Redress for Survivors (Historical Child Abuse in Care) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 17th December 2020.

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Photo of Jamie Greene Jamie Greene Conservative

The stark and sad reality is that there is little that we can do to fully compensate victims of abuse in care. Words, pounds, letters and payments are the physical manifestations of compensation schemes such as this. They are tokens of apology. They are an acceptance of our modern-day endeavours to right the wrongs of the past. However, no apology will ever right the wrongdoings of others, no legislation will bury memories of horrific abuse and no compensation scheme will replace traumatic memories of unhappy childhoods with happy ones.

Yet we have to start somewhere. That somewhere started in December 2004, when the then First Minister, Jack McConnell, told the Parliament:

“Now that we know what has happened, it falls to us, as representatives of the Scottish people, to acknowledge it.”—[

Official Report

, 1 December 2004; c 12389.]

Today, we do our bit here, by acknowledging that a redress scheme such as this has been a long time coming. It is an acceptance by the Government of the day that Governments of old failed thousands of young children in state care. The weight of that responsibility lies heavily on our shoulders—on the shoulders of the committee and of the cabinet secretary, who will guide the bill to completion before the Parliament dissolves.

At the end of that journey, it must be a bill that we are proud of. The journey will not be easy, because, as those who sit on the committee have learned, the subject is one of great sensitivity and debate, with uncomfortable substance. Despite our nuanced and differing approaches to the bill, I am pleased that we came to consensus. I record my thanks to my colleagues on the committee, the convener, her adviser and the clerks for putting together for the report.

Today we debate the key recommendations, which are based on the evidence that we took. Our biggest thanks must go to those who took the time to enable us to come to those conclusions: the survivors who spoke frankly and honestly with us. I cannot even begin to imagine what some of them have lived through. It still lives with them. As one survivor put it,

“Abuse never leaves a person. It is like a human shadow”.—[

Official Report

,

Education and Skills Committee

, 28 October 2020; c 29.]

The debate is for them. The bill is technical, with technical problems that will require technical solutions, but at its heart lie brave people.

I turn to those technical issues now, because although the committee endorses the general principles of the bill, it also raised a number of difficult issues that the Government must contend with. I welcome that the cabinet secretary has already indicated that he will give way on some of those issues. I hope that that is a sign of things to come. We acknowledge in the report, right from the outset, that the scheme will not cater for or work for everyone. It is intended to offer an alternative to civil court proceedings and an easier route to redress. However, that alternative must be fair and affordable. The scheme has limitations, and we must be honest with people about what they are.

There are also flaws and assumptions that we think require revisiting. The first of those is the waiver, which is the biggest of those hurdles and the most contentious area of the bill. There remain large differences between its intended purpose and the reality of what its presence in the scheme would mean. Absolutely nobody had anything positive to say about the waiver, which should serve as a warning to us as we go through the bill process. In the committee, I said from the beginning that I would like to give the Government the benefit of the doubt on the issue, but I will be honest and say that I do not think that evidence in favour of a waiver has been strongly given—a conclusion that I came to reluctantly.

We also talked about what is fair and meaningful, and the words themselves provide a clue here; the bill must be fair and meaningful. The concerns about the waiver, for example, would potentially discourage some survivors from applying because it could prevent them from opting in to civil litigation in future. Many have expressed discomfort and have said they might feel compelled to sign the waiver because of their current financial hardship.

Such victims need to be fully aware of the implications of their decision, and that leads on to what is fair and meaningful. The point of the waiver is apparently to encourage participation, but we heard openly and directly from organisations that are potential contributors that they would not recommend to the trustees of their respective charities participation in the scheme as proposed. That is not because they do not want to participate but because they feel that the open-ended nature of participation and the large sums of money being asked of them would entirely jeopardise their abilities as current, on-going concerns. Nobody wants that—not least the survivors.

That, plus the absence of ensured participation, means that it is likely that organisations will need to meet the commitments in the scheme through their own funds—their working capital. That will provide a disincentive to participate. I think that the organisations want to do the right thing; the ones that I have spoken to absolutely do. They feel the moral obligation that we know exists. However, those contributions must be fair, and not least, fair to the users of existing services, which is why the concept of sustainability that the committee talked about is so important and must be taken into account.

I must also touch on the difficult issue of money, which is not an easy subject when we talk about abuse, but we must give clarity on it. The Government has already said that it will cover compensation up to £10,000 per application, which covers the lowest level with the lowest evidential threshold, but that could result in public funds having an open-ended liability and covering massive proportions of the payments, even with contributions.