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STRENGTHENING FOR THE FUTURE - a CONSULTATION ON THE REFORM OF THE CHILDREN'S HEARINGS SYSTEM

The UNISON Scotland Submission to the Scottish Government's consultation Strengthening for the Future - a Consultation on the Reform of the Children's Hearings System

October 2008

Executive Summary

  • The Scottish Children's Reporters' Branch (SCRA) of UNISON has already submitted a response to this Consultation on the Reform of the Children's Hearings System and UNISON Scotland welcomes the opportunity to support that submission, albeit with a small number of clarifications to the Branch submission.

  • UNISONScotland welcomes the objectives of this consultation to improve the life chances and outcomes for children. However, we have to agree with the Branch, that the proposals outlined will fail to deliver these objectives and will worsen outcomes for children.

  • With regard to legal representation, we believe that the further consideration of this matter should include an assessment of the benefits to be gained by appointing children's advocates or children's rights officers for use in circumstances other than that of offence grounds. In addition, we strongly believe that the right of a child to have a friend or representative of their choice should be retained.

  • With regard to withholding information provided by the child, it is the opinion of many of our members working with children prior to hearings taking place, that disclosing information to parents and others could place children at risk, especially in abuse cases. We accept that this could lead to challenges to hearing decisions, but believe that the rights of the child outweigh all others and for this reason support the proposals outlined in the consultation.

  • With regard to streamlining the grounds of referral, we are aware that the establishment of grounds of referral is something which will affect a child throughout his or her lifetime and that legal safeguards must not be overturned for the sake of presumed convenience. We believe, as our SCRA Branch does, that there is a need to streamline the procedures, but not shortcut the legal safeguards.

  • UNISON supports the proposal to bring forward a provision in the draft legislation to allow children a fettered right of access to reports.

  • One of the key barriers to the effectiveness of the Children's Hearing System, and one of the major frustrations for social work and other Local Authority staff as well as for panel members, is the lack of resources of all kinds to meet the needs of children.

  • We strongly believe that whatever system is eventually arrived at for the Children's Hearings system, adequate resources and training must be made available to ensure that the new system works effectively.

Introduction

UNISON is Scotland's largest trade union representing over 160,000 members working in the public sector, many of whom work with children. We represent many social workers, who perform a wide range of duties in Children and Family services as well as members working for the Scottish Children's Reporters Association.

The Scottish Children's Reporters' Branch (SCRA) of UNISON has already submitted a response to this Consultation on the Reform of the Children's Hearings System and UNISON Scotland welcomes the opportunity to support that submission, albeit with a small number of clarifications to the Branch submission.

General Comments

Along with the Branch, UNISON welcomes the objectives of this consultation to improve the life chances and outcomes for children. However, we have to agree with them, that the proposals outlined will fail to deliver these objectives and will worsen outcomes for children.

Most of the comments in this submission relate to Part 2 of the consultation, but we would reiterate some of the comments made in our response to the Draft Children's Services (Scotland) Bill, which in the main relate to resources.

UNISON believes that the single biggest hindrance to children and their families receiving the services they need, when they need them, is a lack of resources. This is especially true at the early intervention stage. Early intervention on an integrated joint-agency basis has been shown to be the best way to effect change and to improve the well-being and potential of children. This is also backed up by the fact that most children who are referred to the Reporter on offence grounds have previously been referred on care grounds.

One of the key barriers to the effectiveness of the Children's Hearing System, and one of the major frustrations for social work and other Local Authority staff as well as for panel members, is the lack of resources of all kinds to meet the needs of children.

Unfortunately, when resources are mismatched with need, priorities dictate that they are directed towards offending behaviour, often the result of a lack of early intervention, rather than at early intervention itself. This further compounds the situation.

We would further add that whatever system is eventually arrived at for the Children's Hearings system, that adequate resources and training must be made available to ensure that the new system works effectively.

Part 2: POLICY AND LEGISLATIVE CHANGES

Legal Representation

UNISON does believe that legal representation is necessary in certain circumstances, especially where children are being presented with offence grounds. We are pleased that our comments in our response to the Draft Children's Services Bill have been taken into account and that the Scottish Government has recognised that the nature of the legal representative's role at children's hearings is different to that which prevails in a court.

We believe that the further consideration of this matter should include an assessment of the benefits to be gained by appointing children's advocates or children's rights officers for use in other circumstances. In addition, we strongly believe that the right of a child to have a friend or representative of their choice should be retained. We would welcome the introduction of a bespoke code of practice for legal representatives who act on behalf of children and young people at children's hearings.

 

Withholding Information Provided by the Child

UNISON understands the concerns of the SCRA Branch that withholding information disclosed by a child in hearings could result in legal challenges to decisions of children's hearings and their belief that ultimately such information should be disclosed to those who have a right of appeal. However, it is the opinion of many of our members working with children prior to hearings taking place, that disclosing information to parents and others could place children at risk, especially in abuse cases. We believe that in the past, this has resulted in important information not being communicated to the Reporter, which is in no-one's interests.

We accept that this could lead to challenges to hearing decisions, but believe that the rights of the child outweigh all other considerations and for this reason support the proposals outlined in the consultation.

Streamlining Establishment of Grounds of Referral

UNISON Scotland supports the views of the Branch on the issue of streamlining establishment of the ground for referral, particularly where a child is being referred for an offence and would reiterate that in these circumstances access to legal advice would be essential. As the Branch states, "establishment of grounds of referral is something which will affect a child throughout his or her lifetime, therefore, legal safeguards must not be overturned for the sake of presumed convenience." We believe, as they do, that there is a need to streamline the procedures, but not shortcut the legal safeguards.

Papers for Children

UNISON supports the proposal to bring forward a provision in the draft legislation to allow children a fettered right of access to reports. We agree with the SCRA branch, however, that this should remain a fettered right, and that access should be denied if this would cause significant distress to a child.

 

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For Further Information Please Contact:

Matt Smith, Scottish Secretary
UNISONScotland
UNISON House
14, West Campbell Street,
Glasgow G2 6RX

Tel 0845 355 0845 Fax 0141 342 2835

e-mail matt.smith@unison.co.uk

Dave Watson d.watson@unison.co.uk

Diane Anderson diane.anderson@unison.co.uk

See also response to the Childrens Bill

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