Children (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 27th May 2020.

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Photo of James Kelly James Kelly Labour

I thank the Justice Committee clerks for putting together the report under very difficult circumstances, particularly towards the end of the process, when the Covid-19 pandemic started to have an impact. I also thank the many witnesses who came to the committee and those who submitted written evidence.

As has already been said, there are a lot of issues at stake, and people have strong and passionate views. The Justice Committee report has gone to great lengths to capture the different views and parameters that require to be explored.

People feel strongly about the issues because a young person’s formative years are very important. To end up in a family court, where perhaps access is being contested, can make a young person feel very vulnerable. It is important to ensure that they have correct protections and are properly looked after. I say at the outset that that is what the bill seeks to achieve, but in some areas it needs further discussion and improvement, so that we do what is right by children and look after them in legislation.

The bill has come about primarily because the Children (Scotland) Act 1995 needs some improvement. The 1995 act does not focus primarily on the rights of the child. As many witnesses pointed out, it needs to give more protection to children from homes where there has been domestic abuse, and it needs improvement in relation to the resolution of parental disputes. We also need to give regard to the requirement for family court cases to comply with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

One of the main provisions of the bill abolishes the presumption that a child is able to give their view only if they are 12 or older. That objective is correct, as it is unfair to isolate and take out those who are under 12. It is logical that many young people under that age would have a view, and it is important that those views are expressed and come to the fore. However, although the bill removes the 12-plus presumption, it seeks to introduce a capacity exception, which could be interpreted as weakening the child’s right to give their view. That is one area that requires improvement.

I think that everyone would agree that children’s welfare is absolutely critical. Central to that is the relationships that children have. We have already had quite a bit of discussion around looked-after children—children in care. It is clear from the interventions by Neil Findlay and Liam Kerr that there are two issues regarding what is in the legislation. One is that the word “practicable” is open to different interpretations, which could cause difficulties in a legal setting. The second relates to the resources that are required, particularly for local authorities, to give proper support to looked-after children. As we move into stage 2, we need to produce not only correct legislation but a financial memorandum that has adequate financial resources for local authorities.

The convener mentioned contact centres in her speech. There is also an issue around funding for them. Everyone recognises the importance of contact centres in bringing together children with those with whom they have key relationships. The withdrawal of £750,000 of funding from Relationships Scotland is a real concern. I acknowledge that the Government has announced interim funding for the next quarter, but organisations such as Relationships Scotland need more funding stability, particularly in operating under the Covid-19 pandemic. I hope that the minister can outline what funding package will be in place over the next financial year and ensure that it is adequate.

Another key issue that needs to be addressed is the breaching of court orders, and particularly contact orders. It is clearly absolutely unacceptable that individuals breach decisions that courts have made. The bill seeks to address that through the introduction of section 16 to provide more clarity. As Liam Kerr has already noted, there were divided opinions on that in the evidence. Many of the children’s organisations were sympathetic, and the legal view was that the courts already took avenues to address those issues. I am sympathetic to section 16 remaining, but the Government needs to do some work to make the case for it and perhaps improve it so that it has a proper place and there is not just legislation for legislation’s sake.