The children’s hearings system was a revolutionary step which put Scotland in the vanguard of social welfare 40 years ago. The underlying principle – that children who commit offences are usually more in need of care, protection and family support than punishment – has since been adopted by a number of other countries and adapted to suit their needs.
With the reform of local government in 1996, the regional children’s panels were replaced by a separate panel and supporting administration for each of the 32 councils.
Reforms in the draft Children’s Hearings Bill due to go before the Scottish parliament in the autumn are intended to streamline system under a single tribunal, designed not only to reduce administrative duplication but also to improve consistency in the recruitment and training of panel members.
At a time when council budgets are under severe pressure, the savings potential of sharing administration ought to be explored. Some panel members are concerned, however, that the tribunal, which will oversee area support teams, will add rather than reduce bureaucracy.
A detailed breakdown of the proposed structure and costs is required. Consistency in training for panel members throughout the country is essential in providing a fair service for all, and at present not all areas offer the same training opportunities.
However, it is equally important that the fundamental principle that the children’s panel consists of people from the community whose decisions are informed by their local knowledge should not be lost in the process.
Hearings make decisions about children (such as whether they should be taken into care) which affect the rest of their lives and change should be focused on delivering higher standards of knowledge and decision-making.
There are more than 2500 panel members in Scotland selected from those who respond to an annual appeal.
Their commitment to the system is demonstrated by their willingness to follow their initial rigorous training with continuous updating. That up to half are considering resigning in protest at the changes contained in the draft bill is evidence that something is seriously wrong.
That appears to be the case both with the content of the bill and the way change is being effected. One concern is that greater separation between the children’s panel reporter and the panel members will be achieved by statutory instrument and therefore without debate.
With the bill to go before parliament, excluding some areas from the process of parliamentary scrutiny adds credibility to the charges of failure to listen to the concerns of panel members.
Most fundamental of all, however, is concern that the panel will be expected to engage in a more adversarial approach at the expense of one focused on welfare to protect the civil rights of parents.
The vast majority of referrals to hearings are on grounds of care and protection rather because an offence has been committed and the focus on the welfare of the child rather than on blame has been a major strength. There is no doubt that the challenges facing families are very different from 40 years ago and the draft bill is intended to update the legislation for the 21st century.
To risk losing the central focus on the protection of the child, however, would be to turn the clock back, unforgivably, to the dark ages.