The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-24369, in the name of John Swinney, on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill.
By incorporating the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child directly into Scots law, we are pioneers. We are the first Administration in the United Kingdom and the first devolved legislature anywhere in the world to do so. We should all be proud of that.
The UNCRC is the most widely ratified international statement, but very few have taken the journey that Scotland has. I thank everyone who has walked with us on that journey. Our first steps involved establishing Scotland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People. I thank Kathleen Marshall, Tam Baillie and Bruce Adamson for advocating for incorporation.
I also thank all the organisations that have campaigned for incorporation. That campaign was made more potent when the Scottish Alliance for Children’s Rights was formed in 1996. That alliance, which is now known as Together Scotland, has been pivotal to the development of the bill. We are hugely grateful to Juliet Harris and all Together Scotland’s staff and directors for their efforts.
I am very aware that many MSPs—past and present—have campaigned for children’s rights, needs and interests, and have moved us on in the journey to get here. I thank them all.
This is a landmark occasion to be celebrated. During any legislative process, it is easy to lose sight of the fundamental purpose of a bill. The
United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill sets out the architecture that is needed to incorporate the UNCRC, the mechanics of how to do that, and the mechanisms that are needed to resolve circumstances when children’s rights might not be met. That is right and proper. We had to ensure that we put in place all the measures needed to get incorporation right. It is not a simple undertaking, after all. However, we should also focus on the actual rights that we are incorporating into law and what they will mean for our children.
The bill will mean that the full range of children’s rights within the powers of the Parliament will be woven into the fabric of our law, our policy and our public life in Scotland. Incorporating article 12 will mean that children will have the right to be involved and heard in relation to the decisions that affect their lives.
Article 23 will ensure that children with disabilities have dignity, self-reliance and are able to actively participate in their community.
Article 3 will ensure that children’s best interests are a primary consideration. That means we will all need to act to change things. When budget is required to support services that enable the fulfilment of children’s rights, it will need to be provided. When families have unmet needs, they should no longer have to fight for change because it will be our duty to make change happen.
I want this legislation to help deliver a huge cultural shift, but let us not forget the small changes that will also make a difference to children’s everyday lives, and which can send clear and unequivocal messages about what a child-centred society truly looks like.
An example is delivering on the right to play. How we have had to live during the pandemic to help suppress the virus has brought into sharp relief the importance of play for children, and the huge sacrifice that we have asked them to make to keep us all safe. I hope that the bill finally sees the “No Ball Games Allowed” signs all across Scotland replaced with “Children welcome to play here” signs.
If we are to effect the change we seek with the bill, promoting awareness of children’s rights under article 42 is key. Raising awareness and understanding of children’s rights will create a lasting legacy. It will mean that the children of today grow up to empower the children of tomorrow. We should make no mistake—this matters to Scotland’s children. In every Scottish local authority area, thanks to UNICEF’s wonderful rights respecting schools programme, tens of thousands of children have grown up learning in environments that are rights aware and that respect their rights. Through the work of Children in Scotland, the Children’s Parliament and the Scottish Youth Parliament, children and young people have had their say throughout the process, and I thank every one of them for sharing their thoughts and opinions.
One of the privileges of being the children’s minister is that I get to hear directly from children of all ages, and see at first hand their understanding and awareness of what rights are and why they matter. Their tenacity and passion never fails to impress and, indeed, humble me. Their commitment to advancing their own rights and the rights of others and to improving this bill has been an honour to witness and support.
How much this means to children and young people is best expressed in their own words. Abigail, a young advisor at the commissioner’s office, said:
“incorporation is a way of children having their voices heard, they know that they will be listened to, and they know that they matter”.
In the evidence that the Children’s Parliament gave in the consultation on the bill last year, a child said:
“I think you should make children’s rights law because it will keep a lot more children safe”.
The bill will significantly advance children’s rights across Scotland. Parliament passing the bill puts us in the vanguard as a true world leader in children’s rights. It does not represent the end of the journey in making children’s rights real—far from it. It is incumbent upon us all to ensure that the bill’s ambitions are translated into real-life improvements that transform the lives and life chances of our children and young people.
“children are likely to live up to what you believe of them”.
I believe in Scotland’s children.
That the Parliament agrees that the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill be passed.
I am delighted to open for the Scottish Conservatives in the stage 3 debate on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill. Protecting and safeguarding the rights of our children is fundamentally important. We must not only respect and value children’s contribution, but listen to their views and involve them in the decisions that directly affect them.
I pay tribute to the Equalities and Human Rights Committee, on which I sit. It undertook a huge amount of consultation to ensure that there was robust discussion and debate and that children’s views were taken forward while we were going through the bill process.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is the single most important and ratified international human rights treaty in the history of the world. It has been described as without question
“the most complete statement of children’s rights ever produced”.
That is the case. There are four key principles—non-discrimination, the best interests of the child, the right to survival and development, and the views of the child—which I am sure that we can all support and subscribe to as robust.
The UNCRC is nothing new to Scotland or the United Kingdom. As we know, the United Kingdom ratified the treaty nearly 30 years ago. The convention talks about ensuring that we are familiar with the idea that children should be understood and listened to, and it is something about which children should be educated. Teachers across schools and colleges should make sure that young people are aware of what is taking place in that process.
Many steps have been taken here in Scotland and across the UK to protect and enhance the rights of our children, but ratification of the international treaty does not automatically give it effect under domestic law. We are considering this important piece of legislation in Parliament because it is right and vitally important that we ensure that that takes place. It is clear that there is a broad consensus on that objective not only across the chamber, but across wider civic society in Scotland.
The bill takes the necessary steps to rectify that lack of enforceability and ensures that the UNCRC is incorporated into Scots law. The direct incorporation method adopted by the bill will ensure a maximalist approach, which is very much to be welcomed. Those two things combined will undoubtedly ensure that the rights afforded under the UNCRC are properly enshrined, which will enhance our domestic law to the fullest extent possible.
If the bill is to work, the rights enshrined within it must be properly enforceable. In my view, it is right that the bill ensures that public authorities that fail to comply with their UNCRC requirements under the bill could find themselves challenged in court. That could be by a judicial review in the Court of Session or by using the UNCRC requirements as evidence in court proceedings.
The role of the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland as the guardian of children’s rights in Scotland is important. The commissioner must be allowed to advocate on behalf of children, give their views to public authorities and ensure that if anything goes wrong it is challenged. I believe that the provisions in the bill that allow the commissioner to bring court proceedings on behalf of a child will enhance that role.
I note that concerns were raised by the committee in its stage 1 report. I welcome the fact that the bill was amended at stage 2 to reflect the committee’s comments, and children will now be given the opportunity to express their opinions accordingly. It is absolutely right that, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, children should be presumed to be able to express their views on matters that directly affect their lives, and that is provided for in the bill.
It is understood that there are difficulties and technical challenges when trying to incorporate something like the UNCRC into domestic law. We took on board many of the obstacles and discussed them at stage 2. Various amendments were agreed to at stage 2 that significantly improved the bill and provided additional and necessary clarity, more of which has been put into place today.
One of our amendments, on the wording around courts’ consideration of the UNCRC, strengthened the wording by changing “may” to “must”. That change showed, once again, the strength of feeling that there has been.
It was disappointing that, at stage 3, Scottish National Party members seemed to want to remove the Scottish ministers from the list of authorities. Having said that, the Scottish Conservatives are happy to support the bill, as we have done at all stages. Although some issues remain, we have successfully managed to improve many aspects of the bill through our amendments. We acknowledge the work and contributions of many parties and people, not only in this chamber but outside of it.
The bill does its job of incorporating the UNCRC into Scots law. It is incredibly important that it delivers on its full potential, and protects and enhances the rights of children and young people across Scotland. I am very happy to support it today.
As a member of the Equalities and Human Rights Committee, I am delighted to open the debate for Scottish Labour. I would like to begin by thanking the committee clerks and the bill team for their extremely hard work on the bill. They have worked tirelessly for the past few weeks to ensure that we could reach the final stage of the bill in a shorter timeframe than we had originally anticipated. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill is a fantastic example of what we can achieve on issues of human rights when we work together.
The evidence that we received throughout the committee sessions was insightful and informative. The bill would be nowhere near as strong without the unwavering efforts, support and advice that we received from third sector organisations and individuals. I give special thanks to Together, which has given me great advice over the past few months. As an organisation, it has a wealth of knowledge, and its work to include children in the decision-making process has been nothing short of inspiring.
This debate will be the final debate that I take part in as a member of the Scottish Parliament, and I am honoured that it is on such an important piece of legislation. The issue of children’s rights is one that I have been championing for many years, and I have spent much of my time in Parliament focusing on equality and human rights, so I could not have thought of a better way to sign off.
We all have our differences of opinion in this chamber, but one thing that I am sure that we all have in common is our unwavering commitment to protecting and respecting our children with every fibre in our bodies. The bill before us allows us to do that. It builds on an ethos of putting children first in every single decision that we make. We can get more right for every child when they have specific protection through legislation.
Our children have had an incredibly difficult year, in which they have felt confused, lonely and powerless. I want to remind them that they are not alone and that they will be heard. As well as strengthening children’s rights in Scotland, the bill will give children the confidence to use their rights, so that they can feel safe and respected.
The committee has worked hard to ensure that the bill is strong and robust. Every decision that we have made has been scrutinised. I am glad that we have been able to achieve cross-party support for such a crucial piece of legislation. I am grateful for the support that I received at stage 2 for my amendments, and for the on-going dialogue that I have had with the Government and stakeholders in order to lodge my amendments today. Those amendments will provide additional clarity, and will strengthen the bill.
I have worked closely with the Gypsy Traveller community, children of prisoners and transgender people during my time in Parliament, and I am satisfied that the bill, in its amended form, explicitly includes them.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill is a shining example of devolution at work. It is so important for us to use the powers of this Parliament. With devolved power in our hands, we can put that power in our children’s hands. The incorporation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child into Scots law is a first for the UK, and we should be rightly proud of that.
I cannot express just how important the bill is for our children. The bill may have been developed in this Parliament by adults looking to leave the world a better place than when we inherited it, but the true owners of the bill are our children and young people. In leaving this Parliament, the best parting gift that I can give is empowerment, protection and respect to all our children and young people through the passage of this monumental bill tonight.
Thank you very much, Ms Fee. I understand that you will also close the debate for Labour, so that was your penultimate speech—well done—and you have your final speech to come.
I was going to congratulate Mary Fee on her final speech, but instead I congratulate her on her penultimate speech, and I look forward to her final one. Her commitment to equalities has been consistent throughout her time in the Scottish Parliament, and she will take with her the respect of the great many people whose lives she has worked to improve while she has been a member of the Parliament.
This is a truly historic moment for Scotland, and it is fitting that passing the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill is one of the final acts of this session of Parliament—a session that included Scotland’s year of young people.
As we pass the bill, it is worth reflecting for a moment on how our rights are developed and how they come to be given status in our society. The UK is an outlier by European and international democratic standards. It does not have a written constitution that sets out the basic and fundamental rights of the people. That is a result of the UK’s historical development—it is what happens when a country’s recent history lacks a moment of revolution or sweeping reform.
The central pillar of the UK constitutional order—the sovereignty of the UK Parliament—was established following struggles between landed elites and the Crown, not a claim of the wider population’s rights. The trajectory that the current UK Government has us set on is towards the erosion of pre-existing rights, not the enhancement or deepening of rights. One timely example to mention is the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence—the Istanbul convention—which the UK has signed but still not ratified.
When the UK Government is no trusted guarantor of our basic rights, defending and improving those rights here in Scotland becomes a necessity. I welcome the fact that the historic bill that we are passing today will be followed by another: a Scottish human rights act.
Passing the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill today will give Scotland
“the most innovative and exciting children’s rights legislation in the world.”
Those are the words of Children 1st, and I very strongly agree.
The UNCRC incorporates social and civil rights side by side. It seeks to overcome the historical division between those rights that has characterised many international rights treaties in recent decades. That was an artificial division—one that has often acted to undermine protection for social rights, particularly since the development of neoliberal economics and austerity.
Even in places where social rights have a stronger basis than they do in the UK, there has been a trend towards subordinating them to economic principles. That trend must be challenged, and the fundamental importance of social rights must be affirmed as a core constitutional principle.
By transposing the social rights in the UNCRC into domestic law, Scotland can contribute to that effort. We can ensure that the courts here give due regard to those rights and develop case law around them. By enshrining them in law, we are creating a strong incentive for them to be respected sufficiently that children and young people do not need to seek redress through the legal system at all.
The Greens are glad to see that the bill in its final form continues to take a maximalist approach, thereby ensuring that the UNCRC rights are incorporated to the greatest extent possible. In so doing, it will ensure that all acts of the Scottish Parliament are compatible with UNCRC rights and will provide the courts with the power to ensure that past and future acts are compliant. It will enhance the power of the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland, particularly with regard to raising proceedings in the public interest. It will also create a children’s rights scheme. That is one of the most innovative and important aspects of the bill. After all, there is little value in a right that is not known about and cannot be exercised. Given the barriers that children face to having their voices heard, that scheme will be an important tool in supporting their active participation in decisions that affect them. It will raise awareness of and promote their rights, and will mean that their rights are considered in budgeting processes.
In considering the possible impact of the bill, we could look, for example, at last year’s Scottish Qualifications Authority assessment scandal. It is quite clear that a robust participative assessment of the impact on young people’s rights would have stopped the grading model that was used long before the results were issued. That is exactly the kind of practical application of the UNCRC that will make a real difference in future. I strongly suggest to the SQA that it follows such an approach in the consultation process that it has just launched on the question of appeals to this year’s grades.
Passing the bill will be a landmark moment in the history of our Parliament. It is the culmination of more than a decade’s work by a great many people, who can feel rightly proud of the work that they have done to bring us to this point. It will be a privilege to vote yes at decision time tonight.
It gives me great pride to speak in support of the bill tonight. Before I do, I want to say a word about my good friend Mary Fee. It is because of her that I know the French word for Sellotape, after I helped her fix her glasses on a committee trip to Strasbourg; that children of prisoners will now always be considered in relation to sentencing; and that Gypsy Travellers will remain in the consciousness of the Parliament for a long time after she has left it. The Parliament and this chamber will be the poorer without her.
This is an emotional day for me. I have spent much of my entire career campaigning for children’s rights, and I take a moment to recognise in particular the contributions of my friends the children’s commissioner Bruce Adamson, and Juliet Harris, who is the director of Together—an organisation that I was proud to chair—and their commitment to making this happen today. I recognise other friends such as Chloe Riddell and Mark Ballard, but also the many children who have brought us to this point, who I thank for their candour in speaking to our committee and their maturity in what they told us.
I have clashed with the Government on children’s rights—sometimes publicly—but I congratulate it today. Today, Scotland joins a more progressive and enlightened family of nations, and we should all be justifiably proud of that. We should also be proud of the fact that, in this parliamentary session, we have extended equal protection that will end the physical punishment of children and raise the age of criminal responsibility. That those things should fall in my first session in Parliament is hugely satisfying, but we know that there is still a ways to go.
Seven years ago, I told the Education and Culture Committee on behalf of the children’s voluntary sector that the most elegant solution against the international standard was to incorporate the UNCRC into Scots law. I said that until we did something like that, or built its provisions into the way in which we make policy, we would forever be behind the countries that had already incorporated the UNCRC.
We have met that test today. The incorporation of the UNCRC will ensure not just that the rights of our nation’s children are respected and protected in the law of Scotland, but that public authorities are legally required to bake the consideration of those rights into all the work that they do. I am pleased that that will happen as swiftly as possible. The UK ratified the convention when I was still a child. Public authorities have seen the direction of travel from the early foothills of the Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill in 2012 and have had nearly a decade to get their houses in order—they are ready for it. Children and young people wanted this yesterday.
It is one thing to pass such a bill, and another to live it year in, year out and deliver the intent behind it. No matter how well a piece of legislation is written, it is only as good as its implementation. That is why I welcome ministers’ commitment to come back and report to Parliament on the evidence of rights transgressions in our communities and public bodies. In order for the legislation to be meaningful and fulfil its potential, it must be a living document, and we must keep it under review in perpetuity.
This Parliament has a duty to improve our children’s future by making sure that their rights are embedded across all policy areas, with a policy focus on direct engagement with children and young people and making real their article 12 rights. By so doing, the Scottish Parliament can build on the positive steps that were taken by our committee, and the work of many other committees, to try to involve children in the work and efforts of policy development.
The issue of children’s rights is an urgent one. For every day that went by without their rights being enshrined in law, we exposed our children to many risks. I am delighted that we are now moving so swiftly towards the bill’s implementation. I am grateful to colleagues across the chamber for their dedication to the bill, and for putting the needs of Scotland’s children at the heart of the discussion and debate.
Nelson Mandela once said:
“There can be no keener reflection of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”
In the pages of the bill, we are finally reaching the measure of his test, and I will take great pride in supporting the bill tonight.
“Incorporation is a way of children having their voices heard, they know that they will be listened to, and they know that they matter. A lot of young kids feel overlooked in society as a whole, but incorporation of the UNCRC is saying ‘you are here, we see you, and we’re helping you out’. Having any knowledge of that is really going to do the world of good for a lot of children.”
Those are the words of one of the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland’s young advisers.
In what has been a really difficult year for everyone, but perhaps particularly for our children and young people, it is an absolute joy to be standing in our Scottish Parliament and speaking in favour of this landmark bill. I congratulate my committee colleague Mary Fee on her penultimate speech—we are even doing that differently. I commend her commitment to justice, fairness and equality. She has made a difference in her time here, and I am sure that she will be missed.
I sincerely thank the Deputy First Minister, John Swinney, and the Minister for Children and Young People, Maree Todd, for the leadership that they have shown in taking a maximalist approach to incorporation. I thank colleagues on, and clerks to, the Equalities and Human Rights Committee for their hard work and commitment, particularly those who never missed the early starts, late finishes or the Saturdays in order to ensure that the voices of children and young people were heard and acted on.
When we were planning our participation, we did not accept the term “hard to reach”, and no public authority should ever describe any child or young person that way. It is incumbent on us to reach out and listen to all children. On that note, I thank the outreach team, which facilitated the events that enabled us to speak to and hear from children and young people.
My biggest thanks go to all the children and young people and their supporters who campaigned so hard for decades and then generously and openly shared their thoughts and experiences, and challenged us and helped us to improve the bill.
There are not many things in politics that command universal welcome, but almost everyone who shared their views with my committee, whether through submissions, oral evidence or participation—and whether they were academics or children and young people—had one thing in common: overwhelming support for the bill. The reason is that, when the bill delivers in practice what it sets out to do, it will put children’s rights at the very centre of public authority decision making. That will make a tangible difference to the lives of Scotland’s children and young people—all Scotland’s children and young people.
That consensus and shared vision does not mean that scrutiny and improvements were not required—they were, and our Parliament did its job, with extensive consultation that put the views of children and young people at the heart of what we were doing.
The best of this place is not always when highly polarised political views are being debated; it is also when we work together for a shared goal or ambition.
I am very proud of the work that has been done by my committee, the Parliament and the SNP Scottish Government in introducing the bill, scrutinising it and working together on amendments that will improve it for our children and young people. Scotland is leading the way here. With the passage of the bill, we will be another step closer to realising our shared ambition of making Scotland the very best place to grow up in.
Another young person told us:
“There is no difference in talking to a child or an adult in terms of how seriously you need to take our rights.”
I will be very glad to vote for that tonight, and I commend the bill to the chamber.
I am delighted that Scotland is set to become the first country in the United Kingdom to directly incorporate the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into domestic law. It is crucial that we, as MSPs, engage with and listen to young people. The committee and the Scottish Government sought to ensure that the voices of children were heard throughout the bill process.
Earlier this year, I met virtually with Dundee’s Scottish Youth Parliament representatives, and I would like to share some of their thoughts about the importance of the bill for Scotland’s children. Revati Campbell, who is an MSYP for Dundee West, told me:
“A ‘Human Rights Based’ Approach has the fundamental principles of Participation, Accountability, Non-discrimination, Empowerment and Legality.
The UNCRC Incorporation will be instrumental in ensuring these values are upheld in all ‘political architecture’ concerning children and young people’s rights.
Through a leading piece of legislation—that goes further than any other country—Scotland will be a beacon to the rest of the international community on respecting and upholding the rights of children and young people.
It is crucial the UNCRC reaches those from all communities and hubs, and not just those engaging in certain environments.
Our hope is that this will have a ripple effect in the culture surrounding children and young people’s rights.”
Salmaan Ismail, who is an MSYP for Dundee East, told me:
“There are so many articles in the UNCRC Bill that ensure every child is protected and offered the best and most optimistic route in life, but one close to me is Article 2—the non-discrimination act—where every child must not be judged based on their skin colour, gender, religion, language, or their family background.”
Lucy Angus, who is also an MSYP for Dundee East, told me:
“Full incorporation of the UNCRC is absolutely crucial for Scotland’s young people.”
“The COVID-19 Pandemic has created unprecedented challenges, particularly for young people, and this Bill ensures we are not put at detriment, and our rights are protected during this time, and in the future.”
I also heard from Imaan Hussain, Dundee West’s newest MSYP, who has just come into post this month. She told me:
“As a young 14-year-old, I think this is an important step. The law will help with the aim of the Scottish Government to protect and value the rights of children and young people in Scotland. This meets the desire for Scotland to be the best place in the world to grow up.
The Bill has a human rights approach, which is an important step as it’s not just talking about it, but actual legal action which demonstrates to young people that the government values their life, liberty, equality, education, rights and most importantly their opinions.
This feels like a more instrumental change and shows the people in charge are listening ... Scotland can be an International Leader in Children’s Rights. Adults can learn a lot from young people.”
I am sure that members will agree with Imaan that we do, indeed, have a great deal to learn from our young people and that we must keep listening to them. I am very grateful to Imaan, Revati, Lucy and Salmaan for sharing their thoughts on the bill with me, in order that I could share them with members to ensure that the voices of young Dundonians are heard in our national Parliament.
The bill will put power into the hands of our children and young people, and it reaffirms our commitment to making Scotland the very best place in the world to grow up in.
I was pleased to be a member of the Equalities and Human Rights Committee as the bill went through Parliament. Its journey to incorporate the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is a great example of how civic Scotland, Parliament and Government can work together in the best and most inclusive of ways.
It is fair to say that the campaigning efforts of young people and children’s rights organisations across the whole of Scotland have been fundamental to getting us to this point. I pay particular tribute to the work of the Scottish Youth Parliament, which has not just campaigned for years on the necessity for the legislation but whose members have, as individuals, informed and engaged on those issues young people in their own communities throughout Scotland.
Throughout my time in the Equalities and Human Rights Committee, I have chatted to the two MSYPs in Aberdeenshire East, Shayne Omale and Finn Dixon, who are pupils at Inverurie academy and Ellon academy, respectively. Both have talked to me about how important the incorporation of the UNCRC is to them and of the work that they have been doing with their peers to ensure that children’s rights are communicated and discussed as part of their everyday lives.
They, and many other young people I have spoken to, have also highlighted the particular importance of their UNCRC right to be heard and have their views taken seriously in all matters that affect them. Key to that is having knowledge of their rights, an understanding of the options that are open to them in any situation and knowledge of the making of decisions that affect them.
I was pleased to lodge some amendments at stage 2 that strengthened the requirement for child-friendly communication of reports that relate to children. I was prompted to propose those changes after attending our committee’s many outreach sessions with children and young people.
In particular, I commend the care-experienced young people who spoke to me about the times in their lives when they felt that they were not made aware of their rights or were not given the information in a way that was comprehensible to them—or, indeed, at all. One care-experienced young man reflected on times in his life when he was not informed enough to ensure that his views were taken into account in decisions about where he should live. A young person who had experience of the justice system told us:
“A lot of professionals automatically assume as young people with lived experience we know about our rights when we don’t.”
Now is the time for every organisation to look at its processes and procedures and to ensure that children’s rights are embedded, communicated and respected. I know that my committee colleague Mary Fee has done a lot of work with the families of prisoners—in particular, on the rights of children to see their parents. In my area, local councils have reduced funding for, or have withdrawn it from, the family centre at HMP and YOI Grampian. I have been arguing for that funding to be reinstated, to allow the centre to be open at its fullest capacity, with child-friendly facilities and people who prepare children for the experience of visiting a prison providing support for families. I will again be challenging those short-sighted funding decisions, from a children’s rights perspective and with the wind of UNCRC incorporation at my back.
We are about to vote to ensure, among other things, that there is a legal duty on the Scottish ministers to carry out and publish a child rights and wellbeing impact assessment on all legislation from now on. Everything that we do must be compatible with the UNCRC. It is a watershed moment for Scotland’s children, and I know that many of them are watching us today.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. I reassure you and all members that this is definitely my final contribution to a debate in the Scottish Parliament.
I will use some of my time to reflect on my 10 years as a member of the Scottish Parliament for West Scotland. It has truly been an honour and a privilege to represent the area since 2011.
My time in Parliament has aligned with many positive moments and progressive changes. In many respects, Scotland has come a long way, but there is still far more that we can do on equality and human rights. As most members will know, I have placed equalities and human rights at the core of what I have done. My ambition to create a more equal Scotland has been a driving force in my long political life. I have held close to my heart the mission of protecting the rights of underrepresented groups including the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community; Gypsy Travellers; black and ethnic minorities and the families of prisoners. I am thankful for the opportunities that have arisen to put my beliefs into action.
Of all the votes that I have cast in this chamber, the two of which I am most proud are the votes in favour of the bills that became the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Act 2014 and the Historical Sexual Offences (Pardons and Disregards) (Scotland) Act 2018, which promoted equality for LGBT people and tried—finally—to make amends for the horrors of the past.
I want to put on record my gratitude to the many colleagues, from all parties, who have been a source of constant support and friendship, and who have continued to motivate me to do better—not only for West Scotland but for all Scotland.
I take this opportunity to thank all the Parliament staff, especially the clerking, security and catering teams. Without the staff who assist us, the Parliament simply could not function.
The past 10 years have, without a doubt, been a journey for me, which would have been so much more difficult without my staff. I want to record my thanks to Angela, Gareth, Dan, Rory and Zoe. I can never thank them enough for their hard work and support.
Let me come back to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill. This has been a short but consensual debate that has demonstrated the willingness of members of all parties to improve the lives of children, now and for the future. We will become the first nation in the United Kingdom to legally enforce the rights that are enshrined in the UNCRC. We have shown again that we can use the powers of this Parliament to lead. With devolved powers in our hands, we can put power into our children’s hands.
The bill might have come later than I would have preferred, but as we recover from the pandemic it is timely that we protect the futures of children and young people and guarantee their rights. The committee heard from many children’s groups and organisations. I am delighted that we will pass the bill today for them and for the voices that they represent.
Finally, Presiding Officer, it is my sincere hope that the next Parliament will rebuild our society to make it more fair, more equal and more protected. I want the Parliament, in the next session, to continue its work to improve outcomes for, and to end discrimination against, Gypsy Travellers and to support the families of offenders and make meaningful reforms to our criminal justice system. I would also like to see an end to the discrimination that the people of our trans community face every single day, as they just try to live their lives.
Because the focus of today’s business is children’s rights, I also hope that progress can be made on raising the age of criminal responsibility, so that we treat children as children and not as criminals.
Finally, and this is definitely my last finally, Presiding Officer—
I hope that, in the next parliamentary session, Parliament continues to work to make our society fairer, more equal and more protected and that the members who remain here are a positive example of how we can enhance equality and protect human rights.
I said in my opening remarks that the best parting gift that I can give is empowerment, protection and respect for our children, by voting for the bill. I cannot overemphasise the importance of the bill. Truly, it will be a privilege to vote for it tonight. [
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this stage 3 debate. I start by offering my thanks to the Equalities and Human Rights Committee for steering this critical piece of legislation through our Parliament. I miss the committee a lot—we shared some great experiences and I made some friends on that committee. I get the opportunity to thank one of them, Mary Fee, for her final final speech—not her penultimate speech.
It is important that, as a Parliament, we place on record our thanks to Mary Fee and people like her. It was just last week that we heard from Iain Gray on the Redress for Survivors (Historical Child Abuse in Care) (Scotland) Bill. As a relatively new member of Parliament, I have learned a great deal from other members—despite our many political differences—especially those who have been here for multiple terms. I know Mary Fee’s work on transgender rights and the Gypsy Traveller community and I share many of her aims and ambitions on those matters. More specifically, the two votes that she mentioned, of which she is so proud, affect my community and people like me. I have not been able to take advantage of the legislation on civil partnerships, but maybe one day I will. Thank you for everything, Mary. [
.] I hope that that was heard for the Official Report.
That leads me to the very essence of what we are doing here today. It was only last week that we passed the
Redress for Survivors (Historical Child Abuse in Care) (Scotland) Bill—a piece of historic legislation that sought to right wrongs of the past. This bill is different; this bill is about the future. It shows the positive change that we can make if we work together. I hope that when we return from the intense campaigning and differences of opinion that face us all in the coming weeks, we will reflect on those positives.
It is important to have full cross-party support for a bill such as this. It sends a signal. Given that it will enshrine in Scots law articles that are set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the bill is a clear example of how this Parliament can go above and beyond.
The UK has a proud tradition of championing international human rights and global conventions that goes way back, even to before this Parliament. The UK not only helped to draft the European convention on human rights but was one of the first countries to ratify it, way back in 1951.
Decades later, the UK passed the Human Rights Act 1998, which transposed European Court of Human Rights rulings into domestic law—something that many European countries are yet to do. To this day, we play a leading role—I hope that we will continue to do so—in the Council of Europe and the United Nations Economic and Social Council, which govern many of our human rights frameworks.
The UNCRC is different, though. It is different because of the relevance to devolved powers of its four key pillars—non-discrimination, the right to survival and development, the interests of the child and the views of the child. The events of the past year have shone a light on all those pillars. It is not just the framework that covers the rights of the child. It is not just a convention that we are ratifying, because the convention itself has been around for 30 years. We know that so many children, even in the developed world, are still being let down. UNICEF says:
“It is up to our generation to demand that leaders from government, business and communities fulfil their commitments and take action for child rights now, once and for all. They must commit to making sure every child, has every right
I do not disagree with anything in that, but we must recognise that just passing legislation is not an end in itself and that further efforts are needed from all of us. We cannot let this be a debate in which we pat ourselves on the back too much. Passing law is one thing; making a difference is another. It is what we do that matters, not what we say.
The decisions that we have made in the past year have been difficult ones. I have sat here on many occasions and struggled with the decisions that we had to make, knowing the effect that they will have on young people. There has been closure of schools and nurseries, the unfortunate delay to extension of childcare and the delays and backlogs in children’s panel hearings. There has been what we now know to be a rise in domestic abuse and violence, and a mental health crisis awaits us at the other side of the pandemic.
There has been closure of outdoor learning centres and the Scottish Qualifications Authority’s decisions on exams. There is a drugs crisis and there is the quality of our housing to consider. Those are all issues in which the Government and its agencies—some of which, I admit, are outside the control of Government—play into the lives of children. One must wonder whether any of that would have been handled differently if the bill had passed a year ago today rather than today, because we cannot and should not underestimate the substantial impact that the pandemic has had on young people, which is why the bill is so important. We know that children are not necessarily the face of the Covid pandemic, but they risk becoming its biggest victims.
As I hope has been demonstrated throughout the bill process, Conservatives will work constructively and positively with anyone in Parliament on the issue, because it is way above politics and sits outside traditional party lines. The matter is something that means a lot to us personally, which is why I support the bill.
As I said, our job does not end there; talk and action are two very different things. I am pleased to support the bill, but I hope that the next Parliament goes way beyond talk and takes more action.
It is an enormous pleasure for me to close the debate on behalf of the Scottish Government. I do not think that it will be a revelation for members to realise that not every day for me is a good day. Sometimes there are very difficult days, but today is a very very good day. It started off well with a meeting of the Cabinet—I do not always say that about meetings of the Cabinet, but it was a special meeting of the Cabinet because it was the Cabinet’s annual meeting with children and young people in Scotland.
Members of the Cabinet listened with care to the issues that were raised by the young people. They raised with us their concerns about racism in our society and went through an exercise with members of the Cabinet, from which I was horrified to find out that I was at the wrong end of the spectrum in terms of my experience of how my education was structured in relation to understanding questions of race. They talked about the mental wellbeing issues that many young people face—colleagues across the political spectrum have talked about those issues as a consequence of Covid. They also talked about digital poverty and challenged us about our climate change agenda and what more we have to do. We heard a super idea about a plant-a-tree day, on which every one of our citizens would go and plant a tree. That would get us around 5.5 million trees in one afternoon if we could all get round to doing it.
Those are wonderful ideas, but for me the whole essence of the conversation was captured by the contribution of a young man and member of the Scottish Youth Parliament for Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley, Liam Fowley, who is on the education recovery group and who sits with us every Thursday morning making a contribution on behalf of young people on the issues of education recovery. Liam said this to the Cabinet this morning:
“Make young people part of the thought process, not an afterthought.”
That strikes me as a particularly good comment to sum up where we have reached as we edge towards the end of this very good day for Scotland and certainly for the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, in comparison with other days.
That brings me to the bill that is before us. Bills start off with an initial rather tentative conversation with the bill team, in which the team largely says to ministers, “What do you want to be in this bill?” and ministers have to set out their instructions. Patrick Harvie put his finger on it when he used the word “maximalist”. That was the direction that I gave to officials at the start of the process; the bill was to be a maximalist bill and we were to do all that we could within our legislative competence to protect the rights of children and young people through the incorporation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child into Scots law, and I am glad that Patrick Harvie acknowledged that point, which has been shared across the Parliament during the debate.
The bill has undoubtedly—I said this last Thursday when I closed the debate for the Government on the Redress for Survivors (Historical Child Abuse in Care) (Scotland) Bill—been strengthened by parliamentary scrutiny. I pay tribute to the Equalities and Human Rights Committee and its convener for the scrutiny of the bill that it has presided over at all levels, whether that was the detailed line-by-line scrutiny or the committee going out of its way to engage children and young people, at whatever time of the day or on Saturdays, essentially living out Liam Fowley’s point about making
“young people part of the thought process, not an afterthought.”
The bill has been strengthened as a consequence and I thank the committee for that.
I reinforce a point that I made on Thursday night. The Parliament gets a lot of criticism and stick from people who deride what goes on here, but a phenomenal amount of good and detailed work is undertaken by members of all political persuasions that enhances the law of our country and the scrutiny of particular issues that we must face.
The passage of a bill is one thing, but we then come to the point that Jamie Greene fairly raised in his summation for the Conservatives, whose support for the bill I welcome: what matters is the implementation and what the result is. If I was to apply one test to the bill, setting up the ground for future scrutiny by the Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee, it would be whether there is a culture change in the way in which institutions in Scotland consider the rights and perspectives of children. That will be the measure. There will be challenges as to how we document and measure that, but that will be the measure of whether the bill has been successful. Implementation is the critical next step for the bill.
The minister made a number of comments about those who have contributed to the journey to this moment. One person who has contributed phenomenally is Mary Fee, and I am glad that I have the opportunity to pay tribute to her on behalf of the Government as I conclude the debate.
Mary Fee has been a tenacious campaigner for children’s rights and for all aspects of our citizens’ equalities. She mentioned three particular themes of her activities: protecting the position of Gypsy Travellers; supporting transgender citizens; and protecting the families of prisoners. I do not say this at all disrespectfully, but if I could select three particular campaigns that are not exactly mainstream and that do not have a queue of people to lead them, it would be those three. That says everything about Mary Fee’s willingness to reach out to the individuals that society does not always do a lot to reach.
I pay tribute to Mary Fee for her 10 years of distinguished service on behalf of her constituents in the West of Scotland and, more particularly, for influencing debates about the rights of individuals, about equalities and, in this bill, about respect for children. That was where Mary Fee concluded her final speech in Parliament. I extend the warmest wishes of the Government to Mary Fee and I know that that will be supported by all members.
This journey has involved many people and it has taken the Government a long time to get to this point. We were led through the foothills of the journey by my dear friend and colleague Michael Russell, who is sitting behind me—I cannot say that he has always been behind me over the years, but he has been behind me more often that not. Michael has been a friend, ally, colleague and confidant to me for—I am trying to do the sum in my head—more than 30 years, ever since I first declared his election to national office in the Scottish National Party by a margin of one vote in 1987.
Michael Russell is standing down at the election. I take the opportunity to pay public tribute to his enormous service to the Parliament and to my party and to recognise the contribution that he has made in many ways. He brings a literary depth to his contributions, he analyses issues and he gives wise counsel to the Parliament.
Michael was accompanied on his journey through the foothills of the bill by Aileen Campbell, who also stands down at the election. I have had the pleasure of working with Aileen as a Cabinet colleague and of representing her dear parents, who are friends and constituents of mine, in the Parliament. I pay tribute to Aileen Campbell for all that she has done to lead the debate on children’s rights and I wish her well in future.
To return to the bill, much has been said about the role of stakeholders, but I want to say something about the role of UNICEF, Together and the Children and Young People’s Commissioner. They have been tenacious in making the argument for the bill and they have played a constructive role in ensuring that it is as strong as it could possibly be. On behalf of the Government, I express our profound gratitude to them for their contribution.
Bills do not come about by accident. We have been supported by a fantastic bill team of civil servants, who have worked on this complex bill with diligence and energy and have engaged constructively. I thank them for that. My portfolio has had to deal with two sizeable bills over the past 10 days and I have been hugely supported by Maree Todd, Minister for Children and Young People, who has exercised exemplary leadership in the process. I am enormously grateful for all that she has done.
I am grateful to you, too, Presiding Officer, for indulging me in making a very long speech—you will be relieved to hear that I am coming to the very last part. When I get home tonight—assuming that bedtime has been avoided, again—I will be asked the question, “What did you do in Parliament today, Dad?” It will be with a source of enormous pride that I can answer that question by saying, “Well, Matthew, I, along with my colleagues, voted into law the articles of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.” There is something legislatively beautiful about incorporating the schedule to the bill into Scots law and translating into our domestic law those fabulous words, developed around the world and given to us through the United Nations, that say to us all, “This is what you should do if you want to ensure that your children have the greatest opportunities and protection in their lives.”
Members of the Scottish Parliament who have laboured on this for so long should be able to vote tonight with enormous pride in what they are doing—safeguarding the interests of children in the future. We need to live up to the words that we have put into statute tonight to protect children and young people and their best interests in the years to come.