SNP stance on child criminals makes Scotland an international embarrassment – Alex Cole-Hamilton

The Scottish Government’s refusal to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility above the age of 12 – it’s currently the frankly medieval age of eight – puts this country on a par with four of the most conservative countries in Europe, writes Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP.

Tuesday, 7th May 2019, 3:46 pm
Polmont Young Offenders Institute (Picture:: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire)

When a former Irish Senator, Jillian Van Turnhout, gave evidence to the Holyrood Equalities Committee as part of their work on the smacking bill, she said that she went into the chamber knowing that even if she was the only person to say that it is not okay to hit a child, children in Ireland would know that somebody in a position of authority was on their side.

I recognise those words today and if my party and the Children’s Minister’s predecessor, Mark McDonald, are the only ones to vote to increase the age of criminal responsibility still further, then children in Scotland will know that there are people in authority on their side.

The journey of the Age of Criminal Responsibility (Scotland) Bill has been peppered by some very public and unprecedented interventions from the international community, expressing an imperative for us to go further than 12, at least to 14 and arguably further still.

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This was a view shared by the clear majority of witnesses who came before the Equalities Committee. Indeed the day after our first debate, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child revised its guidelines to lift the global minimum age to 14.

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Report calls for criminal responsibility age to rise to 16 in Scotland

The declaration of a new international norm should have had enough influence on its own to change the SNP’s direction, but it wasn’t the only intervention.

Separately, the Human Rights Commissioner of the European Council, Dunja Mijatovic, wrote to the Children’s Minister, expressing in the strongest terms that Scotland should seize this legislative opportunity to set at the very least a minimum age of 14.

The Minister’s response to the commissioner was nothing short of a national embarrassment. She pointed to Scotland’s unique children’s hearings system and attempted to lean on a sense of perceived exceptionalism. The Commissioner’s reply offered very short shrift: each national system is unique, but nobody gets a pass.

In resisting early calls for further uplift, the Minister also cited a need to carry the people with us. But our further call for views revealed the vast majority of respondents supported further uplift to 14 and even 16. If you’re waiting for the people to come with us on this, Minister, they are already here.

The blindingly obvious contradiction, that the Minister is doing her best to avoid, is that Scotland will never be the best place in the world to grow up if our aim on children’s rights targets is below the bare minimum.

We have spent decades coalescing around the view that 16 is the point at which you should be credited with the wisdom to choose who to marry or share a bed with, whether you should leave home and who represents you in this parliament. Either you have mental capacity to understand the consequences of your actions or you do not.

Without increasing the age still further, this Bill does not just set the face of this Government and this Parliament against the rights of children, it fatally undermines any claim we have as a human rights leader. To aim at the international minimum and miss, in this way, will set us on a par with the four most conservative countries in all of Europe.

It makes a mockery of our aspirations towards human rights leadership internationally. We decry human rights abuses of China and of Russia, but both have ages of criminal responsibility higher than where this bill gets us.

Unamended this Bill is an embarrassment. The Government has no cause to ever speak of it with pride. I will only vote for it because the current age of criminal responsibility over which the SNP have presided this past decade is frankly medieval.

The international community have already judged this Government on children’s rights in its failure in this Bill. So too will history, but more importantly so too will the children and young people of this country. And I don’t blame them.

Alex Cole-Hamilton is the Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP for Edinburgh Western