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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 Alison McInnes Alison McInnes Liberal Democrat

I, too, congratulate Margaret Mitchell on bringing the bill to Parliament. Since stage 1, there have been some changes to it that, in my view, improve it. The bill now offers a slightly different definition of apology. The new definition still includes the important aspects of an apology—expression of regret and a promise to look into the matter with a view to preventing something similar from happening again—but the removal of admissions of fault and factual statements ensure that we avoid the risk of causing unintended consequences.

As others have said, the bill also now exempts proceedings under the Children’s Hearings (Scotland) Act 2011 from its scope. That had caused me serious concern during stage 1 proceedings, because the bill as introduced could have meant that children’s panels would not have been able to do their job effectively. That was because, currently, apologies outwith proceedings may sometimes be used to establish grounds for referral to the hearings system. The bill as introduced could have had the potential to leave some children and young people behind, so I welcome the change to it.

In relation to protecting children and young people, I turn to an area that has not been discussed as much. During stage 1 proceedings, the Government argued that the bill would add further barriers to justice for the survivors of historical child abuse. At the same time, the Scottish Human Rights Commission and Margaret Mitchell said that the bill had the potential to help survivors.

I took the time to contact a number of survivor groups to gain a better understanding of where they stood on the issue. The response that I received was that, in general, survivors support the bill. One representative stated:

“many survivors of abuse do not wish to pursue legal redress but closure is important to them to ensure ongoing recovery. Survivors felt let down by those who should have offered them care and were deeply affected by their experiences. An apology does not put right what happened but it acknowledges the pain and distress caused and gives some comfort that lessons will be learned for the future.”

For many of the survivors, the issue is the time bar rather than the ability to use an apology in legal proceedings. The response I quoted is a clear example of the way in which an apology can have an important role to play in the healing process. It shows how an apology can enable people to move on with their lives.

During stage 1, I also raised concerns about the potential clash of the bill with the duty of candour provision in the Health (Tobacco, Nicotine etc and Care) (Scotland) Bill. I am pleased that that clash has been resolved. However, I note that the recent briefing from the Nursing and Midwifery Council states that the bill, as it stands, would prevent the NMC’s fitness-to-practise panels from relying on evidence that is currently admitted. I am therefore grateful for the minister’s assurances this afternoon that it is his intention that he will use the powers in the bill to add a further exemption. That is welcome clarification.

Finally, while I am still not entirely convinced that the bill will create the much-needed cultural change to make apologies more acceptable—which, in large part, was the purpose of the bill—I hope that it will be a good first step. Cultural and attitudinal shifts take time to happen. It is important that along with this legislation come appropriate education, training and guidance that further encourage that shift. We need organisations to encourage, not discourage, admissions of fault and apologies. We need to work together with the insurance industry to dissuade it from barring its customers from making apologies for fear of having their policies invalidated. The Scottish Liberal Democrats intend to support the bill at decision time.

I commend the member in charge of the bill, Margaret Mitchell, for her determination to pursue the issue and her willingness to negotiate with the Government to ensure that the bill could progress to this stage. I thank her for doing that and I hope that the bill brings about the cultural change that she hopes for.