Children and young people’s commissioner Scotland Bruce Adamson shares his well-earned insight as he comes to the final six months of his high-achieving time in post.
Seeing Bruce Adamson sitting on the floor among children, cross-legged and wearing his hoodie, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was the visit of a fun uncle rather than the children and young people’s commissioner Scotland. Certainly, you’d have no idea that he was one of the driving forces behind some of the biggest legislative changes regarding children’s rights Scotland has ever seen.
With his background in law, and experience in family and criminal courts in his native New Zealand – not to mention his time at the Scottish Human Rights Commission and the United Nations, and as an international human rights lawyer – Bruce has been uniquely suited to make sure any positive steps for young people’s rights are entrenched in the statute book.
‘When I came into office there were three big law changes that I saw as necessary: children needed to be protected against physical punishment; the age of criminal responsibility needed to be increased from where it was at eight years old; and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child [UNCRC] – the laws that protect children – needed to be properly put into domestic law,’ says Bruce. ‘We’ve made progress on all of those.’
He continues: ‘The age of responsibility is partly done, although I think it should be higher than the 12 years we’ve managed to raise it to, so I’ll keep trying to have an effect on that for the rest of my tenure. The incorporation of UNCRC will be done in the next few months. And the legal prohibition of physical punishment is completely done – which I think is something worth celebrating.
‘That campaign was led by child psychologists, health workers, community practitioners [CPs] and faith groups. Everybody really came together with children and young people to demand change from politicians. The results have been really positive and we now have comprehensive protection against physical punishment. But we also have to acknowledge that we were very late in coming to that, and no such protection yet exists in England and Northern Ireland.’
Young human rights defenders
‘Probably the thing I’m most proud of is the work we’ve done to amplify the voices of young human rights defenders,’ says Bruce.
‘We’ve seen them speak on national and international stages, and really demand change from adults. We have our young advisers who work with us on an ongoing basis, and we’ve seen children in Scotland get involved in the climate justice movement, COP26, Black Lives Matter and the anti-misogyny movement.
‘A few years ago, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the UNCRC, we asked children to write seven words about why it is so important to them. They came up with some brilliant things, like: “My rights are my armour to me” or “Your actions speak louder than your words” or “Freedom from poverty helps all children flourish.” And one that’s very relevant to me as Commissioner: ‘Stand tall, be brave, think big – BELIEVE’.”
To see Bruce as ‘only’ a legal expert would be an injustice in itself. As he comes to the last stages of his six-year posting as commissioner, one of the hallmarks of Bruce’s tenure – and the element that has brought him most personal satisfaction – has been his eagerness to engage with young people, their families and the professionals who work with them.
‘When I first started, five and a half years ago, I travelled around the country and spoke to lots of children and young people. I asked them, what do you want from me as children’s commissioner? They told me about the importance of coming into their communities, putting on the hoodie, getting the paints out, climbing trees, going camping – all that stuff is a big part of my work.
‘But they also wanted me to put the suit on, go to Parliament, go to the UN, go to local authorities and use the power of the office on their behalf. Children in Shetland actually said they want me to be savage in holding those in power to account. I think that must be all the Viking heritage up there!’
Poverty cuts through every aspect of children’s lives – health, education, relationships – and affects them right into adulthood
It’s not a case of Bruce taking on the powerful alone. One of the great successes of the last five-plus years has been the office of the commissioner’s ability to really encourage children to act and see themselves as young human rights defenders (see panel on page 15). However, even with a motivated clan of young hearts and minds, some issues need more than activism.
‘Poverty is my biggest worry,’ says Bruce. ‘Poverty is the biggest human rights issue facing children in Scotland.
‘The UNCRC says that all children should have an adequate standard of living; safe, warm housing; and good nutritious food – these are pretty basic things for life and development and survival. Things were already bad but they’ve been made worse by the pandemic, and they’re even worse now with the cost of living crisis.
‘The impact on children is profound. It cuts through every aspect of their lives – their health, their education, their family relationships, their aspirations – and those impacts affect them right into adulthood. The effect that poverty, and the pandemic as well, has had on children’s mental health is also something that we will be dealing with for some time.’
This battle against poverty, Bruce says, is one of the many areas where CPs are vital and can make such a big difference.
‘CPs are absolutely essential in identifying and supporting families, particularly when we look at things like food and security,’ says Bruce. ‘They can make sure families get the help that they need.’
‘It’s not just about children. The work that CPs do in supporting parental mental health – that’s a huge issue. The fact that health visitors, community nurses and early years practitioners are in and around families providing support is the absolute best way to ensure that children are thriving. It means there’s a real obligation on government, local authorities, the NHS and others to make sure there is support for CPs to deliver the services that are needed.’
With that in mind, and knowing how serious these challenges are, Bruce will be working at full speed right up to his last day in office, next May. ‘My staff tell me I’ve got another six years’ worth of work planned for my last six months!’ Bruce laughs. ‘But it’s the best job in the world – I say that every time I speak about this – because I get to work directly with children and young people, and I get to hold those powers to account and deliver real change. So it’s difficult to think about my role here coming to an end. I think I’m going to be very emotional when it comes to passing the torch to somebody else.’
Be brave, and listen: Advice to the next commissioner
Bruce says: ‘I believe that children and young people want a brave champion for their human rights – someone who will really stand up for them. That can be challenging and lonely, so the next commissioner must ensure bravery is one of their key attributes.
‘Listen to children and young people – they have to be right at the heart of our work. Also listen to families, CPs and everybody who works with and for children and young people. This job can’t be done effectively unless all these voices are being heard.’
Listen to Bruce in our exclusive audio interview. He talks about what drives him, standing up for children, plus one or two surprising facts.
Words | Matt Lamy
Image Credit | Shutterstock