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Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, November 23, 2023


Promise Oversight Board Report

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Annabelle Ewing)

The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S6M-11227, in the name of Martin Whitfield, on keeping the Promise—oversight board report. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes that on 16 March 2021 the Scottish Parliament committed to delivering what it considers a “revolution in children’s rights”, by unanimously passing the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill; acknowledges The Promise Oversight Board Report Two, which was published in June 2023; notes that the report examines three thematic areas, including education, brothers and sisters and homelessness; further notes the Oversight Board’s concern that Keeping the Promise is not being fully considered and implemented across all relevant policy areas; notes the findings of the report, which highlight the challenging financial landscape facing local authorities and the fears that resources focus more on supporting existing services, rather than upscaling to meet the aims of The Promise; further notes the request in the report for greater evidence that funding is not being used to simply mitigate cuts, and for a strategic investment plan to deliver the required change so that at least 5% of all community-based health and social care spend will be on preventative whole-family support measures by 2030; notes the view that all care experienced children and young people must have a range of individual in-school relationships that they can trust and rely on, with school staff being trauma-informed and using nurture practices, and school moves avoided; further notes the view, according to the report, that there must be more data transparency on informal exclusions, as well as on the use of limited timetables and attendance data specifically for care experienced young people, and that reduced timetables must be reviewed regularly and must not become another form of exclusion, with care experienced young people being supported in attending and attaining all subjects, at all levels; notes the belief that, where living with their family is not possible, children must stay with their brothers and sisters, where it is safe to do so, so that they belong to a loving home; understands that care experienced people have more than double the chance of experiencing homelessness, usually before their 30th birthday; notes the view that more must be done so that there are housing pathways for care experienced young people, including restarting the prevention pathway for care leavers; further notes that, according to the report, “care experienced” is not defined in statute and that this is expected to be rectified in the Scottish Government’s forthcoming The Promise Bill; notes the view that it is important to recognise all types of care experience and to understand what it means for the individual person and their family so that their experiences are not discounted, and further notes the belief that Keeping the Promise is non-negotiable and that any delay would not keep the promise made to children, families and the care experienced community, including in the South Scotland region.


Martin Whitfield (South Scotland) (Lab)

As always, it is a great pleasure to bring a members’ business debate to the chamber. I thank the members from across the Parliament who supported the motion and the members who have found time to speak.

The debate comes at a time when we are considering young people. It was international students day on 17 November, and the Monday just gone was world children’s day. Last Friday, Children in Need 2023 took place, which was described as a SPOTacular night. It showed the generosity of people across the United Kingdom in helping children all over the UK to thrive and be the best that they can be. We have also heard that today is carers rights day.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child talks about rights to an education, to play, to food, to health, to housing, to respect for privacy, to freedom from violence and abuse, and to family life. We encompass all that in the promise that was made here in Scotland—Scotland’s Promise to care-experienced children and young people that they will grow up loved, safe and respected. In those three simple words, we encompass a convention that is recognised around the world. We recognise the days that celebrate young people, people who support them, their families and their wider communities. Young people have the right to grow up to be loved, safe and respected.

I make no apologies for the many words that went into the motion, which allows the Parliament to consider the work of the Promise oversight board—a board of experts who have just one role: to hold Scotland to account on whether it is doing enough to keep the Promise.

More than three years have passed since the Promise was first made—to keep it by 2030. In order to do that, we had to move Scotland a great distance from the independent care review all the way through to the implementation of the Promise. Today’s motion addresses the second report from the oversight board. “The Promise Oversight Board Report Two” rightly points out the huge amount of work that has already been achieved and the massive efforts that have been put in by individuals, organisations, the third sector, charities, local authorities, the education establishment, schools and the Scottish Government.

That comes with a very blunt proviso, however: that we can keep the Promise by 2030, but achieving the original aims in “Plan 21-24” is not realistic by next year. We need to pay great attention to that. We often hear people say that we set high targets and work hard to achieve them, and that it is sort of all right if we do not make it, because we will get there. We hear people talk about the great steps that have been taken to arrive at something. For people to grow up loved, safe and respected, we need to do more—the “we” is organisations, local authorities, the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government. Indeed, the Scottish Government probably has the key role in a complex jigsaw. Without the Scottish Government being able to achieve what it needs to do, it will be almost impossible for those who are working so hard, day in, day out, to make the Promise a reality, not just from 2030 but in relation to the experiences that our care-experienced children have, day in, day out.

The report identifies three priority areas: education, brothers and sisters—siblings—and homelessness. The Parliament held a debate yesterday about homelessness. When we talk about care-experienced children, we are talking about a small subset of a greater set, but the concept that they could be rendered homeless is a frightening thought. I go back to the UNCRC and the right to housing.

On the subject of brothers and sisters, it almost seems strange that it took so long to understand the significance of keeping siblings together—the significance for their own development, the significance for their siblings’ development and the significance of being together in empowering them to face challenges that they perhaps cannot face otherwise. We promised that it would happen, but we need much faster and stronger joined-up thinking to allow it to happen.

Going into care is a challenging experience at the best of times. It frequently comes after events that, thankfully, most people will never experience, but they will stay with the young people for the rest of their lives. If that experience is to stay with them, it should stay with them in a shape where they have been supported and cared for. That begins with a child being with their brother or sister—perhaps a younger brother or sister you sometimes just want to put your arm around, telling them “It’s all right,” even if you perhaps do not believe it yourself. It could be a brother or sister to look up to when they are older, and they are there to provide a bit of certainty in life.

Sue Webber (Lothian) (Con)

At the Education, Children and Young People Committee meeting yesterday, we heard powerful evidence from Who Cares? Scotland regarding the importance of siblings being kept together, whether in residential care or in foster care. We heard about the conflict relating to the reducing numbers in residential care, which sometimes prevents that. Could the member reflect on that?

Martin Whitfield

I am very grateful for that intervention and will reflect on it by saying that we want our young people to be loved, safe and respected—the three words of the Promise that the Parliament made in this chamber to care-experienced children in Scotland.

The third area that the report draws attention to is education. Education has had enormous challenges as a result of Covid. As an adult with some knowledge and experience of education, I look at education and see a challenging environment. Nevertheless, for many care-experienced children, education can be a place of certainty and safety. They can find an adult there they can talk to, not necessarily about the excitement of history, politics or the spelling test on Friday, but perhaps about how they are feeling. It is a big ask to assure Scotland that the education system that our care-experienced children are in—that all of our young people are in—is fit for purpose to provide that. It is a hard ask, but it is a justifiable ask, because we want our children to grow up loved, safe and respected.

I make no bones about the fact that I am aiming my words at the Scottish Government, because that is one of the purposes of the debate. One of the calls contained in the report is for the Scottish Government to set out a clear set of principles—the outcomes and milestones that will guarantee the Promise. The report calls for a strategic investment plan to deliver the required change, and there is a demand for proper sequencing, strategic planning and resourcing.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill will, I hope, come back to the chamber and find its rightful place on our statute book, but one of the asks from those involved in it, and one of the things that will facilitate its development, speaks to the very heart of the Promise, which is that we, in this Parliament, and the Scottish Government must start legislating in a way that brings human rights and our young people’s rights into every area of law, so that, should those rights be needed, they can be enforced. That is the route. If we can achieve for care-experienced children the simple demand to be loved, safe and respected, we can achieve it for all our young people.


Rona Mackay (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP)

I thank Martin Whitfield for bringing this important debate to the chamber and for his commitment to improving the lives of young people and children.

About one in every 100 children in Scotland goes into care before their first birthday, and children living in the 10 per cent most deprived areas of Scotland are 20 times more likely to become care experienced than those in the 10 per cent least deprived areas. I could fill my four-minute slot with a barrage of statistics about outcomes for care-experienced young people—all of them important but, frankly, none of them good. Instead, I will focus on the Scottish Government’s commitment to improving the lives of young people through the Promise and on addressing the points in Martin Whitfield’s motion.

As Martin Whitfield said, the Promise oversight board’s second report highlights a number of areas that are crucial to the wellbeing of care-experienced children, including sibling contact, homelessness and education. There is so much in the report that it is impossible to cover everything in a short speech. On sibling contact, as a member of the Criminal Justice Committee in this session and of the Justice Committee in the previous one, I had an amendment accepted to the Children (Scotland) Bill to ensure that local authorities must take steps to promote direct contact between a looked-after child and their siblings, where appropriate—it is important to say “where appropriate”. I have seen how important sibling contact is to the welfare of children through friends of mine who adopted a little boy aged 18 months, and his sister one year later. Those children now have their sibling bond to nurture them as they grow up. I cannot stress how important that attachment, nurture and security is.

Care-experienced adults are twice as likely to have experienced homelessness, usually before their 30th birthday. That is shocking. We must do better and improve the pathways and outcomes for care-experienced people, which is exactly why the Promise was set up.

Education is the building block that is needed for every young person, but particularly for care-experienced young people, who face unique challenges. A central aim of the Promise is that they are supported in attending and attaining all subjects, and are encouraged to enter higher education. Only yesterday, I saw a billboard advertising job vacancies for care-experienced people. That is a huge sign of progress.

According to the report, the term “care experienced” is not defined in statute. I am pleased that that is expected to be rectified in the Scottish Government’s forthcoming Promise bill. I am sure that the minister can expand on that. Legislation can be a force for good, as I believe that bill will be.

Last week, in the Parliament, I met an inspiring group of young people—the changemakers, who are supported by Children 1st, which is the driving force behind the bairns’ hoose and supports children in Scotland holistically and practically every day. They do an amazing job, and my meeting with them filled me with hope and optimism. I understand that Children 1st is now working with parents to produce a film to spread the word about its peer research and help professionals to keep the Promise. Sharing and working together is always the best way forward.

As Martin Whitfield’s motion says,

“Keeping the Promise is non-negotiable”,

and I am sure that the minister will confirm that when summing up. We must build on what we have started, without further delay. I urge everyone to believe that the Scottish Government is committed to getting it right for every child, whatever their background or life experience. We have much to do, and I accept that perhaps the pace could and should be a little faster, but our commitment is strong, and we will fulfil our Promise to Scotland’s disadvantaged young people.

Roz McCall joins us remotely.


Roz McCall (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

I thank Martin Whitfield for bringing the debate to the chamber.

Given my past contributions, it is no secret that I fully support the aims of the Promise and its goal to support people with care experience in Scottish society. When the Promise was made, the former First Minister described it as one of the most important moments in her time as First Minister, and the Scottish Government said that it was committed to implementing the recommendations within a decade. I applaud that.

However, if, three years on and with several new review papers, we are still saying that someone’s support depends on where they live, on whom they ask and on whether they had adequate support or encouragement, we are, unfortunately, not on track to achieve the Promise. Given that many independent organisations, including The Promise Scotland, state that the issues that the independent care review was supposed to address are getting worse, we are not on course to achieve the Promise. Given that the number of foster carers that are provided is decreasing and the number of spaces that are required is increasing, we are not on course to achieve the Promise. Given that the Promise oversight board’s report of June 2023 highlights the specific areas of concern that need addressing immediately as education, brothers and sisters and homelessness, and until those fundamental basics to provide care-experienced children with the help they need for a full and positive life are met, we are, unfortunately, not on course to achieve the Promise.

Recognising the cold, hard facts is the only way that we can get the Promise back on track. First, we need a comprehensive definition of “care experienced” that is recognised in statute. The importance of recognising all types of care experience is paramount, and that definition must encompass them all.

This week is adoption week Scotland, the focus of which is to listen to and support all people who have experience of adoption. I want to echo and widen that sentiment in the debate. Experience of care is so much more than being care experienced, and we cannot put the proper support measures in place until we define what we are supporting. I will focus on the three areas of concern that were highlighted by the Promise oversight board.

The first of those is education. Helping teaching staff and support staff to identify trauma-based behaviour as early as possible best serves the needs of our care-experienced children in the classroom, through primary and high school and on to apprenticeships, colleges and universities. Providing support and the relevant coping mechanisms will help care-experienced young people with relationships with their peers, help them study, and give them the best start, support and recognition to thrive in school and a capacity to participate in activities and move on to positive destinations. That must be addressed immediately.

The second point is removal from siblings. Children are being fostered and adopted in separate homes from their siblings, which creates more trauma and reinforces the trauma that is already present. The pain of separation is difficult and complicated for a child to voice.

Last week, I attended an event for the 100th anniversary of Scottish Adoption and Fostering, and I heard from a young lady who had been placed with a loving family but was separated from her biological sister. It was only with the perseverance of her foster parents that they were able to keep up regular contact. Her story is one of thousands, and children in such situations face repeated trauma, so we must address that immediately.

Homelessness in care-experienced adults is on the rise, with evidence showing that care-experienced people have more than double the chance of experiencing homelessness before their 30th birthday than those who are not care experienced do. Difficulties, barriers and poverty when children leave their care environments have a devastating effect, and unfortunately that must also be immediately addressed.

The oversight board’s concern is that we may not be on course to achieve the Promise. The report’s request for greater evidence of transparent funding usage is not only reasonable, but essential. It is crucial that resources are strategically invested to meet the aims of the Promise, and it must happen without further delay.

Keeping the Promise is non-negotiable. Any delay will be a betrayal of the commitment that we made to Scotland’s children, families and care-experienced community.


Carol Mochan (South Scotland) (Lab)

I thank my friend Martin Whitfield for the motion and for securing the time in the chamber. As he stated, it is great that in March 2021, there was the passing of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill in the Scottish Parliament. That was definitely a significant moment in the Parliament’s history, and we need to move on it.

The Promise came from that. It was a much-hailed Government commitment. It was championed by the former First Minister, and has continued commitment from the current First Minister. The Promise commits that by 2030 all of Scotland’s children and young people will grow up loved, safe and respected.

It is one of the most important parts of the Scottish Government’s commitment to Scotland and its young people. The desire to make it a reality is extremely high across the chamber. It is a noble goal, and one that we must all strive towards.

The reality is, sadly, that the Promise oversight board does not believe that the current pace of change means that the original aims of “Plan 21-24” are realistic by next year—as we have heard.

The Promise oversight board is independent of the Promise. It is made up of care-experienced people, whose job is to scrutinise whether the Promise is being kept. With its second report, which was published in June, it has been brave enough to tell us that the Promise is not being kept. It has told us that “Plan 21-24” will fail, and that the recommendations in the plan will not be met. It feels that Scotland is going to fail those with care experience at the first hurdle of the Promise. That is not good enough, and we must make moves to ensure that it what is in the plan happens.

Scottish Labour wants to commit to supporting the Government to ensure that the Promise is fully implemented in the best and most timely manner possible. The overview board report clearly states that keeping the Promise is not negotiable. It said:

“Scotland cannot afford to wait; our children and young people are relying on us. Over the next year we expect to see explicit leadership and drive from the Scottish Government.”

It is fair to say that there is a lack of leadership and, for the care community in particular, the slow pace of progress causes some hurt and upset.

I was speaking to young people in the care community, and they asked me to ask the minister whether she feels that failure is being rewarded. They also asked me to ask where the accountability is for keeping the Promise. The Government funds The Promise Scotland—a private limited company—with millions of pounds-worth of public money every year. Those young people would also like to know whether the same person who wrote the plan will be responsible for setting the next stage of the plan.

Those young people asked me to ask about that because they have been advised that the way in which the plan will be scrutinised may be changed. There was to be a phased approach to scrutinising the plan, but now there will be a change. The plan was to run from 2024 to 2027 and then from 2027 to 2030, but now there is a suggestion that it will just run for the next six years, so there is a worry about accountability.

I will also mention family support. As Martin Whitfield and others said, the Promise says that Scotland must support families to stay together. There is a concern that there is a variety of approaches across Scotland to delivering the whole family wellbeing fund and that the fund is not bringing about the transformative change that was intended. The reality is that local authorities are being starved of cash by the Government. Is the minister highlighting that? We want to know that the fund is not being used to mitigate problems within local authorities.

We are running out of time, so I will close. I hope that we can debate this subject again during Government time, because a number of points should be discussed.


The Minister for Children, Young People and Keeping the Promise (Natalie Don)

I thank members for the opportunity to close the debate and thank all members who have made considered contributions.

As has been noted, it is our ambition for all children to grow up loved, safe and respected and to reach their full potential. It is absolutely essential that we turn that ambition into a reality for all care-experienced children and young people across Scotland. It is reassuring to hear members come together in support of the ambition set out by the Promise. Although the Government absolutely must and will lead from the front, we will only achieve success if we work together to improve our policies, change how we deliver services and recognise, respect and respond to the needs of our care-experienced population. By working together, we can make transformational and sustainable change happen.

Important progress is being made. The First Minister and I met Fiona Duncan on 7 November and were heartened to hear that she believes that Scotland is on track to keep the Promise by 2030. Although that is encouraging, I absolutely understand that the pace must be continued and, in key areas, accelerated if we are to maintain that positive direction of travel.

It is, of course, not for us to judge success. It is imperative that the children, young people and adults who have experience of the care system tell us how it is for them and where we must continue improving, and I will listen to those voices. In that regard, I welcome the continued scrutiny that the Promise oversight board provides, not only of the Scottish Government but of all the organisations that share responsibility. I also welcome the engagement of our representative partners, including Who Cares? Scotland, who regularly help us to listen to the voices that matter.

This week, the First Minister wrote to Fiona Duncan to ask her to provide further detail about the areas in “Plan 21-24” where progress is required and, in so doing, to set out a proposed timeline and her ambitions for the development of “Plan 24-30”, which is something that I know Carol Mochan is very interested in. That information will help us to make connections and drive forward progress. It will help us to focus on what is next, who must deliver and by when, and I encourage all members to get behind that work.

During the eight months in which I have had the honour of holding this position, I have had the pleasure of visiting a range of projects and seeing the truly excellent progress that is underway. The virtual school in North Lanarkshire has seen a dramatic reduction in exclusions. I was truly heartened to see the efforts being made by Siblings Reunited in Fife to unite siblings, an extremely important matter that was raised by Rona Mackay, Martin Whitfield and Roz McCall. I have visited kinship carers in Airdrie and, just yesterday, I visited Aberlour’s perinatal support service in Falkirk. Those are just a few of the visits that I have made.

Members will no doubt know of other work that is under way in their own constituencies. What matters is how we move from having examples of practice to established practice. That point was echoed by those who attended the Education, Children and Young People Committee meeting yesterday. We must work together to share our learning and ensure that what works can be spread across Scotland, so that the whole care-experienced community will benefit.

I will highlight some key areas of progress. Members will be aware that the Children (Care and Justice) (Scotland) Bill is currently going through Parliament and is a key vehicle for the legislative change that is necessary for Scotland to keep the Promise. If the bill is passed, it will represent the first step in a process to reform the children’s hearings system that will include consultation on the changes proposed in the recent review by Sheriff David Mackie. As I have said before, the Scottish Government’s response to that report will be published by the end of this calendar year.

I say to members that I could list many examples of work that is under way, including the Scottish recommended allowance for foster and kinship care, which will benefit over 9,000 families, helping them to provide the standard of living and the wellbeing that the children and young people in their care deserve; and the £2,000 care leaver payment to support our young people as they move on from care, which was put to consultation earlier this month. However, I do not raise those points to be combative. I have absolutely no right to do that. Instead, I want them to help to demonstrate the seriousness with which I and this Government take the task that has been set. We absolutely must deliver the change that is required, and we will.

Martin Whitfield

It is right that the minister has not raised those points as successes in their own right just to celebrate them, but they are fine examples of how we are moving from where we are now towards keeping the Promise by 2030. We have legislation going through that is clearly too far advanced for it to encompass the request from the third sector that we legislate to encompass the UNCRC, but we have a fine opportunity in the Promise bill that will be coming forward. Can the minister give an assurance that that will be drafted to encompass the UNCRC?

Natalie Don

As Mr Whitfield will be aware, the Promise bill will be introduced by the end of the current parliamentary session, and we will take all considerations on board.

The Promise oversight board recently wrote to the Minister for Housing and the Minister for Social Care, Mental Wellbeing and Sport in relation to homelessness and suicide prevention. We really appreciate the board’s feedback on those issues and the continued oversight, and I understand that the two ministers are responding respectfully to that.

Before coming to a conclusion, I pick up on the point that Rona Mackay raised about the definition of “care experienced”. We will undertake a consultation on the definition in spring 2024 to inform the Promise bill, which could be used to legislate to introduce a universal and inclusive definition.

I acknowledge the number of children and young people who are in care in Scotland. It is falling, which is positive news. It is up to all of us to continue our work to ensure that, where it is safe for them to do so, children and young people will stay with their families and that those families can access the support that they need at the right time and in the right way. For our young people who are transitioning out of care, we have a package of support available to help them into adulthood. For our care-experienced adults, we acknowledge across our services that being care experienced is lifelong.

I emphasise again that I will continue to listen to the voices of our care-experienced community in order to continue to progress change and ensure that we are getting it right. I thank Mr Whitfield for bringing this discussion to the chamber. I look forward to the opportunity to continue to work with him and, of course, all members as we continue our journey to deliver the change that is required.

13:18 Meeting suspended.  


14:15 On resuming—