When did 12 become the age at which we stopped caring about children?

The minimum age of criminal responsibility has increased from eight to 12. There’s been much back-slapping in the political bubble at this change. But how can we celebrate a law that is still two years below the minimum international standard and is still failing children?   

The Scottish Government says the change – which took over two years to come into force – means “primary school-aged children will no longer be stigmatised from being labelled as offenders at such a young age, which will improve their life chances and wellbeing”. But when did 12 become the age at which we stopped caring about children being stigmatised, their wellbeing, and life chances? The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) defines a child as up to 18.  

Using criminal law to address harmful behaviour by children is wrong and increases the likelihood of a child continuing to engage in such behaviour. The best way to address harmful behaviour is early intervention; supporting families in crisis and children at risk. Many children in conflict with the law have complex or traumatic childhood experiences, so we need community-based early intervention services.  

 A low age of criminal responsibility does not keep us safer, nor does it provide an effective remedy for those affected by the behaviour of children.   

How can we celebrate when we still imprison children under 18, sometimes simply because there isn’t a place in a secure unit available, in circumstances that breach their rights? We know the tragic outcomes of our failures to keep these children safe. We are a long way from the rights-respecting child justice system we committed to 30 years ago when the UK ratified the UNCRC.  

On 16 December, we marked 30 years since the UK ratified the UNCRC. We should have been celebrating the commencement of its incorporation into Scots law, unanimously passed by the Scottish Parliament in March. A law which was fought for by children and young people to ensure rights are respected, protected and fulfilled. Yet ten weeks after the UK Supreme Court decided that the law needed amended, we are still waiting for the Scottish Government to produce amendments. Every day of delay is another day that children don’t have their rights properly protected. Children shouldn’t have to keep waiting. My office has urged the Scottish Government to act. The lack of transparency on what they are doing and why it is taking so long raises serious questions.   

The Scottish Government regularly claims it wants Scotland to be the best place in the world for children to grow up. That will never be the case while children don’t have their rights protected. 

This article was first published in The Times.

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