Carrying of Weapons (Children)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 5th October 2017.

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Photo of Ruth Davidson Ruth Davidson Conservative

1. Figures from the Scottish Children’s Reporter Administration this week reveal that 254 children under the age of 16 were referred to it for carrying knives or other weapons last year. That is up by 11 per cent, so we know that the problem is growing. Do we know how many of those 254 incidents involved knives or other weapons being carried within school grounds?

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

I do not have those statistics available to me today. If that breakdown is available, I will certainly make it available to Ruth Davidson and to the wider Parliament.

We know from some extremely tragic cases recently that there is an issue, as I am sure there is in many countries, of some young people—a minority—carrying knives and other weapons in schools. That is why it is important that, through the processes and procedures that we have in place in our schools and through our wider justice system, we take action that combats that and makes sure that our schools are safe places to be, as they already are for the vast majority of young people across our country.

Photo of Ruth Davidson Ruth Davidson Conservative

In the aftermath of the tragic death of Aberdeen pupil Bailey Gwynne two years ago, the Scottish Government rightly issued new guidance on the handling of weapons that are suspected of being carried or are found in schools. It says that education authorities, in consultation with key partners, should develop their own policy on weapons.

What discussions have taken place between the Scottish Government and Scottish councils since that guidance was issued? Can the First Minister confirm that all councils have now developed and put in place such a policy?

The First Minister:

A range of discussions take place between the Scottish Government and councils. I am happy to give Ruth Davidson a full update in writing about the current circumstances in respect of guidance.

Ruth Davidson is right to talk about the report, and the action that was taken after it, following the tragic death of Bailey Gwynne. Since the independent review into that tragic death, we have been focused on implementing the two specific recommendations that were directed to the Scottish Government. Members will recall that one recommendation centred on improving the resilience of schools to the threat that is posed by weapons and giving consideration to amending the law on searching pupils, and the second recommendation was about further legislative controls that can be brought to bear on the purchase of weapons online.

Ministers have considered the issue of violence and knife crime in schools very carefully and have taken advice from a wide range of stakeholders. Those stakeholders do not support the introduction of a new search power for teachers—indeed, that was rejected and opposed by the teaching profession.

Of course, those recommendations were directed to the Scottish Government. Ruth Davidson also rightly asked about the recommendations for councils. It is important that councils have the right processes in place and that all schools have the right policies in place. Through our officials in the education department of the Scottish Government, we will continue to act to make sure that that is the case.

Photo of Ruth Davidson Ruth Davidson Conservative

Schools are also supposed to monitor and record every time a child is searched. The guidance specifically requires that any incident where a decision is made to search a child or young person, or where a weapon is suspected of being carried or is found, must be recorded. Can the First Minister confirm that every Scottish council operates such a policy and that all instances of pupils being searched on suspicion of carrying a weapon or of weapons being found are recorded locally, are collated and are publicly accessible?

The First Minister:

It is for councils to ensure that they take the action that adheres to the guidance in all respects. I say quite clearly that the education secretary and I expect councils to do exactly that, which includes adhering to the aspects of the guidance that relate to the monitoring and reporting of young people who are searched or who are found to be carrying knives or other weapons.

As I am sure that Ruth Davidson understands, it is fundamentally for councils to ensure that they take action to adhere to the guidance. Of course there is a responsibility on the Government’s part, and we will always seek to discharge that responsibility to take whatever action is necessary to ensure that all the correct policies are in place and that guidance is being followed.

Photo of Ruth Davidson Ruth Davidson Conservative

I recognise what the First Minister says about it being incumbent on councils to follow the Scottish Government’s recommendations. However, in many cases, the information is not being collated and is not in any way publicly accessible. In response to recent freedom of information requests, nearly half of Scottish councils were unable to confirm the number of weapons that have been confiscated from pupils in their areas, because the information was not held centrally. Parents and the wider public have a right to know that information. The fact that it is not fully accessible means that we have no meaningful picture of the extent of the problem in any area.

In the wake of Bailey Gwynne’s death, Aberdeen City Council has introduced measures to ensure that there is a clear picture of knife possession in schools, and it has introduced an anti-knife crime policy. Does the First Minister agree that it is time that all councils met the same standard? Will the Government examine the matter again to ensure that all schools are the safe environment that parents have the right to expect?

The First Minister:

Ruth Davidson is right to raise such an issue of concern and I give a commitment to look further into the specific points that she has raised today. I agree that we want all councils to operate best practice. For tragic reasons, Aberdeen City Council has had cause to look carefully and critically at its policies on the issue.

I genuinely do not mean to say this in any hard political sense, but the Scottish Government is frequently criticised in Parliament for seeking to overly direct councils, and members from all sides sometimes accuse us of having a centralising instinct, although I do not accept that characterisation. There is always a balance to strike between allowing local authorities to discharge their responsibilities—ensuring that the guidance is being adhered to is local authorities’ responsibility—and discharging our responsibility as a Government to ensure that that happens.

On such issues, I am acutely aware that parents who are listening to the debate will not be particularly concerned about who has the responsibility but will want to know that schools are as safe as possible for their young people. The Scottish Government takes that responsibility very seriously. The Deputy First Minister and I will look further into the points that have been raised today to consider carefully whether the Scottish Government requires to take further action.

In addition to the actions that are the responsibility of councils, the Scottish Government takes a range of steps to try to reduce knife crime, not just in our schools but more generally. That includes the no knives, better lives youth engagement programme, which has received £3 million of funding since 2009. It is perhaps relevant that, as we speak, 25 local authorities are involved in delivering that programme. We also invest heavily in the national violence reduction unit. We take a range of actions to reduce the number of knife crimes. We know that the length of sentences for adults who are convicted of knife crime has increased in recent years.

To return to schools, every parent wants to know, when they send their child to school of a morning, that the school will be as safe as possible for young people. That is the case for the vast majority of young people on the vast majority of days in the year, across our country. If we need to take action to ensure that that is the case for every single young person, it is the responsibility of councils and the Government to do so.