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Scotland incorporates the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into law – let’s celebrate the past, present and future!

*Please see the update at the bottom of this article for details of the UK Government challenge*

Present

In a historic step that will inspire children’s human rights defenders across the world, the Scottish Parliament has passed a Bill that will incorporate the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) into Scots law.

The UNCRC includes lots of rights for children that ensure they are able to thrive, reach their full potential and have their voices heard. The UK has been signatory to the UNCRC since 1991, but without incorporation the rights remain guiding rather than binding in law.

Passing this legislation means all areas of government – including schools, hospitals, policing and transport – will have to do everything possible to embed children’s rights into everything they do. In the most serious of cases, if children’s UNCRC rights are breached, children will be able to complain to the courts. 

Together and our members have been campaigning for this change alongside children and young people and wider civil society for over a decade.  In this blog, we’ll tell you more about how this hard work has got us here.

Past

The UK ratified the UNCRC over thirty years ago – back in 1991.  Some efforts were made in Scotland and the wider UK to bring children’s rights into law, but this was only on a piecemeal basis, meaning that there is only a patchwork of protection for children and young people.

Since ratification, Together (Scottish Alliance for Children’s Rights), the Children’s Parliament, Scottish Youth Parliament, Children and Young People’s Commissioner for Scotland and more have been set up to empower children and young people to get their voices heard.  

In 2008, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (‘UN Committee’) made a recommendation to make children’s rights binding in law through UNCRC incorporation. Although the Scottish Government spoke about its ambition for Scotland to become “the best place in the world for a child to grow up” it didn’t commit to incorporation.

Children and young people, and civil society continued to call for more to be done to put children’s human rights into law. In a Scottish Government consultation on a new children’s bill, there were strong calls from children, young people, Together members and public bodies for UNCRC incorporation.  The Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 answered some of these calls by creating new powers for the Children’s Commissioner and extra reporting duties on rights holders – but it fell short of fully incorporating the UNCRC into Scots law.

In 2015, Amal Aldoseri, the Vice-Chair of the UN Committee visited Scotland and members of the Scottish Youth Parliament took her to speak with children and young people from across Together’s membership. They highlighted children’s rights issues across Scotland, later travelling to Geneva to give evidence to the UN Committee. The subsequent recommendations revealed gaps in recognising children’s human rights, including the need for UNCRC incorporation.

Following this, the Scottish Parliament’s  Equalities and Human Rights Committee specifically called for UNCRC incorporation, a call that was strongly echoed by the Scottish Youth Parliament’s Right Here, Right Now campaign. 

As a result, during 2018 – the Year of Young People,  the Scottish Government committed to incorporating the principles of the UNCRC into Scots law.  At the UN Committee’s Day of General Discussion in Geneva on children as human rights defenders, children and young people from the Children’s Parliament, Scottish Youth Parliament and Who Cares? Scotland shared their views about the importance of incorporation. The Minister for Children and Young People met lots of international experts who spoke to her about the power of incorporation and the importance of listening to children and young people. 

Later that autumn, Together worked alongside the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland to set up a group of independent experts to draft a model “Children’s Rights (Scotland) Bill” demonstrating how the UNCRC could be incorporated into Scots law which was presented to the Deputy First Minister.

In 2019, Scottish Government said that its plan was to incorporate the UNCRC before early 2021. This followed on from a number of welcome developments, including legislation to give children equal protection from assault and to raise the age of criminal responsibility in addition to a consultation on how best to incorporate the UNCRC.

On the 30th anniversary of the UNCRC, the Scottish Government announced that incorporation would be “full and direct” in as far as the powers of the Scottish Parliament would allow.  Seeking to do this, they introduced the UNCRC Incorporation (Scotland) Bill—this is what MSPs will vote on today!

In passing this bill, the Scottish Parliament is making a promise to children and young people that their human rights will be at the heart of every decision Scotland makes.  This historic moment deserves to be widely celebrated by the countless children, young people and charities across Together’s membership who have worked so hard over the past decade to make this happen.  From the environment to public transport, policing to public health, this new law will be a significant step forward in ensuring Scotland is a great place to grow up – for this and future generations of children and young people. 

Future

The hard work does not stop there!  The new law will start six months after it gets Royal Assent from the Queen.  Together and our membership must continue to work hard to make sure that the new law has the impact in children and young people’s lives that we all want to see, and that there is a culture change through which children rights are recognised and realised across all areas of their lives.

**UPDATE 13TH APRIL 2021**

The UK Government has decided to refer the UNCRC (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill to the UK Supreme Court. The UK Government is concerned that parts of the Bill may go beyond the powers of the Scottish Parliament. This is a technical matter relating to constitutional law – it does not relate to the policy intention behind the Bill. In an earlier letter, the UK Government was clear that protecting vulnerable children and protecting children’s rights is a shared priority. We await the decision of the Supreme Court and will update our members with developments. Meanwhile, Together will continue to support full implementation of children’s human rights in line with the UK’s existing obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

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