Scotland to be 'named and shamed' by UN over child welfare failures

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SCOTLAND will be "named and shamed" in a damning report to a United Nations watchdog for its failure to improve child welfare and tackle teenage pregnancies – five years after it was warned to make urgent improvements.

In a leaked report seen by The Scotsman, campaigners highlight failures on a range of issues including poverty, physical punishment, youth justice and the sexual exploitation of children.

Government ministers face a detailed "report card" from the Scottish Alliance for Children's Rights (SACR), which will give evidence to a powerful UN committee in Geneva later this year.

Charities fear Scotland will be disgraced on the world stage for its lack of progress and ministers will be brought to account for breaching the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The report is particularly critical of the slow progress made on the problem of teenage pregnancies in Scotland.

Figures show the number of pregnancies per 1,000 girls aged 15 to 19 rose from 55.6 in 2004 to 56.7 last year.

According to the report by SACR, the Scottish Government is unlikely to meet its target for cutting accidental conceptions in school-aged girls in poorer communities. "The teaching of sexual health education varies greatly in schools and is sometimes dependent on the attitude of teachers or parents," says the report.

The Scottish Government confirmed yesterday that, if current trends continue, it will not meet the target of reducing the teenage pregnancy rate for under-16s in the most deprived areas by 33 per cent, from 10.2 in 2000-2 to 6.8 in 2007-9.

Nearly one in four children in Scotland is officially recognised as poor, and SACR is demanding a plan to wipe out child poverty as an "urgent priority", including a commitment to the UK target of halving child poverty by 2010.

The report states it is almost impossible to ascertain if ministers have taken "all necessary measures" to eliminate child poverty as the government does not collate spending data in a way that can be properly monitored.

Douglas Hamilton, the chairman of SACR, said:

"There are too many children living in poverty … too many looked-after children (those in care] do not receive adequate care and support."

The UN is also particularly concerned that the age of criminal responsibility – eight – is too low. This is two years younger than the rest of the UK. In Canada it is 12, 13 in France and 14 in Germany.

Fiona Hyslop, the education and lifelong learning secretary, said the government would consider the report.

KEY AREAS WHERE WE'RE GOING WRONG

TRAFFICKING

The report raises concerns about the lack of skills among front-line professionals regarding the identification of child victims of trafficking, a lack of safe accommodation and a lack of specialist services to meet their needs.

The recording and monitoring of trafficked children is also inadequate and it is claimed some of these children go missing from local authority care.

Campaigners are calling on the Scottish Government to develop appropriate mechanisms and ensure high-quality training of professionals for the identification and support of child victims of trafficking.

They say that the UK government must fully resource its anti-trafficking action plan and ensure that all child victims of trafficking are protected in line with the standards of international human rights.

CRIME

Since 2002, the UK and Scottish governments have made it clear they have no plans to raise the age of criminal responsibility – in Scotland it is currently eight years old.

SACR argues that the minimum age of criminal responsibility in Scotland should be raised considerably and no child under the age of 18 should be tried as an adult, irrespective of the gravity of the offence.

The report states that those children under 18 should be placed in a specialised secure unit with staff trained to address mental health issues and the specific needs of vulnerable children. In 2004-5, a total of 7,652 peoples aged under 18 (including 123 under 16) were convicted in Scottish courts. Of these, a total of 749 cases resulted in custodial sentences, including 20 for people under the age of 16.

SMACKING

Currently in Scotland, the law does not give children the same protection from assault as it gives to adults.

The Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 2003 provides for a defence of "justifiable assault" on children by adults, if such an assault can be deemed to be "reasonable chastisement".

In 2002, the UN recommended a ban on smacking, describing it as "a serious violation of the dignity of the child". In the past few years courts have acquitted parents who have admitted using canes, belts and electric flexes to beat their children.

The Scottish Executive stopped short of an outright ban on smacking in 2003, leaving ministers at odds with the UN and a number of European countries.

The SACR report urges a change in the law to make any form of violence against a person under 18 a criminal offence.

IN CARE

The plight of "looked-after children" – those in local authority care – is a central concern. According to the report, these children continue to be one of the most marginalised groups in Scotland. Many of them have suffered from poverty and deprivation as well as the effects of drug and alcohol use, neglect and abuse.

Poor educational achievement, health problems and mental illness disproportionately affect this group.

The report demands a national strategy for looked-after children, including improved training for foster carers and residential child care workers and more resources. On the issue of mental health, there are concerns about shortages of child psychologists and adolescent counselling services, and the fact that many children have difficulties in accessing services, particularly in rural areas.

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