Little people, as some call children, are no less people than adults; nor are they less affected. In many ways, they can be more deeply affected than adults when the law and the courts become involved in their young lives—particularly at points in time when the family situation in which they find themselves is unsettled and, often, contentious.
It is important for us always to bear in mind that the law is never a fixed thing, but develops and alters as time passes— sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. Of course, this Parliament is meant, after careful consideration, to deliberately change the law to improve it or, sometimes, to correct its own past errors or those of others. Those others may be thought to include judges, so I should perhaps not push that comment too far. After all, judges are there to seek to objectively and fairly apply the law as it is to the individual cases before them.
I will support the bill in principle, as will my colleagues. However, as always, cautious consideration of the bill is required, and greater detail requiring scrutiny is likely to emerge at later stages. That is especially so in relation to issues that are intended to be addressed in secondary legislation.
We should realise that judges already include in their careful considerations views expressed by children in cases before them, and that they often explain very well their reasoning and thinking to them. The impetus that the bill gives to oblige courts to do so is welcome, provided that the justice system is properly resourced to enable already-busy judges to fulfil that function as part of their duties. The question of resources has already been raised by a number of members.
As set out by my colleague Margaret Mitchell on behalf of the committee, t he bill deals with important details in that area. I will make a few brief passing comments on some of those.
The removal of the assumption of competence of children over the age of 12 is intended to encourage consideration of a child’s testimony at a younger age. That should mean that the court will feel enabled to exercise its judgment more freely in considering and acting on the evidence of a child of any age, in a similar way to which a judge traditionally decided whether a younger child should be asked simply to promise to tell the truth or to take the oath when giving evidence in a criminal trial.
Statutory factors will now be specified in the bill. The bill will add to and adjust the factors that must formally be taken into consideration, such as sibling relationships and relationships with each parent, when determining the outcome of any case—broader consideration will be given to relevant factors. Putting this on a statutory basis should be thought to be a sensible step.
The basis for the recruitment and operation of child welfare reporters is to be made more consistent and will reform a system that features several inconsistencies. The role, training, remuneration and quality of the people so employed would—one would hope—be improved by the introduction of the Scotland-wide register. The lack of statutory regulation for such individuals has, in the past, proved controversial on occasion. The key to that work will be in its proper resourcing and administration, to seek maximum effectiveness in the interests of children, their parents and their families.
What about the possible increase in the cost related to family contact centres, which has already been mentioned? Measures that relate to that point are notable in their absence from the bill, so I look forward to further clarification from the Government on funding and to an explanation of how the resourcing issues, which I and others have identified, will be addressed—if necessary by amendments being lodged and agreed to at stage 2.