From what age should you be held accountable for your actions? Right now in Scotland the law says you can be found guilty of a criminal act from eight years old. In fact we have one of the lowest ages of criminal responsibility on the entire planet alongside countries like Indonesia, Ethiopia and Sudan.
From Primary Four, Scottish kids can be found guilty of a crime and receive a criminal record which they’ll carry with them for the rest of their lives.
This means that moments in time, often triggered by external trauma like abuse or neglect, can define a young person for all of their days. From before puberty, a criminal record will hang like an albatross around their neck – impeding life outcomes and disqualifying them from a whole range of career choices even 50 years later.
The Scottish Government is finally taking a new law through parliament to lift this minimum to the age of 12. Progressive? Not really.
Considering the UN set the internationally acceptable minimum for criminal responsibility at 12 in 2007, this was only a baseline from which they expected all nations to move upwards to their prescribed ideal of 16 or 18. What’s more is that in February the UN will lift that international baseline to 14. The Scottish Government’s Bill will be out of date before its ink is even dry. That’s not progressive, it’s an international embarrassment.
The UN aren’t suggesting we do nothing about harmful behaviour in children - far from it. They only want us to treat young people who offend in a different way from grown-ups. That is to say, we challenge that behaviour, extract apology and even sanction it, but most importantly address its causes and do so in a way that means they have the chance to reform and move on without a label that dogs them indefinitely.
The First Minster has put a lot of store in her commitment to children’s rights. She leads a government that has the stated ambition of making Scotland ‘The best place in the world to grow up’, but their record here isn’t great.
On this subject, for example they have lied to the United Nations. In 2012, SNP ministers told the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child that by the end of the last parliament they’d lift the age of criminal responsibility in Scotland from 8 to 12. Not only did they not do it, but they voted against several Lib Dem attempts to do just that.
Let’s put this in perspective: getting to 12 would only put us on a par with the four most socially conservative countries in all of Europe and, as it turns out, still two years south of the new internationally prescribed minimum.
In the Age of Criminal Responsibility Bill, currently before parliament, we have an opportunity to at least catch up with the rest of the world. That’s why last week I lodged amendments to the Bill that would see the age lifted to 16 (and another to lift it to 14 as a compromise– to get us to the new minimum).
The way I see it, we credit young people with the judgement to decide who they should vote for, who they should marry and whether they’re ready to have sex at 16. Any younger than this and we believe as a society that they lack the maturity to have the judgement necessary to undertake any of these things.
Why then do we suggest that they have clear and mature judgement around criminal behaviour for many years before that?
n Alex Cole-Hamilton is MSP for Edinburgh Western.