Children (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

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

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Photo of Rona Mackay Rona Mackay Scottish National Party

There has been concern expressed, which I share, that the phrase “who are capable” could be misinterpreted and could lead to decision makers deciding that a child does not have the capacity to give their views. I am therefore pleased that the minister proposes to lodge an amendment at stage 2 to strengthen the provisions in sections 1 to 3 in order to avoid the risk of capacity exemption being used excessively.

Section 15 of the bill will place a duty on the court to explain decisions to children. That is where the role of child welfare reporters is crucial. The bill will extend their role and, through secondary legislation, ensure that they will get appropriate training. More than 90 per cent of child welfare reporters are lawyers, so I am pleased that more non-lawyers—for example, child psychologists—will be encouraged to train, and that a national register of reporters will be held, to protect children’s rights.

The current adult-centred infrastructure needs to be strengthened, which is why the role of children’s advocacy and support is vital. The minister has said that that will be considered in the family justice modernisation strategy, and will be looked at before stage 3. I believe that that is essential, so I am keen to see early progress on it.

If children’s views are to be heard, a system of redress and complaint for them should be considered. That is particularly important in instances of domestic abuse, which is reported in the majority of contact cases in the civil court. Children must be heard without fear of retribution; that is why confidentiality and the sharing of data must be proportional and information must not be shared unduly by courts or those who have perpetrated abuse against the child. I do not believe that the guidance is enough, so I look forward to the provisions being strengthened before stage 3.

An area that is of enormous importance is child contact centres for children and families. The committee strongly recommends regulation of those currently unregulated centres, which are run by paid staff and volunteers, some of whom have had minimal training. To be clear, I say that that is not a reflection on the many excellent people who work in them, but on the need to ensure that centres are safe for all who use them, no matter where they are in the country.

The committee heard harrowing evidence about children being made to attend under court contact orders, often whey they do not want to, which causes them great distress. They have had no say in the matter. As we have heard, the committee held a private meeting with youngsters from Yello! who have experience of being ordered to attend contact centres, and their accounts were powerful and moving.

In committee, I voiced my reservations about contact centres and their purpose. I agree with Women’s Aid and Children 1st: if contact is unsafe for women and children, and contact needs to be supervised, it should not happen. I strongly support the Government working with third sector partners including Women’s Aid and Children 1st to ensure that women, children and young people who have experienced domestic abuse are protected. However, given that the centres are part of our current framework, I am pleased that they are to be regulated, and I agree that there will need to be sufficient secure funding.

Another important issue that has been discussed today—and which the committee heard about—is sibling contact, where that is appropriate and safe. As has been mentioned by Liam Kerr and others, during an evidence session we heard a powerful and moving account from a young care-experienced man who was estranged from his sister and who was allowed only structured and supervised contact with her, despite posing absolutely no risk. Allowing siblings contact would be an enormous step forward, and would be entirely in line with the care review recommendations. Section 10 of the bill says that, for looked-after children, local authorities must promote personal relations and direct contact with siblings where appropriate. I would like that to be strengthened, and to meet the minister on that.

I will end with a quotation from a young person from the Yello! group, who said:

“Adults always seem to be given more priority than children, even though it is all supposed to be about the child. We hope that this Bill will change that.”

So do I.

I ask members to please support the general principles of the bill.