The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-03837, in the name of John Swinney, on keeping the Promise implementation plan. I encourage members who wish to participate to press their request-to-speak button or put an R in the chat function. I call Clare Haughey to speak to and move the motion.
T he Scottish Government’s ambition is for every child in Scotland to grow up loved, safe and respected so that they can reach their full potential, regardless of the circumstances in which they are born. The independent care review told us that that ambition is not the reality for some of the children and young people in our care.
On 5 February 2020, parties across the Parliament committed to come together to keep the Promise and agreed that we would need to work together to transform how we provide support, and improve wellbeing and lives.
We know that the pandemic hit those in care and at the edges of care hard—perhaps harder than most—and the emergency nature of our response meant that we had to prioritise. However, the comprehensive plan that we published today will enable us to make up for lost time and, alongside our Covid recovery strategy and our plans to tackle child poverty, it will put us on track to keep the Promise by 2030.
Before I progress, I thank all the carers, workforce, agencies and stakeholders who work hard to provide the best environment for our children and young people in care. The work that they do each and every day and the love that they show helps to improve many lives. As we move forward, we will value their ideas and energy in helping us to achieve the change that the Promise has told us that we must make.
In publishing the Scottish Government’s implementation plan “Keeping the promise to our children, young people and families” today, we are setting out more than 80 actions that cut across nearly all ministerial portfolios, demonstrating the breadth of activity that is required and that we commit to undertake.
The plan is clear that the Scottish Government cannot keep the Promise on its own. It requires collaboration, crossing boundaries and doing things differently, which will—as it should—take us out of our comfort zone at key points. It also requires services, organisations, leaders and all of us, including all of us in Parliament, to adopt a person-centred approach that places children and families at the heart of everything that we do.
We as the national Government must lead from the front. Although operational change rightly must take place at a local level, the Scottish Government, in partnership with the Scottish Parliament, holds a number of the key levers to change and the implementation plan will help to enable organisations across Scotland to take forward the work that they need to do to keep the Promise.
I will make a little bit of progress before taking Mr Whitfield’s intervention.
We continue to work closely with The Promise Scotland, and I place on the record my thanks to Fiona Duncan and the team for continuing to drive forward the work that we all require to do to fully realise the conclusions of the independent care review. We look forward to continuing to work together on the journey to 2030.
It is right to say that the plan is being published today, but it would be more accurate to say that the plan has only just been published. It would have been interesting to go into the detail of the plan and look at some of the promises that have been made in this afternoon’s debate. Is there a reason for such a late publication?
I do not believe that there has been a late publication. It is my understanding that parliamentary business managers had previous sight of the document.
The plan sets out actions that are financial, that require policy change, that require the introduction of guidance, that are legislative, and that, ultimately, require us to change our approach. Key to the change is movement from being reactive to providing preventative support. Our commitment to investing £500 million during the current parliamentary session through the whole family wellbeing fund, which begins with £50 million in this financial year, is a large step forward in that.
That investment will deliver service transformation and redesign. It will enable the building of universal, holistic support services, which will be available in communities across Scotland, and give families access to the help that they need, where and when they need it. Importantly, the investment will not fund business as usual, and we will set out further details on how it will be distributed by May.
Unfortunately, there are points at which being in care extends to our young people engaging with the justice system. If a child’s liberty requires to be restricted or deprived, we are clear that that should happen in a setting that is child friendly and rights respecting, with trauma-informed staff. With that, we will end the placement of 16 and 17-year-olds in young offenders’ institutions without delay. We will fund care-based alternatives to custody and consult on new legislation. Today, we have launched a consultation to explore how we can best provide the support that children need in difficult circumstances. That is shifting the approach from one of punishment to one of love and support.
It is paramount to ensure that the voices of our children and young people are heard in all the decisions and actions that affect them. Advocacy has a clear role to play in that, and we will support The Promise Scotland to scope a national lifelong advocacy service for care-experienced people and their families. Recommendations will be presented to the Scottish ministers for consideration by the end of 2023.
We look to our workforce to provide the right support in the right way. In considering what the Promise refers to as “the scaffolding”—the people and infrastructure that make the care system work—there is a need for equality in support and service and consistency in training. In that regard, we will consider establishing a national social work agency and will set out in due course our decision on how the implementation of the national care service will relate to children and families services and to youth justice.
Supporting our children and young people means that we must understand, be empathetic to, and be aware of how their experiences might trigger reactions, so it is vital that the workforce is trauma informed. By April 2023, we will publish a long-term delivery plan for further work to embed and sustain trauma-informed workforces and services.
To underpin all the actions that we have set out and to make all the changes that we need to happen a reality, we will introduce a Promise bill by the end of the current parliamentary session. In 2021, we set up the Promise oversight board, the role of which is to hold Scotland, including the Scottish Government, to account. I am grateful to the members of the board for taking on that task and I welcome the scrutiny that they will bring.
To enable us to track progress, we will establish a new Promise collective, which will support alignment and cohesion of activities. That group will ensure alignment across funded delivery and improvement initiatives, and it will provide a single line of sight to the outcomes that are being met.
I have given a flavour of the significant and transformational actions that the Government will take forward. Much more detail is set out in the plan—I could comfortably speak for much longer to set out the detail that is included in that substantial and comprehensive document.
Before I close, I would like to say a huge thank you to those in the care community and to reaffirm my commitment, and the Scottish Government’s commitment, to keeping the Promise. We will bring forward change as quickly as possible. Today’s publication is for them—it is the start, and we want to work with them on the journey of change so that all children grow up loved, safe and respected and able to reach their full potential.
That the Parliament welcomes the publication of the Keeping The Promise Implementation Plan, published on 30 March 2022, recognising the additional challenges that have emerged since the Independent Care Review reported its conclusions in February 2020 and therefore the even greater importance in setting out actions that the Scottish Government must take to Keep The Promise to care-experienced children and young people and their families; believes that, to Keep The Promise, delivery must be undertaken in partnership with local government, The Promise Scotland, the third sector, NHS boards, and the care community across Scotland to enable progress towards keeping more families together through person-centred wraparound support at the right time and providing the right support to reduce the number of children in the care system where it is safe to do so; agrees that Scotland must shift the focus of its actions from reaction to prevention; recognises that where the care system is the right place to be, the experience of children and young people who do enter the care system must be based on love, relationships, compassion and consistency, and commits to work together across Scotland and on a cross-party basis to Keep The Promise to and with the care community, so that all children grow up loved, safe and respected so that they can realise their full potential.
I welcome the opportunity to open this important debate on behalf of the Scottish Conservatives. As a councillor in North Lanarkshire and an MSP for the Central Scotland region, I have championed the implementation of the Promise since its introduction in 2020, as it set out plans to radically reform how young people are cared for in Scotland. The Scottish Conservatives support the recommendations in the reports that have been launched, and we want the Promise that the First Minister made to Scotland’s children to be delivered in full. Nicola Sturgeon described the Promise as
“one of the most important moments”—[
, 5 February 2020; c 31.]
in her time as First Minister. She said that, through her Scottish Government’s commitments, it would be able to achieve and implement the recommendations within a decade.
I remember attending an event in North Lanarkshire Council shortly after I was elected as a councillor—I refer members to my entry in the register of interests in that regard. The event was organised and led by care-experienced young people who illustrated the hardships that can be experienced but also voiced their hopes for this flagship policy.
However, in February, the organisation that is leading the major revamp of Scotland’s care admitted that many lives might have got worse since it was launched. Fiona McFarlane, head of oversight for The Promise Scotland, warned:
“For so many care-experienced children, young people and care-experienced adults, their lives won’t have improved over the last two years and things will have been really ... hard and may even have got worse.”
“That’s heartbreaking and shameful, and it shouldn’t be the case.
Her words were backed up by the First Minister, who has admitted that progress has stalled, citing Covid as one of the main reasons for that.
Charities such as Who Cares? Scotland saw a huge rise in the number of people seeking support during the pandemic. The helpline that Who Cares? Scotland runs has taken about 500 calls from young people, most of whom had never used the service before. That will only add to the challenge of delivering the Promise, and it highlights how the pandemic has detrimentally impacted our young people and their mental health.
Although MSPs across the chamber understand that Covid has had an impact on delivery in some areas, it is concerning to note that organisations, charities and those who have experienced the care system have criticised the lack of overall progress. When she was interviewed by STV News, Megan Moffatt, who is care experienced, said that the Promise recommendations were not being seen “on the ground” and that
“a whole generation of teenagers who are aging out of care ... have left care and are now struggling alone in a real time of crisis.”
A North Ayrshire councillor has also criticised the implementation of the Promise so far, branding it “a government quango”. He argues that councils do not receive enough funding to implement the recommendations of this vital policy, and that that will ultimately lead to care-experienced young people not receiving the level of care that they deserve. I know that I mention council funding quite frequently, but councils receive inadequate levels of funding to tackle the huge issues that they experience. Again, work in the area has been hindered because of the Government’s inability to fund local government fairly. To make the Promise a success, that needs to change now.
In addition, I would welcome reassurance from the minister that the creation of more layers of bureaucracy through boards will not remove powers from local government. It is important that local councils are responsible for implementing additional measures and policies in their local authority area, if that would be beneficial to care-experienced young people.
Concerns have not just been expressed about council funding and the role of local government. Long-term campaigner Jamie Kinlochan has raised concerns about a lack of progress, and his research has found that there has been no improvement in several key areas, including in the number of people who tragically die shortly after moving out of care. Through a freedom of information request, it was revealed that 24 young people died in 2020, compared with 21 young people the year before. From January 2014 to September 2021, a total of 111 children and young people have died. Those statistics are damning. One death is one death too many, and, as corporate parents, we should be ashamed and horrified by those statistics.
When responding to those tragic figures, Fiona Duncan admitted that the Promise had not been kept for those who died this year and last year. MSPs and councillors have a collective responsibility for care-experienced young people, and we must and can do better.
The prevention of more deaths is only one area that the Government must prioritise. Scottish Government statistics show that, in 2019-20, 43 per cent of the 7,198 young people who were recorded as being eligible for aftercare support were not receiving it—that equates to roughly 3,096 children. Lack of aftercare support affected 16-year-olds the most, with 53 per cent leaving care not receiving any support.
Care-experienced school leavers are also less likely to be in positive destinations nine months after leaving school. Figures for 2019-20 show that 75 per cent of school leavers who had been looked after within the previous year were in positive destinations. By comparison, 90 per cent of school leavers overall were in positive destinations. Those trends cannot continue. Care-experienced young people need the Government to show them that it can implement positive change throughout the care system.
As I said earlier, the Scottish Conservatives support the principles of the Promise, but the Scottish Government must be honest about the level of criticism that it has received from organisations regarding the lack of progress that is being made.
On the amendment that Scottish Labour has lodged, it is right that, when setting targets, the Scottish Government should take a realistic approach, which must be based on measurable outcomes for young people. For that reason, we will support Scottish Labour’s amendment, which would bring in an “annual reporting regime” for the Scottish Parliament and a funding plan. I believe that that would be welcomed by organisations and campaigners.
As the Promise is a commitment that was made by all political parties, the Scottish Conservatives will also support the Scottish Government’s motion, in the name of John Swinney. However, as I have stated, the Scottish Government must be honest about the lack of progress that it has made in implementing the Promise. Covid-19 has undoubtedly played a role in that, but it cannot and should not be used as an excuse for the stalling of this hugely important policy. Therefore, in return, I hope that the Scottish Government will consider voting for both the Conservative and Labour amendments, as that will continue to show cross-party commitment to improving the lives of care-experienced young people.
We can, and we must, do more for our care-experienced young people, and we on the Conservative side of the chamber will continue to hold the Government to account over the delivery of the Promise.
Finally, I add my thanks on behalf of the Scottish Conservatives to everyone who is involved in the care community, especially our young people, for their continued input to improve the sector in Scotland.
I move amendment S6M-03837.2, to insert at end
“; recognises concerns that not enough progress is being made, with stakeholders and campaigners claiming that little has changed in the first two years since its introduction; notes that organisations have witnessed a huge rise in the number of young people seeking support during the COVID-19 pandemic, and calls on the Scottish Government to listen to the concerns of local authorities, NHS boards, third party organisations and charities to ensure that The Promise is delivered in full.”
It is a great pleasure to speak in the debate. First, I extend my hopes to the Deputy First Minister that he makes a full, satisfactory and swift recovery.
The Promise was entered into on 5 February 2020—a promise without curtailment or amendment and a solid promise to deliver. There are three plans that will take us from 2020 to 2030, and I welcome the minister’s confirmation that the Promise will be kept by 2030. It is so important, as it goes to the heart of some of the most vulnerable children and young people in our communities when all they ask for is to be tret as if they had grown up like everybody else.
The Promise was based on the five fundamentals about what matters to children and families. It is a promise to listen to the question about poverty, which we all know underlies so many of the problems that these young people face. It is a promise to uphold children’s rights—I welcome, hopefully, the forthcoming return of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill to embed those rights in law so that children can exercise them. It is also a promise to use language so that young people understand what is happening to them and so that they can feel that they influence, and are part of, the decisions that are made. The language that is used about these young people is so important.
In the short time that I have, I would like to pay tribute to the residential care and education network, which is a network of 27 independent care and education services that provide 24-hour specialist day education for our young people with the most significant and complex needs that are unable to be met in their local authority. That network is an intensive care service in a care system that Fiona Duncan described in the 2020 independent care review as a
“complex, fragmented, multi-purpose and multi-faceted entity”.
I recommend the report of Educating through Care Scotland, “Learning from Care and Education Journeys”, which was launched just last Friday, on 25 March. The report describes 15 young people’s experience of the journey and the conclusions that they paint. From those journeys, ETCS has gathered the landscape that is causing the challenge, some of which I am glad to see in the report before us: the challenge of poverty; the challenge of difference in health outcomes and health service use; the high level of drug and alcohol abuse and drug-related deaths; the reduction in local government funding; the negative perception about the quality of provision and the attainment of our care experience children and young people; the impact of Covid; the proposals for a national care service; and the recruitment and retention of valued staff.
As is set out in the amendment, the Government must set itself tangible, realisable and meaningful targets so that success can be measured on that journey to 2030. The outcomes are currently—quite frankly—dreadful, and things must change. Scottish Labour believes that those targets across the board will help us identify the areas that are falling behind and the outcomes that need to be critically looked at. For example, when will care-experienced young people achieve the same success at their national 5s as other children do?
The Promise said:
“Very early on, it was clear that children must not wait until the end of a traditional Government review for the change they needed now.”
With Scottish Labour’s continuing support for the Promise, when will our young people see its delivery and when will they grow up loved, safe and respected so that we realise their full potential?
In the very short time that I have left, I would like to share two parts of a poem by Donna Ashworth, which talks about the Promise:
“But someone told me every child
Deserves a place to be.
A place to be themselves,
To be encouraged to be free
And though it seemed impossible
That I could ever know this.
That someone gave me faith again
That someone kept their promise.”
We made that Promise across Parliament and, on behalf of Scottish Labour, I extend again the cross-party consensus to achieving the Promise, because it is so important for these people. However, there is much to be done, and to be done swiftly.
I move amendment S6M-03837.1, to insert at end:
“, and believes that a successful delivery requires realisable and meaningful targets based on measurable outcomes for young people, interim annual targets, beginning in 2022, with an annual reporting regime to the Parliament, and a commensurate funding plan.”
Presiding Officer, 5,500 people shared their stories, which were no doubt difficult to tell. Around 15,000 children are looked after in residential or foster care, or are looked after at home. That represents 1.5 per cent of all under-18s in Scotland. It is especially because of the large numbers in care, the past mistakes and the openness of those who gave evidence while reliving the trauma that we have a duty to speak up about the lack of progress that has been made during the past two years.
There is no doubt that the pandemic had an effect, but it is not good enough to blame the pandemic. We need to listen to the voices of people who are in the know. We have already heard about Fiona McFarlane. She was very blunt when she said:
“their lives won’t have improved over the last two years and things will have been really, really hard and may even have got worse. That’s heartbreaking and shameful”.
“there’s a lot of goodwill in Scotland, but ... there’s implementation purgatory”.
Campaigner Jamie Kinlochan said:
Let us look at some examples of the issues. Following a recent report that 4,000 children are being held in detention by the police, Fiona Duncan, chair of The Promise Scotland, said:
“The continued imprisonment of children is incompatible with Scotland’s promise to be the best place in the world to grow up and in direct violation of its aspiration to uphold the rights of children under the UNCRC.”
I am glad that Mr Rennie welcomes the launch of the consultation today. I take on board what some of the organisations and experts by experience have said to him, but does he also recognise that the Scottish Government set out a number of actions to keep the Promise in the programme for government last September, that the Scottish Government supported and set up the Promise board, including £2 million for the funding of that organisation, and that it launched the Promise partnership fund in 2021—
I thank the minister for that, but I did not say that there has been no progress. I just said that there is deep frustration in the sector that that progress is not fast enough. It has been two years. The announcements that the minister just described were made quite recently; we need much more speed.
When it comes to the national care service, it is also disappointing that children’s services seem to have been an afterthought. They were not a core part of the initial independent review, and there seems to be a lack of evidence to justify their inclusion. The Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act 2004 places a duty on local authorities to make provision for and support the care of care-experienced children, and yet the educational outcomes for care-experienced children and young people are poor and exclusion is higher.
We are one year on and there has been hardly any progress on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill. There is no sign of that bill coming back to the Parliament. We need much greater speed on that.
The Promise Scotland says:
“Scotland has an incredibly progressive legislative framework for young people under continuing care. Children can ‘stay put’ till they are 21, supporting a more seamless transition.”
However, people on the ground say that it is very lumpy. The legislation is not implemented consistently. Everyone in the country has a right to such care. There should also be the right to return to care. If someone who has left considers that it was a mistake, they should have the right to go back.
There is a whole list of things that need to be implemented, and I am sure that the minister recognises that they are sometimes challenging.
However, there is frustration that, despite the great Promise from two years ago, the pace seems to have slowed down rather than speeding up. We need to keep people with us if we are going to ensure that we deliver the Promise. I hope that the minister will reflect on that in her summing up.
There is an old 18th century nursery rhyme that will be familiar to many, which goes:
“There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.
She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do.
She gave them some broth without any bread;
And whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.”
That was once considered a harmless and, some might say, amusing rhyme but, on close reading, it sends shivers down the spine of most people. If such a controlling approach to children was practised anywhere, it would be considered outrageous then and outdated now.
On 5 February 2020, a promise was made. The Promise has been guided by more than 5,500 individual voices—voices that should have been listened to a long time ago. As grown-ups, we do not have the monopoly on wisdom. Children’s opinions and views are valuable—indeed, they are essential—when their support needs are considered.
By radically rethinking our attitude towards those in Scotland’s care system and fulfilling the Scottish Government’s promise to place love and compassion at the centre of every child’s journey, we can remind care-experienced children that they are wonderful and exceptional, and that they should be treated not as exceptions but as equals in their right to thrive.
Standing here today, I remember sitting in packed assemblies as a teacher and listening to attendance awards, at which remarks such as, “Well done, P5s—100 per cent attendance this week—but what happened in P7?”, would be made. I have uncomfortable memories of a misplaced means of encouraging attendance that actually causes harm by shaming some of our most vulnerable children, who might have complex reasons for being late and who need our help and support.
We know that care-experienced children are more than twice as likely to be excluded from school and to experience homelessness. Imagine a child running through the school gates with a schoolbag on their back. Any child’s schoolbag might contain their homework, a pencil case or a packed lunch, but I want us to remember that care-experienced children often carry the emotional baggage of trauma, stress and anxiety, and it is our duty to unpack their complex worries and eliminate their burden.
When the independent care review reported its conclusions in February 2020, it found that the care system did not
“universally uphold the rights of children” and did not
“provide the context for loving relationships to flourish.”
Nobody could have anticipated the scale of the struggle ahead, yet the Scottish Government has not wavered in its commitment to improving the lives of Scotland’s children, and has recognised the need for a holistic, multi-agency approach that will turn words into actions.
I want to put on record the invaluable work of third sector organisations such as Barnardo’s and Aberlour, which have long appreciated the importance of early intervention and family support in ensuring that no child slips through our arms.
I welcome the £500 million for a whole family wellbeing fund and the continuation of the £4 million Promise partnership fund to help to improve the lives of young people who are in or on the edges of care. However, although that investment is welcome, we also need to bring about a mind shift in adults’ attitudes, and to be open to the voices of children and what they are telling us. We can no longer accept the old adage of children being seen and not heard.
As we move to enshrine in Scots law the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, our approach to and understanding of the process of supporting children will require a step change in our culture. Quite rightly, the Promise asks us to rethink how children are supported. Children deserve fun, love and a childhood, not a crash course in adult responsibilities.
I am really pleased to participate in the debate. Many of the points that I had been going to make have already been eloquently made by front-bench members, so I will cover a number of different areas that are of specific interest to me and issues that I have raised previously in the chamber.
“The Promise” opens by saying that
“Scotland must work to build a country that cares” and that has
“services that work to meet the needs of children and families ... where they are needed, when they are needed.”
That is an aspiration that we all sign up to, but the reality is that, in far too many cases, we are far from meeting the needs of every child
“where they are needed, when they are needed.”
We know, for example, that the attainment gap between our most and least deprived children has reached its highest-ever level. We know that only 70 per cent of child and adolescent mental health services patients are seen within the Government’s 18-week target, which is well below the 90 per cent target. We also know that far too many children still grow up in homes that are rife with substance abuse, addiction, mental health issues and domestic or, worse, sexual violence. We also know that children in care can face even worse outcomes.
My colleague Meghan Gallacher rightly mentioned feedback from Fiona McFarlane, the head of oversight for The Promise Scotland, who said that, over the past two years, things have got much worse for many. She also described the current system as one that served its own convenience rather than those who are in it. That is a valid piece of feedback and one that should worry us.
Who Cares? Scotland—another fantastic organisation, which I commend for all the work that it is doing in Scotland—has equally criticised progress on the plan by saying simply that not enough is happening quickly enough. However, “The Promise” acknowledged that. It said from day 1 that
“children must not wait until the end of a traditional Government review for the change” that they need now. I agree with that sentiment, because there are around 15,000 children in care in Scotland at the moment and we have to get it right for each one of them.
I will talk about children’s mental health. That greatly concerns me, and, to be frank, we are worlds away from getting it right. I was shocked to learn that Scotland has a higher mortality rate among under-18s than any other western European country. A quarter of those deaths are deemed to be preventable—every single one of them.
“The current model for mental health support for children in care is not working.”
Those are not my words; they are from the independent care review of two years ago. Seven in 10 CAMHS patients are being seen within the target time, which means that three are not. Three in 10 does not sound much, but it is if we look at the scale of the issue.
We know that mental health support services are at breaking point. In fact, 90 per cent of child psychiatrists in Scotland believe that the service is completely insufficient and underresourced. I am keen to hear from the Government about that.
I have only a minute and a half left, but I would be keen to hear from the Government on that subject when it closes the debate.
I will touch briefly on justice, because there is a link between that and children in care. We know that 40 per cent of young people who are in custody have been in care at some point in their lives. The Scottish Prison Service found that a quarter of the adult prison population were care-experienced prisoners. Those are disproportionately high numbers, and we have not had a good conversation about what could have been done much earlier in their lives to avoid those offences happening in the first place.
We also know that 195 young people are being held on remand, some for months and many for years. That is a direct result of the huge backlog of cases that we are waiting to clear and the extension of statutory time limits, which the Government is seeking to extend in the Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Bill. Apart from the mental health impacts of that, we know that our suicide rate in prisons is 10 times higher than the average in wider society.
I will briefly touch on the issue of 16 and 17-year-olds in young offenders institutions. I read the proposal in “The Promise” that no young person should be held in a young offenders institution or an adult prison. It goes on to say that, when a person turns 18, they should not necessarily be transferred to a young offenders institution. That raises an important philosophical point: what is the point of a young offenders institution? Who should be in there and for what types of offence? Even HM Inspectorate of Prisons for Scotland and Government ministers, who accept the premise of that criticism about young people in prison, would also accept that, for some—for example, Aaron Campbell—there is simply no other place. Secure care is simply not appropriate for such offenders.
I wish that I could, but it is such a short debate. However, I hope that we can talk more about that. I want to talk about how shocking aftercare support is in Scotland.
We are not truly getting it right for every child. We need to snap out of the fantasy view that we are if we are going to get it right. I support the motion, but I also support the amendments, because they are a much-needed wake-up call for the Parliament.
I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests, as I am a serving councillor on East Lothian Council.
I also mention that I might need to leave before the end of the debate, Presiding Officer. I think that I sent you an email about that.
I am delighted to see the publication of the keeping the Promise implementation plan, which will help us to meet the challenges that care-experienced young people face. It is great to see that the Scottish Government remains committed to keeping the Promise, and it is great to see the cross-party support for it. As has been mentioned, the implementation plan is all about creating a system that places love and relationships at the centre of the lives of every child and family who need support.
Last week, I attended a parliamentary reception for STAF—the Scottish Throughcare and Aftercare Forum—which was hosted by Paul O’Kane. It was a fantastic event at which we heard from people in the sector, care givers, those with lived experience and the Deputy First Minister. The passion about getting this right was clear among everyone.
The Scottish Government has shown that supporting care-experienced young people is a top priority. One example of that is the care-experienced students bursary, which provides a higher rate of student support funding that is being made available to care-experienced students in higher and further education. I will touch on that again later.
It is clear that all our ambition is to support care-experienced young people from the start, through their most formative years and beyond.
I want to talk about an experience that I had with an organisation called inclusion in East Lothian education, which was set up by parents whose kids have been excluded from school on a long-term basis. Some of those kids—in fact, quite a large majority of them—end up in the care system. I asked members of the group what the best help for them would be, and they all said family support. Family support is, of course, one of the five main priority areas for the Promise.
I am delighted to hear of the introduction of the new whole family wellbeing fund. It will provide funding of at least £500 million over this parliamentary session, which will enable the building of universal holistic support services that will be available to children across Scotland. Such services need to be designed locally, with clear input from carers, and, if they can, they should prevent young people from entering care in the first place. The recently announced Scottish attainment challenge framework states that each local authority should, as one of its objectives, support investment in services for care-experienced children. Local design of services must be multi-agency, with input from those with experience of care.
The whole family wellbeing fund will help to reduce the number of children and young people who are living away from their families, which will help to reduce the need for crisis intervention and will contribute to improving people’s lives across a wide range of areas—including, but not limited to, child and adolescent mental health, child poverty, alcohol and drug misuse and educational attainment.
The programme for government included the introduction of a new care experience grant, providing a £200 annual payment over 10 years to young people with experience of care.
The introduction of the bairns’ hoose model, which is a child-friendly environment that provides trauma-informed recovery, by 2025 is also very welcome. That is a key initiative. The key aim of the model, as we know, is to reduce the number of times that children have to recount their experiences to different professionals. When I spoke to the parents from the inclusion in East Lothian education group, they raised that issue with regard to some of their kids. Obviously, it is great to see that Scotland is modelling that on initiatives in Nordic countries.
We all recognise that children and young people with care experience have poorer outcomes and they often need additional support for employment opportunities. The care-experienced children and young people fund of £11.5 million to support the educational development of care-experienced children and young people up to the age of 26 provides help to local authorities.
The young persons guarantee aims to ensure that each person aged between 16 and 24 has the opportunity for a job, an apprenticeship, a place in further or higher education or on a training programme, or a volunteering place.
Four minutes is a short period in which to talk about such an important issue. The Scottish Government’s wraparound approach is informed by those at the centre of services. It is important that the Government remains committed to driving forward the transformational change that is required to make Scotland the best place to grow up in, where all children are loved, safe and respected and can realise their full potential.
The motion sets out something for Scotland to aspire to, but, as always, the devil will be in the detail and in the Scottish Government’s commitment to follow up in practice the aims that it has set out in principle. In order to judge the merits of the implementation plan, we must first look at the context in which it comes to us.
I cannot address all aspects of the Promise in the time that I have, so I will focus instead on a couple of key parts.
One of the focuses of the Promise and the implementation plan is, of course, support for the workforce who are involved in care. People in poverty are overrepresented in kinship care. We must wonder how we have fallen into that situation in the first place while also welcoming any commitment to addressing it.
The motion notes
“the additional challenges that have emerged” due to the pandemic, but challenges existed in the care system well before the pandemic.
I will focus on kinship care, where some of the least represented people in society are overrepresented in the care system. People from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds are overrepresented in kinship care. If we are to tackle structural inequalities, we need to understand how they were built up and how they interact. As we proceed with keeping the Promise, we must be assured that people who have been forgotten before will not be forgotten again.
That takes me to my next point. A point that jumped out at me as I read the reports of the independent care review is one that I have noticed again and again during my time as a member of this Parliament, usually in the context of considering the most vulnerable people in society: there is not enough data. As well as addressing the structural inequalities in the system, keeping the Promise must include a commitment to not just keeping data on people in care but publishing and analysing that data, so that we, in this Parliament, and the Scottish public can have confidence that the plan is on track.
The Scottish Labour amendment addresses that point. The targets and outcomes to do with the care plan must be measurable so that progress can be evaluated, with the full transparency that the people in our care system deserve.
I have said before that this Parliament cannot operate in the dark. On an issue as important as this, we must have confidence that we are keeping the Promise, not keeping a secret.
The pandemic has been an extremely difficult time for many care-experienced people and their families and wider support networks.
According to the Promise’s “Change Programme ONE” report:
“it was the children and families the current ‘care system’ doesn’t work for, who faced some of the greatest challenges.”
The pandemic has exacerbated the effects of poverty, trauma and poor mental health. People who were coping before have been left struggling. Change is needed now, more than ever.
It is also clear that the pandemic has placed enormous pressure on public services. Although progress towards implementing the Promise has been made, it has been slow and there is still far to go before we achieve transformative change.
Who Cares? Scotland says:
“Longstanding recommendations and commitments, including increasing the access to independent advocacy for Care Experienced children and young people, have not been fully realised and need addressed”.
I am sure that, for young people who are currently in the care system, change cannot come fast enough.
The Government needs to be clear in its commitment to change, so I welcome the update on progress and the publication of the implementation plan.
During the pandemic, resources in public services were redeployed and redirected. According to the Promise, there is a profound risk, over the coming year, that a consequence of Covid-19 will be that more decisions are taken that lead to children entering the care system, when, with support, families could stay together. We need to ensure that resources are directed towards prevention and supporting families to stay together.
There are other barriers to radical reform. The lack of accurate data on the number of people who experience care and the continuing stigma have both been cited as blocks to progress.
The Promise highlighted that Scotland collects data on the care system and its inputs, processes and outputs, rather than what matters—that is, the experiences and outcomes of the people who live in and around the system. I am pleased that the implementation plan acknowledges the need to collect data that captures the lived experiences, relationships and day-to-day lives of care-experienced people and their families and support networks.
We also need to capture the wishes and views of children and families. “Plan 21-24” set out “The Fundamentals” that need to be built into everything that organisations do to keep the Promise. Those fundamentals are: what matters to children and families; listening; poverty; children’s rights; and language.
The “Change Programme ONE” reports highlights, however, that,
“Whilst there is work underway on every Fundamental, there is a mismatched, inconsistent national and local picture”.
I would therefore welcome further detail from the minister about what action is being taken to ensure that the fundamentals are embedded in every aspect of implementation work.
Regarding stigma, the Promise has highlighted the fact that, for years, care-experienced children and adults have said that language needs to change so as to normalise their lives and shift away from professionalspeak, which is stigmatising for children and marks them out as different.
We need to create a culture change regarding how care is viewed and spoken about, as stigma is a significant barrier to families asking for help. I am pleased that the implementation plan commits to that culture change and to using destigmatising language at every opportunity. It also recognises that there needs to be a shift in wider public attitudes, and I look forward to further detail about the work being made available.
Before closing, I will focus on the national care service. Organisations such as Who Cares? Scotland have raised concerns about the setting up of the service further delaying implementation of the Promise. As such, large-scale public sector reform will leave services in a state of flux. We need to ensure that implementation remains a priority, and that the creation of the new national care service honours the contributions given by care-experienced people, their carers and families to the independent care review and honours the vows to keep the Promise.
Above all else, we must remember that behind the plans and targets are people, and that everything that we do has an impact on them. Care-experienced people deserve love and respect. They deserve to be safe and to have nurturing relationships built on patience, kindness and compassion. We must implement the Promise so that all Scotland’s children can realise their full potential.
I very much welcome the
“80 actions to improve the lives of children, young people and families in and around the edges of care”.
All children have the right to grow up loved, safe and respected, so that they can realise their potential. However, many people in Scotland have experience of entering the care system, with all the challenges that that can bring.
In 2016 the First Minister announced an independent root-and-branch review of the care system to consider how we best give Scotland’s most vulnerable children the childhood that they deserve. The review was published in 2020, and the Scottish Government has accepted all of its findings. I know that all members are determined that we as a Parliament keep the Promise. The independent care review listened to thousands of children, young people and adults with experience of the care system. That is a key aspect of the Promise, and it is something that we must continue to do.
As the Deputy First Minister’s motion sets out, it is vital that we move to a preventive approach, rather than a reactive one. Where possible, the focus should be on keeping families together. I welcome the whole family wellbeing fund, which is backed by at least £500 million over this parliamentary session, which will help to prevent families from reaching crisis point.
For those cases where going into care is the only option, we must ensure, as far as possible, that siblings are not split up. We know through hearing from children and young people that relationships with their brothers and sisters are vital to their sense of belonging and their wellbeing. Good progress has been made there, but we must maximise that. I can say from my professional experience of working with children, including those in the care system, that we need to ensure that all care homes can support children’s schooling. That includes the prevention of exclusions and ensuring that care-experienced pupils can engage with their education just as well as their peers. In many cases, care-experienced young people have poorer outcomes and require additional support. I therefore welcome the Scottish Government’s actions to support educational development through the care-experienced children and young people fund, backed up with £11.5 million of funding this academic year.
We need to break down barriers for children in care, ensuring that they have the right support in place for the transition to adulthood. The Scottish National Party manifesto confirmed our plans to introduce a care experienced grant to support young people. This annual £200 payment will help them in their transition, offering financial support for up to 10 years between the ages of 16 and 26.
With their focus on equality, policies such as the young persons guarantee will, I am sure, be beneficial to care-experienced young people in the post-school transition. By offering every young person in Scotland opportunities for work, learning, training or skills development, we give everyone a fair chance to realise their potential.
I welcome the publication of the keeping the Promise implementation plan. It will improve the lives of children and young people in the care system, but it will also ensure that we take a more preventive approach going forward. We must keep the Promise so that all children grow up loved, safe and respected and have the opportunity to realise their potential.
I thank the Government for bringing this debate to the chamber and I thank members throughout the chamber for their powerful contributions and strong words, which must be followed by robust action.
I reiterate Scottish Labour’s thanks to Fiona Duncan and her team at the independent care review, the countless volunteers who comprised the workstreams and the thousands of people who fed into the review. What it produced was, in reality, a review like no other. It set a renewed narrative and an aspiration for the children and young people who are in all our care.
There are elements in the plan that the Government has produced that can be welcomed. It is important to note that, today, we have heard the political consensus on the delivery of the Promise being maintained. I know that the Government will recognise that. The direction of travel is something that we all support.
Our amendment stresses the need to ensure that we are collectively accountable for our commitment, and the importance of that has been noted by members throughout the chamber. The Tory amendment touches on that as well, and we will support it at decision time. Meghan Gallacher spoke eloquently about the need to ensure that we focus on outcomes for young people. That is core to our concerns, especially given the lack of progress that Willie Rennie highlighted.
Willie Rennie mentioned in particular the imprisonment of children, and we are really heartened that concrete action on that issue will come forward in the coming months. The Parliament’s Education, Children and Young People Committee has heard in recent weeks about the number of young people who have been incarcerated in Scotland throughout the pandemic. A lack of access to justice is bedevilling their lives, and we need to make sure that there is immediate action on that. Jamie Greene touched on some of those issues in his speech.
I was struck by Kaukab Stewart’s speech. She recognised the importance of education in the plan. However, I see nothing in it that will move the dial on the key numbers. Sixty per cent of young people with care backgrounds leave school without a national 5, while the figure for other children is 14 per cent. We need concrete actions to ensure that the education components of the plan, which we all agree are critical, will be delivered on. Jamie Greene also said that our mortality rate for under-18s is the worst in Europe.
What is the target and when will it be achieved? When will we see parity? We must surely expect that our outcomes will get better. At the very least, we must aspire in the short term for them to be equal. We need action and real, concrete targets for where we want to go.
As we meet today, we must reflect on the aspiration to keep the Promise and what it means. Despite the plan, we still have no real clarity from the Government on what the statement means and no concrete expression of what success will look like. There are lots of adjectives, but we need outcomes. The reality is that this is not just about statistics or figures; it is about a group of people who are in our care but have unimaginably bad outcomes. Years on from the announcement of the root-and-branch review, their outcomes are still worsening.
My colleague Martin Whitfield outlined some of the perilous education outcomes that exist. Care-experienced pupils are five times less likely than their peers to gain even one higher, and six times less likely to attend university. Again, we need to ensure that we focus on those solid outcomes. The lack of that foundational stability in life leads to incredibly poor life outcomes, which must be—and are—the solid focus of the efforts to reform the system. Those young people see higher interaction with the criminal justice system and higher rates of homelessness, and we do not even bother to measure health outcomes.
An investigation by
The Ferret showed that, in 2020, 24 young people died in our care, which is a record number, if that phrase can be used in such horrific circumstances. The number was 21 the year before, and it was 111 between 2014 and the end of September 2021—a tragic waste of life and potential. It is a failure that this country can ill afford as it sees through its duty to protect those who are in its care. We need to see robustly measured outcomes, with accountability of Government to Parliament and, crucially, to care-experienced young people.
I really hope that the Government will back the amendments, which I believe are constructive. They are about setting the targets and ensuring that we work together and continue our shared commitment to deliver better outcomes for young people in Scotland who are in care and are leaving care.
I am pleased to close the debate on behalf of the Scottish Conservatives and to join my colleagues in reaffirming our support for the Promise.
The debate has been worth while and has broadly struck the right note. There has been recognition across the chamber of the collective shared ambition to deliver on the Promise—it is a genuine cross-party commitment—and that the Government is responsible for delivering and setting the required targets. Therefore, it is right that Opposition MSPs push the Government to do more and that they question the rate of progress.
Although a new plan and consultation are welcome, they do not, in and of themselves, mean anything. An implementation plan is nothing without implementation. Of course, we must acknowledge that there has been a global health pandemic, but that cannot be used as an excuse for failure to deliver for the young people for whom we have a collective responsibility. A promise should not be made lightly. It is not about offering to do something when it suits or when things are going well; it is about doing the right thing and following the right priorities even when things are really difficult.
It is arguable that the need to deliver for care-experienced young people was even greater during the height of the pandemic. There can be no doubt that many of the challenges that young people faced were felt even more acutely among that group. As we have heard time and again in the debate, young people in care face far greater barriers and challenges than their peers do. There is no reason to believe that the situation was any different during the pandemic, when many of the services and support mechanisms that they rely on were reduced or put under great strain. Indeed, many care-experienced young people will look at what has happened over the past two years and feel, regardless of the pandemic, that they have been let down and that the support and the promised changes never really materialised.
“For so many care-experienced children, young people and care-experienced adults, their lives won’t have improved over the last two years and things will have been really, really hard and may even have got worse.”
She also said that
“That’s heartbreaking and shameful, and it shouldn’t be the case.”
As a Parliament and as a country, we cannot afford to be complacent, and as has been said, we cannot be part of keeping a secret. There are very serious concerns, and more recommendations and warm words can go only so far. None of us can shy away from the fact that many people who depend on us have been badly let down. Therefore, while recognising the work that has been done and the plan that has come forward, we, including the Scottish ministers, must be honest and transparent when it comes to admitting that, so far, we have fallen short.
As my colleague Meghan Gallacher said, if the Scottish Government is asking Parliament to look past the delays in implementation, it should be willing to acknowledge the concerns that have been expressed by stakeholders and campaigners. As Scottish Labour clearly sets out in its amendment, the Government should be willing to put in place meaningful targets. As Michael Marra said in his closing speech, it is not clear from the implementation plan that there are concrete, definite and meaningful targets. That is just not good enough, particularly given the delays that we have seen.
A Government that is keen to build trust and consensus in such an important area should have no problem with voting for the amendments. I suspect, however, that in the case of our amendment, that might prove to be a challenge. If that is the case, it will be disappointing, but I plead with the Government to recognise that not all has gone as well as it could have done—certainly, it has not gone as was promised.
As I conclude, and regardless of the outcome at decision time, I note that I hope that today’s debate and publication of the plan mark the start of a renewed focus on making good on the Promise. Let this be the last year that we stand here and say that progress has been limited; let it be the last year that we tell young people that they matter, then fail to back up those words with action; let it be the last time that we pass the buck.
Ultimately, responsibility lies with the Scottish Government, but politics aside, it is an area that is just too important for us to have seen such limited progress. Where there is a will to deliver the changes, there is a way; the Scottish Conservatives stand ready to do what we can to support delivery of the Promise. It is an area in which we are desperately keen to see the Scottish Government succeed. That can be done only by listening to the concerns of stakeholders and partners and, most important of all, those of care-experienced young people. By working with them in a spirit of partnership, we can get things sorted out quickly. Behind the statistics that we have heard are real people whose life chances desperately depend on our getting this right. We cannot afford, in a small country, to see so much talent being wasted, or to see so many people being excluded from playing a full part in our society.
I thank members for their contributions to the debate. I am delighted that the cross-party support for keeping the Promise remains so strong, and by the opportunity that is presented to work together to make the change that is required to improve the lives of our care-experienced children, young people, adults and families. That is a sentiment that I have heard from all, across the chamber.
Our implementation plan is neither the end of the story nor the whole of it. We are on a journey to change; the plan sets out work that is already under way and work that we will take forward at pace.
The past two years have been unprecedented, and publishing the plan today brings us back on track to deliver the range of actions and commitments that will help us to keep the Promise by 2030.
Not at all. I thank Mr Whitfield for putting that on the record. I am grateful to him for doing so; it was very gentlemanly and collegiate of him.
As members have noted, our approach to supporting our care-experienced people must be holistic. It must recognise the importance of family and, where support is provided, it must recognise the needs of the individual, the situation that surrounds them and what is important to them. Love and nurture should be at the core of our approach, so we must ensure that they are integral to the many areas of work and different parts of Government that are spanned by our actions.
The whole family wellbeing fund—which has been referred to by members—presents an opportunity to do things differently. By not funding business as usual, we can further the shift of investment from reaction to prevention.
The wider financial and policy supports that are set out in the plan will assist our carers and families who are engaged with the care system. They will support our care-experienced people in education and employment—education has been mentioned by several members this afternoon—support our care leavers and provide support for family wellbeing that will, in turn, help to keep families together and to reduce the challenges that they face day to day.
Through the Promise, we have received clear direction on what needs to change quickly. The commitments that are made in the implementation plan to bring an end, without delay, to placement of 16 to 17-year-olds in young offenders institutions, as well as action to address use of restraint in care settings, are a clear response to that.
I take on board some points that were made by Jamie Greene and I hope that he will consider contributing to the consultation that has been launched today, because he obviously has some key points that we would be keen to hear.
We will work with The Promise Scotland as we make progress on that journey. Again, I thank it and welcome its agreement to progress the work on advocacy, access to information and governance, and to work to support alignment and cohesion of delivery of initiatives and activities through a new Promise collective. However, we are clear that we cannot do this alone: we must join up our policies, our finances, our actions and our implementation, and we must work together to bring the transformational change that is needed.
I was very pleased to get a message during the debate that said that the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities has put out a statement welcoming the implementation plan.
I was delighted to join, as part of care day last month, a Who Cares? Scotland event. Several members, including Paul McLennan and Meghan Gallacher, mentioned Who Cares? Scotland. I was part of a panel with South Lanarkshire champions board and North Lanarkshire champions board, and I chatted to children, young people and their families about the Promise. That brought home to me the importance of working together, listening to the voices of care experience, and placing them at the heart of policy making and system and service design. I have to declare an interest: I am a South Lanarkshire constituency MSP. I was particularly pleased to hear about how well Who Cares? Scotland thinks the Promise is being embedded by North Lanarkshire Council and South Lanarkshire Council in delivery of services through listening to children and young people who are in their care.
We are committed to building genuine partnerships with our local government colleagues, COSLA, The Promise Scotland, delivery partners, the third sector, partners across health, justice and education, and all our stakeholders who have an interest in improving the lives of our children and young people throughout Scotland. We welcome the opportunity to do so.
Would co-operation and collaboration with local authorities be improved if we had a published resource plan with predictable resources attached to the implementation plan, so that people could plan services for the long term?
As I said earlier in this speech and in my opening speech, the whole family wellbeing fund is a £500 million fund over the current parliamentary session. There is £50 million for next year, which is to help to change how we support families.
Let us be honest and open with one another. As Willie Rennie mentioned, more than 5,500 care-experienced people have told us that change is needed. If that means that we need to have difficult conversations and to make difficult decisions, we must be prepared to do that.
Not all care-experienced people are the same. Not all care-experienced persons think, act, feel or believe the same. They do not all want the same outcomes in their lives, nor do they need the same support, but every care-experienced person should grow up feeling loved and supported to live a happy and healthy life. We might not be able to legislate for love, but together we can create the conditions in which love and relationships are at the centre of the support that we provide. We must all work closely with our children, young people, adults and families to ensure that we are making the difference that they need.
If we work together on the ambition that the Promise has directed us to achieve, by 2030 we will have a Scotland in which families are supported to stay together through whole-family support. We will have significantly reduced the number of children and young people in the care system and our communities will be better supported by the services that are available to them. Being care experienced will not be surrounded by stigma—another issue to which members from across the chamber have referred. Support, if it is required, will be person centred and accessible at the time of need. All transitions will be managed smoothly, and the service that is provided will not be determined by age or geography.
The implementation plan that has been published today takes us a step forward on that journey. Once again, I welcome the opportunity for us to work together to achieve that.
I turn briefly to Martin Whitfield’s and Meghan Gallacher’s amendments for the Labour Party and the Conservatives, respectively. I understand the sentiment behind the amendments from both parties. However, although the Government could agree to some aspects of them, we are unable to support them.
As I am the Minister for Children and Young People, many of the commitments that are set out in the plan fall under my portfolio area. I am committed to driving forward the change that is required to keep the Promise. I look forward to working with all partners to do so.
I am concluding.
I look forward—this is important—to engaging with more of the care community over the coming months and years to ensure that our national policy intent is felt on the ground, and that our actions continue to take us in the right direction.