Children (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

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

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Photo of James Kelly James Kelly Labour

As Pauline McNeill pointed out, it has been a very high-quality stage 1 debate. Members have come to the chamber after looking not just at the Government’s bill, the general principles of which everyone agrees with, but at the evidence and the Justice Committee’s stage 1 report. There have been many good speeches and interventions, and there has been good interaction and an exchange of ideas across the chamber. I am sure that the minister will have listened carefully to what has been said and that it will inform not just the Government’s thinking as it goes into stage 2 but that of different members and different political parties, which can only help to improve the bill overall.

As Liam McArthur pointed out, we do not want to find ourselves in a situation in which we just pass a piece of legislation that we all feel good about because we all agree with legislation that is about improving the rights of the child. The bill that we pass must work in practice. That is where the parliamentary process can play an important role as we move through stage 2 and stage 3.

I welcome the fact that the minister has indicated that the Government will lodge amendments on the removal of the 12-plus presumption and that it will ensure that the rights of children are consistent across all age groups. I welcome, too, the fact that the issue of non-compliance with contact orders is to be addressed.

As we enter another month of the pandemic, the issue of delays in the court system is very current, although we had not heard of Covid-19 when the committee took evidence on the bill. The Government has sought to address the issue through section 21, which says that

“the court is to have regard to” any adverse effects that delays in the court system may have on children. However, the requirement to “have regard to” might not be strong enough. That will need further debate and perhaps amendment at stage 2.

Members made a number of important points about confidentiality. Alex Rowley and Rona Mackay were right to emphasise the important point about children who live in a situation where there has been domestic abuse in the house. In that regard, confidentiality has to be balanced out and the issues of domestic abuse victims have to be taken into account by the courts.

John Finnie and Liam McArthur brought up the important issue of alternative dispute resolution. A lot of parenting disputes end up in court, but if such disputes can be resolved outwith court, it is to the benefit of not only the court system but the individuals who are involved. John Finnie made an important point about legal aid, which also came up in the committee evidence. Many people cannot afford the access to legal aid that is required, and the Government needs to take that on board.

A big issue that has run through our discussions this afternoon is contact centres. As a number of members said, there are examples of good practice and good contact centres, but it is clear that, given members’ experiences of cases that have been brought to them, they have concerns about the operation of contact centres. There is a strong case for looking at the regulation of contact centres in amendments.

As I said in my opening speech, if we are to get the legislation to work properly, there needs to be proper financing. Contact centres are an example of that, with the initial Relationships Scotland funding being withdrawn, and there is a need for proper support and funding for child welfare reporters. Margaret Mitchell raised that in her opening speech.

There has been a lot of lobbying of MSPs on behalf of grandparents who are looking for a presumption in favour of grandparents’ rights to be included in the bill. We heard an intervention on that from Alex Cole-Hamilton. As Pauline McNeill pointed out, it is important that the rights of the child are central to the bill. However, Kenny Gibson was right to point out the importance of more promotion of the grandchildren’s charter as a way forward.