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Apologies (Scotland) Bill

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 19th January 2016.

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Photo of Margaret McDougall Margaret McDougall Labour

I, too, congratulate Margaret Mitchell on bringing this bill to Parliament.

When I spoke in the stage 1 debate on the bill, I highlighted a number of concerns that I had with the bill. However, during the stage 2 discussions, the bill was amended. Those amendments dealt directly with the concerns that I had, so I am happy to support the bill today.

The stage 2 amendments focused primarily on tackling the bill’s unintended consequences. In doing so, they have made sure that inquiries under the Inquiries Act 2005 are no longer covered by the bill. The reason why that is important is that inquiries are primarily fact-finding exercises and they might find that apologies are in the public interest—that is for each inquiry to decide. If inquiries were not exempt, their independence would be brought into question, so the amendment to the bill is a welcome improvement.

I also welcome the fact that the Children’s Hearings (Scotland) Act 2011 has been exempted from the bill. Concerns were raised that, had the act been included, cases of child abuse might not see the light of day, or children might not get properly referred as there would be insufficient evidence to establish grounds for that. The amendment was necessary. If it had not been made, I could not have supported the bill.

The stage 2 proceedings also offered much-needed clarity on the definition of the word “apology” in the bill. Amendments 1 and 10 were in response to evidence taken by the committee that the definition of an apology needed to be reconsidered. The relevant set of amendments removed the references to “admissions of fault” and “statements of fact”. That helped to alleviate concerns that were raised about access to justice being blocked if those admissions and statements could not be used in court to determine liability in actions for damages.

Although my concerns regarding unintended consequences have been tackled, I am still unsure whether the bill will deal with the issue that is highlighted in the policy memorandum, which states:

“There appears to be an entrenched culture in Scotland and elsewhere that offering an apology when something has gone wrong is perceived as a sign of weakness.”

I am aware of such circumstances, but I am unsure whether this piece of legislation will be strong enough to bring about the required cultural change that it has been designed to make. That said, the bill is a step in the right direction and, if it promotes a cultural shift, that would be welcomed. Obviously, it is difficult to predict the social effects of the bill until we see its consequences in practice.

I argued in the stage 1 debate that

“there needs to be a better balance in the bill” to

“ensure, while remaining relevant, that there are no unintended consequences for victims.”—[Official Report, 27 October 2015; c 49.]

The changes that were made at stage 2 have addressed my concerns about the bill. As such, the bill has struck a much better balance between promoting a cultural shift and protecting rather than excluding those who are seeking justice. Once again, I congratulate Margaret Mitchell on introducing the bill.