Children (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

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

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Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party

I start by thanking the constituents of mine whose experiences of contact centres and the family court system have powerfully informed me of the need for reform. Before I speak about contact centres, I give the disclaimer that there are many good ones out there doing wonderful jobs. However, constituents never contact members to say that a contact centre has done a good job; they tell us when a contact centre has got it wrong. I have had a cluster of cases around one particular contact centre, although obviously I will not name it.

I am strongly in favour of the regulation and inspection of contact centres. I will begin with minimum standards of accommodation. A constituent of mine who is a father has not seen his disabled son for three years. The most recent central reason for that has been that there was no disabled toilet with a hoist. Currently, there are no requirements for centres to have such facilities. The courts use a list of contact centres, but it appears that those centres do not have to comply with disability requirements and nor do the courts seem to take that issue into account. As recently as April, my constituent told me that the contact centre in question now has a disabled toilet and a hoist, but his lawyer is still trying to secure funds for a changing mat and a trained member of staff to use the hoist. That is simply ridiculous and unacceptable.

I therefore welcome the provisions in section 9(3) on minimum standards of accommodation, but that does not specifically mention disabled access. Perhaps that needs to be specifically in the legislation. Nor does the bill place requirements on courts to ensure that the contact centres that are on their lists are compliant. When I contacted the sheriff principal in my area, I was left in no doubt about the independence of the courts, and I was referred back to the lawyer. I get that, but surely courts should ensure that their lists of contact centres are accessible as a matter of statute and not just as a matter of discretion, good will and independence. I ask the minister to say whether the bill can deal with that issue.

I want to ensure that there is regulation of all contact centres. Just because a contact centre is not mentioned on the interlocutor, that does not mean that it should not be regulated and inspected, so we have to look at that, too.

Another of my constituency cases relates to the robustness, professionalism and accuracy of reports that are compiled by contact centres to go to the courts. A constituent of mine was concerned about the underlying weighting that some courts give to those reports. To be fair to those who draft such reports, given that there are no clear national standards, guidance or training for their authors, the situation is perhaps unsurprising. When a new contact centre was appointed for my constituent and the contact was observed, a report to the court transformed her experience with her child and with the courts.

In the time that I have left, I want to talk about an exceptional young woman who is a constituent of mine and who has been let down by the current system. She has fought adversity to protect her son and her family. I will not name her, although I thank the minister for taking the time to meet her and hear her story. Instead, I will call her Elle—she asked to be called that because, frankly, her life has been hell. I also pay tribute to Gay in my office, who has worked closely with Elle and her family every step of the way.

When Elle first contacted my office, she was hugely anxious that her abusive ex-partner was using the court system and her child to continue to exercise power and control over her. With the support of my office and Police Scotland, who I thank, a conviction was secured for previous domestic abuse. However, Elle remained hugely worried that the courts were keen to accelerate contact between the ex-partner and her child without taking full account of all the court reports—I will say a little more about that in a moment. Elle was concerned about the weight that was placed on the contact centre report that went to the court and she had concerns relating to partiality and inaccuracies. It seemed that the requirement for the ex-partner to engage in anger management was ignored.