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 Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour

I pay tribute to Malcolm Chisholm. It is fitting that he has made his final speech in this debate, because his contribution to tackling violence against women is second to none. He spoke out about violence against women long before tackling abuse was universally supported, at a time when it was still common for people to talk about “a domestic”. He leaves a Parliament that is committed to ending violence against women. In many ways, that is due to his tireless work in the area.

I also pay tribute to Margaret McDougall, who has, as she said herself, been in Parliament only for a comparatively short time. However, she has made her mark—not least, during consideration of this bill. I will come back to that. I wish Margaret, Malcolm and other members who are leaving Parliament for the last time well for the future. I know that whatever they choose to do in the future they will continue to influence Parliament and use their knowledge and experience for the good of the people of Scotland.

One of the main purposes of the bill was to tackle revenge porn. It is right that we are legislating on that. In an age of increased use of technology and social media, intimate information can be disseminated quickly, and with devastating consequences. Making such dissemination a crime might force people to think twice before they share information.

Margaret McDougall sought to strengthen that aspect of the bill by extending its scope to sound and written information. She was right to do so, so I am disappointed that her proposed approach was not agreed to. Some of the reasons that the cabinet secretary gave for not agreeing to her approach could have been applied to any other aspect of revenge porn. I am concerned about that.

The bill needs to cover every type of information that may be disseminated to embarrass, humiliate or, indeed, blackmail a person. The wider the definition, the better able we will be to deal with developing means of communication, and to ensure that there are no loopholes.

We need to inform young people about what they should and should not share. Intimate pictures should never be shared over the internet, by text or by social media. Once they are out there, they can never be recalled and a person has very little control over them.

Sexting is no different. Actions and messages that are sent consensually but privately can be used against the other person as revenge at the end of a relationship in order to humiliate, embarrass and blackmail, so they, too, should have been included in the bill. Young people come under huge peer pressure to do it, so we need to consider how we can make them aware of the dangers of those actions. The ramifications of such information being distributed widely can impact on one’s mental health and have devastating consequences. Advice and information about internet and social media safety need to be delivered at home, at school and through youth groups. Social media platforms also have a duty to educate and to highlight the new law as a prevention measure.

There has been controversy over judicial direction, but misunderstanding of the nature of rape and sexual assault is widespread. Judges need to ensure that the jury understands the impact of those crimes and victims’ natural responses to such attacks. We need to ensure that the jury does not assume the media portrayal of rape, stranger danger and extreme physical violence. Juries need to understand the requirement to obtain consent and ensure that the person is able to give informed consent to sex. I have concerns about the ability of some judges to give that direction. It is clear from some judgments that have been handed down—John Finnie gave examples—that some judges have very little understanding of those concepts. There should be a requirement to train judges and the legal profession about what constitutes rape and what constitutes sexual assault, and what is acceptable in cross-examination of a rape victim.

Juries may need to be trained before they take part in such trials. That is because of the widespread use of and access to pornography, which peddles the myth of men’s entitlement to sex. Young people get their sex education from pornography, which leads young men to believe that they are entitled and young women to believe that they have to deliver. How can people who have those preconceptions provide safe judgments in rape trials?

I want to touch on non-harassment orders and a person’s being unfit to stand trial, which has not been much discussed during the debate. There has been a step forward, but again I am not sure that it will provide the required protection. Breaching a non-harassment order is a criminal offence, but if the person is not fit to stand trial for the behaviour that led to the granting of the order, it is difficult to see how they can stand trial for breaching it. Surely someone who causes harm to another person, albeit that they are unfit to plead, should be restricted or detained in a way that protects their victim until such time as they can be treated, they no longer pose a threat, or they are able to stand trial. I understand that the law must protect the vulnerable, but it should not leave victims in fear.

In conclusion, I believe that the bill will make a difference, and we will support it, but I regret that there was very little time, commitment and effort on it. Had there been more of that, we could have gone much further. The bill is the only piece of legislation that supports the equally safe strategy. If that is the level of the Scottish Government’s commitment to the issue, it does not augur well.

If we are to tackle violence against women, we need to take steps to criminalise every aspect of that violence and we need to take steps to stop the perception that men are entitled. Violence against women is not a women’s problem; it is a problem with a minority of men, and the views and actions of that minority cannot be condoned or tolerated. We need a brave Government to tackle that, but I am afraid that the current Government has fallen short of that.