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'Rusty' legislation will live on

The scottish Government has been slated for its unwillingness to back legislation designed to alleviate the huge strain on Scotland's world-renowned children's hearings system.

The SNP decided after coming into power that the Children's Services (Scotland) Bill would not be taken forward this parliamentary year and it is not clear if it will ever be revived.

That stance has been criticised by Robert Brown MSP, one of the architects of the planned reform when he was deputy education minister in the previous Gov- ernment. He believes new legislation is crucial.

The annual number of referrals to the children's reporter has doubled in 10 years. The reporter decides whether a hearing is required, but around 80 per cent of referrals never reach the children's panel.

One aim of the proposed legislation was to put more onus on other organisations to take responsibility, in theory reducing the amount of referrals dealt with by reporters and allowing them to focus on more serious cases.

Mr Brown said he would be "very concerned" if efforts to ease the load on the hearings system were not supported by law. He pointed to a tendency among police and other agencies to "cover themselves" by referring matters to the children's reporter.

The existing legislation, he said, was around 40 years old and was "a bit rusty round the edges."

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: "We are completely committed to improving children's services, including the hearings system. There is a lot of work which can be taken forward without requiring legislation and a lot of that is underway."

She pointed to the national Getting It Right for Every Child proposals, and in particular the Path-finder pilot project in Highland which is attempting to get sectors such as education, health and social work to work closely together and take action without necessarily referring cases to the children's reporter.

But the uphill challenge of reducing the load on the children's hearings system was made clear in consultation on the bill published last week, which revealed reluctance among some to reduce the number of referrals made to the children's reporter.

Police who make about 80 per cent of all referrals do not appear keen to take on more responsibility for cases involving children. Strathclyde Police's submission to the consultation exercise argued that the children's reporter was better qualified to make judgments.

But many within the children's hearings system argue that, if police automatically refer most cases to the reporter, attempts to deal with more serious cases are hindered.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that reporters often spend time dealing with referrals for relatively trivial incidents, where, for example, a child in the west of Scot- land flicked a V-sign to a bus driver.

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