Irvine Times column, 30 October 2018

Last week the Scottish Youth Parliament visited Ayrshire for its 67th National Sitting, to discuss issues affecting children and young people.

For much of my week in Parliament, children and young people were on my mind too.

As Convener of the Scottish Parliament’s Equalities and Human Rights Committee, for example, I visited the Children’s Secure Unit at St Mary’s Kenmure in Bishopbriggs, as part of the committee’s scrutiny into the Scottish Government’s Age of Criminal Responsibility Bill.

St Mary’s is one of five residential secure units for young offenders in Scotland which provides a stable, safe, secure, and stimulating environment for the rehabilitation of young people (male and female), aged from 11 to 18 years. It does so through a variety of structured programmes covering topics such as cognitive skills and offending behaviour, in preparation for their eventual return to the community.

It was an interesting and valuable session, and I was particularly struck by the young people’s experience of the justice system, and the reality for them of their interactions with the Police and their experiences in custody. I would like to thank all who shared their stories, hearing first hand from those who our legislation will affect is crucial to the work of the committee and their frank, honest accounts of what happened to them are hugely important to us.

All children and young people have basic human rights which have been defined by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Scottish Parliament must respect these rights whenever it draws up legislation.

At a Conveners’ Group meeting on Wednesday I asked the First Minister about the challenges that Scotland faces on human rights protections, particularly with the advent of Brexit, and our withdrawal from the EU, which underpins our devolved settlement.

In her response the First Minister confirmed that Brexit does pose a serious threat to the Scottish Parliament in this matter, but that despite Brexit, Scotland must continue to embed such rights at the start of all policy making processes. We must not fall behind the protections that have been gained through our membership of the EU, we must keep pace with future progress by the EU, and we must be a world leader in our own approach to human rights.

The Scottish Government works hard to protect the rights of our children and young people, but several areas of policy making which are reserved to the UK Government continue to cause great harm. One particularly disgraceful issue is the Tories two-cap policy on the payment of tax credits, with payments only made for the first two children in a family, unless a mother goes through the pain and indignity of filling out a form to declare a third child as being born following a rape.

Abhorrent as this policy is, I was further shocked this week to hear hugely ignorant comments from the Tory Social security spokesperson this week about families living in poverty, which she then tried to justify on the basis of ‘fairness’.

None of us can predict when we may need a security net and not many folk are wealthy enough to be immune from the financial impact of bereavement, job loss, relationship breakdown or other misfortune.  Fairness to me is supporting every child that needs help, when they need it, as is their right and our duty, and which is quite simply the right thing to do.