13 November 2018

S5M-14704 Age of Criminal Responsibility (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh): The next item of business is a stage 1 debate on motion S5M-14704, in the name of Maree Todd, on the Age of Criminal Responsibility (Scotland) Bill.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

My arithmetic says that I have about 17 minutes, Presiding Officer, but I am sure that you will haul me up at the appropriate point.

It is as well to think about how children develop. I am not a dad, so I have not personally been through this, but psychologists give us a guideline. Before coming to that, I will mention a GIRFEC conference at which I spoke on behalf of the then Minister for Children and Early Years, Adam Ingram, as he was not at the right location. Immediately before I spoke, a wonderful film of a one-hour-old child was shown. Music was being played to the child, who waved its arms in time to the beat. When the music stopped, the child stopped waving its arms; when the music started again, it waved its arms. In other words, children start to interact with their environment from the very point of birth—perhaps even before. Psychologists say that in the first year we recognise human faces; in year three, we start to acknowledge the past to interpret present events; at year seven, we start to tell jokes—some people have not moved on from that stage—and at 11, we start to be more conscious of our moral code. However, our personal development is varied and it is unique to us.

Children who have been raised in less than ideal conditions—as a result of poverty, missing parents or other circumstances—may well have developed at a much slower rate. I agree with members in many parts of the chamber who have said that, whatever their maturity, prison is no place for a child. That is why our children’s hearings system is a beacon to the world as to how we should treat those who are in difficulties. As an MSP, I have had the great privilege of being able to sit in on a children’s hearing; I cannot of course tell members anything about the detail of what went on, but the key point is that it was child centred. That is absolutely correct and members would need to work very hard to persuade me otherwise.

We have talked a lot about numbers during the debate. People might think that one plus one equals two, but as a mathematician I can say that there are five alternative answers in the one-plus-one philosophy. If time permits, I will explain what they are at the end of my speech. Just as in mathematics, so in this debate.

Margaret Mitchell very usefully gave us quite a long and interesting list of rights that people acquire at the age of 12—I certainly heard things of which I had not been aware. There is a series of ages at which people are allowed to do certain things. It is worth saying that someone can get a firearms certificate at the age of 14. Someone can get a shotgun certificate at any age—there is no age qualification, but someone under the age of 15 is required to be supervised with a shotgun when they are exercising their rights. Someone can fly an aircraft at the age of 14, and someone can drive on a public highway in a car at the age of 17.

Alex Cole-Hamilton: The member is describing the range of ages for different activities, the majority of which relate to physical limitations or physical capacities. Does he recognise that the chamber only very recently extended the franchise to 16-year-olds? We have credited 16-year-olds with sufficient judgment to decide on the right Government for them. Should we not be raising the age of criminal responsibility further? If we recognise that people have the capacity to have political judgment only at 16, what does that say about their actions and their ability to tell right from wrong at the ages preceding 16?

Stewart Stevenson: The member makes a good point, which I will simply pass on. I will say that the bill makes interesting comments at sections 39 and 43, when it refers to taking account

“of the child’s age and maturity”.

That makes an important point. I stopped growing when I was 12 years old because I was given a hormone treatment for a particular condition that I have, although the treatment did not help the condition. Children mature physically and mentally at varying rates. Whatever we do, we need to take account of that, and I am pleased that the bill provides for that at different points.

I am also pleased about something rather obvious: the Justice Committee is not the lead committee for the bill. It could have been, if we think about it, and there are references to the Justice Committee’s activities, but the lead committee is the Equalities and Human Rights Committee. That is entirely appropriate.

With regard to age, we are adults at 18 for most purposes but not all, because sometimes the age is 21. There is no age restriction on opening a bank account; someone can open one as soon as they can sign anything. However, they cannot have bank credit until they are 18.

There is a wee issue with the bill in that there is an assumption that there is certainty about when people are 12. Bashir Ahmad, our late member and friend in this chamber, did not know when his birthday was. Many people who come to Scotland from other jurisdictions are in the same position. He was given a birthday by the legal system—if someone looks up the records, they will see something there—but there was no certainty about it. Apparently, when asked when he was born, his mother said, “Spring.” That was all that there was to know. In a number of parts of the bill—possibly at section 23, for example—we might say that a constable “reasonably believes” somebody to be under 12, because there cannot always be certainty.

I turn to the detail in the bill—I am alert to the Presiding Officer’s guidance that I should head towards a conclusion. There are a couple of wee things. I make my usual comment: section 28(7) says that the definition of “‘vehicle’ includes a vessel”—in that case, it should include aircraft, too, although it might be ultra vires to do so; I am not entirely certain about that.

We have heard about a child’s right to refuse to answer questions. I see that that is covered at section 46(2) and section 42, so I am not quite clear on what more we might have to do.

I conclude with the committee’s report, on which I congratulate it, and come back to the question of what a place of safety is. In coming to a conclusion on that, it might be helpful to document, or to see a document about, where there are places of safety across Scotland so that we can assess whether there are enough of them.

Presiding Officer, I am obliged to you for your indulgence.


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