It is difficult to follow such a strong speech from Bill Aitken. It is a measure of his class as a parliamentarian that, in his final speech to the Parliament, he was so dignified and made so many strong points about the bill that we are discussing and about his attitude to his colleagues. Today marks the end for him of 35 years of public service. I pay tribute to him for that public service as a councillor in Glasgow, as a Glasgow MSP and as convener of the Justice Committee. He has always been a very fair person, although we have had our disagreements. As the Justice Committee convener, he was always very supportive of other committee members and we saw that in his contribution today. I have a great regard for that. It is also right that his Conservative party colleagues have turned out in such numbers for his final contribution, which was fitting indeed.
I echo the comments that have been made about Robert Brown. If he does not return after the election, it will be a loss to the Parliament and the Liberal Democrats. He has a great deal of experience in justice matters and the constitution. He was a minister for education and he can speak in the Parliament on a breadth of issues. His contribution has been significant during the past 12 years and I wish him all the best for the future.
I also briefly mention Alasdair Morgan who, as Deputy Presiding Officer, chaired the beginning of the debate and who is standing down. It is significant that I have managed to reach the end of four years in the Parliament and he has never once switched off my microphone.
I pay tribute to Trish Godman, Deputy Presiding Officer, for the way in which she has handled proceedings. She has always been fair and dignified, but perhaps her choice of outfit today shows her true colours. I wish her all the very best as she heads off to the paradise of her retirement.
It is right that this session should close on a debate on the Double Jeopardy (Scotland) Bill, about which there is consensus across the parties. We are passing a serious piece of legislation by, as Stewart Maxwell pointed out, putting the 800-year-old principle of double jeopardy into statute. It is right to build on the work of the Scottish Law Commission and, as Lord Gill said, this is a matter of considerable constitutional significance.
It is also correct that there should be exceptions to the double jeopardy rule and the principal reason for that is that victims and their families must get justice. For someone who has been the victim of a crime or who has lost a family member, there must be no feeling worse than that of not seeing justice done, or seeing someone acquitted when there seems to be evidence against them that could lead to a conviction but which is not allowed by the current law of the land. The main driver for the change must be justice and there is a strong moral argument in favour of that.
We have reached this point in 2011 because tremendous advances in science and DNA technology mean that a lot more information can be made available to retry cases than was the case 20 or 30 years ago. The bill’s principles will also allow the law to be applied consistently and with certainty.
There has been some disquiet in legal circles about the bill’s principles, but the Parliament has considered those issues carefully through all the stages. In its final form, the bill takes the correct position.
On tainted acquittals, it is correct that if someone has acted inappropriately to pervert the course of justice, the case should be brought back to court. The Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service got the right balance in its input into the legislation on tainted acquittals.
On admissions, there was some debate in the committee evidence sessions about whether it is right to include admissions when the new information is received pre or post acquittals. The weight of the evidence, including from Victim Support Scotland and the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland, supported taking the new evidence regardless of whether it was pre or post acquittal, and for me that is absolutely correct. It gets the balance right.
There has been some discussion about the general new-evidence exception and whether it is correct to apply it. Ultimately, as with so much of this debate, when new evidence comes forward we need to consider the impact on the victims and their family. It is correct to introduce the new-evidence exception.
On the offences to be covered, the Government’s original approach was to draw up a list. I had some sympathy with that approach, but it was discussed at length in the committee at stage 1 and the committee put forward an alternative. That has been fine-tuned by the Government, so that the cases to which the exceptions apply will be those that have been tried at the High Court. On reflection, I think that that is the correct approach, as it captures the correct number of offences and gives the right amount of flexibility to bring appropriate cases forward.
There was quite a bit of discussion at committee about whether another case should be brought when a person is assaulted, someone is acquitted of the assault and the victim subsequently dies. Some concerns were expressed about that but, again, I agree with the approach in the bill. Appropriate safeguards have been built in to apply before a new investigation could be started. Such an investigation would clearly bring different aspects of evidence, and prosecutors would have to look closely at them to decide whether to bring forward a case.
Retrospectivity is one of the key principles of the bill. It is correct that the new evidence exception should be applied retrospectively. Obviously, the advance in DNA technology means that a lot more data can be acquired and brought forward as evidence than previously. We need only to consider cases such as the Dunlop case that Cathie Craigie has quoted in this and previous debates and which lends great weight to the argument that it is correct to apply exceptions retrospectively.
As there appears to be some time, I will highlight some of the contributions that have been made during the debate.
The cabinet secretary looked back to the debate on double jeopardy that took place just before the 2007 election. He was right to highlight that there were a lot of important contributions in that debate and that, in many ways, it set the scene for the bill. I was not a member of the Parliament at the time, but I have read the Official Report of that earlier debate and it is interesting to see how the issue has developed through to this closing debate of 2011.
Robert Brown, Stewart Maxwell and Nigel Don have all spoken about the importance of the Justice Committee and the contributions that it has made. Nigel Don was right to bring out his file—although it might be said that it is one of the lighter files that we have had over the session. Nigel Don is a great supporter of the Justice Committee. He is always telling us how hard we work to examine things diligently. With his display of the folder, he was showing the large amount of work that produced this much smaller bill. That is not in any way a criticism of the bill—legislation worded correctly and succinctly is much easier for legislators and lawmakers to interpret. The Justice Committee, along with civil servants and the ministerial team, has made a tremendous contribution to that.
Cathie Craigie spoke about how opinion has progressed through the years. That is correct. When there is potential for a miscarriage of justice, the internet and 24-hour news mean that there is now a lot more publicity about it, so the concerns of victims are highlighted greatly. That is part of the reason that we have got to the situation that we are in today in passing the bill.
Like others, I pay tribute not just to the Justice Committee, but to the clerking team, which has given us great back-up and support. That has helped tremendously in enabling the committee to look expertly not only at the bill, but at the other aspects of legislation that have been dealt with in the Parliament.
This has been an important debate with which to close the session. There have been serious issues to consider and Scottish Labour firmly supports the passing of the Double Jeopardy (Scotland) Bill at stage 3. It is in the interests of justice, it will instil public confidence and it will ensure the consistent application of the law. With that in mind, we will support the bill at decision time.