MSPs have thrown their weight behind plans to raise the age of criminal responsibility in Scotland from 8 to 12.
The Scottish Parliament’s Equalities and Human Rights Committee is unanimously backing the general principles of a Bill which would mean that Scotland no longer has the lowest age of criminal responsibility in Europe (see list below).
The Scottish government proposals to raise the age to 12 would be higher than in the rest of the UK, where 10 is the age of criminal responsibility. It would also ensure that Scotland complies with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and bring the age of criminal responsibility into line with the minimum age of prosecution.
However, the committee is urging the Scottish government to amend the Bill to prohibit the use of police cells for children who are being taken to a “place of safety”.
The Bill also tackles the issue of childhood convictions being disclosed in adult life, amid fears that these may hamper training or job opportunities and, in turn, damage their life chances further.
Convener Ruth Maguire said the Committee was “very supportive” of raising the age from 8 to 12, adding: “We recognise that many children enter the criminal justice system because of trauma they have suffered in their young lives.
She said: “There was strong support for raising the age from different groups who came to give us evidence. Some of the compelling evidence we heard has given Members a real sense of urgency.
“While harmful behaviours from young people must be addressed, we do not believe that criminalising a child before they turn 12 is a helpful intervention.”
In written evidence to the committee, the Centre for Excellence for Looked-After Children in Scotland (Celcis) highlighted evidence from the Scottish Children’s Reporters Administration (SCRA), which showed that “children between the ages of 8-11 who undertake harmful behaviour are almost always children who have been subject to harm themselves”.
Celcis added: “Many have significant mental health issues and learning disabilities. These children are in need of care and protection, not criminalisation.”
A spokeswoman for Scotland's biggest teaching union, the EIS, said that "no child under the age of 12 should receive a criminal record" as it could "seriously damage their life chances".
She added: "To criminalise young children whose offences are often borne out of disadvantage is profoundly unjust."
The Equalities and Human Rights Committee at the Scottish Parliament is also considering plans to ban smacking in Scotland.
Age of criminal responsibility in European countries:
10 Rest of UK
12 Belgium, Ireland, Netherlands
14 Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Estonia, Germany, Greece. Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Malta, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain
15 Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Poland, Sweden
16 Lithuania, Luxembourg, Portugal