Abusive Behaviour and Sexual Harm (Scotland) Bill

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

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Photo of Margaret McDougall Margaret McDougall Labour

Thank you, Presiding Officer, for your kind words.

I am disappointed that the Scottish Government rejected my amendments to the bill, and I will continue to push my case. As it stands, the section of the bill that deals with the illegal sharing of intimate images includes only

“disclosing, or threatening to disclose ... a photograph or film which shows, or appears to show, another person ... in an intimate situation” without prior consent.

I support the creation of the new offence, as the law desperately needs to be updated to provide for the new, digital age, but I believe that it is far too narrow. Everyone who owns a smart phone, a tablet or even a computer knows that you can take a screenshot that then becomes an image, and that represents a glaring loophole in the legislation—the sharing of text. The Government has missed an opportunity here by not future-proofing the bill. As I said during the debate on amendments, Scottish Women’s Aid is clear—as is Police Scotland—that written and audio communications should be included in the bill.

Although I acknowledge that it was raised during the evidence sessions that the sending of abusive or threatening messages is already against the law, the sharing of intimate text or messages is not. For example, the sharing of an intimate image on Facebook without consent would, under the bill, be a prosecutable offence. However, what if someone was to share a non-intimate picture of a person and then include intimate text relating to that person? That seemingly would not fall under the remit of the bill. It is not good enough to say that that does not happen online or that there is no dedicated website for it. It may be rarer than the sharing of intimate images, but it does occur. The sharing of that type of content has the same effect as sharing intimate images without consent: it is designed to damage, embarrass or shame the victim. The fact that it occurs less frequently than the distribution of intimate images does not mean that we should ignore it.

As I said at stage 1—I feel that it needs repeating, given the cabinet secretary’s comments during the stage 2 committee proceedings—I am not advocating that we make the process of sexting between consenting adults illegal; nor am I suggesting that we criminalise those who are 16 or under who have engaged in the process consensually. What I am proposing is that the sharing of sexts or any intimate photographic, film, written or audio communication non-consensually should have been included as an offence within the bill. When the action is designed to be malicious or cause harm, that would include such messages from those aged under 16. Indeed, the children’s commissioner, Tam Baillie, did not want children to be exempted from the offence, although he and others recommended the provision of a robust education programme for school children on the dangers of sexting. I heard a report on the television this morning that said that sexting has increased twelvefold in England. We need assurances that the education will be adequately funded to discourage the practice here in Scotland.

Although I will support the bill, as it is a step forward in tackling revenge porn, I fear that the Government is being short-sighted by refusing to acknowledge that this loophole exists. The legislation is not future-proofed, and the fact that the cabinet secretary does not seem to be aware of the extent of the problem does not mean that it does not exist.

As the Presiding Officer mentioned, this is my last speech in the chamber. I have been here a relatively short time compared with some of my peers, and, over the past five years, it has been a great honour and a privilege to represent the people of the West Scotland region—particularly the North Ayrshire area, where I have largely focused my efforts.

Parliament is very different now from how it was five years ago. We now have three female party leaders—Kezia Dugdale, Ruth Davidson and Nicola Sturgeon—and, of course, Scotland’s first female First Minister. That sets a great example for women and girls across Scotland, yet more work still needs to be done to get a better gender balance in this place.

Apart from all the bills that have been passed, constitutionally, we had the independence referendum—Scotland’s first ever democratic say on whether we should stay in the union—which has created a more engaged and politically aware electorate than ever before. We have also seen one of the biggest transfers of powers since devolution, which will make this Parliament one of the strongest devolved Parliaments in the world. I am proud to have been part of this historic term, and I hope that parliamentarians make the most of those powers in the future.

My time here has been varied but never dull. I have been a member of five different committees—latterly the Justice Committee—although I was not on all of them at once. I thank the clerks of all those committees for the help and support that they have provided over the five years that I have been here.

I have also been the convener of the cross-party group on volunteering and the voluntary sector and the cross-party group on housing. I have greatly enjoyed both and I would like to extend my thanks to the secretariat and members of both groups. I hope that they will continue in the next parliamentary session, because they are important.

I would also like to extend my thanks to Sir Paul Grice and all the Parliament’s staff for their support, which has been exemplary, as well as to all the auxiliary staff who make this place function behind the scenes.

I thank my Labour colleagues, because we have gone through quite a journey together these past few years, and I especially wish them—and all the MSPs across the chamber—all the best for the future, whether they plan to stand again or are moving on to pastures new.

Finally, I thank my constituency staff, past and present, who have supported me over the past five years. This has been a fantastic experience and privilege. One thing that I have learned is that this Parliament is at its best when we pull together across the chamber, because we all want what is best for Scotland.