WATCH: Willie Rennie questions Nicola Sturgeon about restraint of vulnerable and disabled children

In December, Scotland’s Children’s Commissioner published a shocking report which stated that local authorities risked breaking the law and breaching vulnerable and disabled children’s human rights with the way they used restraint and seclusion.

Out of the 18 local authorities which record such incidents, almost 400 children were subjected to these procedures a total of 2764 times. And 14 local authorities gave no information at all so the overall figure may be higher.

The report made 22 recommendations to which the Scottish Government was to respond to by the end of January.

There was one particularly disturbing account of the seclusion of a child with the mental age of 3:

One time I was called and he was being kept in the cloakroom with the door shut on his own incredibly distressed and not allowed out until I arrived. He was 5 years old with the mental age of a three year old… X very traumatised re the holds and not sleeping well and screaming in his sleep, very reluctant to go into school…

The staff had even put him in a room on his own in a totally unregulated state and held the door handle from the other side and wouldn’t let him out. X. was Distraught.

Willie Rennie asked Nicola Sturgeon at First Minister’s Questions what the Government was going to say.

Watch the exchange here. The text is below:

Vulnerable, disabled schoolchildren are being physically and mentally harmed by restraint practices in Scottish schools that may be illegal. That is the conclusion of a report by the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland. More than 2,600 instances were recorded in just one year; 2,600 does not sound like a last resort to me.

The Scottish Government has until the end of today to respond to the report. What will it say?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon):
We will respond to the commissioner’s report. I believe that we will respond by the end of this week, which is within the time in which we are required to do so. It is courteous that we respond to the commissioner and we will.

Although we will, of course, look to make changes if required, the guidance that is in place is clear about the importance of de-escalation in situations in which restraint may be considered. It is also clear that restraint must only ever be used in cases of absolute last resort. That is exceptionally important. However, we will respond to the commissioner and look at making changes to guidance or practice, if that is considered to be appropriate and necessary.

Willie Rennie:
Last week, the First Minister told me to wait and see what she was going to do on the demands of the United Nations on the age of criminal responsibility. At this morning’s Equalities and Human Rights Committee meeting, her MSPs voted to reject those demands. It is therefore fair to question the First Minister and her commitment to children’s rights, rather than to wait and see.

A child with a mental age of three was left traumatised and distraught after being locked in a school cloakroom. There are reports of children being tied to chairs, being prevented from going to the toilet and being dragged across the floor, causing injury. The voices of those children are often not heard, so it is important for us to speak up for them.

The children’s commissioner said that the Scottish Government is not complying with the advice of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. The commissioner said that guidance is inconsistent and ambiguous and that he is not certain that restraint is used as a last resort. Will the First Minister take the advice of the children’s commissioner and dramatically cut the use of restraint on vulnerable, disabled children in Scotland?

The First Minister:
First, I say to Willie Rennie that rarely—probably never—does a week go by in which I do not personally and directly listen to the voices of children and young people. It is a very important part of the job that I do and it is a very important part of how this Government conducts itself.

Once a year, we meet as a full cabinet with the Scottish Children’s Parliament and the Scottish Youth Parliament. That is just one symbolic example of our commitment to hearing young people’s voices.

We will respond to the commissioner and, if there is a view that changes are required, we will make those changes. We will continue to take whatever action is necessary to support an overall system in Scotland that is respectful of children’s rights in general and that puts children’s interests at the heart of everything that we do—not just in the cases that Willie Rennie cited.

Of course, we have committed to incorporating the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into domestic law. That will require a whole range of work to be undertaken across the Scottish Government to ensure that we are fully compliant with that convention. That is an important indication of how seriously we take these issues.

Where we fall short—as all Governments do from time to time—it is important that we recognise that, and take action to rectify it. That is my personal commitment as First Minister and it is a commitment that runs right through our Government.

He’s at his best when he has an issue that he keeps plugging away at until it’s sorted. So when the Government does publish its response, it should say that it accepts all the recommendations. We need to make sure that they are implemented and the underlying causes of this are identified and dealt with. One of our most important jobs is to stand up for the rights of the voiceless and we should definitely do so here.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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