I support the general principles of the bill. As others have done, I thank the Justice Committee clerks and the witnesses, who provided very powerful and important evidence.
The bill will substantially amend the law that applies when parents are in dispute with each other over some aspect of their children’s lives. I think that we can all think of constituency cases that have concerned disputes that have impacted very much on the children concerned. After parents separate or divorce, disputes can arise about where a child should live and the arrangements for a parent to have contact with a child he or she does not live with.
The bill’s key proposal, through sections 1 to 3, is to make changes to help children to participate in decisions about them, including court decisions. Rona Mackay put it very well when she said that the overarching thing that the bill does is to give children a voice. A key aim is to encourage the courts to hear the views of younger children before reaching a decision.
The bill also proposes the statutory regulation of several key aspects of what could be called the machinery associated with the 1995 act. That includes child welfare reporters and child contact centres, which I will come back to. The bill aims to improve the experience in the courtroom, in family cases, of vulnerable people such as those who are affected by domestic abuse.
Having looked at the bill in great detail, the Justice Committee made a number of recommendations in its report. Overall, the committee considers that the bill is “a positive step forward” in achieving the policy aims. It very much welcomes the removal of the existing presumption in the 1995 act that a child aged 12 or over is of sufficient age and maturity to form a view, having heard consistent evidence that the presumption has meant that the views of younger children are not routinely heard in practice. The committee asked the Scottish Government to respond to the concerns that were raised by various stakeholders that the current drafting of the bill does not go far enough in ensuring that the views of all children, particularly younger children, are heard.
The committee also supports provisions in the bill that would regulate child contact centres. That is very important, given some of the evidence that we heard about differing practices, and concerns about the quality of provision. Bringing standardisation and regulation to that is very important. That raises the issue of potentially significant costs for contact centres in meeting the new regulatory requirements, so the committee asked the Scottish Government to provide details on how it will ensure that sufficient funding is made available for contact centres for their existing level of provision and the new regulatory requirements.
I welcome the Scottish Government’s response so far to the committee’s report. On the issue of children’s participation in decisions that affect them, the Justice Committee asked the Scottish Government to bring forward amendments at stage 2 to address the committee’s concerns and ensure that the views of all children, regardless of age, are heard. I welcome the Scottish Government’s response in recognising that
“the concerns raised by the Committee and stakeholders during the stage 1 oral and written evidence about the risk that the provisions ... could be misinterpreted and lead to decision makers deciding a child does not have capacity to give their views.”
I welcome the Scottish Government’s acceptance of the recommendations, and its proposal to bring forward an amendment at stage 2 to strengthen the provisions in sections 1 to 3 to avoid, if possible,
“the risk of the capacity exemption being used excessively by decision makers.”
As I have said, the regulation of child contact centres has been looked at in some detail. The vast majority of stakeholders agreed that they should be regulated—to ensure, as I have said, more consistency in the quality of provision. However, the issue of funding has arisen and, like others, I welcome the fact that the Scottish Government gave interim funding to contact centres, which provided a level of stability. However, I welcome the commitment to provide, before stage 2, further details on funding for contact centres in the context of not just the existing service but, importantly, the new regulatory requirements that I think we all agree will arise from the bill.
Scottish Women’s Aid asked that, where possible, the approach to children and vulnerable individuals should be the same across all criminal and civil proceedings, including children’s hearings. The committee agreed, and I welcome the Scottish Government’s acceptance of our recommendation, albeit that it said that that will involve
“a longer-term piece of work”.
I understand that some of that work is or will be under way through the victims task force.
The Government’s response on many issues that were raised at stage 1 shows that it has been listening. I look forward to stage 2, when this important bill can be improved, and I give the bill’s general principles my support.