralisation of the new system. I have already said that I am pleased that the minister considered those concerns when he published the bill in February. The bill's solution is to establish a central agency, headed by the national convener, which should ensure the consistency that we all seek. However, the bill will also establish area support teams, thus retaining the best aspects of the localism that is inherent in the existing system. Those are important measures. We have a duty to guarantee that all children and young people receive a consistently high level of service but, equally, we want to ensure that wherever possible panel members have good local knowledge.

It is only fair to note that concerns were raised about the reduced role of local authorities in the new system, not least by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. Indeed, the movement on that issue between stages 2 and 3 provides evidence of its complexity and the degree of debate that has taken place on what is a core part of the bill. It remains to be seen whether the bill strikes the right balance between a centralised approach and a local one but, in its current form, it represents a genuine attempt to derive the benefits from both.

It is worth reiterating that the vast majority of referrals to the children's panel are on child welfare grounds. Our efforts to improve the children's hearings system will, I hope, go a long way towards improving child welfare in Scotland. However, other issues that impact on child welfare and protection must be addressed, if not in the current parliamentary session, then early in the next one. In particular, we need to develop far more robust and dependable methods of sharing information between agencies that are involved in child welfare.

I welcome the final stages of the bill. We might not have been able to please every group and organisation that lobbied us, but we have delivered a bill that strives to ensure that every Scottish child has access to a high-quality and child-centred hearings system. It is important that the Parliament continues to scrutinise the effects of the bill once it becomes enacted so that, where necessary, we can take swift action to amend or improve the legislation.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative 4:17 pm, 25th November 2010

I have no doubt about the responsibility that we face as we debate the bill in its final stage. It is absolutely beyond question that the children's hearings system is an immensely important part of the way in which we protect and care for our most vulnerable children. It is also beyond question that the central principles of the bill are those that were first set out by Kilbrandon in 1964—principles that are just as relevant today as they were then. However, it is clear that several aspects of the current children's hearings system needed to be addressed, although I was sceptical at the start of the process about whether we really needed a legislative process to make the necessary changes. As I said earlier this afternoon, we should note the extent of the differing opinions, even at the later stages in our deliberations, and not just between stakeholder groups but within them. That situation has made our job as parliamentarians even more complex.

A wide range of issues have been raised, including how to improve training and national standards; the right of the child to confidentiality; ECHR compatibility; improving the feedback to panel members; the definition of the term "relevant persons"; and many more. However, for me, the most essential challenge throughout the passage of the bill has been to ensure that the best part of the existing system—the effective delivery of assistance for each child at local level—is retained while we modernise the structure, improve accountability and deliver better outcomes for our young people.

At several points in the process, I worried about whether we were about to construct a legislative sledgehammer to crack a relatively small administrative nut—I had to put that in for the minister—and whether the Scottish Government was at times becoming a little too anxious about issues to do with the ECHR. It was much more important to me that we found a clear, manageable, fair and acceptable situation for all the parties that built on the best practice to be found in the local environment and with which children and panel members are most familiar.

I have been adamant all along that that should be the defining feature of the system and that any process of reform should not impair or remove those principles. I am immensely grateful to the other parties for their support and to the minister and his team for being prepared to negotiate on that front. I am also grateful to several panel members, local authority representatives and legal advisers for their assistance on the issue. Any legislation that lost the connection between the children's hearings system and local communities would have been a serious mistake.

I am mindful of the views of several stakeholders who felt, quite rightly, that we were in danger of debating too much about the procedures rather than about how to improve the outcomes for our children.

As we pass this bill this evening and as the convener said, we must be mindful of the need to keep a watching brief on how well we can balance the leadership role of the national convener while strengthening the local connection and delivery of a first-class service in local areas. There remains a lack of clarity about the operation of area support teams, particularly in light of recent economic troubles, which are forcing councils to review their best practice. Linked to that is accountability, whether related to how local authorities deliver their services or how they will interact with area support teams and, of course, the accountability to the Scottish Parliament of the national convener.

The bill has had a tortuous passage at several points. All along, it has been important to remember that the whole system is entirely dependent on the commitment of volunteer panel members whose skills and expertise are often of the highest standard. It has been exceptionally important to ensure that the changes that we are about to make have commanded as much support as possible from those who carry out the main duties on the front line. That has not been easy, given the requests to keep the structure as simple and non-adversarial as possible, as firmly rooted in the local community and as caring as possible for the children that we serve and to deliver more consistency across Scotland.

The Scottish Conservatives give our firm commitment to the bill in the belief that we have now made that balance more possible and that there will be increased scrutiny of how well we achieve improved outcomes for our children and how well we provide panels with informed feedback about how successful their decision making has been. That will be the true test of how well we have delivered this new legislation.

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat 4:21 pm, 25th November 2010

I thank many of the people involved in the bill, particularly the many people who gave evidence to the Parliament and who have continued to engage with us in what has been a fairly tortuous process at times. I thank our committee clerks, our adviser Ken Norrie and the Government's bill team. I also thank the minister for the manner in which he conducted discussions on the bill with me and others. His description of the process as "very tricky" shows what a master of understatement and how ideally suited he is to tackling what has been a difficult process.

As a country, we should be rightly proud of our children's hearings system and the volunteers and professionals who work in it. Although we want to retain the key Kilbrandon principles, we are right to strive to improve the system. The bill before us today does make improvements: it gives the system a figurehead; it makes it ECHR compliant; and, crucially, it brings an opportunity to deliver greater consistency and national standards. Like Karen Whitefield, I hope that the Scottish Government and the Parliament will continue to monitor implementation of the bill and, if necessary, will return to it in the future. I hope that that will reassure those who still have concerns about aspects of the bill that we will pass today. There have been disagreements and questions about certain parts of the bill, but the vast majority of stakeholders have now lent their support to it.

It is vital that we never forget our purpose, which is to make a positive difference to the lives of Scotland's most vulnerable children. In 2008-09, some 47,000 children were referred to the children's reporter and the vast majority of them—more than 39,000 children—were referred for their own care and protection. The problems that lie behind those figures will need more than an effective, modern hearings system to solve them, but it is a critical component in doing so.

The system is unique. Its assumption that the child who offends is as much in need of protection as the child who has been offended against is the right one, and one of which we can be proud. The children's hearings panel has the protection and care of children at its heart. Panel members are uniquely progressive in their way of aiding those youngest citizens in need and it is vital that we retain as strong and effective a system as possible to help them.

The issue of paramount consideration has been how to balance the fundamental need for local input and delivery with the desire to have a more consistent set of standards and training procedures. That issue has given the committee some difficulties. We did not arrive at our final position on the matter in any straightforward way—more of a zig-zag approach to the legislation has been necessary—but I want panel members and others to be in no doubt that we have all been driven by the need to maintain and support the localism of the current system. The ethos of the system is based not just on the care of the child, but on that care and support being rooted solidly in the child's community—these are all our children. Therefore, I welcome the group 24 amendments that Elizabeth Smith moved today and the manner in which they were developed with the Scottish Government. They strike the right balance between localism and national standards and consistency.

There have been welcome amendments on the establishment of a national panel of safeguarders; the extension of duties to health boards to comply with requests for assistance from local authorities; advocacy; new interim compulsory supervision orders; forced marriage as a ground for referral; greater flexibility in relation to relevant persons to reflect changing family patterns; and many more.

In two key areas—the feedback loop and the ending of the wholesale criminalisation of children in the system as a result of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974—we have returned for further scrutiny and improvement at stage 3. Those are two of the most important aspects of the bill when it comes to putting the best interests of the child at the heart of everything that we want the system to deliver.

I am pleased to have played my part in lodging successful amendments to address concerns that the views of the child should be heard loud and clear and should be taken into account by the panel.

At stage 2, I raised concerns about children being held in police stations, and I thank the minister for the information and reassurances that he has given on that point. I am content that police stations are and will continue to be used as a place of safety only ever as a last resort and that, in those rare circumstances, a reporter will normally arrange for a children's hearing to take place on the same day. The fact that that can be arranged is testimony to the quality and flexibility of the system.

I am content that the Parliament is about to pass a bill that will improve the hearings system while maintaining the fundamental ethos that the child's welfare is paramount to us all.

Photo of Kenneth Gibson Kenneth Gibson Scottish National Party 4:25 pm, 25th November 2010

The Children's Hearings (Scotland) Bill is, as colleagues have said, one of the longest pieces of legislation in the history of the Parliament. It has demanded a large amount of work not only from the Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture Committee, but from Ken Norrie, the minister and his dedicated and hard-working staff, and many individuals and organisations who work alongside and within the children's hearings system.

I specifically thank the Law Society of Scotland for the vast array of amendments that it has offered via Ken Macintosh. I also thank the children's panel chairs group, Children in Scotland, the Scottish Association of Children's Panels and the witnesses who presented evidence to the committee for their constructive input to the legislative process. Although there is no doubt that our unique system of children's hearings has been effective, it has been clear for some time now that the system is in need of modernisation.

The creation of the children's hearings Scotland body and the national children's panel, paired with the dissolution of the children's panel advisory committees, helps to achieve the degree of simplification that is necessary in the hearings system, while complying with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. In doing so, the bill takes steps towards making decisions in children's hearings more consistent throughout Scotland.

In line with the idea of consistency is the responsibility that the national convener will have in overseeing the standards for the training of panel members. For too long, panel members from separate local authorities have been trained in and expected to adhere to separate standards while directing some of Scotland's most vulnerable children. The establishment both of national standards that are set out by the convener and of the national scheme for legal aid will go a long way towards making the child the focal point of the hearings system.

The bill takes great strides towards putting the child at the centre of the system, and goes further towards protecting the child's best interests than previous legislation has done. The provisions for allowing information to be withheld from a relevant person if the release of that information would be significantly against the interests of the child show that the hearings system serves to protect the child's interests.

The provision in the bill that keeps offence grounds that are accepted at a hearing from appearing on disclosure certificates required for work in trusted positions—unless it is a very severe case, as has been acknowledged—further protects the interests of the child as he or she progresses into society. That ensures that children's panels will have the ability to show children who have committed minor offences the error of their ways before those ways can detract from future possibilities for a child.

Although one of the bill's explicit goals is to put Scotland's children at the heart of the system, it is vital that Parliament keeps in mind the Scottish citizens who volunteer their time to make the system work. One of the bill's most shining achievements will be its establishment of a feedback mechanism through which panel members, local authorities, the national convener and Scottish ministers will share information on the effectiveness of the hearings system at both local and national levels.

We in the Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture Committee have the ability to review legislation and ensure that it is efficiently and satisfactorily implemented, and I believe that panel members should expect the same. As some of Scotland's most valuable citizens, children's hearings panel members deserve access to information regarding the outcomes of their hard work.

Through the feedback loop, individual panel members and local authorities will have the ability to assess the implementation and effectiveness of their suggestions by way of information that is provided by the national convener. In addition, information regarding national trends will be available to panel members, which will allow them to make decisions that are based not solely on their own experiences, but on the experiences of panels throughout Scotland. As such, the feedback loop is one of many ways in which the bill will, while simplifying and making the hearings system more consistent, bring about co-operation between the local and national levels.

The work that committee members such as Ken Macintosh, Karen Whitefield, Elizabeth Smith and Margaret Smith have put in is to be highly commended, as is the work of my colleague Christina McKelvie, who did much from my party's point of view. For a member whose party is in government, amendments to the bill can be frustrating, given that most of them tend to be lodged by the Opposition or the minister, and they are often left on the sidelines. However, Christina McKelvie has gone deep into the bill, and I support her efforts. I look forward to the passage of the bill.

Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour 4:30 pm, 25th November 2010

I am the first non-member of the committee to speak so, on the Parliament's behalf, I congratulate all the committee members on their contribution to the bill. Karen Whitefield, as convener, and the minister took the bill through, but every committee member contributed significantly, as has been said. An awful lot of time, effort and energy must be put into preparing amendments and considering all the issues for long and complicated bills. Given the history of the bill—it has had to be produced twice, more or less—members should be very familiar with its ins and outs.

Although I am not a member of the committee, I am interested in the subject because, in a previous life at Strathclyde Regional Council, one of my responsibilities was to disaggregate the children's hearings system at the time and transfer the reporters to a national system. The Strathclyde system, which served half of Scotland, had advantages. Many aims that the bill tries to achieve—such as a more centralised and consistent way of handling matters and better training arrangements—were achieved in Strathclyde, because the authority was so large. However, distributing tasks to smaller local authorities and ensuring that the children's hearings system worked well very locally also had advantages.

The bill tries to achieve the best of both worlds—centralised co-ordination and effective training for panel members as well as local accountability and the best use of local knowledge. Time will tell whether we have achieved that. Given that panel members, panel chairs and the charities that take a strong interest expressed strong feelings earlier in the process but are not assaulting us at this late stage to say that we have got the whole thing wrong, I hope that a broader base of support exists for what is on the table. I noticed that the minister said that compromises had been reached on several issues; I hope that they are happy compromises that strike the right balance rather than compromises that paper over the cracks.

For Labour, the bill's main disappointment is that no action has been taken on information sharing when dealing with children. We would like a statutory responsibility on the various parties—including doctors—to share information. Often, the problem with progressing a case in a children's hearing is that somebody puts their arm round a piece of professional information and refuses to share it with somebody else, which means that the best outcome for the child is not obtained. We need to return to that issue and consider whether legislation needs to be introduced on information sharing, to overcome the barriers that undoubtedly still exist.

I am also concerned about the danger of overlegalisation of the procedures of children's hearings. Children's hearings work precisely because they are informal. If everybody who is sitting round the table has a lawyer to represent them, the point of the process can be lost to an extent.

Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour

I hope that the bill will be implemented as far as possible without the overinvolvement of lawyers.

Photo of Christina McKelvie Christina McKelvie Scottish National Party 4:34 pm, 25th November 2010

I add my thanks to all the organisations that have been involved, the bill team, the clerks, the Scottish Parliament information centre and everyone else who has supported us along the way. I particularly thank committee colleagues who supported my amendments.

The children's panel chairs have followed the committee's deliberations every step of the way—that includes our marathon meetings and even our evening meetings. I believe that they were here yesterday, and they are here today, too. I pay tribute to the chairs and to all panel members. It should be remembered that the caring people who make up our panels are volunteers.

It is nearly half a century since Kilbrandon reported. In that time, society has changed and the challenges that we and especially young people face have changed. I am immensely proud of Scotland's hearings system, which puts the welfare of the child at its heart. It was time to renew and refresh the system, to allow children to participate effectively, to ensure adequate monitoring of the implementation of hearing decisions and of outcomes, and to ensure that the system is ECHR compliant.

The amendments in my name that were agreed to yesterday will ensure that the child's voice is not lost in a room full of adults. Effective advocacy in Moray and Ayrshire has delivered better outcomes for children. Have-your-say forms that are completed before panel meetings by children who have had advocacy support are much more informed and in a number of cases have enabled panel members to come to better decisions for children.

The provisions that were added to the bill at stage 2 on the age at which a young person comes to the reporter's attention will go a long way towards supporting young people. The new system will allow young people who are approaching their 16th birthday to be supported through the hearings system rather than put into the adult system, where they can become lost to society for ever. As I said in the committee, it is important that we acknowledge that a child's vulnerability does not end at the stroke of midnight on their 16th birthday. The bill will provide for a welfare-based, caring approach to our vulnerable young people.

Another key provision in the bill is the power to request assistance. The duty to comply is extended to all local authority functions. A request could be made to local authorities and, for the first time, to health boards for assistance in realising a hearing's decisions, to support the care of a young person. The health service will be drawn into the system in a way that has never happened in the past, and the approach will ensure that a young person can have an holistic care plan.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is a cause that is close to my heart. The bill places the rights of the child at the heart of the system. It modernises grounds for referral and increases consistency in relation to decision making, training and continuous professional development. It will raise standards throughout Scotland. It will also maintain the independence of the system. It provides a clearer statutory framework and will strengthen protection and improve outcomes for Scotland's children. The new national convener will ensure the involvement of children and young people in the running of the system, so a youthful outlook will be maintained.

The bill will also better organise safeguarders, improving training and ensuring consistent standards. There will be a permanent scheme of secure legal representation for children and relevant persons, which is welcome and will ensure that the highest regard is paid to the rights of the child.

The system needs to be fit for another half century. I commend the minister, Adam Ingram, and all the other people who have guided and informed us along the way. I welcome the bill becoming law.

Photo of James Kelly James Kelly Labour 4:38 pm, 25th November 2010

Like Des McNulty, I am an outsider in the debate, in that I am not a member of the Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture Committee. I pay tribute to all members who have worked hard on the bill and to the people outwith the Parliament, such as panel chairs and many volunteers, who support the children's hearings system.

There is no doubt that we have had a troublesome journey to get to the position that we are in today. This is the second time that we have been round the loop. That is partly because people who are involved in the children's hearings system are committed to what they do and hold strong views, because they care about the children who come through their panels. That is perhaps why politicians found it difficult to design a solution that satisfied everyone. Many people in Scotland give up a great deal of time to support the system and to support children. I pay particular tribute to the minister and the committee for their work in bringing the bill to fruition.

As members have said, the system that was based on the Kilbrandon principles was regarded as the jewel in the crown, and some people questioned why we would change it.

The reasons that have been given for change are the requirement to comply with the ECHR; to ensure consistency throughout Scotland; and to maintain the independence of the children's hearings system. It is right that we should be aware of the ECHR and ensure that the rights that it ascribes to people are given an appropriate place in Scotland. However, as Karen Whitefield said, it is important that we remember the welfare of the child in the process. We do not want the process to become overburdened and intimidatory to children. It would be regrettable if we started to see an adversarial approach on panels; let us hope that the bill will not lead to that.

One of the strains that has run through the debate on the bill is the question of which is best—national or local? We are moving from a system of 32 children's hearings panels to having a national panel. Many of those who participate in local panels throughout Scotland have a great deal of local knowledge and expertise and identify with their local panels. Let us hope that the new training system that has been put in place will reassure those panel members and ensure that they stay with the new arrangement that is to be established on a national basis.

As Liz Smith said, it is clear that the bill will be passed this evening, but Parliament still has a watching brief. We will need to listen carefully to volunteers, panel members and panel chairs as they watch the effects of the bill in practice. It is one thing for politicians to pass the bill tonight; ultimately, the many volunteers throughout Scotland will have to make it work. We wish them well in that regard and hope that we have done a good job in providing legislation that makes their job easier.

Photo of Hugh O'Donnell Hugh O'Donnell Liberal Democrat 4:42 pm, 25th November 2010

During the debate, I watched members nod their heads almost unanimously when someone referred to the complicated, tricky, zig-zag nature of the bill. I have always held to the principle that, if we have not satisfied everyone who has lobbied us, we have gone some way towards being on the right page as far as the outcome is concerned. That certainly seems to be the case with the bill.

I congratulate members of the Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture Committee. From our consideration of amendments over the past two days, it is clear that there has been a lot of detail and negotiation. Anyone who engages in such a process is to be congratulated if they get a successful outcome. As Christina McKelvie said, we hope that it will be another 50 years before we revisit this area of activity.

Members of the committee—and all other members—value the existing children's hearings system, which is recognised internationally. The system combines a volunteer base with local knowledge; critically, it has at its heart the welfare of the child. As far as I can see, those principles have been retained in the bill. However, given that the system is 50 years old, give or take, and that our society has changed and become much more complicated, it is entirely legitimate for us to revisit it—albeit that we have done so twice.

It is understandable that a national focus is needed. Des McNulty was right to commend the system that operated in Strathclyde region, which combined an element of localism with a centralised focus that permitted the dispersal of information and experience, and the exchange of ideas across a wider area. The bill will allow that to happen across Scotland and, from that perspective, it certainly seems to strike the right balance between those two requirements. Those principles are right. The bill also ties into the long-standing issues around getting it right for every child.

Although the bill might not satisfy every partner or stakeholder in every possible way, it will, I hope, be seen to address many of the challenges that exist and many of the questions that people have posed during the very long process of its consideration.

As Margaret Smith said, Liberal Democrats are fully supportive of the bill and will be voting in favour of it this evening.

Photo of Margaret Mitchell Margaret Mitchell Conservative 4:45 pm, 25th November 2010

The Children's Hearings (Scotland) Bill has had a difficult passage through the Parliament. The first attempt ended in failure, with the bill being withdrawn. During stage 1 of the new bill, there was consensus about the need for reform of the children's hearings system. Achieving that modernisation while maintaining the principles outlined in the 1964 Kilbrandon report has proved to be a not inconsiderable challenge.

From the outset, the Scottish Conservatives questioned the need for new legislation. With the benefit of hindsight, I remain unconvinced that the tortuous legislative process that has characterised the passage of the bill has been the best way to make the changes that are deemed necessary to improve the children's hearings system.

The bill has attracted qualified support, but there has been no doubt about the need for the children's hearings system to retain a child-centred approach and the strong local connections that have been reflected in panel membership to date. Clearly, the best elements of the original panel system should be retained in the new bill's provisions.

I welcome the introduction of advocacy services for children who would otherwise not be able to express their views, but there is a need to limit the number of people who have the right to attend hearings. The list now includes a supporter, an advocate, a legal representative and possibly also a safeguarder. Also included in that not inconsiderable list is each "relevant person", who can, in turn, be accompanied by their own supporter. With that expanding list of potential attendees, there is a real and justified concern that the child's voice could be diminished—ironically—by those who have been granted legislative power to come to their aid.

The process is now to be increasingly legislative and complex. Consequently, it is shifting away from the child-centred approach that has, over the 41 years of its existence, been one of the strongest features of Scotland's unique children's hearings system. It seems that the need to maintain that child-centred approach as paramount has been overtaken by the primary consideration of ensuring that the bill's provisions anticipate every potential ECHR challenge. That can only be a retrograde step.

The children's hearings system has always functioned at a local level, and that is one of its strengths. It follows that a balance must be found between the new position of the national convener, area support teams, local authorities and panel members, to ensure that the system does not become overly centralised. Elizabeth Smith's amendments have gone some way towards addressing that issue.

Worryingly, however, there remains a distinct absence of clarity about how the component parts of the system will interact with one another and work together. It is essential to strike an appropriate balance between the influence of the national convener and the role of local authorities on area support teams. How area support teams will interact with local authorities has been and remains an issue. At a time when local authorities must think carefully about their budgets, when resources are scarce and criminal justice social workers continue to be underfunded and stressed, there is a question mark over how they will support and complement area support teams. Neither is it apparent how the teams will fit into the current local authority structures. All of those questions remain unanswered.

I hope that the role of the national convener will help to address the issue of the variation in the support and training that is given to panel members, which was identified as a weakness in the current system.

As I said in the stage 1 debate in June, children's panel members play a vital role in the system. Those volunteers give willingly of their time in an effort to provide support, assistance and guidance to children from their local communities. They deserve recognition and our gratitude for the work that they undertake.

Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour 4:49 pm, 25th November 2010

Like nearly every member in the chamber this afternoon, I start by expressing my gratitude and thanks to everyone who was involved in bringing the bill to the brink of becoming an act of the Scottish Parliament. I thank the committee clerks, our adviser Kenneth Norrie and, of course, the parliamentary clerks who were involved in drafting our amendments.

The legislative process is long and, I hope, thorough. No matter how many times we amend the rules that govern the timetabling of bills, we always seem to end up exchanging midnight e-mails, making last-minute phone calls, calling urgent meetings and generally struggling to reach agreement on final adjustments. I also thank the bill team, members of which are sitting at the rear of the chamber, for their work in meeting the demands that the Parliament placed on them.

I express particular thanks to those who not only submitted evidence but participated actively in supporting the Parliament and its MSPs through stages 2 and 3 of the bill process. I do so because the support and advice—and yes, the lobbying—that we receive from organisations, groups and individuals is invaluable. It is worth noting the particularly high level of interest and interaction that the bill engendered, which I believe reflects the esteem in which the voluntary panel system is held.

Speaking as an Opposition MSP—someone who does not have a civil service to call on—I am particularly grateful to the number of children's organisations whose efforts were very helpful in shaping the bill as it proceeded. Action for Children Scotland, Children in Scotland, Barnardo's, Children 1st, Aberlour Child Care Trust, Quarriers, the Scottish Child Law Centre and, of course, Scotland's Commissioner for Children and Young People, amongst others—

Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour

I will come to it in a second. [ Laughter .]

All of them gave us persuasive and thoughtful submissions that helped to shape our thinking. A huge amount of work, thought and effort went into doing that and into the number of recommendations from the Law Society. I give special thanks to all involved. I am not sure whether my committee colleagues share my admiration for the Law Society and the selfless time and effort that it put in, but the bill is a better piece of legislation as a result.

I pay particular tribute to the minister, Adam Ingram, for his openness and willingness to work with others from all sides to reach agreement on what could, at times, be quite intractable issues. It was instructive for all of us to see the minister maintain his equanimity and good nature, even in the midst of the partisan divisions that frequently erupted among us and for which our committee is, unfortunately, sometimes renowned.

I thank those with a personal involvement in the children's panel system who tried to give us as parliamentarians the benefit of their experience. The list includes the children's panel chairs who are in the gallery again this afternoon. As Karen Whitefield said, they have been with us through nearly every evidence and amending session in the chamber and at committee. The list also includes the reporters, local panel volunteers and—crucially—young people who had been in front of a panel. They all informed our work.

I doubt that there is a member in the chamber or Parliament who has not heard directly from constituents in their area about their concerns and views. I suspect that many of the individuals who took valuable time out of their lives to contact us may have found the passage of the bill a frustrating business. It is certainly the case that we could not address every concern that was raised. I thank all the individuals concerned. It is not always apparent how much we rely on such approaches and how much they influence our thinking. The process is not always as transparent as we would want nor wholly satisfactory for all those who engage with it and make submissions.

I make those remarks and express my gratitude because, although I believe that the bill will improve what is a fundamentally sound system, despite all the efforts I find myself slightly dissatisfied that, even after so much work, so many views and attempts to reach consensus, agreement and compromise, in the end we will achieve possibly only modest improvements to the lives of those who are most affected—Scotland's children. I worry that we spent months worrying over and debating processes and too little time on the help, support and outcomes that our young people who are most in need require. That point was made earlier by Elizabeth Smith.

Even now, I remain concerned that we may not have struck the right balance between local involvement and national standards and consistency. That is not a criticism of anyone or any party. In fact, it was striking that all parties united around the Kilbrandon principles and shared a desire to improve the panel system with its focus on needs, not deeds.

I want to end on a more upbeat and confident note. I believe that the new children's hearings system will continue to work successfully for Scotland's children. It will do so because the panel members who give up their time for the good of others will make it work. There are outstanding concerns: the creeping legalisation of what should be a non-adversarial system and the growing number of adults who are involved. However, I believe that the new structures will work, that the process will improve, and that there will be greater consistency, higher standards and a greater focus on the voice of the child. I am confident that Scotland can continue to be proud of our children's hearings system.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Scottish National Party 4:55 pm, 25th November 2010

I wonder what remains to be said about the bill at this stage. I would like to start by correcting Margaret Mitchell on a point of fact. I say for the record that the bill was not withdrawn. There was a draft bill in June 2009 that was consulted on and then adjusted before being introduced in February 2010.

I thank members for their contributions today and yesterday, which again emphasised the importance of protecting Scotland's children's hearings system. I do not think that anyone doubts that modernised legislation is needed to improve outcomes for children, but it is a tribute to the dedication and professionalism of those in our children's hearings system that we have worked so well within a framework that is based on society and family life in the 1960s, which is a world away from modern society.

The implementation of this bill will build on partnerships that were developed during its preparation. To support implementation, it is vital that we continue to retain sufficient numbers of lay people, without whom the system could not operate. [Interruption.]

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Scottish National Party

It would be remiss of me not to pay tribute to the commitment and dedication of panel members, past and present, who have created this jewel in the crown of Scottish life. I am delighted that this year's panel member recruitment campaign attracted the highest ever number of people to the system.

This has been a long slog, and there have been many questions about the bill throughout the process. However, I cannot bring the process to a close without responding to a phrase that I have heard repeatedly, and which I heard again this afternoon—the now infamous suggestion that the bill is a sledgehammer to crack a nut. I agree that the bill is large. It updates a lot of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995. However, to call it a sledgehammer is a little unfair. If the bill is the sledgehammer, does that make the children's hearings system the nut? Are we really saying that this bill is disproportionate, given the variety of players in the hearings system and the large number of children whom it supports? I would be surprised if that were the case, particularly since Scotland's largest tribunal will operate under it.

It is clear to me that the bill does no more and no less than what is required to protect our children's hearings system. I take pride in the fact that the bill has well and truly polished the jewel in Scotland's crown.

I thank members once again for their comments and also thank everyone else who has contributed to the development of the Children's Hearings (Scotland) Bill. I believe that the bill will make a significant and lasting difference to the life chances of Scotland's most vulnerable children and young people, and I urge every member to support it.

Meeting suspended.

On resuming—