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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 Gil Paterson Gil Paterson Scottish National Party

I thank Margaret Mitchell for her determination and the way in which she has chaperoned her bill through Parliament. She has been a good listener and made changes, and all that is to her credit.

The aim of the bill is to provide that an expression of apology is inadmissible as evidence for the purposes of civil legal proceedings, excluding defamation proceedings and fatal accident inquiries. As drafted, the bill makes provision for expressions of sympathy or regret, and any admission of fault or undertakings does not amount to an admission of liability. Apologies have the great value of acknowledging that something has gone wrong and demonstrating that lessons have been learned.

In the not-too-distant past, it was common in everyday life for people to make full apologies. It was considered to be basic good manners and it happened everywhere: in workplaces; at play, whether that was in the school playground or among older people at play; and in the home. However, even in those days, people could fall out for the simple reason that an apology was not given. It might have been through pig-headedness, but someone not saying could sometimes mean losing friends for life or starting a feud.

Having said that, I note that it was much easier in the past. I fear for the Americanisation of our culture because it has changed it for the worse. We now have an industry based around ambulance chasing and no-win, no-fee cases. When something happens within a company or officialdom, they are less likely to say that they are sorry, because they are worried about claims. We need to get back to where we were, and the bill will help us to achieve a more polite and non-confrontational society. I know that it will not be easy because we are looking for a cultural change.

Margaret Mitchell is to be congratulated on listening to the witnesses, but I should not forget to mention the Government, which has also played its part in making the change happen. The bill gets the balance right, and it will help to achieve the change in attitude that we are looking for.

Scotland is not the first jurisdiction to have such legislation. It is in force in the USA, Canada and Australia. Although the laws are not identical, they all seek the same outcome. An apology does not mean that litigation does not happen, but saying sorry does not mean that it will, and that is what everyone is trying to achieve. Under the legislation, a simple apology is just a simple apology. A simple “Sorry” can be said without fear of an admission of guilt. The bill gives space for an apology to be given without the fear of litigation.

For many people in everyday life, a simple apology still happens. However, even in serious circumstances, such as historical child abuse, victims crave an apology. That is not to say that victims of historical abuse, sexual or otherwise, would not want their case to be pursued in the courts, but, for many people, an apology is an enormous step forward in their lives. It could mean them moving forward for the very first time. A simple apology in itself can make a difference.

In general terms, as I explained, attitudes have hardened, and we need to find a way to overcome that with a simple apology. That could help society to change. Margaret Mitchell’s bill can change things for the better. She has been diligent in what she has tried to achieve, and I thank her for that.