I thank those who attended the Justice Committee and its clerks for the tremendous amount of work that they have put into the bill.
I speak not only as a member of the Justice Committee, but as a dad of two children.
It is my son’s third birthday today, and although it is not uncommon for parents to be working on their kids’ birthdays, it is a wee bit different this year. Folk will understand that my son does not have any grandparents or other family around, so I hope that the Presiding Officer and members in the chamber will forgive me for taking the opportunity to wish him a happy birthday, on the record. [
.] Happy birthday, Ruan MacGregor—I am getting reminded to say his name. He will no doubt be mortified when I show him this in years to come.
This is a very good bill and I am glad to say that it has been welcomed across the board—we have heard that today in the political world and we heard it in the evidence as well. There are points for discussion, but those are on things that could be improved, rather than on the principles of the bill. We have heard from the NSPCC, Children 1st, Women’s Aid and others, and the consensus is that the bill is good.
The bill brings about important changes. We heard from John Finnie about the protection of vulnerable witnesses, building on the work on the Vulnerable Witnesses (Criminal Evidence) (Scotland) Act 2019 and we had a lot of discussion around the barnahus model.
There was also a lot of discussion on probably the most contentious—if I can call it that—area, which was child contact centres. We heard evidence of good practice there, but Women’s Aid raised some concerns around domestic violence. I welcome the minister’s response to the committee’s report and its recommendations on the matter and I look forward to hearing more ahead of stage 2, particularly around how we can improve communication between the courts and contact centres.
Hearing the views of younger children is key—it is a must. We really have to do that to get it right; it is an absolute no-brainer. The register of who can be appointed as a welfare officer is very welcome. I declare an interest as a registered social worker.
I remember a time when social workers did more of that work. As the minister said, it seems to be the case that it is mainly done by the legal profession now, but it would be good if there was a wider sphere in that regard. If social workers and psychologists were involved, I think that the child would be placed at the centre of the process. We have to make sure that that is the case, and that their interview with the child is the main one in the process.
I also welcome the advocacy or support workers suggestion, which was made by Scottish Women’s Aid and others. I hear what the minister is saying, but it is an area in which I have an interest and the suggestion would offer a lot to the debate. However, I am open minded as to whether we deal with that through legislation or through the existing framework.
On the issue of sibling contact for looked-after and accommodated children, I agree with all the points that have been made. It is absolutely crucial. Some of the evidence that the committee heard was mind blowing to say the least, but I agree with what the minister and Maree Todd have said: such contact should already be being promoted. I said at committee—I am looking at Liam Kerr, because he knows that I have said this on several occasions—that I cannot imagine a situation in which that would not happen. There is a process for looked-after and accommodated children in place, as well as a children’s hearings system. Therefore I would like to think that that has always happened. If that is not the case, is that down to resources? I ask the minister to have a look at that issue.
There are other areas that I think are important, and which have been raised by, for example, Shared Parenting Scotland. I should say that I am the convener of the Parliament’s shared parenting cross-party group. Shared Parenting Scotland has suggested some amendments, as well as some general debating points.
Liam Kerr did not misquote me when he talked about my concerns around the terms “residence” and “contact”. I do not think that they are helpful. When I was a social worker, I and many others would get into trouble if we used the language of the profession. We might inadvertently say “contact” to a child and the child’s reaction would often be to say, “Contact? That’s my mum and dad we are talking about.” We need to listen to such concerns, but I am open minded as to whether they need to be dealt with in the bill or by way of guidance that is given to local authorities and workers across the board. We were always discouraged from using those phrases, but because they are the legal terms, we sometimes got into the habit of doing so.
On the issue of contact, there is a suggestion that an amendment could be lodged to include grandparents and other relatives. Just now, I think that all parents are experiencing the loss of the contact that our children have with their grandparents, and we are seeing the impact that it is having on our children. Therefore, I think that we need to look at the issue in the round. Often, grandparents feel that they have a vital relationship with a child, and that the child has a vital relationship with them, and perhaps the contact with the child is lost as a result of the actions of the parents. I welcome what the minister said about the charter, but perhaps she could provide more detail of that before stage 2.
I can see that the Presiding Officer is asking me to wind up, so I will do so. I had so much more to say, but I will leave it at that.