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Inquiries into Fatal Accidents and Sudden Deaths etc (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 24th September 2015.

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Photo of Mike MacKenzie Mike MacKenzie Scottish National Party

As a layperson—that is, a non-lawyer who is not a member of the Justice Committee—I do not propose to talk much about the technicalities of the bill. Instead, my focus will be on the effect that it will have, or that I hope it will have, outwith the Parliament and outwith the courts in which our lawyers labour.

The bill attempts to address two concerns, which both have much merit. The first is the grief and anguish that is suffered by families and friends who have experienced bereavement in tragic circumstances. I have lost family and friends in that manner, so I know at first hand how important it is to have some understanding of how the tragedy occurred. For many, their faith sustains them in such circumstances and provides some help. For others, there is a loss of faith. For all, there is a need to try to understand and find some explanation that will allow them to make at least some sense of what is often an apparently senseless tragedy.

The desire to understand the world in which we live, with all its uncertainties, is a very human trait—perhaps the most human trait. Burns expresses it well in “To a Mouse” when he says,

“Still thou art blessed, compared wi’ me!

The present only toucheth thee:

But och! I backward cast my e’e

On prospects drear!

An’ forward, tho’ I canna see,

I guess an’ fear!”

Perhaps the need to understand becomes all the more urgent when we suffer bereavement because the need to protect our remaining loved ones is thrown into sharp focus when we suffer tragedy; perhaps it is because we are reminded of our own mortality and of how precious life is; or perhaps the reason is that the understanding of such tragedy is a necessary part of the grieving and the healing that we hope that affected individuals can achieve. Whatever the exact reasons, the need to understand is part of the essence of our humanity. I therefore commend the bill as a humane bill. As imperfect as any of our legislation might be, it is a step in the direction of greater humanity and, as such, should be welcomed.

There is a community need to understand such tragedies, too. I have lost three friends over the years from the small rural community in which I live—they were fishermen and were all young men in the prime of life—and I know how whole communities are affected when we experience such tragedies. I remember only too well the tangible pall that has hung over my community for many days on each sad occasion. The sombre talk is always about how this might have happened and why. At a community level, there is a need to understand and to try to make sense of what is apparently senseless.

Part of the intent of fatal accident inquiries has to be about achieving public understanding of such accidents, with a view to learning lessons so that we can avoid such tragedies. We have come a long way on better workplace health and safety practice over the period in which I have worked in the fishing and the construction industries, which are known to have high-risk aspects and in which more work needs to be done. I remember working practices that were common in my youth but which are quite unthinkable now. In fact, I shudder to think of the risks that we routinely took and thought nothing of—so much so that, in an entirely rational way, I regard myself as lucky to be alive.

There is no doubt in my mind that the better regard that we now have for human life and safety has been driven in no small part by lessons that we have learned from fatal accident inquiries. We should think a bit about that as we complain about regulation because, in our work to streamline regulation and to make it work better, we must not lose sight of everything that better regulation has done to lessen the possibility of tragedy and loss.

There are, no doubt, aspects of the bill that can be improved. I leave others to comment on that as the bill passes through Parliament. However, as I understand that it will replace and repeal an act that was passed in 1976, I can say that it is surely time that we updated our thinking. I am therefore pleased to support the general principles of the bill.