Children (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

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

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Photo of Jamie Greene Jamie Greene Conservative

I thank all members for their very thoughtful contributions. As Kenneth Gibson said, it is good to see the chamber resume some form of normality in looking at very important and quite sombre legislation.

Rona Mackay opened her comments with something that sticks in my mind about why the bill is so important. The bill, and the debate that we are having around it, finally gives children a voice in a system that is designed to listen to adults. That perfectly sums up the premise of the bill—what it is about and why it is necessary—and what should lie at the heart of the debate around it.

Pauline McNeill backed that up when she said that, although we talk about child protection, we are also talking about children’s rights. We are reviving a 25-year-old piece of legislation, and so much has happened in the 25 years since it was passed. There is clearly a much more prominent focus on giving a children a voice in the conversation today.

I would say that everyone has a voice: children themselves, unmarried fathers, siblings, grandparents, and third-party agencies that have been in touch with us. The law also has a voice.

Custody is complex. It is not as simple a matter as it was perhaps presented to be in the 2005 act, with two parents fighting over access or custody. These days, no two families are alike, so the balance between consistency in the application of the law and flexibility will be a recurring theme.

I turn to some of the comments that were made today. The minister started by talking about the consultation process, and I was quite struck by that. She mentioned the sheer scale of the engagement in the consultation with children and young people themselves. It marks progress for the Parliament that young people have been included at such an early stage of a bill, to allow us to make informed decisions. Including and listening to a wider diversity of voices in the legislative process, including those of young children, is difficult, but the tone of the debate has been good. It feels more inclusive and it feels as though this legislation will be more inclusive.

I made an intervention about how we listen to children’s voices. We do so in a context that protects them from coercion by either parent. That is important. I welcome the minister’s response to that intervention: child welfare reporters will receive more training to spot such behaviour but, as other members have raised, that requires resources and training.

That theme has cropped up a few times in the debate. It is all very well legislating for something, but the financial memorandum needs to back that up with resource. If contact centres are not fulfilling their obligations because they do not have the infrastructure that they need to deliver for the people who use them, there is a problem. There is an opportunity here to fix that—in legislation or otherwise.

Many people talked about grandparents. I can speak personally about this, because when my parents were shouting and bawling at each other, it was my grandmother whom I often went to visit, because that was a safe space for me. The same is true for many children across Scotland, even today. Balancing the rights of grandparents is tremendously difficult, just as it is difficult to balance the rights of siblings, parents or any other people with whom a child has a relationship. However, we have to strike that balance as we go through this process.

The experiences that Bob Doris shared put a human face on what is largely technical legislation. The anecdotal stories that he gave us about the realities of shared parenting made a forceful argument in support of section 16. I know that committee members and others who are in the chamber or participating virtually would have been listening to those stories. They remind us how complex, blanket legislation does not always address the needs of individual circumstances. Again, that is a difficult balance.