Holyrood has passed legislation which will prevent primary school-age children from being treated as criminals.
MSPs unanimously backed a new law raising the age of criminal responsibility from the current age of eight – one of the lowest in the world – to 12 years old.
Children’s minister Maree Todd said the change means that “no child under 12 will ever again be arrested or charged with an offence in Scotland”.
But Liberal Democrat MSP Alex Cole-Hamilton, who had called for the age of criminal responsibility to be raised to either 14 or 16, said the legislation “fatally undermined” Scotland’s ambition to be a world leader in human rights.
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has already demanded the age of criminal responsibility in Scotland be raised to 14 “immediately”, while the Children and Young People’s Commissioner for Scotland Bruce Adamson has also made his view clear that 14 is the “lowest acceptable age”.
Mr Cole-Hamilton said that without increasing the age limit for children to face the criminal courts further, the “international community will judge this government as a failure on children’s rights”.
He said the Age of Criminal Responsibility (Scotland) Bill would put Scotland on a par with the “most socially conservative countries in all of Europe”.
The Lib Dem stated: “We decry human rights abuses in countries like China and Russia, but both of these have ages of criminal responsibility higher still than we will achieve in the passage of this Bill today.”
He added: “I will remind the minister and her government of this day and this craven piece of legislation every time it claims to stand up for children or for human rights, every sugar-coated motion it seeks to bring to this chamber and every saccharine policy announcement it uses to promote the image of its commitment to the rights and interests of Scotland’s children, I will remind it and anyone who will listen of this day.”
Mr Cole-Hamilton said he was “utterly crestfallen” by the Government’s stance, in refusing to consider a higher age limit.
But Ms Todd stressed the “importance of carefully scoping and analysing the implications” of moving to a higher age, saying additional legislation could be needed for this.
And she added that could mean “raising the age from eight could be delayed for a number of years”.
Ms Todd continued: “That is not to say that we might not in the future agree as a parliament to raise the age of criminal prosecution further.
“But the safe way to do so is after proper review, scrutiny and development of detailed proposals and their implications in this regard.”
She spoke about the “importance of carefully scoping and analysing the implications” of raising the age of criminal responsibility to more than 12.
The Scottish Government is already planning to review the new legislation after a period of three years, and could consider doing this then.
“That will provide a sufficient period of time to allow proper consideration of the impact of the current change,” the minister said.
She stressed: “We need to get the balance right. Raising the age beyond 12 in this Bill would not achieve that.
“The responsible approach is to raise the age to 12 now and allow a statutory review to be undertaken to consider the future age of criminal responsibility.”
“We can be proud that Scotland is leading the way in the UK. This new law means that no child under 12 will ever again be arrested or charged with an offence in Scotland. But the Bill also ensures that serious harmful behaviour will be investigated appropriately and victims will continue to get the support they need.
“Currently young children can be left with criminal records that can follow them into adulthood and affect their chances of getting training or a job. The measures in the Age of Criminal Responsibility Bill will end that.
“I have sought to achieve the right balance with this Bill. This legislation forms a key part of our wider approach to children’s rights and youth justice. By getting this right, we will demonstrate that in Scotland we don’t just say things differently, we will show it by doing things differently.”