I am pleased to speak in this stage 1 debate on the Children (Scotland) Bill. It is another example of getting on with what matters, even as the pandemic continues.
Tempting as it is to start with the words “As a father”, I do not think that that would be fair, nor does any of my young scamps have a birthday today. The purpose and benefits of the bill will be clear to everyone, whether or not they have children. After all, it does not take being a parent to understand that we must always seek to protect and nurture children in all that we do. Further enshrining children’s rights in legislation to help them to weather traumatic experiences is part of that work.
This year, we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. As is set out in the 2020 programme for government, the Scottish Government is stepping up its
“awareness-raising programme for children’s rights” and placing them at the heart of decision making. We seek to better the lives of children now and ensure that those who come after us are not subjected to the same inequalities that people of older generations were. That is why the Scottish ministers are committed to the policy of getting it right for every child, which includes giving all children the best start in life, working to close the attainment gap, extending free childcare provision and much more. Indeed, those aspirations are shared by members across the chamber.
Presiding Officer, 2018 was Scotland’s year of young people, during which their voices were heard louder than ever and their achievements were celebrated. Important as it is to support children under all circumstances, we need to give them extra support during times of trauma and when kids are not all right. As we continue to learn more about the impact of adverse childhood experiences on the rest of our lives, such experiences are increasingly recognised and must be acted on. The Scottish Government’s decision to incorporate the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into Scots law, which made Scotland the only United Kingdom nation to incorporate it, was the right one.
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child considers that the elements that should be taken into account when assessing and determining a child’s best interests should include their views and identity, “Preservation of the family environment and maintaining relations”, “Care, protection and safety”, “Situation of vulnerability”, and the child’s right to health and education. That is what the bill is all about.
I want to elaborate on two factors that particularly spoke to me as I examined the bill: maintaining family relations and vulnerability. Regarding the former, I will home in on the unique relationship between siblings—particularly as addressed in section 10 of the bill, which amends section 17 of the 1995 act such that the local authority must
“take such steps to promote ... personal relations and direct contact between the child and any person mentioned in subsection (1A) as appear to them to be, having regard to their duty to the child under paragraph (a), both practicable and appropriate.”
The Scottish ministers consider that a sibling relationship can extend beyond a biological brother or sister, and I fully support that view. Duties will extend to full, half, step and adopted siblings and will include sibling-like relationships.
My sister and I grew up in a home that was often very disruptive. We relied on each other, and I am convinced that our shared experiences and being there for each other is a big reason why we are so close—as is the fact that we are twins. I am sure that I speak for many when I say that being separated from my sister in childhood for whatever reason would have been the worst thing that could have happened to either of us. I can only begin to imagine how difficult such a loss of contact would be for a child who has had to be placed not with one parent after a split but in the care of a local authority because staying with a parent was not deemed to be safe. That in itself is difficult for any child who is likely to be dealing with severe trauma. Adding to that the loss of contact with their trusted sibling must lead to extra stress and feelings of isolation—not to mention exacerbated concerns about the wellbeing of their brother or sister.
For those who do not have any sibling bonds, the facilitation of contact with grandparents may fulfil a bigger role. Therefore, I would like to see further details of the steps that ministers intend to take to promote the charter for grandchildren during stage 2. Although I appreciate that asking councils to facilitate and promote sibling and grandparental contact can add extra practical and financial pressures, we must do all that we can to help councils to do so rather than just bestow pressures on them. I am certain that the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the charity Stand Up for Siblings and other children’s rights organisations will provide clear and workable input reflecting such needs, and I look forward to seeing more detail as the bill progresses through stage 2.
Looking at vulnerability, it is important that we take a moment to acknowledge that some children already live with conditions and disabilities and may also go through difficult family situations. Children’s hospitals across Scotland represent children who live with life-shortening conditions and help children who may require further support to enable their participation in proceedings, given their increased vulnerability. Pressures leading to difficult situations can occur in every family, and children who already have other challenges to deal with are sadly not exempt from added pressures in their family life. Some children may be non-verbal or have other communication challenges, so inclusive communication means and support are crucial if we want children’s voices to be heard loud and clear.
There are situations in which a court may consider that a child may not be capable of understanding decisions. In the light of that, I am pleased that the bill will have a positive impact in relation to the protected characteristic of disability, as it contains provisions allowing the courts to authorise the use of special measures to protect vulnerable parties.
I thank the Justice Committee for looking at the bill and, as always, the civil servants who worked on it and all others who contributed so heartily. I look forward to voting in favour of the bill at decision time, and I trust that colleagues across the chamber will do likewise.