Abusive Behaviour and Sexual Harm (Scotland) Bill

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 22nd March 2016.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Alison McInnes Alison McInnes Liberal Democrat

The bill addresses the need to tackle the damage that is done by abusive behaviour and sexual harm. The Government has acknowledged that the bill deals with only part of a wider problem, and I hope that Parliament will return as soon as possible to the issue of creating a specific offence of domestic abuse. We need legislation that can properly capture the complex web of coercive behaviour that is used to abuse victims.

Controlling and humiliating women is not new, but the ways of doing it change and our understanding deepens, and the law needs to keep up. The reckless or malicious sharing of intimate images can destroy lives, and it causes victims huge harm. One victim of so-called revenge porn explained:

“I felt sick, violated and completely crushed by this. I have been a nervous wreck since I became aware of it”.

The impacts of sharing intimate images can be far reaching and long lasting, with most people suffering some form of long-term anxiety and some facing self-harm and suicidal thoughts. Perpetrators must be held to account for their actions, and the creation of a new criminal offence in the bill will be an important step in the right direction. Such violations of privacy are unacceptable and will now be illegal.

During the committee stages, we explored concerns about the impact of the new offence on children and young people. There was a significant body of evidence to suggest that we should not exempt children from the provisions as the Law Society of Scotland had suggested. However, I seek assurances from the cabinet secretary that the appropriate route would be referral to the children’s hearings system rather than the criminal courts.

At stage 2, I lodged amendments relating to the need for a public information campaign and for schools to do much more in relation to consent and respect in personal relationships. I was grateful for the cabinet secretary’s assurance that he intends to tackle that prior to the implementation of the legislation.

Part 2 introduces jury directions relating to sexual offences and has—as we have heard this afternoon—become the most controversial part of the bill. However, it is clear that women face too many misconceptions and prejudices in rape and sexual offence trials. I believe that, with jury directions, the bill does nothing more than introduce a sensible safeguard, and I support their inclusion in the bill.

If I am allowed a moment’s reflection, Presiding Officer, I briefly highlight that this is the 17th bill that the Justice Committee has dealt with in this session of Parliament. Many of those bills have been of significant import, and it has been my privilege to serve on the Justice Committee for the whole of the current session.

I came into politics to make a difference and to speak up for those with no voice. If ever there was an example of a group of women with no voice, it was the women in Cornton Vale. I am particularly pleased, then, that I have been able to play my part, alongside progressive voices such as the Howard League Scotland and many others in civic Scotland, in securing the reform of the women’s prison estate.

In 2011, disturbed by a succession of damning reports from HM inspectorate of prisons for Scotland into Cornton Vale, the Justice Committee called the Scottish Prison Service and the Government to appear before the committee to account for their lack of action on the recommendations of Brigadier Hugh Monro, who was then HM chief inspector of prisons for Scotland. The Justice Committee’s on-going scrutiny led to the Government announcing the establishment of the commission on women offenders and set in train reform that resulted eventually in Michael Matheson’s bold decision to support the calls to scrap plans for HMP Inverclyde.

I pay tribute to the convener of the committee, Christine Grahame, who has been a benign, independent and very relaxed chair. She has always allowed committee members the space and time to pursue issues of importance to them. I thank also my fellow members of the Justice Committee for their diligent scrutiny of justice matters.

The decision on Inverclyde has presented us with an opportunity to do things differently and to redefine the experiences of women who come into contact with our justice system in future.

Let us not stop there. Prison has proven to be hugely ineffective—even destructive—for people who are given short-term sentences. It causes untold collateral damage to prisoners’ families. More children in Scotland each year experience a parent’s imprisonment than experience divorce, yet Scotland continues to have one of the highest prison populations per capita in western Europe and reoffending rates remain stubbornly high.

Too many people still find themselves in the criminal justice system because of poverty, addiction and mental health issues. I have long argued for radical and ambitious reform throughout the prison estate. The largely supportive welcome that Michael Matheson’s decision received last year shows that Scotland is ready and willing to consider taking a different approach. I fervently hope that, whatever the make-up of Parliament in the next session, prison reform is, at last, at the forefront of its work.