Holyrood committee calls for scope of UNCRC bill to be widened
A new bill which would allow children to take public bodies to court for breaches of their rights by incorporating the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) into Scots law should be extended to include private sector and voluntary organisations who deliver public services, according to MSPs.
The Scottish Parliament’s Equalities and Human Rights Committee said it supports the general principles of the proposed legislation, but called for the definition of public authorities to be widened to ensure organisations such as private schools and private housing, residential care and childcare providers are not excluded from the legal obligations in the UNCRC.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill legally obliges public authorities – including Scottish ministers – to respect children and young people’s rights, placing them under a duty not to act incompatibly with the UN Convention.
In its stage one report, the committee recommended that the Scottish government consult the main stakeholders to investigate how the definition of a so-called “hybrid public authority” could be tightened to avoid similar issues arising as those experienced with the Human Rights Act 1998, where courts have defined the term narrowly and exempted private or voluntary bodies which carry out public functions.
Under the bill, children and representatives acting on their behalf will be able to challenge public authorities in court for infringing their rights, and the new legislation will allow the courts to strike down legislation that is incompatible with any UNCRC requirements.
However, submissions to the committee raised concerns about the accessibility of the existing courts and tribunals service to children, and the report called on the Lord President to reflect on this evidence and to provide an update on progress being made towards developing a “child-friendly” court system in preparation for the new legislation.
MSPs also urged the Scottish government to amend the bill so that courts and tribunals “must”, rather than “may”, take into account the whole of the text of the UNCRC and the first two optional protocols when determining a case, and to require courts and tribunals to ask for the child’s views on what would constitute an “effective remedy” in their case.
The committee’s report further recommended that the Scottish government amends the commencement provision at stage 2 to ensure the bill comes into effect six months after Royal Assent.
The bill also imposes a requirement on Scottish ministers to make a children’s rights scheme to set out how they will comply with the duties in the UN Convention, but MSPs want the scheme strengthened to include measures to support children with protected characteristics and vulnerable groups, access to advocacy, legal aid, human rights education and a child-friendly complaints mechanism.
Committee convener Ruth Maguire MSP said: “This is a landmark piece of legislation which has the potential to put children’s rights at the heart of public authority decision-making. However, we believe – as the evidence to the committee has shown – that there are areas where the bill can be improved.
“The committee’s report calls on the Scottish government to explore how the definition of a public authority can be amended at stage two to include those private sector organisations which provide public services, in accordance with the spirit and intention of the bill.
“We also make recommendations aimed at improving access to justice for children and young people and ensuring judicial remedies for infringements of children’s rights are effective in practice.
“It is vital that children have their rights protected, respected and fulfilled as a matter of urgency, which is why we have urged the Scottish government to amend the commencement provision to ensure this legislation come into effect six months after the bill receives Royal Assent.”