The Children's Panel, Looked-After Children, Burns and Labour Leadership contest: Joan McAlpine's Perspectives Diary

by Joan McAlpine


The children’s panel system is being reformed, and as a member of the education committee which will scrutinise some of the secondary legislation, I have been invited to observe a panel in action. It’s a system unique to Scotland, staffed by trained volunteers with a wealth of real life experience. Today’s panel is chaired by Margaret, a big warm, no-nonsense lady who is great with the kids. When I tell people I am coming along they say: “that will be an eye opener!” but the most striking thing about all three families whose cases I hear is that they love their kids. They just are not in control of their own lives. One young man gets violent when drunk and his children have been fostered.

But it emerges that his own parents had serious drink problems too. A big challenge is how to break the circle of poor parenting and disadvantage – one reason why the SNP’s new emphasis on prevention and early intervention is so important.

I was shocked that all three cases before the panel could not be resolved because social work reports had not been filed. Without background, Margaret and her co-panellists cannot reach a decision. In one case a family consisting of a grandmother, both parents, the child and a support worker all trailed in for an annual review only to be let down. You could see the frustration among the panellists too – they are all volunteers who are giving up their time to help.

The education committee also have an enquiry into attainment of children we now describe as “looked after”. All the figures show that children who are in residential care do much better academically than those classified as looked after, but who stay with a parent. We visited one residential care place. It was warm, clean, homely – but not home of course. In residential care, kids get fed, do their homework, feel safe and get out to school in the morning. Guidance teachers we spoke too said the biggest reason children fail is because they don’t turn up for class. Their parents don’t see the point of school, and sometimes keep them at home “for company”.

Unless the children are at risk of physical and sexual abuse, they are not regarded as a priority. But if they truant they are more likely to get into trouble. I recently asked Kenny MacAskill, the justice secretary, how many formerly “looked after children” were now prisoners in Scottish jails. He told me that the 2011 Prisoner Survey asked this question for the first time, and results will be published soon, but we both know it is too high. Again, prevention is so important in keeping these young people out of the justice system in the first place.

Still trying to sort out an office in the South of Scotland. My most recent informal surgery took place in the Dumfries branch of Costa Coffee! The lattes are great but it can get a bit crowded at times. I love Dumfries, it deserves its name as Queen of the South. Robert Burns lived, died and wrote some of his best work here – including Auld Lang Syne.

Over the summer I campaigned to have his mausoleum in St Michael’s Kirkyard restored and was delighted when the council committed to that last week. This January, the town centre is going to be transformed by a new festival called “The Big Burns Supper”. It’s the brainchild of a young events organiser called Graham Main, who has worked all over the world but now plans to sprinkle some magic dust over his hometown. Graham organised trendy “alternative Burns suppers” for friends in London. When he came back to Dumfries it struck him there was nothing similar, and the traditional Burns Club had a waiting list.

The Big Burns Supper involves loads of venues doing their own thing to celebrate the bard in a myriad of different ways. Shops will be illuminated with artistic projections, there will be haggis pakora and dance music alongside fiddles and poetry. Dumfries will be celebrated as a “first foot destination” – first major town visitors
greet after crossing the border, and the first stop for Burns enthusiasts in 2012.

I watched the Labour leadership debate on Newsnight. The candidates spent most of the time talking about the SNP and Alex Salmond. In one hilarious contribution Tom Harris MP said that the nationalists were
building schools and hospitals for the wrong reasons…that they were only doing it to get independence. What evil genuises we are! Goodness knows what Tom had to say about Alex Neil’s £60 billion capital
investment plan…

Not one of the candidates could bring themselves to back more powers for Scotland. Yet when asked what bothered them most they all said inequality, bankers greed and poverty – things which are controlled by the coalition in London. These are the people who can conduct a whole debate about fuel poverty without acknowledging that energy is controlled by Westminster which regulates prices and sets taxes. They can simmer through debates about the Welfare Reform Bill taking millions from disabled people – but refuse to listen to charities, such as the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, who want a significant transfer of power from London.

The arrogance of the opposition unionist parties is quite breath-taking at times. On the list vote in May, when people gave their party preferences, the SNP outpolled Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Tories ALL TOGETHER.

Scotland has changed. Most of the population are looking ahead, asking questions about independence and what it can do for them. If the other parties don’t wake up soon, the Scottish people will carry on without

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