Debate in the Scottish Parliament
Thursday 6 November 2008
Rob Gibson (Highlands and Islands) (SNP): Scotland's Commissioner for Children and Young People, Kathleen Marshall, has served us well by giving us the opportunity to conclude that the way in which we apply the suggestions and necessities under the UNCRC requires to be prioritised. Those necessities are fundamental, but some are more fundamental than others and, as Elizabeth Smith said, it is important to think about which are the most important. We as a Parliament believe that many of them can be applied by Government and do not need to be left to individuals to carry out.
Robert Brown: Will the member sign up to the idea of an action plan to be carried forward by the Scottish Government, which various organisations and several members this afternoon have called for?
Rob Gibson: The best way to deal with the issue would be for an appropriate committee of the Parliament to consider the matter and to put a report before Parliament. If that report took the form of an action plan, it might meet all our interests.
Thanks to the incorporation of a children's rights unit in the lifelong learning directorate, progress in Scotland has been positive. However, the children's commissioner has said that we should not be complacent, because—even now, in 2008—many children in Scotland still live in poverty, experience difficulties in accessing essential health services and face a range of other barriers to securing their rights.
The impulse to try to improve children's conditions is centuries old. Karen Whitefield gave the example of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933. The impulse not to return to the poverty and misery of those years was a driver behind a family of UN declarations. With decolonisation came an important impetus to improve the situation throughout the world. However, we forget at our peril that there are still 250,000 children living in poverty in this country, 90,000 of whom are in dire poverty.
We must recognise that Scots have been at the forefront of the debate. Indeed, I shall quote a short poem by Sorley MacLean from the period around 1940, which has been translated into Scots by Douglas Young so that more people can understand it. Sorley MacLean said:
"My een are nae on Calvary
or the Bethlehem they praise,
but on shitten back-lands in Glesca toun
whaur growan life decays,
and a stairheid room in an Embro land,
a chalmer o puirtith and skaith,
whaur monie a shilpit bairnikie
gaes smoorit doun til daith."
The issue of growing life decaying is at the heart of the debate, and it is why the processes of children's rights throughout the globe have to be seriously addressed. If we are to have an action plan, and if we are to decide on priorities, what could come from the debate is the opportunity for the Parliament, in this four-year session, not only to try to deal with the actions that the Government has already taken but to guide some of its actions, for example by raising awareness of the declaration or by ensuring respect for the views of children.
I am a former teacher, and I do not think that our school system is fully geared up yet. There is a kind of dictatorship in which headteachers decide what happens, and the experience of how children's views are taken into account is mixed. Through the cabinet secretary's department, we could take measures to allow those views to be heard.
I was delighted to hear the examples from St Monans that the minister gave. Every school in the country should be adopting such principles. The boundaries of what people can do and what they cannot do have to be discussed.
George Foulkes said that the abolition of physical punishment in schools was important. I was part of the action group that helped to bring about abolition. However, the physical punishment was replaced by sarcasm—by talking children down. In Scotland, that is one of the means whereby far too many children are disadvantaged.
We have to end bullying and violence, as ChildLine suggests—through, for example, the teaching of human rights and peace and tolerance. However, we have to allow children to express their views in their own languages and dialects. If children speak Scots, we should encourage that, because it will build their self-esteem. Such rights for children should be given greater importance. Amnesty International has suggested that the curriculum for excellence is a good place in which to enshrine both the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They should be part of the teaching in every school.
When I was a modern studies teacher, I was happy to try to deal with some of these issues in relation to Africa. South African democracy was developing at the time when I was teaching.
Lord Foulkes made a point that we should stamp on immediately. I wonder whether he has mentioned Monsanto in the register of members' interests. The latest argument among the multinational seed and pesticide makers is that genetically modified seeds can feed the world. If free seeds were given out, if we ensured that there was transport, and if we ensured that the monopolies of these companies did not send Indian farmers to their deaths through suicide because their crops had failed, we could do much more for families and children in many parts of the world. I suggest that Lord Foulkes withdraw his ridiculous remarks.
The most important things that children can learn about their rights can be learned at school. Children can learn to respect the rights of others, and that will happen as their understanding grows.
"Aa thae roses an geans will turn tae blume",
as Hamish Henderson wrote in "The Freedom Come Aa Ye". However, he also wrote:
"And a black boy frae yont Nyanga
Dings the fell gallows o' the burghers doon"
That means that it is about people in every country having opportunities. While we pursue wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and the like, we are denying many children the opportunity to ding doon the fell gallows. The debate reminds us that there is so much further to go both in our own country and abroad.