Children (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

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

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Photo of Ash Denham Ash Denham Scottish National Party

That is part of what the bill will do. It will attempt to give all children an opportunity to express their views in a way that is suitable to them. In doing so, we will regulate child welfare reporters. That is a key way that a child might be supported and be able to give their views. We will also set up a system of training for child welfare reporters. We will expect them to be trained in issues such as coercive control, spotting unhealthy family dynamics and so on, so that those professionals are able to support the children to give their views without any pressure of the type that Jamie Greene mentions.

I appreciate the concerns that stakeholders raised about strengthening the bill in that area, and I propose to lodge an amendment at stage 2 to strengthen the provisions in sections 1 to 3 to avoid, as far as possible, the risk of the capacity exemption being used excessively by decision makers. I also propose to lodge an amendment at stage 2 to clarify that, when the court investigates the reasons for non-compliance with a court order, it should seek the views of the child concerned. The bill states that the decision maker must

“give the child an opportunity to express the child’s views in a manner suitable to the child”.

One of the aspects of the guidance for parties and courts that I have committed to in our “Family Justice Modernisation Strategy” is publication of information on the ways in which a child can give their views to the court. I have also committed to producing a public paper in advance of stage 3 that will outline the ways in which children can be supported to give their views to decision makers. It is important that, when a child has given their views to the court, the reasons for the court’s decision are explained to the child in a clear and impartial way. For that reason, the bill ensures that the outcomes and the reasons for them are explained to the child. We would not expect all decisions to be explained, as many would be procedural in nature, but we would expect the important decisions to be explained.

I understand that a number of stakeholders have suggested that the bill should include provisions around child support workers. That issue was also raised by the Justice Committee in its stage 1 report. Child support workers could play a useful role in supporting children to give their views when they are, say, completing a form or when they are speaking to a child welfare reporter or a sheriff. However, we need to ensure that minimum standards of training and experience are set out in legislation to ensure consistency of approach and that the best interests of the child are maintained. Further work is needed on that issue, to ensure a joined-up approach so that any provisions work with existing support and advocacy systems and with other proposed Scottish Government work.

When the bill was introduced, I published the “Family Justice Modernisation Strategy”, which sets out work for secondary legislation on guidance and work that requires further consideration. One action in the strategy is to further consider the role of all support workers. The paper outlines the ways in which children can be supported to give their views to decision makers, which I referred to earlier in my remarks, and will look further at child support workers.

I will briefly focus on the regulation of child welfare reporters. I am aware that that issue was also raised in the stage 1 evidence and in the Justice Committee’s report. I recognise that child welfare reporters can play an important role in ensuring that the best interests of the child are reported to the court. The bill will establish a register of child welfare reporters, and it will give them two new functions: explaining decisions and investigating reasons for non-compliance with an order. The full details of training requirements will be laid out in secondary legislation, and we will consult fully on those in due course. I am aware that children and young people who have spoken to a child welfare reporter will have views on their training and experience, so I will ensure that children and young people are fully involved in the consultation process.

At the moment, about 90 per cent of child welfare reporters are lawyers. One of the aims of the bill is to encourage more non-lawyers, such as child psychologists and social workers, to become child welfare reporters. In my response to the stage 1 report, I committed to setting out before the first stage 2 session how we propose to encourage other professionals to become child welfare reporters.

It is important to note that the list of child welfare reporters will be maintained at a national level. A centralised list will ensure a consistent approach across Scotland to the making of appointments, the handling of complaints and so on. It will also ensure that there is consistency across the country in how child welfare reporters on the list are appointed to undertake those reports. I would envisage that, where possible, a local child welfare reporter would be appointed.

On the promotion of contact between looked-after children and their siblings, in March, Ms Todd—the Minister for Children and Young People—announced that she wished to put looked-after children’s contact with their brothers and sisters on the same legal footing as their contact with their parents, where that was practical and appropriate, and we aim to do that under section 10 of the bill.

If the bill is passed, I commit to proceeding with its implementation as quickly as possible. However, there are certain aspects of the bill that will take time. It is important that, on areas such as the child welfare reporters, curators ad litem, accommodation standards and training requirements for contact centres and their staff, there is full and proper consultation. If I can progress other areas more quickly, I will do so. Of course, implementation tasks for the bill will need to be reviewed in the light of the Covid-19 situation.

I believe that the bill is an important step forward in improving the family courts. During the consultation on and development of the bill, in listening to the voices of young people, one theme came through very strongly: “No one is listening to me and no one is listening to what I want.” The bill aims to change that, and I commend the general principles of the bill to Parliament.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees to the general principles of the Children (Scotland) Bill.