The Scottish Government says the legislation will see Scotland lead the way in the UK in terms of ending the treatment of children under the age of 12 as criminals when an offence is committed. The age of criminal responsibility (ACR) in the rest of the UK is ten years.
But an attempt to have the ACR raised to 14, by Scottish Liberal Democrat Alex Cole-Hamilton, was resoundingly defeated.
In a furious speech he said: “Without increasing the age of criminal responsibility to 14 or still higher now, the bill does not just set the face of this government and Parliament against the rights of children, it fatally undermines any claim that we have as a human rights leader on the world stage.”
He added: “We decry human rights abuses in countries like China and Russia but both have an ACR higher still than we will achieve in the passage of this bill today – and you cannot lead the world on human rights from the back of the pack.”
While he ultimately said he would back the bill because the current ACR of eight years “is frankly mediaeval”, he added the unamended bill “is an embarrassment and I cannot celebrate its passing”.
At present, although children under 12 cannot be prosecuted in court, they can be referred to the children’s hearings system on the basis they have committed an offence. Under current legislation, this means they can gain a criminal record which can compromise childhoods and limit opportunities and life chances in adulthood, particularly around employment.
The Children and Young People’s Commissioner for Scotland, Bruce Adamson, has also said the government needed to raise the age further than 12 and pointed to “unprecedented interventions from the United Nations and the Council of Europe” during the passage of the Age of Criminal Responsibility (Scotland) Bill in Holyrood.
Earlier this week Maree Todd, the minister for children and young people, announced the establishment of a new advisory group to take forward review of the legislation, including whether the ACR should be raised higher than 12.
But yesterday Mr Cole-Hamilton said that the government had set Scotland “on a par with the four most socially conservative countries in all of Europe” and made “a mockery out of our aspirations to human rights leadership internationally.”
He said he had avoided a recent event to celebrate the Year of Young People because he “could not stomach it”.
“I could not bear to listen to the minister speaking of her love, and the love of her government, for the children and young people of this country and their achievements, when with this bill we’re saying to the young people in Scotland ‘this country will love you until you break the law at which point that love ends’ so I will remind the minister and her government of this day and this craven piece of legislation.
“And every time it claims to stand up for children, or for human rights; every sugar-coated motion it seeks to bring to this chamber and every saccharine policy announcement it uses to promote the image of its commitment to the rights and interests of Scotland’s children, I will remind her and her government of this day.”
But Ms Todd said the bill was “landmark, groundbreaking legislation” and added: “No child under the age of 12 in Scotland will ever again be arrested or charged, be treated as an offender or have any childhood conviction follow them through life. I will move as soon as possible to start making a difference to children’s lives. We will also make sure we recognise and respond to victims’ needs whilst reforming the hearings system.”