You’d think that every MSP would clamour to be a champion for Scotland’s children, especially those at the margins, those children and young people most vulnerable, whose life chances are most restricted, often by the age of three. Sadly not.
But the Scottish Parliament has been blessed with several whose contribution to furthering and bettering the needs and interests of children has been outstanding. For a variety of reasons, this handful of champions is likely to dwindle after May.
Robin Harper, the Green MSP for Lothians, has been a co-convenor of the cross party group on children and young people since its formation in 1999. Most debates featuring children’s issues have involved an erudite intervention from him. He is a passionate advocate of children’s rights, of play, particularly in the outdoors, and of the need to create a child-friendly Scotland. Few MSPs have done as much to push children up the political agenda: his retirement at the end of three terms of service leaves a gaping heart-sized hole.
Unless there is a minor electoral miracle, we may well lose two other doughty fechters for the cause of children in Robert Brown and Ken Macintosh.
I have engaged with Ken Macintosh, Labour MSP for Eastwood, several times on bills relating to children and education. He is unfailingly polite, diligent, concerned, well prepared, good humoured, compassionate and understanding. Best of all, he does not take offence when differences cannot be resolved, is prepared to work with all interest groups to find solutions and often, especially behind closed doors, to work for a cross-party consensus to achieve breakthroughs on thorny issues. The vagaries of a shift in electoral boundaries have put his seat on a shoogly peg but the burd for one hopes he makes it back, because children need parliamentary champions like him.
Robert Brown is even less likely to make it back. The burd cannot begin to fathom what the Liberal Democrats were thinking of in ranking him second on the list for Glasgow region. With their standing in the polls in the doldrums, they will be struggling to elect one MSP from here, never mind two. Frankly, it is an insult to an MSP who, while not the most brilliant orator, has a forensic knowledge and a keen interest in children’s issues. You don’t have to explain the background or the rationale when discussing a matter relating to children; this MSP gets it, immediately. He will always ask searching questions and probe your concern but that is a very good thing. His will be a big loss.
If Scottish Labour wins in May and forms the next administration, Karen Whitefield will probably become the next Minister for Children – assuming a new Labour government has such a post, of course. The Airdrie and Shotts MSP has long been a figure of fun but largely I think it undeserved. She has been a capable hand on the tiller of the education and culture committee, is much brighter than the sketch writers have portrayed her, and is committed and hard working. She will make a decent Minister on a subject area that she has long understudied.
But she will have to work hard to match the record of the current occupant, Adam Ingram MSP. His is not a ministerial name that trips off the tongue when thinking of shiny stars: sometimes, it’s not the ones that burn the brightest that make the biggest impact. Working away resolutely with a steely determination to implement transformational change, this SNP Minister’s record is really rather remarkable.
Getting it Right for Every Child, Scotland’s response to the Victoria Climbie tragedy in England, puts in place a whole new way of thinking, working and acting by professionals supporting our most vulnerable children and the Early Years Framework creates a coherent strategy for giving our youngest children the best start in life.
There have been two big bills: the Additional Support for Learning Act which enhanced the law placing duties and responsibilities on local authorities to ensure all children are supported to learn; and the Children’s Hearings Act which has updated Scotland’s unique system of justice for children suffering abuse or neglect, or who have committed offences.
Adam Ingram has also overseen work to improve the skills of professionals and practitioners working with children (further proposals are being announced today), introduced the Protection of Vulnerable Groups scheme which aims to prevent unsuitable adults from working with children and vulnerable adults, improved and expanded child protection guidelines, conducted a review of service provision for disabled children and their families, introduced a strategy for foster and kinship care as well as a service to provide advice, information and support to kinship carers (extended family and friends) and the children they care for and established a new national centre for excellence to improve the lives and futures of looked after children.
Most impressively of all, he has done it all on a shoestring.
Admittedly, the pace of change has been frustrating, in terms of seeing improvements on the ground in all these areas, as much, I suspect, for the Minister as for the rest of us. But there is no denying that over the next few years, we should start to see improvements to how services are designed and delivered for some of Scotland’s most vulnerable and marginalised children. And while it is probable that Adam Ingram will return as an MSP, it is by no means a certainty, with his third position on the SNP list for South of Scotland potentially at risk if the SNP takes two constituency seats in the region.
All of these MSPs have made a real difference to children’s lives in Scotland; without them, it will be even harder to ensure that the needs and interests of children are pushed up the political agenda. To coin a phrase, to lose one Holyrood champion for children would be unfortunate; to lose two – or more – would be careless.