Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Bill

– in the Scottish Parliament on 16 March 2011.

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Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

The next item of business is a debate on motion S3M-8136, in the name of Rhoda Grant, on the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Bill. I repeat that we are very tight for time, so I ask members to stick pretty strictly to the times that they have been allocated.

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour

It gives me great pleasure to open the debate. The bill has taken a long time to bring forward, and there were times when I thought that we would never get here. Through the process, I have come to realise that there is a lot more to do in tackling domestic abuse—often, that knowledge almost derailed the bill.

Everyone to whom I spoke had another list of things that needed to be done, but much of that work cannot, in my opinion, be done in a member’s bill—for example, making restriction orders easier to obtain and ensuring that the victim and children can remain in the home. Work also needs to be done to protect children from domestic abuse, as being a victim of such abuse damages their life chances. Scottish Women’s Aid carries out good work with children, but we are some way behind other countries in protecting children and repairing the damage that domestic abuse does to them.

When I introduced the bill, I came up against human rights arguments. Although the clearest human rights argument I could find was that the state has a duty to protect citizens, that appeared to pale in comparison with the arguments that were put forward with regard to the offender’s rights.

When the bill was first introduced it contained a section on access to legal aid, which was subsequently removed for two reasons, the first being a human rights one. If the victim got legal aid, the defendant would need to get it too. It appears that the needs of the perpetrator take precedence over those of the victim. I believe that human rights legislation is there to protect citizens and victims, not offenders. Until we get our interpretation of those laws right, they will remain a bone of contention.

The second issue relating to legal aid was the inability to calculate the cost of the provisions in the bill. Legal aid that is paid in respect of domestic abuse is not measured separately, and there are therefore no robust figures to work from. That created enough doubt in Government and committee minds about the costs associated with the provision that they would not back it.

Subsequently, the Scottish Legal Aid Board gave reassurance on their procedures for emergency situations, whereby victims who are fleeing abuse can access legal aid immediately, which enables them to access protection. Such procedures are required by those who qualify for legal aid but cannot prove it because they have no access to their own paperwork, having fled an abusive relationship, or by people who have funds but are unable to access them if that might lead the perpetrator to track them down. In both cases, emergency legal aid is available. In the second case, repayment or a contribution towards the costs would be required to be made only when it was safe for the person to access their funds. However, if such procedures are in place, why would the provisions in the bill have led to increased costs? Legal aid legislation allows ministers to make legal aid available, free from contributions, to people who are in such a position. Primary legislation would not be required.

We are still picking up concerns about financial barriers to protection, and I urge the minister to examine that carefully and monitor the situation to find out whether such barriers exist. If they do, the cost for removing them should be brought back to the Parliament. Nobody should lack protection because of financial constraints; as a state, we have a duty to protect.

The second contentious issue in the bill was the inclusion of boyfriends, girlfriends and partners who are not or were not cohabiting. We struggled to find a definition for those people after stage 2, and were in danger of omitting them from the bill’s protection.

In 2009-10, the police recorded 11,000 domestic abuse incidents between partners and almost 19,000 incidents between ex-partners. We all know and use the terms “boyfriend”, “girlfriend” and “partner”, and we know what they mean. We know the nature of the relationship and we have no difficulty with it. It is disappointing that plain English does not suffice in legislation.

I recently spoke to Maureen Macmillan, who told me that during the passage of the Protection from Abuse (Scotland) Bill a similar problem with cohabitees arose—obviously, that is no longer a problem in law. Our legal system has to be fit for purpose. We need to use language that we all know and understand. That is a rant for another day, however.

I hope that we will not have problems in defining boyfriends and girlfriends in future. The form of words that the Parliament agreed is “an intimate personal relationship”, a definition that covers the spectrum of boyfriend/girlfriend relationships and partners in a relationship. The spectrum needs to cover every stage of the relationship from the start right up where another definition, such as married or cohabitee, applies. It is also clear that the definition covers same-sex relationships.

There were arguments about what stage of a relationship domestic abuse is likely to occur at and whether those who cohabit are at greater risk of abuse. It is clear from the figures that a significant number of people who suffer from domestic abuse do not live with the perpetrator. The bill must cover them. From anecdotal evidence, it is clear that domestic abuse can occur at any point in a relationship. In essence, domestic abuse is power-based abuse. It occurs when the perpetrator has the ability to exercise a degree of power over their victim. In some relationships, domestic abuse takes years to develop; in others, it takes just days.

Someone does not have to share a home with the perpetrator to suffer, but if the victim is a cohabitee, they need further protection. That protection is not offered in the bill. I ask the Government to take on board the need for a review of the protection that is offered in law to victims of domestic abuse and their children. Domestic abuse does not happen only in relationships that are fully sexual—relationships in which intercourse has taken place. It is about not the degree of physical intimacy but the ability to exercise power and control and to coerce. We need to protect all those who fall victim to this horrendous crime—a crime that is perpetrated by a person who is supposed to love and protect but who instead hurts and humiliates.

I ask members to support the bill at decision time. As I said, it is not the last word in tackling domestic abuse, but it is another step in the right direction. I look forward to the day when we as a Parliament and a society can eradicate this scourge.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees that the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Bill be passed.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

I am grateful for the opportunity to outline the Government’s approach to the bill.

In one unfortunate respect, the bill is timely, in that the incidence of domestic abuse has been highlighted recently following old firm games. Domestic abuse is a stain on Scottish society generally. We need to ensure that our action to tackle domestic abuse is effective in a wide range of areas, including those that the bill covers, such as civil protection orders. Indeed, that is why the Government has been supportive of most aspects of the bill, albeit that we had some concerns that were shared by others.

Rhoda Grant mentioned section 2, on legal aid. We were concerned about potential costs and about how the section would work in practice. I am thinking of multicrave actions in which protection orders and other outcomes such as divorce or contact and residence are sought.

The Justice Committee also raised concerns in its stage 1 report. It concluded:

“the Committee does not support section 2 which in effect would make legal aid free to all for applications to a civil court for an interdict with a power of arrest, or a non-harassment order, where domestic abuse was involved. In the view of the Committee, this provision would create an inequality of arms between the pursuer and the defender. Additionally, the Committee is not persuaded that domestic abuse cases should be prioritised above other cases for the purposes of legal aid.”

Although the Government opposed section 2 and it has been removed from the bill, I recognise the point that Rhoda Grant made. She alluded to the Scottish Legal Aid Board’s comprehensive statement on how it deals with legal aid applications that relate to domestic abuse. In addition, through the Legal Services (Scotland) Act 2010, the board has been given a duty to monitor the availability and accessibility of legal services and to advise ministers accordingly. Indeed, the measure was incorporated in the 2010 act at my instigation. To help it to implement its new role, the board is setting up an access to legal services reference group. Scottish Women’s Aid is being invited to join the group as a core member.

In her opening remarks, Rhoda Grant stated that in certain cases people still face barriers to access to justice. I give her an undertaking that if any such cases are drawn to our attention we will study the circumstances most carefully and explore with the Scottish Legal Aid Board whether more needs to be done. I must point out, however, that the Government has extended the availability of civil legal aid on financial grounds to around 50 per cent of the population—and we are proud of having done so, given that our priority in that regard has been to extend access to justice.

Another area of concern related to the definition of domestic abuse in section 4, which came in for some criticism. We shared concerns that it was too wide and agreed with its removal at stage 2. However, that move raised questions about how best to describe interdicts covered by the bill, particularly in relation to interdicts protecting boyfriends and girlfriends. As I said a moment ago, the bill now refers to people in intimate personal relationships, and we do not consider that such relationships need be sexual.

We welcome the bill. The Government will monitor the bill’s impact; improve its information on civil protection orders to tackle domestic abuse; and continue to examine all aspects of our work on tackling domestic abuse in our efforts to remove this stain from Scottish society.

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour

I join all those who have commended Rhoda Grant for bringing before Parliament this important legislation to tackle domestic abuse. She can be proud of her work not just on the bill but throughout her time in Parliament to highlight the need for concerted action to reduce the still unacceptably high levels of domestic abuse in Scotland. As the minister just said, in the past few weeks there has been a particular focus on levels of domestic abuse in the Glasgow area, but it is clear that, unfortunately, there is no quick fix to deal with this stubborn and serious problem in our society and that it will take a whole range of measures by our police and our justice system to reduce levels of offending. The fact that over the Christmas period there were nearly 3,000 incidents of domestic abuse in Strathclyde alone shows just how much more needs to be done to ensure that fewer women and children have to live in fear of abuse at home.

As I said, we need to do more, and the bill provides new protections and new remedies for victims of domestic abuse. I am glad that through the scrutiny of the Justice Committee, which has as always conducted its business with admirable efficiency, we now have a bill that commands support across the Parliament. Anxieties over the definition of domestic abuse were resolved at stage 2 and we have made progress in defining what a partner is in such circumstances. Although the committee did not support the bill’s original proposals for the provision of legal aid to domestic abuse victims, I am sure that we agree that the principle advanced by Rhoda Grant—that no victim of domestic abuse be excluded from taking action in the courts on the basis of financial capability—should, in practice, be met through our legal aid arrangements.

I welcome the fact that the bill’s two crucial elements on civil non-harassment orders and breach of interdict have won support. In the debate on the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Bill, we supported the Scottish Government’s proposals to remove for criminal non-harassment orders the requirement to show a

“course of conduct which amounts to harassment”, as we believed that such a move would benefit the victims of such offences. Although we did not support the bill in the final vote, because of our concerns over the presumption against three-month custodial sentences—not least for perpetrators of domestic abuse—we nevertheless supported the Scottish Government’s measure on criminal non-harassment orders for the reasons that I have just outlined. The Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Bill removes the same requirement for the granting of a non-harassment order in civil proceedings that involve domestic abuse. That, too, will benefit victims of abuse, who will not now have to suffer a series of offences before they can obtain such an order. Likewise, provisions that make it a criminal offence to breach an interdict with a power of arrest in domestic abuse cases also give further protection to victims and provide further penalties for offenders. Again, such moves should be very much welcomed.

To look forward, in tackling domestic abuse, the bill can, of course, be only one part of on-going work to ensure that we have in place a legal framework that does all that it can to help the victims of domestic abuse and prevent them from suffering further crimes against them in the future. I agree with the minister: the Scottish Government should always keep such matters under review to ensure that we are doing the best job that we can in serving the victims of domestic abuse. I believe that the bill is an important part of that work, and that today is a good day. We are seeking to redouble our efforts to tackle domestic abuse.

I congratulate Rhoda Grant again on all her work in bringing such an important bill before members.

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative

Instances of domestic abuse in Scotland remain stubbornly—indeed, disgracefully—high. There were 51,926 incidents of domestic abuse in the last recorded year, which is unacceptable. Those incidents happened despite the best efforts of everyone concerned over the past 12 years. It is clear that, if there is a gap or lacuna in the protection that is being offered to the victims of such abuse, it is incumbent on us to attempt to fill it, and that is what Rhoda Grant’s bill seeks to do.

Someone—I forget who it was—once described politics as being

“the art of the possible”.

Ms Grant seems to be an adherent of that view. There were one or two difficulties that she managed to overcome in a straightforward manner as she sought to get through a worthwhile bill, which reflects highly on her. She recognised the difficulties that undoubtedly could have arisen.

A number of us were considerably troubled by the legal aid aspect. There were the complexities of European involvement and the old equality-of-arms argument, which we have heard under many different headings. Rhoda Grant recognised that there would be a difficulty, but she proceeded in a fairly forthright and determined manner to ensure that, as far as possible, someone’s financial situation should not be an impediment to their seeking a remedy. On the basis of the undertaking that has been received from the Scottish Legal Aid Board, that has, of course, turned out to be the case.

The second difficulty was the problem of definition, to which I applied my mind without coming up with the answer. I am not totally convinced that we have resolved that difficulty. The record will certainly show that the minister’s views on it have been quite clear, and if there is a difficulty with regard to judicial interpretation somewhere down the road, his statement on the record will be very helpful.

As I said, domestic abuse is a serious issue. We can claim some success with it over the years—there has been a 4 per cent fall in the instances of such abuse—but the situation remains completely unacceptable by any standard. I do not think that what we are seeking to do today will be a complete remedy; that will be achieved only when there is an attitudinal change in people in Scotland, particularly young people. I find it rather depressing, to say the least, that many see as acceptable the type of conduct that we have spent a great deal of time trying to deal with in the Parliament over the years, including by trying to offer appropriate protection to victims. It is not acceptable. That is a pure and simple fact, and it has to be generally understood.

I congratulate Rhoda Grant, who has, I know, worked hard. She has spent a lot of time and effort to achieve what will, I am sure, be a satisfactory result, and she has helped to move the Parliament and Scotland further down the road of ensuring that adequate protection is in place for victims of domestic abuse offences.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

The bill addresses a serious matter to which the Parliament has devoted quite a bit of attention over the years since 1999 and which calls for serious politicians. Rhoda Grant has shown herself to be very much a serious and committed politician in bringing the bill to finality today. I join other members in congratulating her, not just on her expertise and skill, but on her determination to achieve the result.

There is probably a united view throughout the Parliament that domestic abuse is not satisfactory or tolerable in the sort of society that we want in modern Scotland. We have to consider the remedies and protections that are available. Domestic violence is one of those issues that remains underrecorded and underreported. One aspect that is probably also underreported and which does not get much mention, because domestic abuse predominantly involves women and children, is that of abuse against male partners.

The point has been made that domestic violence issues often emerge from a power tussle in relationships of one sort or another. That point has a considerable element of truth in it. We have protections in the criminal law against domestic abuse. When matters are serious and result in physical violence and things of that sort, we clearly hope that the police will deal with them. The police are much better at dealing with such issues than they were in the past, when there was a view about not interfering in domestic relationships. These days, the police are much more sensitive and attuned to the issues and deal with them much more appropriately. The more major issues should be dealt with through the criminal law, and rightly so.

There is also a necessity to deal with the not-quite-so-serious episodes—“lesser” would be the wrong word—many of which are on-going and harassing. Those are the issues on which the civil law can give a degree of assistance. When one looks back over the progress on the issue and considers the Matrimonial Homes (Family Protection) (Scotland) Act 1981 and the interdicts that go with it, it is perhaps surprising that the remedy that we have ended up with—in effect, that of making breach of interdict a criminal offence—was not arrived at in the beginning because, in a sense, it is the obvious way of tackling the issue. In the march of history, all the other mechanisms that we have had over the years, such as contempt of court proceedings, breach of interdict proceedings or the limited power of arrest, can manifestly be seen as staging posts along a line to something a bit better.

The bill originally attempted to introduce a number of provisions, but the ones that have got through at the end of the day are the right ones—the extension of the harassment definitions and the breach of interdict with power of arrest. I disagree to an extent with Rhoda Grant’s comment that, in the legal aid system,

“the needs of the perpetrator take precedence over those of the victim.”

I understand where she is coming from, but the legal aid system must have at its heart an equality-of-arms approach. That was clearly brought out in the committee’s stage 1 report and in the approach that was taken on the proposals. As the minister rightly said, none of that means that we cannot make improvements or deal with sensitivities and problems in the system that perhaps lead to people not getting legal aid in circumstances in which they need it. The evidence to the committee suggested that, at worst, that applies to a not very large percentage of people. However, there might be an issue of underreporting and underapplication that has to be dealt with.

On the matter of a definition, I believe that we have left ourselves with difficulties. The definition will need to be interpreted by the courts. The phraseology, although it will perhaps do the trick for the moment, has some difficulties, which I tried to point out in my examination of the issue earlier. Having said that, the bill is worth while and decent and will have an effect of value. I join other members in welcoming the bill and the work that has been done in bringing it about.

Photo of Stewart Maxwell Stewart Maxwell Scottish National Party

I begin where Robert Brown left off by saying how much I admire the work that Rhoda Grant has undertaken on the bill. It is not easy to take through any member’s bill, and some aspects of this bill were particularly difficult. We debated those aspects during the committee stages, although we did not come to an agreement. I am sure that Rhoda Grant is disappointed that some bits were removed, but I hope that she appreciates that the committee did its best to strike the right balance between the rights of all the individuals who are involved in such dreadful circumstances. I am sure that she knows that there was certainly no intention among committee members to side with the perpetrator in any way, shape or form in our views on the legal aid provision that was removed at stage 2.

I agree very much with previous speakers. As Bill Aitken said, in the latest year for which we have figures—2009-10—51,926 incidents of domestic abuse were recorded. That statistic is horrific on its own but, as we all know, such incidents are very much underreported—the actual number is much higher. I say that with confidence because, as the violence reduction unit has pointed out, it takes on average approximately 35 incidents of abuse before a victim reports the matter to the police. That shows that much domestic violence that is going on is not being reported, so we are—at least formally—unaware of it. There is no doubt that, although 51,926 is a tremendously awful figure, it shows only some of the problems that we face in our society.

Those of us who were at the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association event at lunch time saw some of the difficulties with gender-based violence in Malawi. To be frank, although the situation is dreadful here—I do not underplay it—we can be thankful that we do not face the difficulties that some countries around the world face.

The bill has been debated widely at the Justice Committee and in the chamber. I will not spend time on the technicalities, the finances, the legalities and all that, which many other members have mentioned and which the committee dealt with in depth. I will return to the principle behind why we are here in the first place—why Rhoda Grant introduced her worthwhile bill. It relates to the figures on domestic abuse. We know from evidence from the violence reduction unit on the British Medical Association board of science report of 2007 that about 30 per cent of domestic abuse cases start during pregnancy. When I first read that figure, I was utterly appalled—as I am sure other members were—that pregnancy was somehow involved in the beginnings of domestic abuse. Unfortunately, pregnant women who experience domestic abuse are twice as likely to have a miscarriage. That shows the seriousness of the issue, which involves not just violence against an individual but the repercussions of that violence.

It is shocking that nearly 40 per cent of all domestic abuse cases occur on a Saturday or a Sunday. We have had many debates and we have sometimes disagreed about how we tackle the problem of alcohol abuse in our society, but I hope that the fact that 40 per cent of cases occur at weekends will make us think that it is legitimate to link alcohol and domestic abuse. In the next parliamentary session, we must tackle the problem at its source, which means dealing with the alcohol abuse problem that unfortunately exists in some of our communities.

I will finish with one telling statistic. As Richard Baker said, the Christmas holidays are a particularly difficult time—they are a peak time for domestic abuse. On average, 142 domestic abuse cases occur each day during the year. Between Christmas eve and 1 January, the figure is 183 per day. On 1 January 2010, 395 cases of domestic abuse occurred. The connection between alcohol and domestic abuse is clear, and we will have to tackle it in some depth in the next session.

Photo of Bill Butler Bill Butler Labour

I welcome the opportunity to support the motion in the name of my Labour colleague Rhoda Grant. I offer her my unreserved congratulations on bringing to the Parliament a bill which, when enacted, will undoubtedly better the lot of victims of domestic abuse. Domestic abuse is a totally unacceptable and repellent form of behaviour, and she is to be commended for her hard work and commitment in producing a progressive bill that I am certain will be passed overwhelmingly at decision time.

The bill seeks to widen access to justice for victims of domestic abuse and to produce a more robust and reliable response to breached civil protection orders. As Mr Ewing said, there is no doubt that domestic abuse continues to be a stain on Scottish society.

Domestic abuse in all its forms is underreported, as Stewart Maxwell said. However, the figures that we have demonstrate the worrying extent of the problem. In Scotland in 2008-09, 53,681 cases of domestic abuse were reported to the police, which was an 8 per cent increase on the number that was reported in the previous year. The figure reflects the year-on-year rise of reported incidents since data first started to be collected in 1999-2000. There is, indeed, no room for complacency, even though there was a 4 per cent decrease in reported cases last year. For instance, repeated victimisation rates remain high, despite a fall from 61 per cent in 2008-9 to 57 per cent in 2009-10.

Those shocking statistics represent flesh and blood victims who are, overwhelmingly, female and who suffer physical and sexual abuse from partners and ex-partners. The crimes range from assault and physical attack to acts that degrade and humiliate women and are perpetrated against their will, including rape.

I believe that the provisions in Rhoda Grant’s bill will tackle deficiencies in the current law and support those who are victims of gross and barbaric behaviour.

Section 1 will introduce new section 8A into the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, which will remove the requirement to show a course of conduct before a non-harassment order can be granted in civil proceedings involving domestic abuse. The new provision will mean that someone will need to provide evidence of only one occasion of harassment and not evidence that such conduct has taken place repeatedly.

The Justice Committee acknowledged in its stage 1 report the wide support, including from the Government, for removing the course of conduct requirement for civil non-harassment orders, and it was quite right to do so. No one would wish to stand in the way of legislation that will remove the requirement for a victim to undergo, in effect, a period of repeated abuse before being able to access an order. Such a state of affairs is completely unjust and unacceptable. Section 1 represents a reform that is rational, sides with the victim and, frankly, is long overdue.

I also support section 3, which creates a criminal offence when an interdict with power of arrest is breached. That reform will remove from the victim the burden of pursuing a contempt of court through the civil court and will instead place it, correctly, on the shoulders of the authorities. That provision is civilised, progressive and worthy of unanimous support.

I welcome the amendment that Rhoda Grant proposed at stage 2 and which the committee agreed unanimously that provides for a maximum penalty of 12 months’ imprisonment on summary conviction for breach of an interdict with power of arrest. That amendment was wholly appropriate and proportionate.

The bill will ensure that essential protection is available to all victims of abuse, and it demonstrates that this Parliament, in the name of the people of Scotland, will always take the appropriate measures to defend victims of abuse. It is a good bill and will do much to make Scotland a better nation. I commend it to members.

Photo of Nigel Don Nigel Don Scottish National Party

I congratulate Bill Butler on that exposition of what Parliament is about, with which of course I entirely concur. I also congratulate Rhoda Grant on introducing the bill, on her tenacity—which has certainly been required—and on her pragmatism in adopting the changes that were forced on us.

On amendment 4, which we earlier introduced into the bill, I think that the minister got it right when he suggested that paragraphs (a) to (d) of subsection (2) of the new section will, as a matter of ordinary statutory interpretation, be put together as a group and that paragraph (d) will be read in the context of paragraphs (a) to (c). However, if he is wrong, then it is worth putting on record, certainly from my perspective as a member of the Justice Committee, that we did not envisage the important definition in paragraph (d) covering family members.

Robert Brown reminded us that the bill covers the situation where men are victims. We have begun to learn about that issue in my time in Parliament over the past four years. We have now as a Parliament, and perhaps as a civil service, come to understand that the victims of abuse are not automatically women and children. I am not sure that we have really got that into the institutional mind yet, but I think that we are making progress.

To refer to a point that Bill Butler and others made, criminalising breach of an interdict should be very effective. As I think Robert Brown said earlier, that measure seems overdue. It is an obvious way to deal with problems where civil law breaks down. The courts will have told someone what to do, but they might not be prepared to do it. If there is an interdict, why should the breach of it not be a criminal offence? We might increasingly ask ourselves that question. If contempt of court is not an effective sanction, we might need to think about generally criminalising breach of interdict. I mention that merely in the by-going.

Some further issues emerge from the revised financial memorandum to the bill. As the last back-bench speaker in the debate, I did not think that I would have much competition from people who had previously considered what was in the financial memorandum—it is not an area where we normally go. Time does not allow me to draw much to the attention of the Parliament, save to note that almost every paragraph of the memorandum says something along the lines of, “We don’t really know, because we don’t have enough information.” I think that that is indeed the case. It is a little sad, however, that for something so relatively simple and specific, the Scottish Legal Aid Board was not able even to distinguish between pursuers and defenders, and a good number of other bits of useful information were simply not available. Given that almost everything is computerised these days, one has to wonder why that was the case. People need to address a general question in that respect.

Paragraph 42 of the financial memorandum says:

“Finally, it is worth noting that the cost of domestic abuse to the Scottish public purse has been estimated to be as much as some £2.3 billion.”

In that context alone, it is clear that this entirely worthy bill has got to be worth the small costs that might accrue in other places.

Photo of Mike Pringle Mike Pringle Liberal Democrat

Like all other members who have spoken in the debate this afternoon, I congratulate Rhoda Grant on getting the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Bill through to stage 3. As I said last week in relation to the two members’ bills that were considered on the same day, any member’s bill requires a huge amount of work. Just getting it through the consultation stage, and then stages 1, 2 and finally 3, is a considerable achievement.

Scotland has developed an international reputation for its work on addressing violence against women, and domestic abuse in particular. The bill takes the work even further. My colleague Robert Brown has referred to the various things that have happened in the Parliament in this regard over the past few years. The Liberal Democrats welcome this debate on Rhoda Grant’s bill, and we will be supporting it at decision time tonight.

I congratulate the Justice Committee on all the hard work that it has done, in particular the huge amount of work on the bill that was done by the now ex-convener, Bill Aitken. I wish Bill well with whatever he does in the future. The Parliament will miss him sadly—I think that we all know that.

Congratulations must go, too, to the committee clerks for their work. They are the unsung heroes in the background, and they do a huge amount of work.

I reiterate the two main policy objectives of the bill. The first is to increase access to justice for victims of domestic abuse, and the second is to enable police and prosecutors to provide a more robust response to breaches of civil protection orders. I think that the bill will achieve those objectives.

From stage 2, the bill has been amended, resulting in the removal of section 2, which was on legal aid, and the removal of section 4, which covered the statutory definition of domestic abuse. Of course, there is currently no statutory or common-law definition of domestic abuse, although there are a number of commonly accepted and understood definitions and statements of what domestic abuse is, and those definitions will remain.

Section 2 would have amended the Legal Aid (Scotland) Act 1986 to make legal aid available without means testing in respect of all applications for an interdict with a power of arrest or a non-harassment order, where domestic abuse was involved. At stage 2, a Scottish Government amendment removed that section. Robert Brown, Stewart Maxwell and perhaps other members were extremely concerned about the amendments in relation to section 2. I am not a member of the Justice Committee, but I hope that they are satisfied with what the minister has said today and that they are happy with the way forward.

I agree with the minister that in this day and age we must all have a right to protection from violence, whoever we are, wherever we are and regardless of our situation and personal circumstances. I was particularly struck by what Stewart Maxwell said about new year’s day, and by the minister’s comments on the recent events in Glasgow, which I am sure that all members abhorred.

Domestic abuse is completely unacceptable in the 21st century. We must all continue to work together to tackle a continuing problem. The bill will do that. I congratulate Rhoda Grant on introducing the bill, which we will support at decision time at 5 o’clock—actually I think it is 5.25 pm.

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative

I thank Mike Pringle for his kind remarks, which I appreciated.

I hope that when the bill is passed, Rhoda Grant does not feel that because of what happened to section 2 she is getting only half the loaf—although half a loaf is clearly better than no loaf—because I do not think that that was the Parliament’s intention. The Parliament was confronted with a difficulty and it would have been unfortunate if we had passed the bill as introduced only to find ourselves faced with all sorts of challenges further down the road. That would have done no one any good whatever. Rhoda Grant has heard the minister underline SLAB’s undertaking that the situation with regard to legal aid should not be an impediment.

The bill is a good bill. We have had many debates on domestic abuse over the years. The current situation is unacceptable. Even today, when we have been debating fairly technical matters, appalling examples have been cited. In particular, what Stewart Maxwell said about assaults on pregnant women was disturbing. Such assaults are beyond the pale. Not only are the woman and children who happen to be in the locus affected, but there is every prospect that the unborn child will be profoundly affected. Some classic illustrations of that have gone through the courts recently, which underlines how vital it is to do something about the offence. To some extent, the incidence of such offences seems to be falling, but given the obvious underreporting the situation is not at all satisfactory.

I need not delay the Parliament for too long; I know that we have other business today. I congratulate Rhoda Grant on a job well done and I look forward to the bill being passed at decision time, whenever that might be.

Photo of James Kelly James Kelly Labour

I, too, congratulate Rhoda Grant on what I am sure will be the passing of the bill later this afternoon. As Mike Pringle said, navigating a member’s bill through the Parliament is a difficult task, which involves an enormous workload in addition to the other tasks that a parliamentarian must undertake. Rhoda Grant said that at times she wondered whether she would get to the finish line, which I think sums up the hurdles that she has had to overcome on the bill. That she has been able to overcome those hurdles is a tribute to her fortitude. It is fair also to pay tribute to the minister and his team, who worked constructively with her.

As many members have said, domestic abuse is a blemish on Scottish society. As Fergus Ewing said, the issue has been given focus in the coverage of recent events around old firm games, but domestic abuse happens every day in Scotland, as Richard Baker and Stewart Maxwell said. That should drive us not to be complacent, and it is one of the reasons why legislation is not only appropriate but necessary.

The bill that will be passed this afternoon will have two practical effects: it will improve access to justice for domestic abuse victims and provide more robust processes for prosecutors. To be specific, section 1, as Bill Butler mentioned, removes the requirement for a course of conduct in relation to non-harassment orders. That will make it easier for victims of domestic abuse to apply for such orders and achieve a more appropriate result. That is why section 1 in particular had the support of the Strathclyde Police domestic abuse co-ordination unit and the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland.

Section 3 will make it a criminal offence to breach an interdict with a power of arrest. It is difficult to prove breach of an interdict in a civil context, and the onus is put on the victim. The bill’s provisions will make the law more robust and should assist victims of domestic abuse.

Bill Aitken quoted R A Butler, a famous Conservative from the 1950s—I knew who he was talking about—who said that politics is

“the art of the possible.”

Another big political figure from the 1950s, Aneurin Bevan, spoke about the language of priorities being an aspect of politics. Rhoda Grant has brought the two together: she has achieved what is possible by navigating the bill towards the finish line and is addressing an issue that is a priority not only for the Parliament but, sadly, for many people throughout Scotland.

We are passing a lot of legislation in these final weeks. Much of it is meaningful and purposeful, but I suggest that Rhoda Grant’s bill will bring real benefit and make a real difference to the victims of domestic abuse.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

Maureen Macmillan was referred to earlier in proceedings, and I am delighted to see that she is in the public gallery witnessing the debate. I recall from stage 1 that Rhoda Grant mentioned that it was Maureen Macmillan’s idea that the bill should be proposed in the first place. That has proven to be a deft and effective piece of delegation.

I warmly congratulate Rhoda Grant on the work that she has done—it cannot have been easy, as the bill was complicated—and on the pragmatic and constructive approach that characterised her dealings with me and my officials throughout. I also thank the officials for their Trojan efforts throughout the bill’s passage through the Parliament.

No one pretends that the bill itself will remove the stain of domestic abuse from Scottish society. Tackling domestic abuse effectively involves a huge range of measures, and many members have highlighted the gravity of the problem that we face. Bill Aitken only a moment ago highlighted the appalling assaults on pregnant women, and Stewart Maxwell reminded us that the record shows that, of the incidents of domestic abuse that take place in Scotland each year, fewer than 6,000 are reported on a Tuesday night but more than 10,000 are reported on a Saturday or Sunday.

It is perhaps because of those shocking statistics that the police throughout Scotland are taking proactive measures and chapping on the doors of those with a record of domestic abuse to warn them that, if they misdemean again, perhaps on particular occasions such as old firm matches, the boys in blue will be watching what they are up to. I think that all members support that sort of proactive effort.

Nigel Don, as he often does, raised points that others did not, but it was fair of him to do so. He said that there was a lack of good information. I am determined that the Government will produce better information on civil protection orders to protect against domestic abuse. We will work closely, as we have already done, with Scottish Women’s Aid. We will amend the Scottish Government’s website to ensure that it reflects the changes. We will consider whether a hard-copy leaflet on civil protection orders would be helpful. We will involve fully Scottish Women’s Aid in all the work that we do in that respect.

Nigel Don echoed earlier concerns about whether the boyfriend/girlfriend amendment would inadvertently capture family members, which the committee did not intend should happen. By way of providing further ballast to the assurances that I have already provided, I state clearly to the chamber that when drafting the amendments we considered whether a specific exclusion was needed for family members. We decided that it was not needed, given that the new category will be read as including relationships that are like the relationship between spouses, civil partners and cohabitants. Therefore, it was not necessary to incorporate in an amendment the exclusion for family members, because the new category will be read as—I have been waiting 12 years for the chance to use this phrase—ejusdem generis with other relationships such as spouses and civil partners. I hope that that clarity will assist those who have the job of interpreting the legislation that we will produce today.

We as a Government have sought to tackle the issues surrounding domestic abuse with the co-operation of all parties in a very serious way. More than £44 million has been allocated over the period 2008 to 2011 to tackle violence against women. Seventy-three projects have been funded through the violence against women funding stream. There has been three-year funding for specialist children’s services through the children’s services Women’s Aid fund. All local rape crisis centres have been funded for a further three years. The children experiencing domestic abuse recovery programme has been launched. There has been funding for the Scottish domestic abuse helpline and national rape crisis centre, and almost £2 million has gone to fund the advice, support, safety and information services together project—the support service for victims going through the domestic abuse court. Rhoda Grant mentioned some of those wider issues. I am happy to confirm that more than £44 million has been devoted to those areas over the past three years—a hefty increase in the funding, which I believe has had the support of all members.

I thank Rhoda Grant for the constructive approach that she has taken to the bill. I congratulate her and all members who have participated in this debate and provided Scotland with this much-needed legislation.

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour

I thank all members who took part in the debate for their kind words—in fact, their words were so kind that when Roseanna Cunningham came into the chamber she asked whether I was standing down at the election, because people were being so nice to me. I tell her that it is not my intention to stand down, but that is up to the voters.

Before I address the points that arose in the debate, I will take a couple of minutes to thank some people, without whose help the bill would not be in front of us today. First, I thank all those who responded to the consultation. Special mention must go to Scottish Women’s Aid, both nationally and the various local offices. There are far too many people to mention, but I appreciate all their help, especially that of Louise Johnson, who helped every step of the way.

I also need to thank my staff and researchers, who have come and gone over the piece. Special thanks go to Marian Grimes, who helped me focus, and Liza Gilhooly, who has accompanied me throughout the whole parliamentary process. I am sure that Liza will be delighted that Nigel Don has studied the financial memorandum, because she put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into it.

I thank Unison, which sponsored the bill. I thank Dave Watson, Fiona Montgomery, Norma Black and Unison’s women’s committee. I also thank Norman MacAskill for designing the consultation document and Catriona Burness for pulling together case studies.

A huge thank you goes to James Clark, because the bill would not have got to this stage without him. I also thank Clare Connelly, who came up with the solution for how the bill could be shaped to tackle the issues. Clare carried out the 2003 study on civil protection orders, “An Evaluation of the Protection from Abuse (Scotland) Act 2001”, which gave her a clear understanding of what needed to be done.

I also want to thank parliamentary staff—committee clerks and support staff. Mike Pringle said that they are sometimes the unsung heroes and I am very grateful for all their help and support.

I need to extend a special thanks to the Parliament’s legislation team, who were wonderful, particularly Frances Bell. Frances was in the chamber for the earlier stages of the debate, when I was on my toes. One instance of how hard she works is that she phoned me at midnight over the Easter weekend last year, when she was still in the office and I was at home with a glass of wine. I am extremely grateful for that level of dedication.

I thank the committees for their scrutiny of the bill, and Fergus Ewing and his staff and officials for their help in drafting the amendments and their work to solve some of the highly technical issues that we faced.

I say a big thank you to Carol—that is not her real name—who allowed her story to be told to illustrate how the bill would help victims of domestic abuse. Last but not least, I thank Maureen Macmillan, who suggested the bill in the first place. I am not sure whether I should be thanking her or just saying, “That’s another fine mess you got me into.”

I appreciate the really good comments that members made during the debate. I am grateful to the minister for undertaking to investigate the barriers that exist. The problem may not be with legal aid, but with solicitors who may not be using the available provisions. I would be grateful if that were looked at as part of the research that the minister is to have carried out. I am grateful to SLAB and the minister for agreeing to further publicise the protections that are available for people who suffer from domestic abuse.

Robert Brown talked about the police and how they are now dealing seriously with domestic abuse. The bill will give them the tools that they badly need to help them to tackle the issue. The domestic abuse figures have fallen as a result of the work that they have been doing, and I hope that that will continue. Indeed, I hope that no victim will need to use the bill and that the police will offer them the assistance that they need without their having to go to court.

Stewart Maxwell and Bill Butler reminded us of the need for legislation by giving us stark statistics that highlight why we need to protect people. James Kelly said that the bill will improve access to justice and protection, and I very much hope that it will. Bill Aitken said that he hoped that I did not think that I was getting half a loaf; I do not. I am very pleased with the support that I have had, for which I am extremely grateful, and I thank Bill for his help throughout the process.

As others said, non-harassment orders will be much easier to obtain. As Bill Butler said, it was wrong that a course of conduct had to be shown before someone could get a non-harassment order. The bill will stop that happening. It will also mean that the state will deal with breach of domestic abuse interdicts. Nigel Don suggested that perhaps we should go further and have the state deal with all breaches of interdicts, but I, for one, am pleased that the bill will mean that people who suffer from domestic abuse will get that specific protection. Victims will no longer be responsible for going back to court to get redress.

A number of members, including Richard Baker and Stewart Maxwell, talked about the increase in domestic abuse that takes place around Christmas, around football matches and around alcohol consumption, but let us be clear that there is no excuse for domestic abuse—none of those things is an excuse for it.

As I said, the bill is not the last word on domestic abuse. It is merely another step along the way. I hope that a day will come when, as a society, we will not tolerate such abuse and victims will no longer live in fear.