That is the question that I’m hoping policy officials, rights bearers and decision makers will hold at the forefront of their minds as we creep into the autumn months leading up to the Scottish Government’s formal response to the Hearings For Children report.
Hearings For Children is the Redesign Report that emerged from the detailed, evidenced and considerable work of the Hearings System Working Group , which I was proud to Chair. It followed the Independent Care Review and publication of the promise, which said that there was a need to consider how the Children’s Hearings System might be redesigned to better uphold children and families’ rights, and place their best interests at the centre of decisions and decision-making processes that affect them.
97 recommendations which set out a vision for redesign
The Redesign Report contains 97 recommendations reflecting the breadth and depth of the Children’s Hearings System. It sets out a vision for how Scotland can work alongside children and families, to uphold their rights, and allow them to participate in decisions that affect them. Very deliberately, each chapter contains a section called “what difference will this make to children and their families” so that the transformational impact of reform on those who matter the most is clear.
The recommendation that has received the most attention - and rightly so - is for consistent and skilled Chairs. The reason for this recommendation is clear, and has been articulated by children and families for some time: that their experience and story must be held by a consistent decision maker who understands the totality of their lives. Asking children and families to retell the most difficult parts of their experiences to different panel members again and again must end. The only feasible way of ensuring consistency of decision making is to make sure the role of Chair is a salaried one.
Whilst this is a key recommendation, it is just one amongst 96 others. Assessing this proposal needs to be in the broader context of the vision and recommendations of the report.
Recommendations do not exist individually, and it is not credible to think one aspect of system change can happen without others happening in tandem. It would be wrong to implement one aspect of this work if there was also not a commitment to look at the whole. For example, Scotland cannot just improve accountability without also ensuring that the workforce are sufficiently supported to ensure the needs of children and families are being met. If we take that approach, then we only increase expectation without attending to the ability of the system to meet that expectation.
The workforce that must be engaged to discuss how these recommendations will work in practice and to mitigate against intended and unintended consequences.
The Redesign Report represents a collective view
And I am also clear that the Redesign Report represents a collective view. Those around the table were experienced practitioners whose role was to reflect on their own practice and how things can and must change. All of this built upon the 5,500 voices that were part of the Independent Care Review. They were clear about not wanting their stories to be retold, about the way information is shared, about decisions being made for and about them without understanding the consequences, and about the lifelong impact of poor or unavailable services or of coming into contact with the ‘care system’ too early or – crucially - too late. The group listened to all of this evidence and then heard more still. It conducted an extensive Collaborative Redesign Project with the Scottish Government’s Office of the Chief Designer, which included police officers, social workers, lawyers, advocates, reporters and panel members. I met personally with children - including the young people of Our Hearings Our Voice – as well as parents, carers, and foster carers and social workers. Together, this represents over 500 hours of careful, considerate deliberation and discussion.
As the decision makers come to their view, there will of course be differences of opinion about certain recommendations, about what needs to be prioritised and how the reform will be funded. There is also no doubt that a reformed Children’s Hearings System will cost money, particularly in the short term. But over a longer period, I believe a transformed system will not only secure and protect the rights of children and families in the short term, but will protect budgets which so often have to pay later to deal with the consequences of system failure today.
Ultimately, I am confident that, taken together as a whole, this report is representative of what children, families and members of the workforce have been saying for many years. And I go back to my original question: are we prepared to make difficult choices so that we can spend money on our most vulnerable children and families, to ensure that they grow up loved, safe and respected? Are we keeping the promise?
About the author
Sheriff David Mackie
Hearings System Working Group Chair
After working as a solicitor, then as an Advocate, David became the resident Sheriff in Alloa: a position which he held for 15 years. He has also worked with charities supporting disadvantaged and marginalised young people in:
- Malawi, and
Through this and his work as a Sheriff, he developed a strong belief in the power of redemption and a compassionate approach to sentencing. He has an interest in restorative justice as a means of addressing the needs of victims of crime.
Now retired, he continues to support many charities, does a little teaching, and still serves part-time as a Sheriff.
Access the Hearings For Children report
Hearings For Children: The Redesign Report
The Hearings System Working Group's final report sets out how to redesign the Children's Hearings System so children are put at its centre.
Hearings for Children: Summary of recommendations
Summary of recommendations in terms of what matters to children and families.
Hearings for Children: Child-friendly summary of recommendations
Child-friendly summary of recommendations in terms of what matters to them and their families.
A Redesigned Children's Hearings System: Isla's story
Video following the journey of a child to show what a redesigned Children's Hearings System will look like.