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

I am delighted to participate in this afternoon’s proceedings on the Abusive Behaviour and Sexual Harm (Scotland) Bill, which is the final piece of legislation that we will deal with in this session.

From the contributions that have been made, there is a clear consensus that the bill contains many positive provisions that will help to tackle the very worst manifestations of abusive behaviour. The cabinet secretary spoke eloquently about that.

In the time that is available to me, I will focus my remarks on three specific areas of the bill: the domestic abuse aggravator, the new offence covering unauthorised disclosure of an intimate photograph or film, and statutory jury directions.

I turn first to the domestic abuse aggravator. Incidents of domestic abuse are increasing and breach of the peace convictions for offences that are related to domestic abuse have also risen significantly. That probably reflects the targeted efforts of Police Scotland and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service to secure justice for victims who have been tormented at the hands of their abusers. Such behaviour is repugnant, and is especially unforgivable because it violates and exploits the very bonds of trust that are implicit in a relationship. I therefore welcome the introduction of a statutory aggravation of the abuse of a partner or ex-partner, which bolsters support for prosecutors in dealing with such crimes and creates the possibility of more severe sentences for perpetrators of domestic abuse, which I consider to be a positive step.

Let me now turn to the provisions that create an offence of disclosing, or threatening to disclose, an intimate photograph or film of another person without their consent. Such behaviour is inexcusable and is profoundly distressing and damaging for victims, who are often young adolescents. It is increasingly facilitated by advances in technology that provide perpetrators with the media to make such images, as well as the platform on which to share them with a widespread audience. The new offence recognises advances in electronic communication and provides clarity. I know that some concerns were expressed in the stage 1 report, so I urge the Scottish Government and the prosecution service to monitor closely the implementation of sections 2, 3 and 4 in the next parliamentary session.

I will now briefly address the introduction of statutory jury directions for sexual offence cases, which Margaret Mitchell described in her opening remarks as a worrying example of “constitutional creep”. I regret that the issue could not be the subject of specific debate this afternoon. The matter is important and it merits such discussion. I share my colleague’s reservations. Although I understand the intent behind the policy proposal, the Government is not getting this bit right. As many people in the legal profession are, I am concerned that such measures will blur the constitutional divide between legislators and the judiciary. In any criminal proceedings, the judge must remain master of the law and be free to exercise judicial discretion based on the circumstances of the particular case and the evidence that is being led. Christine Grahame made a particularly cogent contribution on that. In the absence of the opportunity to amend the bill on this aspect at stage 3, I hope that new and returning members of Parliament will in the next parliamentary session assess the impact of the provisions on the courts.

Notwithstanding that one reservation, my party will support the bill at decision time. It takes us into new territory and offers new help and hope.

As you indicated, Presiding Officer, this is my final speech in this Parliament so, with your indulgence, I would like to share a few concluding observations. My first speech in Parliament was in the first-ever debate here. We were all a fine set of rookies and pretty clueless as to what was going on; indeed, some may say that I leave this place as I entered it. [Laughter.] Back in May 1999, I was supporting my colleague Alex Fergusson in his attempt to secure prayers in Parliament. Amid the general confusion, I felt that the combination of Alex Fergusson and the Almighty offered a good start. That led to time for reflection and the weekly and welcome presence of those quiet people in red—parliamentary prayers Scotland. I would like to thank them for their unwavering interest in and support for us all. [Applause.]

This has been an extraordinary job. It has been a privilege and a great honour to be allowed to serve this Parliament and Scotland. It has afforded me pleasure, satisfaction and fulfilment, and to have come in at the beginning has provided added lustre. None of that would have been possible without the extraordinary range of people and talents that make this place function. Together they constitute a tangible familial ethos. I thank them all, and my political friends in this part of the chamber and my adversaries in other parts, for that vital contribution.

I take away a rich repository of memories: the wit of Donald Dewar; the effect on David McLetchie’s central nervous system of the mere mention of the word “consensus”; the discovery that minority Government made Alex Salmond biddable, with the rare pleasure of witnessing him having to dance to a few bars of my tune, for a short time at least; and the achievement of what I consider to be one of my major triumphs in this Parliament—getting those ghastly turnip-like red plums banished from the fruit salad in the cafeteria.

I have seen the character of this place evolve, and none of us or our successors should forget that our primary obligation as MSPs is to the institution of Parliament. If we fail to discharge that responsibility both Parliament, and we along with it, are diminished.

The matter of legislative scrutiny is unfinished business. With the powers that are coming, that is not good enough, so I urge that serious consideration be given to how we can secure a more robust mechanism for that scrutiny. Perhaps specific committees should be convened by Opposition members. I think that a new code of practice should remind committee members that they are parliamentarians first and party emissaries second.

Robust debate and passionate exchanges are the currency of any Parliament, and we should celebrate that vibrancy, but too easily rancour and casual use of language can create the impression that Scotland is fractious, divided and riven, which is much less attractive. Whatever we do and whatever party we represent, we should remember that this Parliament and our country are bigger than any of us.

Oscar Wilde’s last words have been paraphrased as, “Either that wallpaper goes or I do.” I face no such dilemma. I think that the wallpaper in here is just fine. I go and, in so doing, I wish my fellow retirees every happiness, and I wish this place—the institution and the family of the Scottish Parliament—every success for the future. [Applause.]