CHILDREN AND CRIME

Move to have age of criminal responsibility raised to 14 rebuffed

 Nicola Sturgeon, Lord Advocate James Wolffe and the Dumbarton courts complex in Church Street. Main picture by Bernie Heaney

By Bill Heaney

A move to increase the age of criminal responsibility for children to 14 was rebuffed in the Scottish Parliament this week.

Liberal leader Willie Rennie was given short shrift by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon when he questioned the way Scotland deals with children who go off the rails.

Mr Rennie said: “I support action that works to change the behaviour of young people who get into trouble. I do not support 13-year-olds being branded as criminals for the rest of their lives for mistakes that they make in their childhood.”

He added: “From everything that the Government has said, next week the First Minister will instruct her MSPs to vote against our amendment to the Age of Criminal Responsibility (Scotland) Bill to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 14 years old. Is that true?”

The First Minister said it was under consideration – “As Willie Rennie knows, we have proposed raising the age of criminal responsibility from eight to 12. I know that some across the chamber think that that goes too far and that there are others who think that it should go further, to 14.

“It is a legitimate debate to have and we will continue to listen to views and to the evidence that is brought forward. In deciding between 12 and 14, there are not just issues of principle but practical issues in terms of the sheer volume of cases that would be affected by the decision.”

She said that John Sweeney, her deputy, was looking carefully at this issue – “Our balanced judgment at the moment is that, at this stage, 12 is the right age.”

Willie Rennie wasn’t happy. He said: “That is incredibly disappointing. The First Minister had better make up her mind pretty soon because the Bill will be considered by the Equalities and Human Rights Committee next week.”

He claimed the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland had said this week that Scotland was “failing children and falling far behind international standards.”

And he added sarcastically: “Indeed, Scotland will be behind those bastions of human rights, Russia and China. The United Nations and the European Commissioner for Human Rights have pleaded with the Scottish Government to see sense.

“Just last year, Nicola Sturgeon claimed that Scotland would be a world leader on human rights, but the First Minister should know that we cannot lead the world from the back of the pack. Therefore, will she think again? Will she raise the age of criminal responsibility to 14, or will she stand isolated in the world on human rights?”

The First Minister replied: “I do not think that Willie Rennie’s argument does the issue much justice—pardon the pun. It completely misrepresents and mis-characterises the overall way in which Scotland deals with young people who commit offences.”

She said he had been at a secure unit for young people earlier in the week and “saw for myself how we deal with young people—some of them there on welfare grounds and some who had committed offences.

“I was told by the staff there that, in that broader sense, Scotland is seen as a world leader in dealing with young people who offend. The age of criminal responsibility is important, but how we deal with young people in the system overall is what is really important.

“On the decision between 12 and 14, I simply point out that when we consulted on the matter, 88 per cent of respondents were in favour of age 12; but we will continue to listen.”

The First Minister said that when the Lord Advocate, James Wolffe, gave evidence to the committee, he mentioned one of the considerations that we require to take into account, which is a practical consideration as well as being one of principle: if we are to move to a higher age, we must have confidence that the responses that are available in the children’s hearings system are sufficient for any case, even the gravest of cases.

“This is an important, serious and, at times, sensitive issue. Let us all be grown up about how we deal with these issues and treat them with the respect that they deserve.”

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