The Scottish Government Passes Children’s Bill

On the 19th February 2014 the Scottish Parliament passed the Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill with 103 MSPs voting for it and with 15 abstentions. The aim of the Bill is to “transform” services. There are increased provisions for free childcare with three, four and vulnerable two- year- olds getting around 16 hours free care per week as from August 2014. The Bill also encompasses free school meals to all children in the first three years of primary school as from January 2015. Further the Bill lays out a plan to help young people in care, meaning that teenagers in residential, foster or kinship care would have the right to continue to be looked after until the age of 21. The appointment of a “guardian” for every child in Scotland also forms part of the Bill. This proposal is to nominate specific named persons from the NHS and councils to monitor every young person’s well-being from birth to eighteen.

Although the Bill has been passed it has not been without opposition. The Faculty of Advocates  previously issued advice to the Scottish Government when the Bill was going through the consultation stage ,saying that they believed  the Government was going too far with the new Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill. The plan that there should be an individual appointed (known as a “named person”) who is there to look out for all children generally, as opposed to only those who would appear to need looking out for, has come under criticism that it interferes with family life and could be in conflict with the European Convention on Human Rights.

In terms of the Children Scotland Act 1995, section 1(1) a child’s parents are the persons principally responsible for carrying out the functions mentioned in clause 19 of the new Bill, which include safeguarding and promoting a child’s health development and welfare and with offering direction and guidance. In the first instance it is the responsibility of a parent to seek assistance if this is required by their child. The Faculty of Advocates therefore argued that this part of the Bill could possibly dilute the legal role of parents, whether or not there is any difficulty in the way that parents are fulfilling their statutory responsibilities. It would appear to undermine family autonomy and therefore potentially result in interference with private and family life in a way that could violate article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

At worst the Bill seems to imply that parents are not the people ideally placed to decide what is best for their children and when they may be at risk. Given that the number of parents who abuse or neglect their children is thankfully a minority, it would seem that the Bill is trying to use a sledgehammer to crack a nut. While some may say that parents who have nothing to hide should have nothing to fear, should we be interfering in family life to that extent? Could it just be the thin edge of the wedge that causes even more “Big Brother” legislation? And is it in fact legitimate or could it be in breach of our commitment to the ECHR? The Faculty of Advocates made their concerns clear but the controversial legislation has been voted through in spite of these doubts.

Minimum Alcohol Pricing – The best way forward?

The question of minimum alcohol pricing continues to cause anger, debate and conjecture ahead of the Scottish Government’s plans to introduce the legislation which could be in place as early as 1 April 2014. Health secretary Nicola Sturgeon is relentless in her views that something has to be done about Scotland’s “booze culture” and believes minimum pricing may be the way forward in dealing with spiralling social depravation and most importantly from the Government’s perspective, the colossal £110 million NHS bill due to excessive alcohol consumption. From a pragmatic standpoint the upshot of minimum alcohol pricing would mean a typical bottle of wine would cost just under £4.70 with the cost of a bottle of whisky increasing to £14.

While I remain highly sceptical of the proposals, it is clear to see that the problem has to be tackled. Scotland is the UK’s “booze” capital and binge drinking isn’t just a small problem, it’s worryingly a way of life for some of our young teenagers. If the culture remains the same then the figures from the Government are only going to get worse and our reputation as a nation will continue to be slowly clouded by overindulgence in alcohol. Like many, I personally enjoy a few drinks at the weekend – I think this is a natural social leisure time activity and when done in moderation is good to keep our Scots “spirits” high.

So is minimum pricing the best answer to tip the balance from excess to moderation? The truth is I don’t know and I can’t make a convincing case either way. The cynic in me believes that it won’t work.  In 2003 the average price of a pint of beer cost around £2.10. Dramatic inflation and tax rises mean that the same pint of beer on average now costs £3.24. While statistics show a small decline in the number of pints consumed between those dates, a massive 54% increase in the cost hasn’t deterred too many people and I fear it will be the same outcome if this legislation comes into force next year

Without doubt it’s encouraging to see the Government trying to act. Even though it will hit me personally in the pocket, I am happy to support the cause and hope that my doubts are unfounded.