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16 February 2015
Focus on the innocent victims

Focus on the innocent victims

Earlier this month we had the long-awaited publication of Mary Fee’s proposed legislation on children of prisoners. The principle underpinning the Support for Children (Impact of Parental Imprisonment) (Scotland) Bill is straightforward and its suggested delivery much less controversial than what has been mooted in the past.

Under Fee’s proposal, the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1995 would be amended to place a statutory duty on the courts to order a child and family impact assessment after a sentencing decision has been handed down. The ‘after’ is key as it neutralises claims of undue influence in sentencing. Secondly, the Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland Act) 2004 would be amended to specifically recognise children affected by parental imprisonment as an at-risk group and therefore demand that educational authorities consider if a such a child requires a co-ordinated support plan.

The proposal, however, does not settle on who should actually carry out impact assessments while, from a financial point of view, it can only go so far as to say that there “may be extra costs for the education department due to an increase in the number of co-ordinated support plans developed for children of prisoners in schools”. Given that up to 27,000 children in Scotland are estimated to be affected by parental imprisonment, I cannot envisage already increasingly strained local authority education departments being happy to simply absorb any additional costs without additional resource. I’d expect that to come out in the course of the consultation which is set to run until May 7.

Politically, the timing of the Bill is rather opportune for Scottish Labour. The launch at Barnardo’s Scotland in Edinburgh saw new leader Jim Murphy front and centre, the Bill coming little more than a week on from ministers announcing a change of heart on the proposed new prison for female offenders in Inverclyde. The narrative, therefore, has been one of a refreshed opposition party leading on justice reform.

However, the Bill has been a long time in the making. When it came to my attention last May, I was told it was all but complete bar details of the financial costing being finalised. Indeed, I know that proponents of the legislation were growing increasingly frustrated over delays in bringing the proposal forward, so much so that another MSP may even have been found to front it. That of course does not take away from the intentions, though it does provide an interesting context.

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