How fate of these children proves Scotland is not a meritocracy – Richard Leonard

The Independent Care Review’s report into the experiences of children in care demands real action on a cross-party basis, writes Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard.

Reforming the care system is quite literally a matter of life and death, says Richard Leonard (Picture: John Devlin)

The great Scottish Socialist and Red Clydesider Tom Johnston once declared: “It is an abiding and indisputable truth that a people which does not understand the past will never comprehend the present nor mould the future.”

This is precisely the “truth” which a group of care-experienced young people I met last week have arrived at.

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Last Friday was Care Day, a day dedicated to celebrating care-experienced people and promoting awareness of the problems they face. I spent time at the Glasgow offices of Who Cares? Scotland listening to the staff, board members, and to the testimony of volunteers, advocates and the voices of young people still in care. Many of them I had met a year before along with Jeremy Corbyn.

It was on a visit to Scotland last November, during the General Election campaign, that Jeremy Corbyn was accosted by a Church of Scotland minister who suggested he would be wearing a “Jihadi scarf”. He was, in fact, wearing a tartan scarf given to him at that meeting back in February with Who Cares? Scotland. At the time, the charity’s chief executive Duncan Dunlop expressed his gratitude that Jeremy was using the attention to speak up for young people with experience of the care system. “Our view is that, whilst the current political climate feels divided, the issues facing care-experienced people are the responsibility of every elected member to change,” he said.

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On Friday afternoon those young people I met made it clear that they view the campaign for radical reform of the care system as a campaign of liberation. And that for that reform to be effective demands an understanding of the history of care, and so an awakening of understanding. So much so that, later this year, they plan to institute the first care experience history month, with a distinctive arts and cultural dimension. The history of children in care is not so much hidden from history, but deliberately buried by its authors.

Care-experienced people face a variety of challenges in life. Too many do not have the familial support networks that most of us take for granted. Seventy per cent of brothers and sisters are separated by the care system. Unfortunately, there still exists a stigma around the care system, a stigma that makes it harder for care-experienced people to thrive both in their working as well as their personal lives. The idea that we live in a meritocracy is bogus.

Perhaps most disturbing of all is the epidemic of mental health problems among care-experienced people. Listening to the honest and often heart-wrenching testimony of people who have experienced this at first hand, it became clear. Change must come, not in months and years, but now, with renewed urgency. Delay is quite literally a matter of life and death. The people I met on Friday reminded me, as they always do when we meet, that they don’t want to be another statistic. It is our duty to make sure that they are not.

The history of the Labour movement is a proud one of support for liberation movements. The liberal values our society holds today did not develop overnight but were forged in the struggles waged by liberation groups for equal rights and dignity. This was the case for the original women’s movement in the Edwardian era which shook patriarchal society to its foundations and eventually won the franchise for all women. This was the case for the LGBT and anti-racist liberation movements of the 1970s and 1980s which challenged bigotry head-on and in so doing helped to build the more tolerant and respectful society we now have. But every generation has to keep waging the same battles over and over again, as Tony Benn observed “there is no final victory and no final defeat”.

Care-experienced people are in many ways an oppressed group. What is needed is not slow, piecemeal reform but real and radical change. A dream deferred is a dream denied. That is why we must all come together to fight for the rights of care-experienced people. But policy alone, and rights on paper are worth nothing without there being a mechanism to ensure they are upheld and, where necessary, enforced. Which is why as part of this campaign, there is a central demand for an independent advocacy service.

In 2017 the Independent Care Review was established. It is an independent root-and-branch review of the care system in Scotland which seeks to examine the culture, ethos, legislation and practice of the care system to ensure, in the words of care-experienced people, “we grow up loved, safe, and respected so that we realise our full potential”.

Last month, the review’s report, “The Promise”, was published.

The ambitions and values outlined in the report command widespread support – important when what is needed more than ever is cross-party co-operation and consensus. This is not a matter of right and left, but of right and wrong.

But it also demands a serious action plan and serious funding support to go with it, starting with the forthcoming Scottish Budget. More than just the promise of a policy shift is needed, a whole cultural revolution in the care system with steps setting out how that will be achieved is necessary. Otherwise the promise is in danger of being a hollow one.

The Independent Care Review must be the catalyst which sparks that revolution and the reconstruction of care. But the best guarantors of change are those people with care experience themselves. They will be the agents of change. So they must be in the driving seat. Who Cares? will continue to provide practical individual support and advocacy, but its role in providing a collective voice in the public and political realm is of equal value. The Scottish Government and Parliament has a duty to respond, but so do we as a society. That is another abiding and indisputable truth.

Richard Leonard is leader of the Scottish Labour party and an MSP for Central Scotland