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by Margaret Taylor
07 December 2023
Children's rights bill passes for a second time after years of political wrangling

The UNCRC Bill aims to ensure all children can achieve their full potential | Alamy

Children's rights bill passes for a second time after years of political wrangling

MSPs have given their backing to amended legislation on children’s human rights more than two years after an original bill was ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court.

The Scottish Parliament originally voted to incorporate the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) into domestic law in March 2021, but the UK Government referred it to the Supreme Court over concerns that certain provisions fell outside the scope of devolved powers.

In October of that year the court ruled that certain aspects of the UNCRC Bill, which set out specific rights around ensuring children can fulfil their potential, such as the right to health and education, would make it possible for UK laws to be challenged in the courts, essentially modifying the Scotland Act.

The bill, which was brought back to Holyrood in June, was amended to state that public authorities will be required to comply with the UNCRC requirements only when delivering devolved functions conferred by or under acts of the Scottish Parliament or under common law powers.

Juliet Harris, director of Together Scotland, an alliance of children’s charities, welcomed the passage of the bill, saying it was the result of “over a decade of dedicated campaigning by children, young people, Together's membership, and wider civil society”.

“While marking the end of one journey, it signals the beginning of the next, with much work ahead to ensure it fully realises its potential and delivers the revolution in children's rights that children and young people have been promised,” she said.

“As we celebrate, we continue to urge the Scottish Government to follow through with a clear timetable for legislative review, seize opportunities to expand the scope of the bill, and continue funding the UNCRC Implementation Programme.

“The UNCRC Bill signifies legal change, but its true power lies as a catalyst for cultural change. At this next stage in our journey, we must ensure that children and young people are at the heart of everything we do to make this culture change a reality for this generation and generations to come.”

Similarly, Fiona Steel, national director for Scotland at Action for Children, called the passage of the bill a “momentous step” but said the rights enshrined in it must now become a reality.

“Action for Children believe this bill will give children and young people the confidence of knowing their rights are protected not just by warm words but by the strength of law,” she said.

“After years of work it’s great to secure further certainty for the sector on the children’s rights obligations of national government and local authorities as well as public bodies.

“From this point our focus will be on working collaboratively with our local services in almost every local authority in Scotland to identify, reflect and act on how we and government can ensure every single right is made a reality.”

Welcoming the bill’s passage, Social Justice Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville said it was “deeply disappointing” that the original scope of the legislation had had to be altered.

“This bill is an important milestone in ensuring that children’s rights are respected, protected and fulfilled under Scots law,” she said.

“Although Scotland will become the first devolved nation in the world to incorporate the convention into domestic law, we are limited in what we can achieve because of the nature of the devolution settlement.

“We’ve had to limit the scope of this bill because of legal action taken by the UK Government. That is deeply disappointing.

“So, while this bill is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, it remains the case that the only way to protect children’s rights in the delivery of all public services in Scotland is for the UK Government to fully implement UNCRC.

“Unfortunately for Scotland’s children and young people, they remain firmly opposed to such action.”

Pointing to the long delay between the orignal bill being passed and amended legislation being brought forward, Scottish Labour children and young people spokesperson Martin Whitfield called on the SNP government to expedite the implementation of the legislation, noting it had been further delayed by “bickering” between the governments at Holyrood and Westminster in the wake of the Supreme Court case.

"This vote is a significant step forward in enshrining children's rights in Scots law, but it is shameful that it has been held back by years of constitutional bickering by our two governments,” he said.

“While celebrating this landmark moment, we still need assurances that children's rights will be swiftly integrated throughout Scotland's legal system without further delay.

“The Scottish Government must provide a transparent and detailed timeline for legislative review of the bill and a firm commitment to continue to funding of the UNCRC Implementation Programme.

“The SNP must expedite the implementation process, prioritise children's rights, and provide a robust framework that safeguards and champions the wellbeing of Scotland's young people."

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