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 Michael Matheson Michael Matheson Scottish National Party

I agree with Malcolm Chisholm on that point. There are real strengths in our committee system, and the expertise that members can build up when undertaking legislative scrutiny and post-legislative reviews and when looking at policy is one of those strengths.

I am also mindful that the Justice Committee has, at times, shown that it has a mind of its own and operates in exactly the way that a committee should operate. I was interested in its convener’s comment about how her idiosyncrasies are a result of her age. I have known Christine Grahame for a long time, since before we were first elected back in 1999, and I can assure members that her idiosyncrasies have nothing to do with her age. Christine Grahame has always taken the route that she thought was most appropriate. Even as a delegate at the Caird hall in Dundee, I remember her making her views known from the floor during a debate even though she had not been called. I say to Christine Grahame that she should not put her idiosyncrasies down to her age.

I am also conscious that a number of members over an extended period of time have made important contributions to moving on the agenda of tackling domestic abuse and sexual violence in our society. Some of those members are with us here today, and I will come to them, but I recall members who are not here today who made a substantial and considered contribution to raising the debate in Parliament and improving the way in which our justice system deals with such issues.

One of those members was Maureen Macmillan. During the early days of Parliament, she raised the issue in a consistent and constructive way in the chamber and in the Justice and Home Affairs Committee, including pursuing one of the first member’s bills to go through Parliament—on protection orders—to help to support individuals who had been subject to domestic abuse.

There is no doubt that, in the past 16 years, across different Governments, we have made significant progress in changing the way in which we deal with domestic and sexual violence in our society, and we have shone a light on an area that had been for too long overlooked and at times written off as being private matters that we should not get involved in. We have opened that door, and we are now in a much better place in dealing with such issues, from the way in which our justice system and the courts through to the police and our prosecutors deal with them. The Parliament has shown leadership in its determination to continue to pursue the issue.

I also pay particular tribute to the contribution of Malcolm Chisholm to the agenda during several decades. Malcolm Chisholm is one of those politicians whom I can remember from before I became involved in politics myself, when he stood down on a matter of principle as a minister in the United Kingdom Government on the changes to benefits for single parents. He was the first minister to resign from the Blair Government on that issue.

Malcolm Chisholm’s commitment to tackling domestic violence and health inequalities and to improving cancer treatment, as well as a whole range of other issues, has demonstrated his determination to take forward key issues. He did not just pick them up for a short time; he was determined to pursue them over an extended period of time. He made some comments earlier about collaboration and consensus, and he has always been prepared to demonstrate that he will collaborate, co-operate and help to develop a consensus if it will achieve a better outcome, irrespective of which party badge a member wears or which seat they occupy. I sincerely believe that the chamber and Parliament will be a lesser place for Malcolm Chisholm not being here after the election. [Applause.]

I also wish Margaret McDougall well in her retirement. In the short time that I have known her, the contribution that she has made in the course of my time in front of the Justice Committee has always been noteworthy. She has pursued areas that, at times, I could easily have overlooked and she has been diligent in pursuing those matters in great detail. I have greatly appreciated that input, and it has helped to contribute towards improving the legislation that we have scrutinised. I note her disappointment about her amendments not being agreed to today, but I assure her that the Scottish Government is committed to continuing to keep this area under observation and to considering what further measures can be taken. I am sure that the incoming Scottish Government, of whichever party, will be committed to doing that too.

I also wish to refer to Annabel Goldie’s valedictory speech this afternoon. Like Malcolm Chisholm and I, she joined the Parliament in 1999, when we were all rookies and, quite literally, we were establishing a parliamentary process that was nothing more than something written in the Scotland Act 1998. We were bringing that into real life and translating it into the reality of day-to-day politics.

Throughout her time in the Parliament, Annabel Goldie has always demonstrated a real ability to cut through some of the nonsense that can go on in parliamentary debates, very often with a razor-sharp wit, which if someone found themselves at the wrong end of it could leave them looking rather foolish. She has made a distinguished contribution to this Parliament. My late mother always used to say, “I like Annabel—Annabel is good,” although, as Annabel will know, that was followed up with the curse that many Conservative Party leaders in Scotland may have felt, which was, “but I widnae vote for her.”

In the previous parliamentary session, Annabel Goldie made a particular contribution on reframing and resetting our drugs policy in Scotland to make it much more targeted on dealing with the underlying causes that drive drug dependency in our society in the first place. That has led us to take a much more mature and considered approach to our drugs policy in Scotland. That enlightened approach is reaping rewards. There is still much more to be done, but her contribution has helped to improve how Scotland deals with drugs policy.

I have no doubt that, although Annabel Goldie will no longer be in this chamber, she will continue to make a distinguished contribution to Scottish political life in years to come. I certainly wish her well in her retirement. [Applause.]

It is fitting that the Parliament should sign off on a point of consensus with this particular legislation. I mentioned earlier that, back in 1999, we started to look at the issues of domestic and sexual violence, which had never had a light shone on them in the way that there has been over the past 16 years.

We are in a much improved position, but John Finnie pointed out in his speech that, in 2014-15, Police Scotland dealt with just under 60,000 domestic violence cases. The Scottish crime and justice survey suspects that that is a significant underestimate of the total number of cases. Police Scotland would tell us that, every nine minutes, it deals with a call relating to domestic or sexual violence in Scotland.

Although we may have modernised our legislation and improved the way in which our justice system deals with domestic and sexual violence, there is still a deep-seated inequality in our society that results in the domestic and sexual violence that takes place far too often within our communities. The root cause of sexual and domestic violence in our society is our societal structure; it is one that is created by inequality in our society and the power imbalance within our society. We have clearly made progress but we have much more to do. I hope that, in the next parliamentary session, there will be an opportunity to address the issue further.

Alison McInnes referred to the decision not to continue with Her Majesty’s prison in Inverclyde. We have reformed many parts of our justice system over the past 16 years, from our courts to our police service and the way in which our prosecution services operate. However, I strongly believe that one area where we as a society and a Parliament still have a significant way to go is our penal policy.

Some aspects of our penal policy have not changed in almost 200 years, which is not a good reflection on our society or on any Government. I hope that, whoever has my role and whoever is in government in the next session of Parliament, they will see penal policy as one of the areas where we need to shine a light and they will reform the way in which we deal with those who commit offences in a way that makes us a much more modern and progressive society.

The Abusive Behaviour and Sexual Harm (Scotland) Bill is part of the 16-year journey that we have been on to ensure that, as a society, we do not tolerate domestic and sexual violence. With the final piece of legislation in this session of Parliament, we will sign off by collectively sending out a strong signal that we will continue to do everything that we can to tackle domestic and sexual violence in Scottish society.