Bruce Adamson: ‘If we don’t think we can deliver an adequate standard of living to children, that’s saying something really worrying’
The path from growing up in New Zealand in a family of farmers and nurses where “going off and being a lawyer wasn’t really something that happened” to what he describes as “the best job in the world” was not something that children and young people’s commissioner Bruce Adamson had planned.
Some of the inspiration to become an advocate for human rights began with his mum, a nurse, who went around rural areas of New Zealand training nurses, something that Adamson noticed didn’t just empower the women involved but also helped change communities.
Later, while volunteering during his law training, Adamson discovered he had a “real passion for community law” and that the skills he was learning could be used to make a difference.
But it wasn’t until he moved to Scotland that the focus changed from being a practitioner to policy.
Following a stint as a commercial lawyer and a clerk at the Scottish Parliament, Adamson became one of the founding members of the children’s commissioner’s office when it was first established in 2004, which cemented this unplanned direction of travel.
“I was at the Child Law Centre on the board and I was a children’s panel member and I was working for the children’s commissioner and so suddenly that became my thing.
“It wasn’t my intentional thing, but suddenly that became what I was doing, which was great.”
This led to becoming a founding member of the Scottish Human Rights Commission, which in turn led to work for the UN and the EU, mainly in post-conflict countries such as the Balkans, as well as Turkey and Romania, the Caucasus and Ukraine, both before and after the conflict with Russia.
“And so that was really, really interesting, going out and doing democracy-building stuff and working in countries that had gone through recent conflict, and so a lot of work with prisons, a lot of work with military, a lot of work with police, and so that was really, really intense work.
“And then in Ukraine on behalf of the EU, I was there before the conflict and then when the conflict happened, so that was again really intense, working particularly with internally displaced people – and a vast number of those were children at one stage, one and a half million people directly affected and the vast majority of those were children and women and older people – and so I was doing a lot of emotionally challenging, intense work at that time.
“And I enjoyed it, loved it, but when the opportunity to become children’s commissioner came along, I thought it was a really good time to move into something that was a bit different. And much as I loved that other work, this is the best job in the world.”
Coming into the “amazing” job, which regularly puts a “massive smile” on his face, Adamson wanted to re-evaluate the priorities of the commissioner and go “back to the basics about what the purpose of the role is”.
He sees that as being the “fierce champion” of children and young people and to speak out for them in a way that others may not be able to.
Children in Shetland even asked him to be “savage” on their behalf when holding those in power to account, he tells Holyrood.
Adamson explains: “A lot of civil society organisations are directly funded by government and also very subject to reprisal.
“While it’s unlikely the secret police are going to come and kick down a door and drag someone away in Scotland, which is the work that I’ve done in Ukraine and other places, where children’s commissioners have to protect civil society, civil society is constrained, though, in that they have [public]funding primarily and they have to be careful in terms of protecting their funding and that means there are limits, sometimes, on what they can and can’t say and can and can’t do.
“And so my job is then to focus on those gaps.”
This renewal of priorities has meant stopping some things the commissioner’s office had been doing previously.
He says: “My job’s not to do the government’s job for it.
“The government’s job is to respect, protect and fulfil human rights, and so I don’t want to spend time doing that, and there’s a risk that you end up on working groups helping the government do its job, which is the role of civil servants.
“And then civil society does amazing, vibrant work, but sometimes, they can’t be that voice. And then children and young people can speak for themselves and so we want to amplify that.
“And so, in deciding what I wanted to do in terms of my priorities, it was about coming back to what’s the key role.
“So I had to withdraw a lot from the cooperative work that the office had been doing with government in terms of sitting on a lot of working groups and drafting a lot of things and had wanted to really reposition the office in terms of saying, ‘This is about accountability. My role is to hold the government and those in power to account. It’s not to write your policies and things for you, it’s to hold you to account’.
“That was quite a big change because previously the office had worked, quite legitimately, in a very cooperative way with government and they provided a lot of support in building their ability and I’m coming from a slightly different position in terms of being much more about accountability.”
Going around the country, the top two priorities children gave him to work on were poverty and mental health, which along with his own “personal passions” such as incorporation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) into Scots law, raising the age of criminal responsibility, banning smacking and encouraging children to become human rights defenders are the focus of his six-year stint, which he is now two years into.
How Scotland is doing internationally on children’s rights is difficult to rank, Adamson says, because there is no hierarchy of rights and every country will be doing well in some areas and less well in others.
“I think that Scotland is doing really well in lots of ways. We do have a really high standard of living, we have a really free society where you can speak and things, so we’re miles ahead on some of those things.
“I think as we mark 20 years of devolution, where Scotland’s better than other parts of the UK, in fact, it is the way our democracy works, how open our parliament is and children being able to access that in a more exciting way.
“So I think a lot of that stuff we’re doing really, really well.
“But then you look at our poverty statistics and you look at mental health statistics and there are some real challenges there – but they are challenges that everyone’s having.
“And then there’s things that we can’t seem to get past, things like physical punishment, like the age of criminal responsibility, where we’re really out of step with the rest of the world, and particularly out of step with Europe, these things that everybody else has done and we’re, for some reason, coming absolute last.
“And we can’t seem to get past that, which is quite strange because generally, we’re doing very, very well and I’d much rather be talking about addressing systemic things, mental health and poverty, which are global problems and we all need to work on rather than working on some of the things that shouldn’t be taking up as much energy as they are.”
However, he is concerned that Scotland sets its sights low and ranks itself as good by comparison.
He tells Holyrood: “I think there’s a real risk in Scotland, though, that sometimes we define success as being better than other parts of the UK, and that’s not ever going to be the standard, and so I think we need to keep that focus on saying we want to be the best in the world.
“We want to work with global partners, work with the international system, work with other countries that have the same kind of vision as us to share knowledge and actually improve things and never get into this lowest common denominator type of thing: ‘Well, we’re slightly better than the worst country so therefore that’s a good thing’. That’s not really where we want to be.
“And unfortunately, I think sometimes we get a little bit trapped in that or trapped in a kind of blame culture of saying that’s not our responsibility and people in power talking a lot about what other people should be doing, whereas a conversation should be about what can I do.”
Adamson recalls a conversation he had with Philip Alston, the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, during Alston’s factfinding visit to Scotland last year.
“I went for a walk around one of the communities in Glasgow and we were having a bit of a discussion, and he was saying he’d met with Scottish ministers, he’d met with civil servants and he was saying there’s a lot of really good stuff that’s happening here.
“And I was saying that I think that’s absolutely true, but you look at the impact in these communities and our poverty levels, this needs to change.
“It’s the biggest human rights issue facing children in Scotland at the moment. And the Scottish Government has to do more.
“It can’t be just someone else’s fault. It’s what can we do, what can we do today?
“And I was saying that what I wanted him to make sure in his report that he didn’t do was this kind of lowest common denominator, that Scotland’s doing better than [the rest of] the UK, therefore, doesn’t have to do anything or should be seen as doing really well. Because we’re not doing well. We’ve got some good ideas, but we’re not doing well enough.
“So I was really encouraging him, and we’ll see in the next few weeks when the report comes out, to make sure that when he directs his recommendations to Scotland that he’s very clear that while we should celebrate some of the initiatives that mitigate poverty, we need to do much more.”
Adamson was “absolutely delighted” with the Scottish Government’s commitment to incorporate the UNCRC by the end of this parliamentary session, which Nicola Sturgeon announced at the SNP conference and has further been confirmed by the Scottish representative to the UN, and he wants to see the legislation before the Scottish Parliament by 20 November, the 30th anniversary of the treaty.
Incorporation will take obligations that already exist in international law and make them domestically enforceable, and one area that Adamson expects to see significant change in is around poverty and economic rights, which include the right to adequate food and to social security, where Scotland is clearly falling below acceptable standards.
The Scottish Government and local authorities are “going to have to do better”, he says, while the UK Government “needs to do much better”.
But Adamson is clear that nothing will be required beyond what the country is reasonably able to provide: “It’s all very much based within what is possible, and so there isn’t a requirement to give everyone a giant mansion and a banquet every day.
“There’s a requirement to make sure that people have got safe, warm housing that’s appropriate to them and that children have got food that’s nutritious and warm.
“The standard that we’re setting here of adequate. If we’re worried about delivering an adequate standard of living, then that’s saying something really worrying, that we don’t even think we can deliver an adequate standard of living for children.
“This isn’t the gold standard, this is the absolute minimum that we’re talking about, that the courts would get involved and say, you’re failing here.”
One of the first pieces of work Adamson did was on holiday hunger and he says he was “horrified” to find that school holidays are a time of real concern and pressure and that teachers were reporting that children are coming back from the holidays in a worse physical and mental condition than when they left.
“Some of the visits to foodbanks [I saw] the great work that’s being done, but the reason it’s needed is horrifying.
“The idea that we’re in this really rich country and yet we can’t even make sure that people get enough food to eat, can’t even get children food to eat and the impact that has on their ability to get an education, socialisation, physical and mental health.
“That’s absolutely unacceptable and I think that’s been the thing that’s shocked me the most and the fact that [it’s in] every community that I go to and the children talk about this a lot, even children who aren’t directly experiencing poverty”.
However, “one of the great things about Scotland”, which Adamson says his commissioner colleagues are really jealous of, is that Scotland really cares about what the international community thinks, something that has been true of all of the governments since devolution and all of the parties represented in the Scottish Parliament.
He points to a poster in his office: “The charter of the UN is that poster that I have there on my wall: ‘We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war and committing to human rights’.
“That stuff resonates in Scotland, because I think Scotland sees itself as part of the international community in possibly a way that some other, particularly big countries, don’t, and that means the international community is able to use those mechanisms in a really positive way which doesn’t have as big an impact in other countries. I think that’s quite exciting.”