Universal Children’s Day 2015

– in the Scottish Parliament on 17th November 2015.

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Photo of Elaine Smith Elaine Smith Labour

The final item of business today is a members’ business debate on motion S4M-14499, in the name of Roderick Campbell, on universal children’s day 2015. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament recognises that 20 November is Universal Children’s Day; understands that this commemorative day was established by the UN in 1954 and is devoted to promoting the principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child; recognises the necessity of protecting and promoting children’s rights not just in North East Fife and across Scotland, but around the rest of the world; believes that this will help ensure that children can survive and thrive, learn and grow, have their voices heard and reach their full potential; understands that violations of children’s rights continue to take place across the world; applauds the work of organisations that are devoted to tackling and confronting such abuse, and commends the Cross Party Group on Children and Young People on what it sees as its efforts to promote dialogue about and an understanding of the realisation of children’s rights in Scotland and in encouraging the promotion of Scotland’s international obligations to allow every child worldwide the opportunity to enjoy their childhood with freedom and dignity.

Photo of Roderick Campbell Roderick Campbell Scottish National Party

It gives me pleasure to bring this debate to the chamber prior to universal children’s day.

Members may well ask what universal children’s day is. It was established by the United Nations in 1954 to encourage understanding among children and to promote children’s welfare around the world. It is held on 20 November, which was the day on which the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child in 1959 and on which it signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989. The United Nations has said:

“the General Assembly recommended that all countries institute a Universal Children’s Day, to be observed as a day of worldwide fraternity and understanding between children. It recommended that the Day was to be observed also as a day of activity devoted to promoting the ideals and objectives of the Charter and the welfare of the children of the world. The Assembly suggested to governments that the Day be observed on the date and in the way which each considers appropriate.”

Countries around the world celebrate the day in many different ways. In some countries, children receive presents and in others they take part in events and activities or are allowed a holiday from school.

At home in Scotland, the Scottish Parliament cross-party group on children and young people has chosen universal children’s day as an appropriate time to launch its children’s rights manifesto, to which I will refer later. However, it will not have escaped the attention of members that it is—because 20 November is a non-sitting day—to be launched tomorrow.

Childhood is the great stage in every person’s life when the building blocks of their adult life come together. For many children around the world, that right is not respected or guaranteed, but there is much to celebrate as we mark the 25th anniversary of the coming into force of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, from declining infant mortality to rising school enrolment. However, that historic milestone must also serve as an urgent reminder that much remains to be done.

Too many children still do not enjoy full rights on a par with those of their peers. The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has said:

“The one thing all children have in common is their rights. Every child has the right to survive and thrive, to be educated, to be free from violence and abuse, to participate and to be heard.”

Sadly, that is so often not the case.

Abuses of children’s rights are an everyday occurrence in many parts of the world. The latest UNICEF data highlight the state of children’s rights around the world. For example, 16,000 children die every day, mostly from preventable or treatable causes. The births of about 230 million children under age 5 worldwide—about one in three—have never been officially recorded, which deprives them of their right to a name and a nationality. Out of an estimated 35 million people who are living with HIV, more than 2 million are 10 to 19 years old, and 56 per cent of them are girls. Globally, about one third of women aged 20 to 24 have been child brides, and every 10 minutes, somewhere in the world an adolescent girl dies as a result of violence. Nearly half of all deaths in children under age 5 are attributable to undernutrition, which translates into the unnecessary loss of about 3 million young lives a year. Those are sad statistics.

Although those issues are most likely to originate in developing countries, we must not be complacent about our own approach. However, here in Scotland, the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 has put the wellbeing of children and young people at the heart of policy. It was designed to support the effective and consistent implementation of the getting it right for every child policy across Scotland. The act was based on the principles and aims of the UNCRC, and marks a positive step in declaring Scotland’s ambition to be the best place in the world to grow up.

In addition, I welcome the changes that were brought about by the Scottish Elections (Reduction of Voting Age) Act 2015, which recognised the huge engagement by young people during the referendum campaign. That response within the young population was a pleasure to behold, and remains with many of us.

I also welcome the important role of Scotland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People, which is further enabled through the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 by placing specific duties on all ministers to consider steps that can better give effect to the UNCRC, and to promote public awareness and understanding of children’s rights. Those provisions take us further than any previous Scottish Government has gone.

The Education (Scotland) Bill seeks to reduce the attainment gap, mostly by tackling the social divide that is experienced by so many children in Scotland. The Scottish Government should be commended for tackling that fundamental problem that all too often frustrates the ambitions of less well-off pupils.

I commend also the work of the many children’s groups, including Children 1st, Children in Scotland, Together—the Scottish Alliance for Children’s Rights, and YouthLink Scotland, and the work of charities such as Barnardo’s Scotland.

Within the Scottish Parliament, the cross-party group on children and young people exists to provide a forum for dialogue and exchange between the children’s sector and Scottish parliamentarians. It is made up of more than 200 individuals and children’s organisations, as well as more than a dozen MSPs with a specific interest in children’s policy. The CPG’s members regularly work together to drive forward the children’s policy agenda by bringing together leading figures from the children’s sector and decision makers to debate and discuss issues of importance to children and young people. Further to that, a subgroup has been working to produce a children’s rights manifesto, based on the cumulative result of more than three years of participative work with children and young people across Scotland.

More than 3,500 children have had a direct say in formulating that manifesto. It includes a series of asks based on the things that matter most to young people. It encourages MSPs and prospective parliamentarians to consider children’s rights and calls on them to demonstrate their commitment to respecting and protecting those rights. It is a concise values-based manifesto, which does not include specific policy asks; rather, it outlines how children and young people expect decision makers to act, in order for them to enjoy their rights, as set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The manifesto requests that parliamentarians promote and protect children’s rights, actively listen to and help to empower children to participate in the world around them, create respectful communities that celebrate difference and support children to live full and healthy lives in which they can aspire and achieve. The manifesto has been produced to help to ensure that the rights of children are central to discussions in the run-up to next May’s elections, and to accelerate the culture change that is needed to ensure full implementation of the UNCRC across all policy areas. Groups of children and young people have reviewed the manifesto to ensure that it is accessible and reflects their views.

However, issues remain. There is the issue of the age of criminal responsibility as well as that of poverty, which without doubt impacts on health, as does homelessness. Let us not forget the need under article 19 of the UNCRC for states to take appropriate steps to protect children from physical or mental violence, although we should recognise that a debate remains to be had about the extent of the parental right to chastise children, to which I am sure Parliament will return.

By nurturing children and allowing them to achieve, they can grow into increasingly confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors to our society. However, we must work hard to achieve and maintain that, and we must not lose sight of those objectives. If we continue to ensure that children can survive and thrive, learn and grow, have their voices heard and reach their full potential, we can be an example for others around the world to follow.

Photo of Jamie McGrigor Jamie McGrigor Conservative

I congratulate Roderick Campbell on securing the debate on his motion. As I have six children myself, I am very aware of the rights to which children are entitled and which they rightly demand. As the motion notes, the idea of a universal children’s day was established by the United Nations in 1954. The reason why it is celebrated on 20 November is that the Declaration of the Rights of the Child was adopted on that date in 1959 and, 30 years later on that date in 1989, the Convention on the Rights of the Child was signed.

It goes without saying that there has been significant progress for children since universal children’s day was first celebrated. That does not mean that the world can be complacent, because progress has not been enjoyed equally by all countries and there is still much work to be done. Moreover, there must also be recognition of the new and evolving challenges that children and their families face in the 21st century.

In 2000, all UN member states agreed to eight millennium development goals, many of which related explicitly to improving the rights of children, such as goal 2 on universal primary education, goal 3 on gender equality, which aimed to reduce gender disparity in education, and goal 4, which targeted the reduction of child mortality rates. It was originally envisaged that the goals could be achieved this year—2015—but there has been uneven progress across developing countries for a variety of reasons. That has meant that child mortality reduced by half between 1990 and 2015 rather than by two thirds, which was the goal. The education target was also missed. Enrolment in primary school education rose from 83 per cent in 2000 to 91 per cent this year, but that is still short of the goal of universal enrolment.

The goals have now been updated and enhanced in the new sustainable development goals, which were agreed by the UN just two months ago, in September. The more ambitious education goal has numerous targets and includes not only the aim of achieving gender equality in primary and secondary education, but the aims of working towards quality early childhood development and care, and increasing the number of learners with relevant technical and vocational skills. The health goal aims to end preventable deaths of children under 5 and to reduce the global maternal mortality ratio to fewer than 70 per 100,000 births. The goals also recognise the importance of economic growth and related employment for young people, of improving education opportunities for young people in conflict areas, and of ending hunger and poor nutrition.

I am proud that the United Kingdom has agreed to the goals, which will continue to ensure that the rights of children and young people are at the front of the minds of policy makers and Governments across the world. I am pleased that the UK became the first country in the G8 to meet the commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of national income on international aid and that it was a Conservative-led Government that enshrined that in law.

The UK’s international aid continues to contribute to meeting the new goals in a variety of ways. Over the last Parliament, it helped 10.9 million children, including 4.5 million girls, to attend primary and lower secondary school. It has trained 190,000 teachers, provided vaccinations for 55 million children, prevented 19.3 million children under 5 and pregnant women from going hungry, and has provided access to water, sanitation or hygiene to more than 51.1 million people, thereby helping to reduce illnesses and address safety concerns about young people who would otherwise be left in vulnerable situations.

Moreover, the UK has a £35 million programme to tackle the despicable crime of female genital mutilation, which has helped to reduce the practice by 30 per cent in 17 countries.

I am glad that our country recognises the importance of children’s rights and has done so much through its international aid budget to improve them throughout the world. I congratulate Roderick Campbell again on bringing this important topic to the chamber.

Photo of Mark McDonald Mark McDonald Scottish National Party

I congratulate my colleague Rod Campbell on bringing this important debate to the chamber. I also apologise because, due to a pre-arranged meeting, I will have to leave at the end of my speech and will not be able to stay until the conclusion of the debate.

Rod Campbell rightly highlighted the work of the cross-party group on children and young people, of which I am one of the three co-conveners. I re-emphasise the opportunity for MSPs to come along to committee room 1 tomorrow between 1 pm and 2:30 pm to sign up to be child rights champions. As Rod Campbell said, that is not about specific policies but about values that will underpin the decisions that we take and how we work as parliamentarians.

As most members do, I get invited regularly to speak to groups of schoolchildren in my constituency. I am often asked to go to primary schools and talk about the work of the Scottish Parliament and the work that MSPs do. I am always keen to emphasise to young people that, even although they are not of voting age, they are still our constituents. We still have a duty as parliamentarians to represent them and their interests. I am always keen to emphasise to them that, if they feel that there are things that should happen, or of which we should take account, they should get in touch with us.

Building on the work that is being done on respecting and protecting children’s rights, there is an opportunity for children to feel that their voices are being heard and that we are open to receiving letters, emails or even visits from them to raise their concerns with us about the communities in which they live, and how those communities can best be improved for them. Many children who have spoken to me at school visits and in correspondence say that they often feel that adults take it upon themselves to speak on behalf of children without taking the opportunity to enter into a dialogue with them and finding out what they want, first. That takes place across a range of areas of society, most notably in education. I commend the fact that, in some places, young people’s views are now starting to be taken much more into consideration. Not only are parents views listened to, but what pupils and young people want is also considered.

It is also appropriate that we are discussing the motion on the day when a number of Syrian families arrive in Scotland. Many children throughout the world are being displaced as a consequence of conflicts, not only in the middle east but in other parts of the world. Their rights are often violated horrendously in many other places. The work that the Scottish Government is doing to send a message that we welcome refugees and want to be a safe haven for people who are fleeing conflict is important in that respect.

Although it is not universal children’s day today, it is world prematurity day. It is an opportunity for us to remember that many children who come into the world prematurely, sometimes with associated conditions, now have an opportunity, thanks to the wonders of medical science, to live a much more fulfilled life—indeed, to survive beyond birth, which they would not have done in the past. Their rights are equally important. It is equally important that the rights of disabled children, many of whom are non-verbal and, therefore, unable to verbalise their views and opinions, be protected and respected. We should remember them alongside the other groups that have been mentioned.

I commend Rod Campbell for bringing the debate to the chamber.

Photo of James Kelly James Kelly Labour

I congratulate Roderick Campbell on securing the debate about universal children’s day and on getting so many signatories to the Parliamentary motion.

It is important not only that we celebrate the day, but that we celebrate the importance of children. As the father of two teenage girls, I know how much joy my children bring me and how much they keep my feet on the ground when I return home from Parliament. I can see the minister smiling—no doubt she can draw on her own experiences.

As politicians, we all get so het up at times about what we regard as the crucial issues of the day. The great thing about having a family and children who ground you is that they make you realise that family is really important and that there are things that are more important than the political issues that we discuss in here.

I want to touch on the role that the UN plays in promoting the role of children, not just on universal children’s day, throughout the world. We have seen too many instances on our television screens in recent times of how the rights of children have been undermined. It is important that there is a strong role for the UN in speaking out.

That link goes straight to Scotland and to the work that the Commissioner for Children and Young People carries out, on which Roderick Campbell touched. It is important that the link is also brought in to Parliament. So many of the issues that we discuss in Parliament have an impact on children. The obvious one is the range of the education portfolio, from the early years through school and into college. That is about producing policies and budget priorities that give our young people the best opportunity to establish a good platform, through their education.

The link also runs into other policy areas, including health and wellbeing. As deputy convener of the cross-party group on sport, I know how important the role of sport in our communities and schools is in bringing young people out to participate in many events.

When we visit schools in our constituencies and when schools visit us in Parliament, we can see how much young people get out of finding out about this place and questioning MSPs and holding them to account. Sometimes, they can give us a completely different insight.

I want to touch on the role that is played by the cross-party group on children and young people, about which Rod Campbell spoke. It will be interesting to hear the ideas that it brings forward in its manifesto for the forthcoming election. I believe that it is incumbent on all political parties to place children and the rights of young people at the centre of their election manifestos.

I congratulate Rod Campbell on securing the debate. It is excellent that we are able to celebrate the importance of children not only in our personal lives, but with regard to the priorities of Parliament and the Scottish Government.

Photo of Aileen Campbell Aileen Campbell Scottish National Party

I add my thanks to Roderick Campbell for lodging the motion and for drawing our attention to the work of the cross-party group, which seeks to improve the life chances of children and young people. I also thank everyone who has participated in this important debate.

As Rod Campbell said, the debate is timely, as this week we celebrate universal children’s day and can reflect on Scotland’s progress on recognising the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. As others have said, universal children’s day was established by the UN in 1954. That generation danced to the sound of Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock”, a tune that I am sure no one in the chamber can remember—I see that there are some wry smiles.

More seriously, in 1954 the minimum voting age was 21. From next year, our 16 and 17-year-olds will have their say in all Scottish elections. That, along with other measures, will ensure that the voices of children and young people are heard in the decisions that are taken by this Parliament. Thankfully, we have moved on from the days when children were encouraged to be seen and not heard. I take seriously Mark McDonald’s point that children and young people are also our constituents, with values and views that demand our attention.

Last week, I held a youth surgery with my Scottish Youth Parliament colleagues, Megan Russell MSYP and Reece Harding MSYP. It is an important message to send to young people that their MSPs want to listen to their point of view and to make a difference where we can.

Food rationing officially ended in the UK in 1954 yet, in 2014-15, against a backdrop of harsh welfare reforms, almost 118,000 people, including 36,000 children, received a three-day supply of groceries from the Trussell Trust’s Scottish food banks. For families and children to rely on food banks in our resource-rich nation is anathema to our shared desire to create a Scotland that is based on fairness, equality and social justice. That is why this Government and this Parliament will continue to spearhead activity to ensure that children’s rights are realised and strengthened.

The UNCRC is at the heart of our ambition to make Scotland the best place to grow up. Provisions in the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 demonstrate our commitment to children’s rights. Part 1 of the act, which commenced in June this year, places specific duties on ministers to consider steps that can secure better or further effect to the UNCRC and to promote public awareness and understanding of children’s rights. Those provisions take us further than any previous Scottish Government.

We have developed a model for child rights and wellbeing impact assessments. All Government portfolios must now consider the possible impact of proposed policies and legislation on the rights and wellbeing of children and young people in Scotland. They must also hear the views of children in taking forward any new initiatives.

We will continue to work in partnership with Scotland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People and third sector organisations in a whole-Scotland approach to making children’s rights real.

Through the 2014 act, we will also support the effective and consistent implementation of our getting it right for every child approach throughout Scotland. GIRFEC is firmly rooted in the UNCRC, and that approach means ensuring that we up the pace of change and increase our efforts, because GIRFEC is and must be about every child, every time, and not some children, some of the time.

Here in Scotland, we are tackling poverty and inequality head on, because often it is children who feel their harsh effects the most. For example, we have invested nearly £300 million in welfare mitigation measures. We have also extended the provision of free school meals to all primary 1 to 3 pupils—a measure that is benefiting an additional 98,000 children across Scotland.

We recognise the right of all children and young people in Scotland to achieve their full potential. Research shows us that progress is being made to raise attainment and reduce educational inequity in Scotland but it is not fast enough. For example, in 2008, just over two in 10 students from the most deprived areas of Scotland obtained at least one higher or equivalent. Last year, the figure was almost four in 10. For students from the most affluent areas, the figure was eight in 10. In other words, when it comes to highers, school leavers from the most deprived 20 per cent of areas in Scotland currently do half as well as school leavers from the most affluent areas. That is unacceptable, which is why, to make a difference, we launched the Scottish attainment challenge and the £100 million attainment Scotland fund. James Kelly talked about focusing on ensuring that all children get access to and enjoy sport and culture. That is an important part of that attainment agenda.

We want to ensure that literacy, numeracy and health and wellbeing are our top priorities. We need to ensure that, no matter what income a family has, children are able to fulfil their potential, because not to do so represents a failing in their future.

Recognising children’s rights and ensuring that our children and young people know the inalienable rights that they have as children is a powerful tool. We want our children to be responsible citizens through the curriculum for excellence. That does not mean simply teaching our children and young people the articles in the UNCRC by rote, but ensuring that they have a deep and meaningful understanding of the rights and their application in Scotland and around the world.

That is why I have been so impressed by UNICEF’s work on rights respecting schools and Education Scotland’s work on promoting rights. Rights-based learning means that we have children in Scotland who understand that they have a right to play, a right to learn, a right to a name, a right to shelter and a right to all the things that make their lives comfortable. They also recognise that those rights are not universally enjoyed by children around the world. Rights-based learning offers a really beautiful way to ensure that our responsible citizens and leaders of the future have empathy and tolerance and that they realise that we need to protect childhood for our global family. I do not think that it has ever been more important that we promote that message of peace, tolerance and solidarity and we have an opportunity to do so through our rights-based learning.

It is clearly unacceptable that so many of the world’s children are living in extreme poverty or are unable to attend school. Rod Campbell and Jamie McGrigor gave some harrowing statistics that highlight the tragic realities facing some of our children around the world, such as infant mortality rates and the fact that poverty erodes childhood for far too many. It is important to reflect on the gender-based inequality that Jamie McGrigor mentioned, too.

That is why the UN has agreed the sustainable development goals, which outline a number of universal high-level objectives for countries including eroding poverty, ensuring access to education and achieving gender equality. Those goals will form the basis of a global partnership for sustainable development. I am very proud that Scotland was one of the first countries to sign up to that impressive UN initiative.

It is clear that we have travelled a long way since 1954, but we still have challenges to face up to, especially if we want to say with any confidence that Scotland is the best place to grow up.

As Rod Campbell articulated in his speech, the children’s rights manifesto offers a useful tool for us to consider what more we need to do to make children’s rights real. I am committed to doing all I can to ensure that children in Scotland get the best possible start in life, which they deserve. Children get only one shot at childhood and it is incumbent upon each and every one of us, regardless of the party that we represent, to ensure that we get it right for them, which means respecting their rights as children.

Once again I congratulate Rod Campbell on his motion and his speech and I congratulate the other speakers on taking part in this evening’s important and timely debate.

Meeting closed at 17:32.