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On 1 September 2020, the Scottish Government introduced the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child Incorporation (Scotland) Bill to the Scottish Parliament. The Bill is currently in Stage 1, this is the Committee Stage, where a Committee (in this case the Equalities and Human Rights Committee) examines all of the Bill.

What is the UNCRC Incorporation (Scotland) Bill?

The UNCRC Incorporation (Scotland) Bill will “incorporate” the UNCRC into the Scottish legal system, which means it will make it part of Scottish law.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) is an international human rights treaty, an agreement written by the member countries of United Nations about the rights of children and young people. The UNCRC lists over 40 rights belonging to children and young people called ‘Articles’, including:

  • The right to express your views and have them taken into account in matters that affect you (Article 12)
  • The right to be free from all forms of violence (Article 19)
  • The right to play, rest and leisure (Article 31)

The UNCRC says that in any decision about you, what is best for you should be a top priority. You can read more about the UNCRC and how it works here.

Why has the UNCRC Incorporation (Scotland) Bill been introduced?

The UK ratified the UNCRC on 16 December 1991 and it came into force on 15 January 1992. Ratifying means that they made a legal binding promise to respect and protect the rights in the UNCRC. This means the UK Government (and the governments in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) should be thinking about children and young people’s rights when making decisions, laws and policies.

Every 5 years the UK Government has to report to a United Nations Committee of children’s rights experts who check whether the rights in UNCRC are being respected and protected here in the UK. However, the UNCRC is not currently incorporated into UK law, meaning that it is not written into our domestic law in the UK.

When an international human rights treaty is incorporated into domestic law, this means that public authorities can be held to account in domestic courts. For example, in 1998, the Human Rights Act, incorporated another international human rights treaty, the European Convention of Human Rights, into UK law. This means that as the Human Rights Act is part of UK law it means that all public officials like police officers, teachers, social workers, and governments and courts have a legal duty to respect your human rights. It also means that people can bring legal cases in the UK courts when they feel like their human rights are at risk.

Incorporating the UNCRC will mean that all public officials in Scotland, like police officers, teachers, social workers, and governments and courts have a legal duty to respect the rights in the Convention. Children, young people and their representatives could use the courts in Scotland to enforce their rights in the UNCRC.

The First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, has committed to incorporation of the UNCRC into Scots law before the end of 2021. For many years, children, young people and children’s rights organisations have been campaigning in Scotland for incorporation of the UNCRC. If the Bill is passed and becomes law, Scotland will be first country in the UK to incorporate the UNCRC (in its entirety) into their legal system.

How does incorporation work?

The main purpose of the Bill is to “incorporate” the UNCRC, which means it will make it part of Scottish law. In order to make sure that this works, the Bill says that:

  • public authorities must not act in a way that’s incompatible with the UNCRC requirements
  • courts will have powers to decide if legislation is compatible with the UNCRC requirements
  • the Scottish Government can change laws to make sure they are compatible with the UNCRC requirements
  • the Children and Young People’s Commissioner in Scotland would have power to take legal action if children’s rights under the UNCRC are breached
  • the Scottish Government must publish a Children’s Rights Scheme to show how they are meeting UNCRC requirements and explain their future plans for children’s rights
  • the Scottish Government must review how the Scheme is working every year
  • other public authorities mentioned in the Bill must report every three years on what they have done to meet the UNCRC requirements.

What about the Human Rights Act?

In the UK, we have Human Rights Act which is already part of our law. The Human Rights Act is about everyone’s rights, including children and young people. It sets out basic rights that belong to all people in the UK. These rights include lots of the rights in the CRC like the right to life, the right to education, and the right to family life. You can read more about the Human Rights Act here.

As mentioned above, the Human Rights Act, incorporated another international human rights treaty, the European Convention of Human Rights, into UK law. The rights in the Human Rights Act are not as detailed as the UNCRC rights. But because the Human Rights Act is part of UK law it means that all public officials like police officers, teachers, social workers, and governments and courts have a legal duty to respect your human rights. When these officials are working out how to respect children’s rights under the Human Rights Act, they can currently use the UNCRC to help them decide what to do.

If the UNCRC Incorporation (Scotland) Bill becomes law this means that public authorities (and public officials who work for them) in Scotland must also consider the UNCRC rights directly when making decisions. There are many more rights in the UNCRC and they are more specific to children, ensuring that these rights are also considered will give increased protection to the rights of children in Scotland.

What happens now?

The Bill is currently in Stage 1, this is the Committee Stage, where a Committee (in this case the Equalities and Human Rights Committee) examines all of the Bill. The Committee will write a report, then Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) will vote on whether or not the Bill will pass into Stage 2. If MSPs do not agree on the Bill, it will fail.

In Stage 2 the Bill will go through a more detailed "line-by-line" scrutiny, either by the appropriate Committee, the whole Parliament, or a combination of the two. Amendments (changes) may be made at this stage.

In Stage 3 the Bill will be considered by the whole Parliament and more amendments can be made at this stage. Some parts of the Bill can be sent back to Stage 2 to be looked at again in more detail. Then MSPs will vote on the Bill, if Parliament agrees, the Bill is passed and it will become a law (an Act of the Scottish Parliament) after receiving Royal Assent.

Where can I find more information?

PLEASE NOTE: BIHR Explainers are provided for information purposes. These resources do not constitute legal advice. The law may have changed from the date of writing.