Our Journey 2017-2018
Annual report: Children & Young People’s Commissioner Scotland
Being the Children and Young People’s Commissioner for Scotland is the best job in the world. While I was appointed by the Queen, in line with an Act of the Scottish Parliament, I take my mandate from over a million children and young people in Scotland.
This year I travelled across Scotland to meet children and young people in their communities— to ask what they wanted from their Commissioner. Not just what issues my office should focus on, but how I should spend my budget, how I should spend my time, and how I should act. I travelled all around Scotland, including to our rural communities and islands. I met children and young people of different ages, with a rich variety of experiences and views and I paid particular attention to children and young people whose rights are most at risk. What they said helped me and my office to create a revised version of our strategic plan, which sets out our aims for 2018 through 2020.
Some of the highlights of the year were events which brought children and young people together. I was privileged to attend sittings of the Scottish Youth Parliament and the Children’s Parliament. I camped under the stars with care experienced young people at the Who Cares? Scotland Summer Camp. I also co-hosted the inaugural Young People’s Human Rights Gathering in Linlithgow, West Lothian organised by my Young Advisers.
These events created spaces for young people to be themselves, to tell their stories, and to become part of a movement for change to make Scotland better for all children and young people.
Children and young people want their Commissioner to be compassionate, friendly, understanding and accessible to them. But they also want a fierce champion who will stand up for their rights – in places of power – wearing the suit, using legal language and accessing adult mechanisms of power on their behalf. In Shetland they told me to be “savage” in holding those in power to account. You will read more about our important journey to revise our strategic plan within this report.
Children and young people shared their worries about their own mental health and the mental health of friends and family, their negative experiences of accessing justice, times in which they had been treated unfairly or discriminated against, and their experiences of poverty.
Poverty is the single biggest human rights issue facing children in Scotland today. Much of it is hidden, especially in our rural and island communities, but it impacts on every area of children’s lives: their rights to education, to the best possible mental health, to rest and leisure, and to socialise and meet friends. We shouldn’t have families choosing between heating and eating. I’ve heard first-hand about children having to go to school in unclean clothes as there is no electricity, or no washing powder. I’ve heard about the pain and embarrassment of not being able to join classmates on the school trip as the price is simply out of a family’s reach. I’ve heard children – in Scotland – talk about going hungry.
I’ve written about holiday hunger – when the lack of free school meals outside term time means families can’t afford to meet their children’s basic needs – and I’ve spoken out in the media about the severity of the problem. Intrinsically connected to this is food insecurity: access to food is a basic human right. We have been working both in Scotland and with partners in the UK on collecting data on this issue so that we can press for change.
Budget considerations cannot be excuses for human rights violations, and Article 4 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) needs to be at the forefront of the minds of all decision makers. As it makes clear, Governments should use the maximum extent of their available resources to make sure children’s rights are respected, protected and fulfilled. Particularly at a time when children and young people are worried about the wider world – including the implications of Brexit – children’s rights should come first, not last.
Children and young people told me that I should work ‘to make laws fair’ for them. When I took office in May 2017, Scotland still allowed the assault of children for the purpose of punishment. We still had an age of criminal responsibility of 8 – which has been declared untenable in international law – and we still had not incorporated the UNCRC into domestic law. Unfortunately, all of these things remain true, despite some moves towards remedying them. My office will continue to advocate for changes to law that are necessary.
In order to deliver our new strategy, I have made adjustments within my office – including reorganising our teams – with the aim of ensuring that the involvement of children and young people is at the heart of all of our work. I have increased the legal expertise within the office to ensure we are better able to hold those in power to account.
During the year I worked closely with civil society partners. Scotland has a rich and vibrant civil society and a big part of my role is to support them in their work with and for children and young people. I was encouraged throughout the year by the increasing attention that public bodies are giving to the rights of children and young people. It has been a huge pleasure to work with fellow Commissioners from other parts of the UK and Ireland, and with Children’s Commissioners and Ombudspersons in Europe.
It is important that Scotland connects to the global human rights community through its networks and directly to the United Nations and the Council of Europe. My office will play an effective bridging role with the international human rights framework.
My last words in this report must be to the children and young people of Scotland. Thank you to everyone who has shared their ideas, time and experience with us. I hope to meet and talk – virtually or in person – with many more of you next year. I will continue to work on your behalf, as your Commissioner, standing as a fierce champion of your rights.
Children and Young People’s Commissioner