It was the lure of “whisky, kilts and castles” that enticed Bruce Adamson to Scotland, but it’s ensuring vulnerable children are safe and healthy that’s keeping the New Zealand lawyer in Edinburgh.
Mr Adamson, who is originally from Palmerston North and studied and worked in Wellington, was appointed Scotland’s third Children and Young People’s Commissioner in May for a six-year term.
He had worked with the first Commissioner having joined the organisation on its inception in 2005, before leaving to establish the Scottish Human Rights Commission.
Prior to an early morning meeting with a top-ranking Scottish minister, Mr Adamson talked to LawTalk; in a curious immigration reversal, the Kiwi-now-adopted-Scot is talking to a Scot-adopted-Wellingtonian.
As I am well aware, Scotland has a major issue with poverty which, of course, greatly affects children. A recent Scottish government report found that more than one in four – equating to 260,000 of Scotland’s children – are officially recognised as living in poverty, a significantly higher figure than in many other European countries.
Mr Adamson says, in a first-world country like the United Kingdom, that’s a shocking figure which creates some obvious challenges.
“A big chunk of the work I do is around poverty. I have been doing a lot of work over the summer on holiday hunger, focusing on children who receive quite a lot of support during the school year, including things like free school meals. No child should be going hungry in the holidays.
“The summer school holidays here have been especially challenging for many families who rely on things like free school meals during term time, but also children being at school allows parents to work more. So, during summer there’s particular pressures and we’ve seen things like a rise on reliance of foodbanks, and we’ve seen children’s health deteriorate over the summer.
“We’ve tried to put a lot of emphasis on the rights framework so that children have the right to food, education, and social security. Social security is an issue that has recently been devolved to Scotland, so a lot of the legal discussions we’re having in Parliament at the moment are on the social security system.
“We need to ensure that we get a proper social security system which ensures that children get to access their rights to education, to healthcare, to leisure and to cultural activities.”
He says he’s looking to his former country and to Sue Bradford’s so-called anti-smacking bill, the Crimes (Substituted Section 59) Amendment Act 2007.
“In Scotland a law has been introduced to Parliament about changing the law around physical punishment. We are looking quite closely at the New Zealand experience – that’s something we’re very much learning from New Zealand.”
Mr Adamson has worked with the Children’s Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft before, having sought his advice while working for the first Children’s Commissioner.
He says there are some obvious overlaps but differences too, for example, his role doesn’t have the same focus on monitoring care services, but his independence is better protected.
“My office was created by the Scottish Parliament and my funding and accountability is all linked to the legislature – which is what the United Nations recommends. I don’t have a legal or financial connection to the Government at all, so I can fearlessly hold them to account.”
Palmerston to Portobello
Bruce Adamson studied law at Victoria University of Wellington from 1995-1999, and was admitted in 2000. As a student he volunteered at the city’s Community Law Centre “which was a really powerful learning experience for me”. His first legal employment was with the IRD around child support.
He had that typical Kiwi trait – the urge to travel, and after visiting Asia, the Americas and Europe he had an empty wallet and was forced into deciding whether to return to New Zealand or work in Europe.
“Scotland came up really just by chance. I’d seen Braveheart, and I liked Billy Connolly, the accent, whisky, kilts, castles and bagpipes, and I only speak English so that did narrow my options down a bit. I arrived in Scotland not knowing anybody and without any plan. And I was lucky that I arrived at quite an exciting time, in the late 1990s – devolution had just been won so they had gained their own parliament for the first time in 300 years and started to reclaim some of the democratic systems. So that created quite a number of opportunities in the early 2000s.
“My work in Scotland led to some international work, for the United Nations, the Council of Europe, the EU, and the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe) and through those bodies I spent a lot of time in Eastern Europe, particularly the Balkans, Turkey and Ukraine.”
Mr Adamson was working with some of the new democracies in Eastern Europe to improve their systems, and helping build a human rights infrastructure.
“I was doing things like training civil servants, but also putting in place some of the structures like a human rights commission, and children’s commissioners and ombudsmen. And also helping establish prevention of torture regulations.
“In Ukraine the work was more about working on its relationship with Europe and trying to get their human rights laws in compliance with European Union standards. During that time the annexation of Crimea (by Russia) and the conflict in eastern Ukraine happened as well as the big political change though the protests in Kiev.
“It was a really interesting time to work in Ukraine, from originally going into a country that was quite oppressive and then there was a people-led revolution and a lot of hope and excitement and then suddenly being a country in conflict with hundreds of thousands, and eventually, a million and a half, displaced persons. It was a very challenging experience that left a deep impression on me in terms of the role of human rights and human rights organisations in places of conflict.”
He may have arrived in Edinburgh at a time of great change, but the past five years have seen monumental events in Scotland and the UK as a whole with the Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014, the Brexit vote in 2016 and two general elections either side of that pivotal poll which returned Conservative governments, albeit June’s poll left them with a much-reduced majority.
Mr Adamson says while it’s those over the age of 18 who get to vote (though this was reduced to 16 for Scottish elections from 2015), it is people under the threshold who have to deal with the repercussions of those decisions in the long run.
“There is a real democratic deficit in that children don’t get to vote in these issues but they are the ones who will be most affected by the big decisions that adults make.
“So, I think more needs to be done to involve children and young people in the decisions that we make. That means looking at the voting age and also coming up with new and innovative ways of actually getting children’s views and involving them in the decision-making processes on these big constitutional changes.”
Arriving in Scotland he initially worked in the private sector, for a large commercial firm, before working at the Scottish Parliament as an adviser on constitutional matters.
He has also volunteered his services for 13 years’ to the Children’s Panel, “our version of the Youth Court/Family Court” and was chair of the Scottish Child Law Centre.
He says being Commissioner is a responsible job that reaches out to the most vulnerable.
“It is hugely rewarding. One of the great things about my job is that I spend a lot of time speaking to children and young people and that always gives you so much energy and inspiration; even young people that we are failing in the criminal justice system or who are experiencing poverty, spending time with them and getting to know them and their issues, and going out to make that change, that is one of the most inspiring, energising things you can do.”
On the morning of our interview, Mr Adamson was preparing to meet Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities, Angela Constance, about the need for a national action plan on human rights for children, with a particular focus on addressing poverty. He was going to push for immediate action on banning the physical punishment of children, and planning to challenge her on the issue of Scotland’s minimum age of responsibility – “eight, the lowest in the world, so that needs to change.”
When the Parliament returned on 5 September the government announced that those things would be included in its annual Programme for Government for the next year.
Rugby versus ‘fitba’
Not surprisingly, living in a football-mad country he finds he misses the fervour of New Zealand’s national sport
“I absolutely miss rugby and try as I might, I really struggled to convert that to the passion they have for football here. But the rugby is still pretty good here, the Scotland team can hold its own, and has improved a lot over the past few years, and the atmosphere at Murrayfield is really hard to beat. The Murrayfield Roar is pretty inspiring and to go there to see the All Blacks play, you can hear Flower of Scotland being sung and the All Blacks do the haka, that’s a pretty good day out to be honest.”
And he has found time to visit those castles he is so impressed by, and stop in at a few distilleries as well.
“A lot of them are still family run and you can always do a tour and tasting and there’s a vast variety of whiskies. I strongly recommend that people from back home come to visit.”