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11 October 1999

We must stop locking up our kids

New Statesman Scotland - Disadvantaged children are too often placed at the mercy of an unc

By Claire Walker

Did you know that in Scotland children as young as 14 can be locked up in police cells? Did you know that children can be held in prisons until a place of safety can be found? Scotland’s chief inspector of constabulary knows and he doesn’t much like it. In a recent report he criticised the high number of children held in police cells in the Lothian and Borders area. There is, it seems, a terrifying trend towards demonising young people. Clear them off the streets. Lock them up.

One of the most extreme examples was the Hamilton curfew – or Child Safety Initiative, as it officially, and rather coyly, was called – imposed in Lanarkshire. This was a supposedly brilliant idea: stop the kids hanging out on street corners. Never mind that there was nothing else for them to do. The evangelical zeal that met the introduction of the curfew in 1997 almost beggared belief. Henry McLeish, at that time a minister at the Scottish Office and now minister for enterprise and lifelong learning in the Scottish executive, welcomed it with these words: “The dusk-till-dawn scheme will mean that people in the streets who are going to create mischief will be dealt with. It is also a measure that will protect vulnerable young people. This is an interesting step forward by the Hamilton police and is something I want to encourage.”

So the police were invested with legally dubious powers to take under-16s home simply because they were on the streets after 7.30pm. What few politicians seemed to understand was that this was a matter of rights – and that children should have rights. Human rights are not something that exercise our minds often in this country; we are in the happy position of enjoying so many. But human rights are precious and must be jealously and zealously guarded.

Strathclyde’s chief constable, John Orr, likes to play fast and loose with human rights. When people voiced concerns over the curfew, saying it was a denial of children’s civil liberties, he dismissed their fears as utter rubbish. Orr boasted that the whole initiative was a success that had attracted interest at home and abroad. Funny how it subsequently just seemed to fade from the headlines, how Orr fell mysteriously silent on the issue. The fact is the curfew withered on the vine. No other police force followed Strathclyde’s draconian lead. In fact some forces take a rather more enlightened approach – for example, at the Magdalen Youth Strategy Project in Edinburgh’s inner-city estate, Craigmillar. There, the police and community workers have designed an imaginative programme for young people. They build their skills and confidence over a 14-week period, then take them away to the middle of nowhere for an adventure week. The local children are ecstatic about the scheme.

Children and young people are all our tomorrows. They should have rights. The children-should-be-seen-and-not-heard brigade are probably appalled at this radical notion, but consider this: more than a third of Scotland’s children live below the poverty line – 41 per cent of this group are under five.

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Recent surveys have revealed Scottish youth to be at the bottom of European league tables when it comes to self-esteem and expectations of life. This leaves them vulnerable to drug and alcohol abuse. We don’t have much to be proud of here.

Or do we? In one respect, Scotland leads the world. It is called the Hearing System and is designed to keep youngsters out of the courts. At its heart is the philosophy that the commission of an offence by a child under 16 should be met with a caring response, rather than punishment, just as the neglect of a child should be met with the same. It deals with all children identified as being in need of help – for whatever reason – whether an offence has been committed or not. The hearing is made up of three lay people, the Children’s Panel, who have an interest in or knowledge of the needs of children. They are recruited locally and are unpaid. Their primary concern is the needs of each individual child who appears before them. Hearings are conducted in private, so that the child can be encouraged to take part in the discussions. Having listened to the child’s story and heard reports from the child’s social worker and parent(s) where appropriate, the panel decides what – if any – form of protection, guidance, treatment or control the child needs. It is a humane, imaginative and enlightened approach. The deputy chief constable of Lothian and Borders police, Tom Wood, is a great admirer: 99 per cent of young people who go through the hearing system are kept out of the criminal justice system, he says.

Wood is unhappy that children are being held in police cells – about 50 in Lothian and Borders last year. It is the very last thing that anyone wants to do. It is a traumatic event for a child and a horrendously complex administrative task for the police officer. Wood insists that if there were more secure places for children in Scotland the problem would not arise. Locking up youngsters in cells and clearing them off the street both fly in the face of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was ratified by the UK government in 1991. Broadly, the articles of the convention allow for the participation of children in decisions made about them, their protection, the provision of services and assistance for an adequate standard of living and the prevention of harm.

What’s so scary about these? They are the measure of a mature and open society. They reflect the founding principles of the new Scottish Parliament: greater openness, responsiveness and accessibility. Children’s charities are pressing for an independent watchdog in the shape of a commissioner for children in Scotland. Such a person could fight the children’s corner using the convention as a framework, could publicly challenge the dearth of provision which leads to children being held in cells, could challenge the Hamilton curfew as being in breach of the UN convention, could influence legislation, policy and practice, would give us something besides our Hearing System to be proud of. Sweden and Norway have children’s commissioners – they have been very successful, popular with children and adults alike. The Welsh National Assembly has already endorsed the idea of a children’s commissioner for Wales.

Given this opportunity and all of this background, it is frankly astonishing to see MSPs squabbling about the rights of foxes when they should be debating children’s rights. Alison Davies, chair of the Alliance for Children’s Rights, puts it neatly: “I don’t think there’s been a better time to take this forward.” She is right. What are we waiting for?

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