Institutional Child Abuse

– in the Scottish Parliament at 2:05 pm on 1st December 2004.

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Photo of George Reid George Reid None 2:05 pm, 1st December 2004

The next item of business is a statement by the First Minister on institutional child abuse.

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour 2:06 pm, 1st December 2004

Presiding Officer, with your permission I wish to make a brief statement in advance of this afternoon's debate on institutional child abuse. I want to speak on one subject that should unite us, whatever opinions might be expressed in the debate that follows.

I have said often that I am proud to be First Minister of Scotland—and I think that I speak for everyone when I say that I am particularly proud of Scotland's young people. I believe that we are the best small country in the world and I take pride in the way that Scotland has made, and will continue to make, a huge contribution to the world. However, we also have a duty to address those episodes in our history in which we can take no pride.

It is clear that some children were abused in Scottish residential care homes in the past. Children suffered physical, emotional and sexual abuse in the very places in which they hoped to find love, care and protection. Those children, adults today, deserve our full recognition of what happened to them. They should not have been abused. They were badly wronged. Such abuse of vulnerable young people—whenever or wherever it took place—is deplorable, unacceptable and inexcusable.

Members will be aware that litigations are currently before the courts in which those issues are being examined. Those proceedings will establish, in accordance with the law, where responsibility lies and what should happen as a result. It would be inappropriate for me to say anything that would cut across the work of the courts and that is not my purpose here today.

We should be grateful to those who, despite their pain, have brought these matters to our attention. I am grateful to Michael McMahon and the Public Petitions Committee for sponsoring the debate that we will hold this afternoon. Because of the bravery of those who have suffered abuse, we now know much more about the propensities of some members of our society to abuse children. There is now a much greater awareness in our society that such abuse of young people did happen and we know that, without the vigilance of all of us—including Government and its associated agencies and authorities—it could happen again. It is that recognition of the potential for abuse that has led to alterations to the statutory and regulatory structure in which establishments operate, and how we monitor them.

It would be a mistake for us to try to fit all that happened in the past into the framework of our own knowledge and experience, but some things are and always have been wrong. Now that we know what has happened, it falls to us, as representatives of the Scottish people, to acknowledge it. It is for this generation of the people of Scotland to say quite clearly that it was unacceptable that young people were abused and that it was appalling that they were abused by those entrusted with their welfare. That is why, today, I offer a sincere and full apology on behalf of the people of Scotland to those who were subject to such abuse and neglect and who did not receive the level of love, care and support that they deserved, and who have coped with that burden all their lives.

I know that MSPs of all parties are committed to doing all that they can to ensure that no child or young person currently in residential establishments in Scotland suffers abuse. That is why we are ensuring that inspection, regulation and standards are in place to prevent, detect and deal with abuse, and we are anxious to do the right thing by the survivors of past abuse.

In the committee debate that will follow this statement, Peter Peacock will set out the proposals that we have developed with survivors of abuse to support them more effectively in a range of ways and to examine what happened to them. Scotland should be proud of the contribution that survivors of abuse have made to ensuring that Scotland is a better and safer place in the future. They are truly remarkable people who have suffered in ways in which no one should ever have to suffer. From today, I hope they can continue to move forward in their lives, certain in the knowledge that we in the Parliament, on behalf of the people of Scotland, recognise that they were wronged and that we will do more to support them in the future than we have ever done in the past.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

I unreservedly welcome the First Minister's statement and associate myself and the SNP with his comments. I will speak at greater length later in the debate, on behalf of some of my constituents, but I want to say now that the extent of the emotional, physical and sexual abuse that was suffered over the years by too many children in care homes is absolutely horrific. It is right and essential that that horror is acknowledged.

When a child is placed in care, the state assumes parental responsibility. The widespread and systematic nature of the abuse that took place demonstrates a failure to protect those children. We all know that saying sorry does not make everything okay, but it does acknowledge the pain that was suffered, and is still being suffered all these years later, by the victims of abuse, and the share of the responsibility for it that the state must carry. I sincerely hope that in some small way the public apology that the First Minister made today on behalf of the people of Scotland will help to relieve the continuing suffering of those who have gone through experiences that the rest of us cannot even begin to imagine and that we all hope will never be repeated.

Photo of Annabel Goldie Annabel Goldie Conservative

On behalf of the Scottish Conservatives, I thank the First Minister for an advance copy of his statement. I too welcome the opportunity to express our profound sorrow for and sympathy with those who, while in care, found themselves victims of child abuse. Child abuse is abhorrent in any circumstances, but when its perpetrators are those who have been entrusted with the care of children, and in whom those children have placed their fragile trust, it is a particularly vile and odious betrayal.

The damage that was inflicted on these hapless victims is incalculable and left them with shadows and dark corners for the rest of their days. It takes a particular kind of courage to be prepared to come forward, or even to be able to talk of these dreadful events. On behalf of the Scottish Conservatives I pay tribute to those who, from somewhere, found that courage and in so doing enabled the rest of us to understand, probably for the first time, the hell that they endured.

It is important that the Parliament sends out a clear message to the victims of such harrowing experiences that we stand with them and that they are not diminished, stained or set apart by what happened to them. We are with them. It is also important for the Parliament to be alert to what the political process can offer by way of help and support. I acknowledge the measures that the Scottish Executive has already taken, with "Protecting Children and Young People: the Charter" and "Protecting Children and Young People: the Framework for Standards". However, the Scottish Conservatives urge the setting up of an independent inquiry, not only to uncover the problems of the past but to evaluate whether the measures that have been put in place during the past 10 years are effective and whether other measures need to be taken. We will listen with interest to what the Minister for Education and Young People has to say in this afternoon's debate.

Photo of Jim Wallace Jim Wallace Liberal Democrat

We heard, and I am sure that the nation heard, the political leaders in our Parliament share the grief and sorrow that our country feels for its children who endured abuse at the hands of those whom they trusted. As Deputy First Minister, and on behaIf of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, I add my voice.

On behalf of and before Scotland, we have come to the Parliament to apologise to and show our respect for survivors of abuse. None of the suffering should have occurred and words cannot remove their pain, expunge their memories or wipe clean the blemish.

For survivors, the pain is not just in the past; it lives on. We are humbled by their determination, courage and dignity. Let us at least learn from what happened to them. Let us ensure that we have in place all the safeguards that we need. Let us not forget. Let us be vigilant, so that we never permit a return of what should have been banished from our land for ever.

Those of us who are parents will no doubt think, "What if I were not here? What if my children were alone? What would I want for them?" Those thoughts should guide us as we care for our nation's young who are at risk or in need. Among the first duties of any society is to nurture and protect its children. It is clear that we manifestly and grievously failed some. It is right that we apologise for that and, in doing so, reaffirm our determination to ensure that never again will vulnerable children live in fear and misery.

I support the full and sincere apology that we heard from the First Minister. In acknowledging with gratitude and respect those who brought shameful events to public view, we commit ourselves to ensuring no repetition of them in 21st century Scotland.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green

I add my and my party's complete agreement with the sentiments that the First Minister expressed and our support for the commitments that he made.

I agree with the sentiments that previous speakers expressed. We should apologise. If we were not aware, we should have been. The damage caused by the abuse of young people by adults is deeply wounding and can affect succeeding generations. We must recognise the severity of those wounds.

On behalf of ourselves, the Parliament and the nation, it is right to express our deep sorrow that, in homes that we had a right to expect would deliver the highest quality of professional care, such awful things happened. Annabel Goldie's reference to a "vile and odious betrayal" sums that up most effectively.

I thank the First Minister for giving us the opportunity through his apology to express our feelings on the matter.

Photo of Rosie Kane Rosie Kane SSP

I, too, thank the First Minister for, and associate myself and my party with, his statement and apology. He and all of us recognise the importance of acknowledgement and apology for victims and survivors of abuse. I hope that all organisations and orders follow that lead and understand the need to deliver a sincere public apology in the same dignified manner.

No one who has been involved at any level in the subject of today's debate could fail to be moved, shocked and frightened by what we have had to learn on our journey through the history of children in care in Scotland. That journey and our understanding of events may bring us to a place where we can truly start the healing process. I sincerely hope that today's apology and other events in the chamber will allow us to do that.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

I speak for the independents to record our appreciation of the quality and sensitivity of the First Minister's remarks. I take some hope from his concluding sentence, which contained a pledge to continue to support the victims of abuse. I take it that that includes people who are now outwith the care system, but still feel the effects of abuse.