I remind members of the Covid-related measures that are in place. Face coverings should be worn when moving around the chamber and across the Holyrood campus.
The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-02306, in the name of Keith Brown, on justice and the 16 days of action. I invite members who wish to speak in the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons.
Men’s violence against women and girls continues to be a plague on Scottish society. Women and girls remain the victims on a spectrum of violence ranging from misogynistic conduct to violent sexual crimes. It is one of the most widespread, persistent and devastating human rights violations in our world today. Today’s debate falls within the United Nations 16 days of action campaign and represents an opportunity to take stock of our progress and consider what more can be done both from the justice perspective and by everyone in society.
We approach today’s debate and year end reeling from a series of public and disturbing examples of extreme violence against women. In the context of the Covid-19 restrictions and the consequent increases in many forms of gendered violence, we find the spotlight firmly focused on those issues and our responses. Society is rightly asking questions on prevalence, the attitudes of men, cultures of organisations and the role that the justice system plays in addressing those issues.
The question of whether gender matters to the justice sector is relevant to the debate. Is justice blind, when women’s experiences of crime are gendered? Achieving gender equality includes an obligation to address the underlying causes and structures of gender inequality, including discriminatory norms, prejudices and stereotypes. The justice system has a prominent role in setting out the parameters of what is expected from a modern progressive society. Our vision is for Scotland to be a country where women and girls have equal rights and equal access to power and resources, and where they can live their lives free from gender-based violence. We believe that Scotland can demonstrate international leadership by its commitment to equality.
The murders of Esther Brown, Sarah Everard, Sabina Nessa, the sisters Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman and many more are painful examples that show that, despite our collective efforts, we are faced with the sobering reality that women are dying at the hands of men. The latest United Kingdom femicide census found that, on average, a woman is killed by a man every three days. It is not a surprise that generations of women are unconvinced by our efforts to tackle perpetrator behaviour nor that they do not feel safe. The recent outcry from women regarding spiking and the boycotting of nightclubs demonstrate that women will not accept that.
“Equally Safe: Scotland’s strategy for preventing and eradicating violence against women and girls” makes the causal link between gender inequality and violence against women and girls. It has been credited as the basis for the groundbreaking Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018, which came into force in April 2019. With recent figures showing that 84 per cent of court proceedings are leading to a conviction, the act is living up to its reputation for being a global gold standard.
Our programme for government includes several ambitious commitments that recognise the unique opportunity that this Parliament has to consider transforming the justice system in order to benefit victims of gender-based violence. We are pressing forward with the consideration of Lady Dorrian’s review, including the introduction of specialist courts and measures to enhance victims’ rights. The recommendations included a pilot—which is being supported by the Scottish Government, justice partners and Rape Crisis Scotland—to reduce the trauma that is associated with going to court through the pre-recording of police statements for later use at trial. That initiative, which represents a fundamental shift in how evidence is captured, puts victims at the centre. It has continued throughout the pandemic, and we are now scaling it up with operational partners so that more people can access its benefits.
Incremental changes are not enough, because the justice system has historically been designed around the needs of men and not women. I think that we all agree that women deserve better, and I am pleased to be leading new work to develop a strategic approach to women in the justice system. That work will invest in developing an evidence base to demonstrate how experience of the justice system differs depending on gender and intersectionality. It will improve outcomes for women and build a case for system change where women are being failed. It will align with efforts to tackle the systemic inequality and disadvantage that women experience, which have been made worse by the pandemic.
Poverty, social security and housing are issues that are layered throughout people’s access to services, and they impact on women’s abilities to move forward. Lived experience is central to understanding that, so, earlier this month, we put out the first national tender to gather qualitative evidence to inform service design in relation to those who are involved in prostitution—a marginalised group that has experienced multiple barriers to support during the pandemic.
We are also committed to setting in place the right legislative environment to support and protect women. Our aspirations as a global leader in human rights include a new human rights bill that will incorporate into Scots law four United Nations human rights treaties including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. CEDAW compels us to
“take all appropriate measures ... To modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women” where they are
“based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes”.
It also obligates us to
“take all appropriate measures, including legislation, to suppress all forms of trafficking and the exploitation of women through prostitution.
That is highly relevant as we move forward with plans to design a new model for Scotland to challenge men’s demand for prostitution—a behaviour that strengthens and emboldens male entitlement and misogynistic attitudes. We must do all that we can to root out misogynistic behaviours in society. They cannot be allowed to go unchecked or to exist in plain sight. Baroness Helena Kennedy QC is looking at that very issue and exploring whether a stand-alone offence is needed to tackle misogynistic conduct. That work is vital and we stand ready to consider her recommendations and act swiftly.
Despite our best efforts to eliminate men’s violence against women and girls from society, it remains a daily occurrence. We must work relentlessly to challenge all the behaviours that facilitate and enable it. My vision is of a Scotland where women and girls are treated with respect, not one where we turn a blind eye to things such as abuse, violence and sex trafficking. I am determined to work across this Parliament and with our stakeholders to realise that vision.
That the Parliament welcomes the opportunity to highlight the 16 Days of Activism to End Gender-Based Violence and to reaffirm a strong commitment and programme of action to prevent and eradicate all forms of violence against women and girls; recognises the opportunity as Scotland emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic to transform its justice services, ensuring effective, efficient and resilient services that meet the needs of people and reflect the role for justice in a modern society; welcomes the Scottish Government's commitment to setting in place the right legislative environment to support, enable and protect women and girls, including the introduction of world-leading human rights legislation furthering Scotland's international obligations; welcomes the planned establishment of a Governance Group comprising key stakeholders to progress the detailed consideration of the recommendations in the Lord Justice Clerk’s Review Group report, Improving the management of sexual offence cases, including the potential introduction of specialist courts, and to identify and prioritise recommendations that can be taken forward without legislative change; recognises and reflects on the advancements made and key achievements to date, including the delivery of a pilot to pre-record rape complainers’ statements; notes the progress of the Misogyny and Criminal Justice in Scotland Working Group, chaired by Baroness Helena Kennedy; acknowledges a new work stream to take a strategic approach to women in justice in the system to address the unique needs of women not currently being met, either as offenders or victims; commends the work of frontline criminal justice advocacy support services, which have worked tirelessly to redesign services and ensure that women and children can still access support throughout the pandemic, and encourages continued collaboration to ensure that the interests of victims of gender-based violence and those who rely on the justice system remain at the heart of necessary reforms, and to deliver a modern justice system fit for the future.
I thank the minister for her opening comments. They reflect the fact that, at times, the Parliament works well when it tries to put its traditional partisan politics aside and work constructively—as we should—to tackle important societal issues. We saw that in how we tackled the coronavirus situation; we saw it when we worked together on the Redress for Survivors (Historical Child Abuse in Care) (Scotland) Bill; and we saw it last week, in what was an excellent debate on the international day for the elimination of violence against women.
The eradication of gender-based violence is one of those issues that unites us. However, as united as we are, perhaps, on the generality of that, politics plays a part. Politics identifies gaps, whether perceived or otherwise, in legislation, and acts as a lobbying catalyst for change, where we see fit—as we have today, given the volume of amendments that have been lodged.
Violence against women and girls has no place in our society, or in any society; the Government rightly points that out. It must be prevented and eradicated. However, prevention is the bit that is so important.
We know that it exists and how widespread it is. Just before the debate, I was reading an article online about the television industry, in which I used to work. I saw at first hand the way that many women were treated in the workplace. The report mentions that 39 per cent of women in the industry have been harassed at work.
Since moving into politics, I have been quite taken by the amount of correspondence that I have had from female constituents and the absolutely harrowing stories that they have shared either at surgeries or through casework. They have been on the receiving end of abuse, both mental and physical.
There are those who feel that they have really been let down by the justice system. They may have had a phone call from a court or from their lawyer to tell them that the accused in their case had been released; or, as in one high-profile rape case, that the charge had been found not proven; or that their court case had simply fallen apart, even on the day, on a technicality or an error. Those are the people who feel let down by the justice system, and they have been saying so for years. I feel like history is repeating itself in today’s debate. Previous Parliaments have heard those things, time after time, from women. It is time that the Parliament focused its attention on the issue.
Where the Parliament has tried and perhaps failed to address things—to make the necessary or even difficult changes that have had to be made—it needs to have that conversation both with itself and with the public. Such conversations are difficult and such decisions are difficult for the Government, whether they are about the existence of the not proven verdict—which we know results in so few successful prosecutions of sexual crime and rape; the controversial discussion on corroboration; hate crime legislation; how or whether we define misogyny in law; juryless trials; domestic abuse courts; or even how we speak about or define the terms “sex” and “gender” in a way that is respectful in a debate that has become so toxic.
I know that Baroness Kennedy, who some of us met recently, will leave absolutely no stone unturned in her working group on misogyny. However, surely she, too, knows that changing the law and changing society are two very different things, and that one does not necessarily follow the other.
Change will not be easy; nor will it be universally welcomed. However, if there was ever a time for the Parliament to show what it is made of, now is that time. That is because last year saw the highest number of domestic abuse incidents on record in Scotland—more than 65,000 reported incidents—and the largest year-on-year rise in reporting. The charity Refuge said that it was getting more than 13,000 calls a month during lockdown, and that a quarter of those women felt suicidal at one point.
No one should have to live in fear of violence, assault or abuse. As we know, in many cases, sadly, lives have been lost. We all know those names. We speak of them in the chamber. They are the names of mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts and friends. Those are all women who have suffered at the hands of a man. It makes me ashamed, Presiding Officer.
However, we can do something. Over and above those difficult reforms that I mentioned, there is more that we can do right now to help the criminal justice system. We must send a stronger message to the perpetrators of crime against women that it is not acceptable. I am afraid that that means having a good look at ourselves around issues such as the presumption against short sentences or automatic early release. How many perpetrators of violence against women have benefited from those decisions, and how many women feel that they have been let down as a result of them? I also believe that those who violently murder women and girls should in fact spend the rest of their life in jail—not 19 years, but their life.
On a less controversial and perhaps more consensual note, there are practical things that we can and should do. We should boost the uptake of the victim notification scheme by taking a more proactive approach in that regard. We can also expand victim statements to courts and parole hearings. The right to exclusion zones is another area for exploration.
Imagine not knowing whether someone who has abused or attacked you is due to be released from prison, and imagine the anxiety and worry that bumping into them in the supermarket might cause you. When I launch my member’s bill in a few short weeks’ time, I will ask politely that all parties helpfully review its content. I will ask them to consider my proposals to strengthen the justice system for the victims of crime—specifically, women victims. Sixteen days of action might be the slogan, but 365 days of action should be our mission. I know that it will be mine.
I move amendment S6M-02306.3, to insert at end:
“; recognises that women are overwhelmingly the victims of the most horrific crimes committed in Scotland, and believes that more victims of crimes such as sexual assault and domestic abuse should receive notification about the release date of the criminal in their case should they wish.”
We cannot let another session of the Scottish Parliament pass without making a serious improvement to the lives of women and girls: it is up to us.
In last week’s excellent debate, we agreed, to a person, that men’s violence against women is deeply ingrained in our society, and that there is almost a watershed moment in knowing that the action that we take must be decisive and effective. That will be a priority for Katy Clark and me in the work that we do in representing Scottish Labour in the Parliament. I also make a commitment on behalf of Scottish Labour that we will work constructively with the cabinet secretary and the minister on this really important issue. I welcome the announcement that has been made by the minister today. We must make this the Parliament that reverses the trend of violence against women and girls.
The amendment in my name clearly sets out what we have always said, which is that we believe that there is a gap in the law and that sex should be a protected characteristic in hate crime legislation, which is incomplete without it. We await with strong interest the findings of Helena Kennedy’s working group on misogyny. We have confidence in her working group and confidence that she will bring forward something that the Parliament can work with. As Jamie Greene said earlier, we had a meeting with her last week, which I found very encouraging. The amendment does not seek to pre-empt the report or what she might do. We want to discuss the recommended law changes, but we are clear that there is a gap in the law.
We know that two thirds of the cases that are waiting to be heard in the High Court are sexual crimes. That backlog is hugely and disproportionately affecting women and girls, and we need to find solutions with urgency.
In Scotland, the vast majority of violence against women comes in the form of domestic violence, which we have debated in this Parliament many times. Today’s figure of 65,251 incidents of domestic abuse this year means that this is the fifth year in a row in which there has been an increase. That is the work that we have to do. As we know, domestic abuse occurs in homes and most incidents go unreported, so it is a hidden crime. Approximately one in four women in Scotland experiences some form of domestic or sexual violence, and one in five children lives with it. As I have said in previous debates, the United Nations has described it as a “shadow pandemic”.
In my closing couple of minutes, I will address some practical issues that I would like to discuss with ministers. Legal aid is meant to be a demand-led system—the justice committee heard evidence on that—but I do not feel that, in practice, it is operating in a way that helps victims of domestic violence. The threshold should be looked at.
Some 90 per cent of women who experience domestic violence also experience financial abuse. It is important to bear that in mind when it comes to considering someone’s ability to pay legal aid fees.
It is also important to remove the current barrier to organisations such as Scottish Women’s Aid employing solicitors directly to give advice—I know that a review is under way in the legal profession, and I do not think that there is disagreement about the issue; I mention it because it is important to consider practical measures that could be taken.
Law centre models that deal with domestic abuse should also be considered. Funding could be provided at national level for law centre projects that provide advice and representation to women who are fleeing violence.
We must commit to making meaningful change to the law and to legal support and advice, where that makes sense, and we must remove barriers, to ensure that women and girls who are escaping violence have the opportunity to have better lives.
I move amendment S6M-02306.2, to insert at end:
“; considers that the exclusion of hate against women from existing hate crime legislation is an unacceptable gap in the law, and that misogynistic behaviour should be treated as a hate crime; believes that access to legal representation must be made easier for victims of domestic abuse and that the Scottish Government should evaluate specialist domestic abuse courts, particularly their impact on sentencing outcomes, the speed at which cases are dealt with and the experiences of victims, with a view to rolling out domestic abuse courts across Scotland.”
I should declare that I am a local ambassador in Orkney for White Ribbon Scotland.
I congratulate everyone who took part in last week’s excellent debate on ending violence against women and girls. There were many excellent speeches, and the candour and courage of Michelle Thomson and Alexander Stewart, who shared personal and painful testimonies, were worthy of note. All in all, it was the Parliament at its best.
I am conscious that I have only four minutes, so I will try to rattle through the issues that I think are most relevant to the debate.
The motion sets out much of the good work that has been carried out over recent years on a genuinely cross-party basis, as Jamie Greene rightly highlighted. During my time on the Parliament’s Justice Committee in the previous session, we made significant progress on domestic abuse, notably when it came to the criminalisation of coercive and controlling behaviour. The recognition of the impact of such abusive behaviour on children in the relationship or household was an important step forward.
I am proud, too, of the cross-party work that led to increased protection for vulnerable witnesses, for example through measures to allow evidence to be pre-recorded or provided by video link. There is more work to do to ensure that such measures are applied routinely and consistently. More work is needed, too, to make legal provision for the anonymity of survivors of rape and sexual assault, as exists in England. However, there is no doubt that progress has been made.
At a local level, arrangements are now in place to allow forensic assessments to be made without adult survivors having to travel south for examinations. I pay warm tribute to Orkney Rape & Sexual Assault Service—ORSAS—Women’s Aid Orkney, NHS Orkney and Police Scotland and others, including the justice secretary’s predecessors, who made that possible. We now need to apply the same approach to younger survivors of assault.
Also firmly on the to-do list is work to improve the chances of cases of rape and sexual assault coming to court and being prosecuted. Speak Out Survivors and others who campaign on the issue deserve enormous credit. Although we should avoid rerunning the debate about ending corroboration, I am confident that, through more cross-party work and challenge, we can identify improvements that can be made.
Another top priority must be a reduction in the number of women who are held in our prisons, particularly on remand, alongside the delivery of a modern women’s prison estate.
We also need to find ways of giving women who have been subjected to coercive control better access to legal aid, especially where a perpetrator has run up debts in the woman’s name. Pauline McNeill made that point.
The amendment in Pauline McNeill’s name refers to the current law on hate crime. My party’s support for the recognition of misogyny as a hate crime is a matter of record. During the passage of the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill, I accepted the case that Scottish Women’s Aid and Rape Crisis Scotland made for addressing the issue through Dame Helena Kennedy’s fast-track working group. I look forward to the group’s report and hope that the Parliament can act with urgency in due course.
The Scottish Liberal Democrats will support Pauline McNeill’s amendment and Jamie Greene’s amendment this evening.
I appreciate that I have only scratched the surface of important issues. I welcome this short debate and hope that the cross-party approach that characterised and underpinned the progress that was made in the previous session continues into the current session, so that we can make further inroads into creating a justice system that genuinely works towards ending gender-based violence.
Today, we mark 16 days of activism against gender-based violence—a reminder of the global effort to ensure that women and girls, in all their diversity, live a life free from violence and coercion. I pay tribute to every survivor of gender-based violence, their children and families, and the practitioners who protect women and girls. I extend my sympathies to everyone affected by the death of a woman or girl lost to gender-based violence.
Thankfully, our response has evolved from the era in which a domestic incident was diminished to “just an argument”, and certainly not a police matter, and when the definition of rape was an affront to women. The Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018 criminalises coercion and controlling behaviour; protection orders offer victims space to seek support; and collaborative responses, offering victims routes out of danger, are in constant high demand. However, women’s inequality means that access to justice still evades many victims.
This year, the Criminal Justice Committee has taken evidence on the challenges that the justice sector continues to face. I would like to highlight two particular issues. Dr Marsha Scott described how the pandemic
“has given women ... fewer choices and perpetrators ... more tools for controlling and abusing them.”—[Official Report, Criminal Justice Committee, 22 September 2021; c 9.]
One of many consequences of the pandemic has been the backlog of court cases. In her evidence, the Lord Advocate voiced her acute concern for those highly vulnerable victims of serious gender-based violence—predominantly women and girls—whose cases are backed up by the system of prosecution. Sandy Brindley of Rape Crisis Scotland echoed her comments and expressed serious concern about the impact of court scheduling on the safety, wellbeing and confidence of women.
The Scottish Government’s commitment of £50 million to support recovery across the justice system, including a courts recovery programme, has been absolutely vital. In our budget scrutiny report, the Criminal Justice Committee has placed clearing the backlog of cases front and centre of justice spending priorities for 2022-23. As Dr Scott stated,
“Justice delayed is justice denied”.—[Official Report, Criminal Justice Committee, 22 September 2021; c 4.]
Our committee has also taken evidence on conviction rates in rape cases, which remain stubbornly low. In its briefing, Rape Crisis Scotland highlights that rape and attempted rape cases have the lowest conviction rate of any crime type, and that not proven verdicts account for a significant proportion of acquittals. In her evidence, Sandy Brindley challenged the notion of insufficient evidence as a factor in cases not proceeding, reminding members that, to get to court in the first place, corroboration is required. She highlighted cases where, despite evidence of injuries or an incident recorded on audio, the verdict was acquittal or not proven.
Low conviction rates are an issue considered in Lady Dorrian’s review of the management of sexual offences. I truly believe that the recommendations in her report would transform justice responses, through the establishment of a specialist domestic abuse court, extending use of recorded evidence, and affording victims greater protection from scrutiny and identification. I am pleased that the Scottish Government is to consider the recommendations, including the piloting of judge-led trials, which I hope will address the concerns that remain around jury decision making.
The historical challenges that are faced by the justice system are not new and not without solution; rather, they go to the heart of efforts to restore the confidence of survivors in a trauma-informed system that exists to protect and empower them, not retraumatise them and fail them. I look forward to working with the cabinet secretary, ministers and others across the chamber to take this important work forward.
As Jamie Greene has said, violence against women and girls has no place in our society. We can all agree that our justice system must make punishing those who commit violence against women and girls a priority, but one thing that has become quickly apparent is that our current system has in many cases done nothing of the sort. Instead, it fails to give dignity, fairness or respect to the women and girls looking to our courts for justice.
For several months now, I have been in contact with a family in my constituency. They have asked that I share their story but, as per their wishes, I will keep their anonymity.
For more than a decade, women and children have suffered at the hands of the man that I am going to talk about. From 2005 onwards, this individual has terrorised multiple families, including three of his own biological children. In the space of four years, he abducted one of his own children, having abused his partner; went on to assault the mother of his second child, leading to severe anxiety for the child and a permanent non-contact order; and then entered into a relationship with another woman, resulting in another permanent no-contact order in relation to his third child.
To any reasonable individual, it would already have been clear at that early stage that that man was a menace, given that he had assaulted multiple partners and traumatised his own children. However, he was given community service, probation and counselling—no jail time and nothing more than a slap on the wrist.
Of course, none of that had an impact on his behaviour. He went on to breach the terms of his probation by entering into a relationship with my constituent, becoming step-parent to her children. His campaign of abuse then escalated. He moved on to throwing the children along hallways, grabbing them by the throat, throwing items at them, grabbing them by the hair or dragging them up the stairs by their ears, all while also attacking their mother, who was forced to flee to her neighbours for safety. For that, he was charged with six counts of child abuse. We might think that that would be the end of the matter, but no. The only punishment that he received was another non-harassment order and an order not to contact the mother or the children. He was then released on bail.
We already know this man’s record with non-contact orders: he ignores them, which is exactly what he did. Last year, he attacked the family’s home and had accomplices break the windows and stalk the mother, all before breaking his bail conditions to contact the children. Once again, the family were forced to flee their home, this time for a safe house.
What was the result? For six counts of child abuse, the sentence that the abuser received was little more than a 12-month non-harassment order and a ban on contact with any child under 16 and on entering a relationship with a female. Members following closely will recall that this individual has broken every non-contact order placed on him over the past 15 years. What has happened is not justice and it does nothing to protect that family or others. Families in that position need more.
The system has done nothing for victims but create a cycle of abuse and pain. There is cross-party consensus on this issue: we must work together to eliminate violence against women and girls.
The 16 days of activism to end gender-based violence is an important initiative but, 30 years after it was started, many issues remain. Women and girls are verbally abused, murdered, assaulted, raped, trafficked and harassed every day. Today, I will focus on the justice sector’s role and how it could be transformed, particularly in dealing with sexual violence.
Front-line services and staff do a lot to tackle and deal with the effects of gender-based violence. Staff in the police, the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service and the courts are working hard to support victims of crime and tackle the backlog of cases that has been caused by the pandemic. It is right that the third sector is recognised for its great work, too. Organisations such as Talk Now and Women’s Aid in East Kilbride support survivors of trauma and abuse and can provide advice, counselling or temporary accommodation.
In terms of criminal justice, Rape Crisis Scotland’s briefing makes for some stark reading. Thousands of people come forward every year in Scotland to report rape and attempted rape, and they put their trust in the system to get justice. However, figures show that less than half of the few cases that proceed to court end in conviction.
The Government motion mentions the Lord Justice Clerk’s review group report, “Improving the Management of Sexual Offence Cases”. Many of the issues that it considered could
“be resolved by the establishment of a specialist court” for sexual offences. Importantly, such a court should be trauma informed and should build on the pilot project of pre-recording complainers’ statements, which the cabinet secretary highlighted. Those measures could ease some of the burden of what must be a difficult experience for complainers, and I believe that they could work well. I hope that the group that is tasked with examining the issue will be able to give an update as soon as possible.
The report of the survivor reference group, which is led by a group of survivors of rape and sexual violence, focused on the police, but it is important to compare the similarities of its recommendations with those of Lady Dorrian’s review group. Both reports highlight the need for trauma-informed services, a consistent named point of contact for survivors and increased use of pre-recorded statements.
At the heart of all this is making sure that the entire system treats every complainer with dignity and respect. We need to make it less painful for people to come forward. As a member of the Criminal Justice Committee, I have heard from women who have reported sexual violence. I listened to their experiences of the second violation: feeling like they were getting mucked about, having to constantly repeat their story and defence lawyers delaying procedures. The wellbeing of complainers going through the process has to be paramount. It is critical that they should not have to go through that second violation. It is heart wrenching for somebody to have to go through all that.
We cannot be complacent about the risks that women face every day. It is not for women and girls to change their behaviour to stay safe. We need to prioritise prevention, challenge unacceptable attitudes and behaviours to avoid escalation, and ensure that our justice system recovers, renews and transforms, so that victims are at its heart.
We expect our justice system to protect all citizens, but the case of Sharon Dowey’s constituent shows us that it does not.
Despite the progress that the Parliament has made since Maureen Macmillan piloted through it the first committee bill, which provided more protection to victims of domestic abuse, we still find that our laws and justice system are letting women down.
Women who are exploited in prostitution face sanction and a criminal record while the pimps and managers evade sanction. The sex buyers who create the demand face no sanction at all; neither do websites such as Vivastreet that sell women, a practice that is legal in Scotland. The business is so lucrative that such websites fund organisations that lobby to decriminalise managers and pimps in order to ensure that they will not face sanction in future.
That has to change and our law needs to catch up. We need to live in a country where women are equal and are not for sale, where those who exploit them are brought to book, and where those whose sense of entitlement and power leads them to buy other human beings are punished.
We also need to help those who find themselves exploited in that way; we need to help them get out, rebuild their lives and recover from the harm that has been caused to them. However, the way that we stop that exploitation from happening in the first place is to ensure that women are truly equal. Sadly, when the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill was debated, they were not. How many women have been murdered by misogynists since then?
We allow those who abuse their partners to continue to exercise power over them. Women who have escaped domestic abuse are forced to interact with their abuser by the family courts, which value an abusive man’s rights to access his children more than a woman’s right to safety. It is not just the women who are harmed by that; the children are harmed, too. They become pawns and weapons to inflict the greatest amount of harm and control, which prevents victims from becoming survivors. Our courts are actively pulling them back into the cycle of abuse and despair. No parent who is an abuser should have rights of access to children of that relationship, because they have demonstrated by their abuse that the welfare of their children does not come first. They should be granted access only when they can demonstrate that they have changed their behaviour.
The two issues that I have highlighted are caused by women’s inequality. Women are unequal in society and therefore pay the price. We need to legislate on those issues, to stop men—I stress that I am talking about a minority of men—abusing women. In doing so, we must redouble our efforts to create a truly equal country in which the work that is done by women is valued to the same extent as that which is done by men, and in which women can leave their home at any time, day or night, and not feel unsafe. If we do that, we will eliminate violence against women.
“one of the most prevalent human rights violations in the world. It knows no social, economic or national boundaries.”
Without doubt, a global, collective effort is required to address it. Gender-based violence against women and girls is ruinous to our society. I welcome the 16 days of action campaign and the opportunity that it provides to galvanise our efforts and discuss actions to eradicate that scourge.
At the beginning of October, in the wake of the murders of Sabina Ness, Sarah Everard, Nicole Smallman, Bibaa Henry and, sadly, countless other women, a constituent contacted my office. She admitted that she had tried to write to me several times but, each time, the words failed her. In asking what the Government’s plans were to tackle misogyny in Scotland, she said:
“I cannot continue to live in a society that forces me to live in fear of such violence. To live in a state of constant vigilance is exhausting, and I am tired.”
In the same month, another constituent and member of the Scottish Youth Parliament alerted me to reports of multiple drink-spiking incidents. Yet again, the sense of depletion was palpable, and the sheer prevalence of the problem was exposed once more.
When we follow that fatigued chain of causation, we find that gender-based violence towards women and girls is a brutal and often fatal consequence of gender inequality and unchallenged attitudes, and an abuse of male power and privilege. It is therefore crucial that we have a system in Scotland that prioritises prevention, ensures that justice for survivors is swift and consistent, and offers robust and accessible support services.
I welcome the Scottish Government’s plans to focus on establishing positive gender roles and healthy relationships between young people through a review of personal and social education and the equally safe delivery plan, as well as the pledge to invest over £100 million to support front-line services and focus on prevention from school onwards over the next three years. Some £5 million has already been directed to Rape Crisis centres and domestic abuse services in recognition of the need to reduce waiting times and increase accessibility.
For those navigating the criminal justice system, the adoption of a trauma-informed approach will mean the creation of a new framework that is designed to equip staff with the necessary skills to assist victims more mindfully, and the appointment of a victims commissioner will provide an additional layer of support and place victims’ voices at the heart of difficult proceedings. The working group on misogyny and criminal justice in Scotland, which is chaired by Baroness Helena Kennedy, has also been established to independently analyse how the Scottish criminal justice system deals with misogyny. It will ensure that any legislative gaps can be considered carefully.
Despite those actions, and despite early successes with the Scottish Government’s groundbreaking Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018, we know that there are no quick fixes. Confronting such entrenched attitudes and such a complex spectrum of abuse is going to require relentless efforts by all our institutions, by all our political parties and by all our communities.
I am also tired—but I will never give up, we will never give up, and we can work together to ensure that progress is made. This form of violence is not inevitable and must be eradicated once and for all.
All too often, violence against women and girls takes place in the shadows. The 16 days of activism are so important because they help to shine a light on that most shocking violation of human rights. As parliamentarians, it is our duty to look at the levers that are available to us to prevent such violence, to punish those who perpetrate it and to protect victims from further abuse.
On prevention, we must do more to address the root causes of violence against women. There is a huge amount of work to be done to tackle gender inequality, which remains stubbornly and unacceptably persistent.
On punishment, women who have been victimised must have full confidence in the criminal justice system. Many, sadly, do not. As Audrey Nicoll highlighted, we know that sexual violence is worryingly underreported. According to the most recent Scottish crime and justice survey, only 22 per cent of victims of rape reported it to the police.
Collette Stevenson mentioned Rape Crisis Scotland’s recently published report from the survivor reference group, which describes in stark terms the experience of survivors of rape and sexual crimes as they engaged with the justice system. It highlighted “attitudinal issues” among the police, “feelings of powerlessness” during investigations and “retraumatising” experiences in court—if the case progressed that far. The system is supposed to protect victims, but too often it neglects them.
Earlier this year the Scottish Parliament passed the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act 2021—legislation that, crucially, failed to afford women the same legal protections as other groups have. The working group that is led by Helena Kennedy QC is welcome. As we know, the group is looking separately at how the Scottish criminal justice system deals with misogyny. However, it meets behind closed doors, with no detailed minutes in the public domain, and its deliberations are drip-fed to the media. Women feel as though they have been pushed to the periphery of a process that should have them at its heart.
Lord Bracadale’s review on hate crime, including misogynistic harassment, was published in 2018, and the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act was passed in 2021, but the misogyny and criminal justice in Scotland working group will not report until 2022. Every year we say that more must be done to end violence against women, but it feels as though progress cannot keep up with rhetoric.
One way that we can make progress and protect victims who have been subjected to violence is through implementation of a robust and well-administered victim notification scheme. Last week it emerged that only 37 victims of violent and sexual crimes out of a possible 4,500 had been informed when the offender in their case would be released from prison. It is clear that the current system is not fit for purpose.
The Scottish Conservatives have called for the introduction of whole-life orders for the most heinous of crimes, including violence that is perpetrated against women. It is a call that, I regret to say, other parties have resisted, to date.
The cross-party consensus on eliminating violence against women and girls is to be welcomed, but there is a great deal more that we can and should do to protect their safety. No woman should ever have to live in fear.
I refer colleagues to my entry in the register of members’ interests; I used to work for a rape crisis centre.
I have spoken before about what I think our justice system is for. Fundamentally, it should exist to correct imbalances of power, but we do not have to look far to find power inequalities in our justice system, never mind in our society. Earlier today, we discussed the “Independent Review of the Response to Deaths in Prison Custody” report. Our prison system is necessarily a system in which there are entrenched structural power imbalances. We accept that, but it does not mean that anything goes, nor does it mean that we do not need to put in place safeguards and structures to ensure that power is wielded responsibly and compassionately.
Today, on the sixth day of the 16 days of activism against gender-based violence, we discuss the role that our justice system should play in correcting the imbalances of power that are so deeply embedded in our society that violence against women and girls is just something that all of us women live with every day. However, it is not inevitable.
Gender-based violence is on the rise: sexual crimes are up by 12 per cent on last year’s figures and the pandemic has allowed domestic violence to flourish. We continue to see, in our courts, conviction rates for sexual crimes that are not just disappointing but are—to be quite frank—outrageously low. That is on top of the eye-watering delays and the backlog of cases, many of which will involve survivors of gender-based violence—women and children who are bearing the brunt of power imbalances.
Those delays impact negatively not only on our justice system but on survivors, which results in increased stress, poor mental health, repeated retraumatisation, increased attrition and so on.
None of that gives people confidence in the system, and that makes it less likely that survivors will report crimes or seek support. I ask the cabinet secretary to outline, in closing, how we can tackle the backlog in our courts.
Around 70 per cent of cases in the high courts involve serious sexual offences, which predominantly affect women and children. At a recent Criminal Justice Committee meeting, the Lord Advocate stated that she considers
“that sexual crime is different from other forms of crime” because it is
“rooted in and perpetuates gender inequalities”,
“requires a distinct response.”—[Official Report, Criminal Justice Committee, 3 November 2021; c 7.]
She went on to state her support for judge-led trials, encouraged a more “radical” approach and argued that we have a moral obligation to consider alternative actions that allow for recovery and renewal.
That speaks directly to the question that the minister posed in her opening speech. Is justice gender blind? I think that we can all agree that our justice system does not yet get gender. Implementation of the recommendations in Lady Dorrian’s report cannot come soon enough, and I look forward to the report of the misogyny and criminal justice in Scotland working group next year. I do not wish to pre-empt its findings, but I emphasise that we must find a way of dealing effectively with misogyny.
Last week, I highlighted Rape Crisis Scotland’s “Survivor Reference Group—Police Responses in Scotland Report”, on police responses to survivors. It shows just how far we still have to go in tackling institutional and societal sexism and misogyny, and in spreading awareness and understanding of the importance of trauma for both justice and recovery. That point was also made in the report on the response to deaths in custody.
We have heard much about the training and awareness raising that police officers and other workers in our justice system do, or should, undertake. However, it is clear that despite trauma-informed training being available, survivors of sexual crimes are still treated very poorly by people who should know better. Culture change is needed, and leadership is needed to catalyse that culture change. We all have a role to play.
I say to all those who are currently experiencing gender-based violence: you are not alone, and help is available. You can call the domestic abuse and forced marriage helpline 24 hours a day on 0800 027 1234, and you can call Rape Crisis Scotland’s helpline every evening between 6 pm and midnight, on 0808 801 0302.
The statistics on violence against women and girls make sombre reading. The number of sexual crimes reported to Police Scotland, including rape and attempted rape, has gone up by 114 per cent over the past 10 years. Since 2010-11, the number of other sexual crimes, including internet-based crimes such as communicating indecently and taking, possessing and distributing indecent photographs of children, has increased by 238 per cent.
According to Rape Crisis Scotland, on a typical day in Scotland in 2019, the number of survivors of sexual violence who were waiting for access to what it calls life-saving rape crisis support had almost doubled since the year before. Only 43 per cent of rape and attempted rape cases lead to a conviction compared with 88 per cent for other crimes. Disturbingly, at least 40 per cent of all sexual crimes recorded in 2019-20 related to a victim who was under the age of 18.
Many women will never report their abusers. Those who do report these crimes experience a legal system that fails them, and many speak of the further trauma that is caused to them due to their treatment by the police, the courts, the legal profession and the wider judicial system.
Domestic violence against women and girls is endemic. The figures that were released today show that, for the fifth year in a row, there has been an increase in the number of domestic abuse incidents that are reported to the police.
Specialist domestic violence courts have been trialled, and we ask the Scottish Government to provide an evaluation so that we know how the courts worked. We need to know whether those who had suffered domestic abuse felt that the specialist courts dealt with cases better.
I was asking for information for MSPs about how the Scottish Government evaluates how the trials worked and, in particular, how victims and survivors felt that the trials worked for them. I would like information on whether the specialist courts dealt with cases better in certain ways; on the impact on sentencing, including whether the sentencing outcomes were the same in the specialist domestic abuse courts as in the more traditional way of dealing with such cases; and on whether cases were dealt with more speedily.
Violence against girls and women needs to be looked at in the context of wider gender inequality. In the previous session, Parliament passed hate crime legislation in relation to other groups. We need to consider how our legal system works and what more can be done to create criminal offences that tackle misogynistic behaviour.
I hope that the misogyny working group makes recommendations on how the law can be changed. Although, in recent years, there have been many changes in how the courts work, in many ways, they still operate similarly to how they operated a century ago. Therefore, we need to look at making radical changes to our legal system.
Women who are victims of such offences still feel and know that the justice system fails them. It is our responsibility to create a justice system that recognises the power relationship between men and women in society, as well as the widespread sexist and misogynistic attitudes that exist, and to provide a way of delivering justice for women and girls.
Violence against women and girls is a truly global problem, and it is clear that there is a growing global determination to tackle its horrors.
In Scotland and in the rest of the United Kingdom, women have fought long and hard for equality, but nobody is suggesting that it is a case of “job done”. We heard from Jamie Greene about the pitifully low rates of conviction for sex assaults and rapes, and we also know that the number of domestic abuse incidents is the highest on record.
Many women share a belief that Scotland’s justice system does not always live up to the values that it likes to espouse. I am sure that we are all familiar with accounts of people being revictimised and degraded by the impersonal criminal justice machine. Sharon Dowey’s powerful account is still the reality for far too many.
Today, we remember women who were killed by men this year. One of those women was Esther Brown. Yesterday, I spent just over 10 minutes listening to Esther. An audio recording of her is on the website of a community garden beside her home in Glasgow’s Woodlands area. Punctuated with warm laughter, she speaks about her passion for gardening and the outdoors. Having moved to the area in 2008, she says she feels “more at home” there than anywhere else.
In May, Esther Brown was raped and murdered in her own home. Registered sex offender Jason Graham either tricked or forced his way inside to commit unimaginable acts. Esther, who was aged 67, lay dead for days. Her killer’s long history of offending includes the rape and brutal assault of another woman in her own home. For that heinous crime, Graham was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison, meaning that he was automatically released after serving just five.
I met a group of Esther’s friends. They are grieving and scared but also angry. They want to know how a sex offender who was being monitored by the police was free to kill. What were the terms of his supervision? Was he living under a different name? Did he breach parole conditions? What went so catastrophically wrong? They asked me to put those questions and others to Police Scotland, which I did. When I got the response back, not a single question had been answered. Instead, they were told that a “significant case review” was under way.
Esther’s family will be told of the outcome of the review—although only “where appropriate”, whatever that means. I do not blame the officer who wrote that letter, but I do blame a culture in which victims are treated with casual disregard. Women cannot just be fobbed off with glib assurances that lessons will be learned. They also deserve to know exactly how long violent criminals will actually serve in prison.
In the most extreme cases, Scotland’s judges should have the option of imposing whole-life sentences. Two years ago, this Parliament rejected my colleague Liam Kerr’s attempt to bring Scotland into line with the rest of the United Kingdom. Jason Graham will spend at least 19 years in prison, at which point he will be able to apply for parole. Compare that with the murder of Sarah Everard, whose killer, Wayne Couzens, was given a whole-life tariff in England.
I think that most of the people whom we represent share the belief that some criminals are just too dangerous ever to be set free. We should be honest enough to admit that. More immediately, the authorities must be open and honest when the system fails so badly. Rest in peace, Esther.
Today’s debate has been an opportunity to discuss one of the most serious human rights violations: violence against women and girls. It has also been an opportunity to highlight the strong cross-party consensus that exists—not on every part of the issue, of course, but there is consensus on the fundamentals.
I thank members from all parties for their contributions. I also thank and pay tribute to the front-line service workers who work tirelessly to ensure that women and children can access vital help, advice and support during these times. Rape Crisis Scotland, Scottish Women’s Aid, the ASSIST—advocacy, support, safety, information and services together—project, Victim Support Scotland and many others who support victims of gender-based violence demonstrated incredible resilience and adaptability at the height of the pandemic. I thank them for all that they do.
We are here to discuss a different type of pandemic—a number of members have called it a “shadow pandemic”—in our society: men’s violence. I listened carefully to last week’s debate on violence against women, which was led by Shona Robison, and I echo all the sentiments that she and other colleagues expressed. This is a men’s issue, and it is men’s responsibility to change.
For my part, I am prepared to do everything in my power as justice secretary to ensure that all forms of men’s violence against women and girls are eradicated from our society and that women’s humans rights are upheld throughout our justice system. It is past time for men to look closely at their behaviours and challenge those of their peers. That point was very well captured by Police Scotland in its “Don’t be that guy” campaign. I commend its powerful message.
I will quickly address some of the points that have been raised. Jamie Greene was right to mention that there is broad-based support across the Parliament for many of the measures that we might take. Although we might differ on certain particulars, there is a great deal of support for many of the measures that could be considered.
There needs to be a general cultural change. We could make all the changes that different parties want, but we will not change the fundamentals of men’s violence against women and girls until we make such violence culturally unacceptable in society.
The issue of veterans has not been mentioned. As the Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans, I am well aware of the experience of women in the armed forces. I recently opened a veterans facility in Fife, where there was a woman who used to serve on ships; she was one of the first women to go there from the Women’s Royal Naval Service. She had an absolutely horrendous experience. I think that we will see more coming out about that, and about the treatment of LGBTI people in the armed forces. We must look at the treatment of women in the armed forces.
Difficult reforms will need to be made, many of which we are looking at. I do not think that we will get agreement on the presumption against short sentences. The last case that Russell Findlay mentioned was dealt with under the previous legislation, which the current Scottish Government changed. Although the early release of the individual in question took place under the current Government, the previous legislation applied at the time. There are issues on which we will probably disagree.
Pauline McNeill raised a point about legal aid. The Minister for Community Safety is carrying out a review of legal aid, and I am sure that she heard the points that were made, which will be addressed.
Liam McArthur acknowledged that progress had been made. He also mentioned issues such as anonymity, in relation to which we will take action.
Audrey Nicoll and Maggie Chapman mentioned the backlog of cases, which is a huge issue, and Maggie Chapman asked what we can do about it. I am not making a political point, but we have no Covid consequentials to deal with anything related to justice in the settlement from Westminster. Our challenge is to find the money to continue the work that we have done on, for example, remote juries, or to continue with some of the innovations that we have adopted with regard to recording evidence. I reiterate that we are more than willing to listen to other suggestions.
It might have been Kaukab Stewart who said that justice delayed is justice denied. Justice delayed is also justice degraded. Over time, people forget the evidence. We must ensure that we limit any backlog.
I say to Tess White, who made a very good speech, that we have never drip fed anything from the misogyny working group, at least not as far as I am aware—I am happy to be challenged on that. We have regular conversations with Baroness Kennedy. The Parliament agreed that she would report back by February, and the minister confirmed that we expect that she will do that.
I cannot accept the Labour amendment, for the reason that I sought to draw out in my intervention on Katy Clark, which relates to the constitutional position. We have been here before. I said that the matter of the introduction of domestic abuse courts was one for the Lord Advocate; it is actually the Lord President who has the power to direct the courts. However, we agree with much of what the Labour amendment says, and much of what Labour members have said, and I hope that we can continue to work together on taking these things forward.
Victim blaming, misogyny and patriarchal commentary have no place in a modern, progressive Scotland. It is men’s behaviours that need to be held up to scrutiny. I have said this a number of times, but it bears repeating: harassment, unwanted physical and verbal attention, threats, invading women’s space and many other actions that men routinely inflict on women must stop.
We all grew up at a certain time. If I am honest, it is only in the past few years that I have realised the extent to which women have had to change their behaviour and it has been made more obvious to me that women such as my daughter, my mother and my sisters would have changed their behaviour from the point when they were small girls. Men must change their behaviour to start to unravel that, and education is an integral part of that.
In that case, I will jump forward.
The fundamental point is that there are some really important issues here. The not proven verdict has been mentioned; we will discuss that, as well as corroboration and anonymity. In many of those areas, we can make changes, but, at the root of what we do, we must have a trauma-informed justice system, from end to end. “Trauma-informed” is a buzzword just now, but we have to make it a reality. Our justice system must also be victim centred.
However, all the collective changes that we could make will not be sufficient; we need a culture change and, for that, we all—especially all the men in this chamber and throughout the rest of Scotland—bear huge responsibility.
I ask the Parliament to restate our collective ambition to make that change and to support the motion.