MSPs approve new child legislation

Children will get more access to nursery provision, free school meals and increased care support as part of a wide-ranging legislation approved by MSPs last night.

The Children and Young People Bill was backed in a final vote at Holyrood after a long and sometimes heated final debate.

While some measures were widely welcomed, the Bill also sparked threats of a legal challenge over plans to appoint a so-called “state guardian” for every child.

But Aileen Campbell, the Scottish Government children’s minister, said the overall Bill will help make the country the best place for children to grown up

“Fundamentally I believe this Bill will bring about a transformational change for Scotland’s children and young people,” she said.

“We should be proud we’re passing legislation today that will improve the lives of our children.

“Over the last year this Parliament has given the whole well-being of children and young people its full, intense consideration.

“We have demonstrated we’re not complacent when it comes to finding ways of improving the lives of all children and young people and that we will continue to put their rights and well-being at the centre of Scottish political life.

“In a year where the people of Scotland are being asked to consider the nation’s future, it is a mark of our nation maturity that we should place such a high priority on the next generation.”

Key features include a commitment to extend foster or kinship care for teenagers in residential care after they turn 16. New rights mean they will remain “looked after” up to the age of 21 and “aftercare” will continue to their 26th birthday.

A commitment was backed to deliver childcare of at least 600 hours a year for three and four-year-olds, and the “most vulnerable” two-year-olds, from August. The policy will help save around £700 per child per family each year, the Scottish Government said.

SNP ministers said the Bill will lead to better provision in future years, but that the powers of independence will be needed to fulfil their ambition of 1,140 annual care hours.

Free school meals will be offered to all pupils in their first three years of primary school, funded with the extra money received by the Scottish Government as a budget consequence of Westminster’s plans for schools in England.

The measure, which will be introduced from January next year, could save families at least £330 for each child, the First Minister said when he announced the plan last month.

The Bill also bolsters legislation on school closures, particularly in rural areas.

Labour, despite backing the package, raised concerns about the scope and the funding.

The party made three attempts during the debate – which lasted more than six hours – to force more information on finances, even calling for business to be suspended.

“This Bill is a missed opportunity for Scotland’s children and families,” Labour MSP Kezia Dugdale said.

“While we are pleased to have won concessions from the SNP, this Bill could and should have been better. It lacks a proper package of childcare improvements, it doesn’t support care leavers enough and kinship carers will be left unhappy that the SNP has failed to listen to their valid claims.

“This Bill has led to confusion and concern across Scotland and that is the direct result of Aileen Campbell and the SNP being incapable of explaining the Bill and its effects.

“There are widespread concerns about the resources available to deliver this Bill. The inability of the SNP to tell Parliament just how much this Bill will actually cost shows how incompetent the Scottish Government has become.”

Conservatives aimed much of their criticism at the controversial policy to appoint a “named person”, such as a health worker or, headteacher to look out for the welfare and wellbeing of everyone up to the age of 18.

Liz Smith, the party’s education spokeswoman, said her party had no choice but to abstain from the final vote on the Bill because of the plan.

“We believe the policy is wrong in principle, that it does not have conclusive supporting evidence and has not been properly costed,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Christian Institute described the policy as a “dreadful extension of the state’s tentacles into family life”.

The group vowed to drag the Scottish Government through the courts.

Liberal Democrats were sceptical of the named person plan but swung support their behind the Government in the final vote.

“I firmly believe this legislation will help deliver real and significant benefits”, Lib Dem MSP Liam McArthur said.