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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)

Meeting date: Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Covid-19, Covid-19 Recovery Strategy, Health and Social Care (Winter Planning), Environment Bill, Urgent Question, Covid-19 Regulations (Scrutiny Protocol), Decision Time, Big Noise Programme (Wester Hailes), Correction


Topical Question Time

The next item of business is topical question time. In order to get in as many members as possible, I ask for succinct questions and responses.

Protection of Women

1. Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

To ask the Scottish Government what measures public sector agencies, including the Scottish Government, Police Scotland and the Crown Office, will take to increase efforts to ensure women are protected from harassment and violence. (S6T-00218)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans (Keith Brown)

The Scottish Government works closely with Police Scotland and the Crown Office to tackle all forms of gender-based violence. Our equally safe strategy maintains a decisive focus on prevention and addressing systemic gender inequalities. We have dedicated £19 million per year to the new delivering equally safe fund to implement the strategy, and in the programme for government we committed to invest more than £100 million to support front-line services and focus on prevention of violence against women and girls.

We have strengthened our laws to tackle sexual violence, threatening or abusive behaviour, non-consensual sharing of images and domestic abuse. However, recent tragic cases and the experience of far too many women show that more needs to be done. We will therefore consider carefully the recommendations from Baroness Kennedy’s independent working group on misogyny and act swiftly on the working group’s advice.

I welcome Police Scotland’s message that the onus is on police to provide reassurance to women, and its new lone police officer verification process is very welcome in that regard.

Beatrice Wishart

I declare an interest as a board member of Shetland Women’s Aid. Violence against women and girls cannot be stripped back to an incident; it is all-consuming and is in the background of everything that we do. Every day—every minute—we risk assess and change our behaviour in a bid to stay safe. That needs to change. The World Health Organization’s guidance states:

“Despite the fact that violence has always been present, the world does not have to accept it as an inevitable part of the human condition.”

It also states:

“The factors that contribute to violent responses—whether they are factors of attitude and behaviour or related to larger social, economic, political and cultural conditions—can be changed.”

That is why Scottish Liberal Democrats have been calling for a new commission to work at that scale. Does the cabinet secretary agree that the problem cannot be answered through existing strategies?

Keith Brown

I agree with the member in relation to the fundamental cultural aspect of the issue. That attitude informs a continuum that goes from low-level misogyny through to the horrendous crimes that we are all aware of. I concede that there is a need for the police to act on this particular issue, and they have done that well in Scotland. There is also a need for the Government to take forward a number of strategies, some of which I have already mentioned, and there is a need for men and boys to change the attitudes that they have to women and girls.

I go back to the point that I made before about the equally safe strategy at school and Beatrice Wishart’s point about how ingrained in society the issue is. That is why we are tackling gender inequality and gender-based violence at school—for example, by teaching, even at primary school level, things such as consent and healthy relationships.

Beatrice Wishart is right to mention those ingrained behaviours in women, who have to adapt to the behaviours of men. It comes back to men to change their attitudes, and we are doing that from an early stage at school and through the other strategies that we are taking forward, some of which I have already mentioned.

Beatrice Wishart

If the pervasive threat of violence was not enough, the delays in the justice system mean that women suffer in the aftermath, too. Research by the Scottish Liberal Democrats identified more than 50,000 cases that breached the 26-week timescale between caution and charge before lockdown, and that has been exacerbated by the pandemic. One constituent in Shetland will now have their case heard five years after the alleged initial offence occurred.

Court budgets operate on a shoestring, and women suffer disproportionately as a result. Many feel that justice is out of grasp. How will delays in domestic abuse cases be monitored and what is the cabinet secretary’s advice for the many women who are currently waiting?

Keith Brown

Crimes of domestic violence have a devastating impact on the victims. We encourage, not least through a new law that has widely been well received, women or anybody who has experienced domestic abuse to report it and seek support.

There is no doubt that the pandemic has been challenging in this regard and that it has created a greater court backlog. That has been caused by necessary public health restrictions, and it has been responded to in a number of ways, not least through remote jury centres and the allocation of over £50 million to the Scottish Courts and Tribunal Service to ensure that we can get through as many cases as possible.

Although 25 per cent of all summary cases are domestic abuse cases, 40 per cent of evidence-led trials involve domestic abuse. That shows the prioritisation that is given to domestic abuse cases.

As I said, £50 million has already been allocated to our recover, renew and transform justice programme. We will, of course, look to allocate further resources to ensure that the backlog is further reduced. We acknowledge the impact of the delays on domestic abuse victims and all those in the justice system, including the accused, and we want to work down the backlog as quickly as possible.

What action is the Scottish Government taking to tackle misogynistic behaviour?

Keith Brown

As I said, women and girls in Scotland should feel safe on our streets and in our public places, including in online spaces. That is why we have set up an independent working group on misogyny and criminal justice, which is chaired by Baroness Kennedy, to independently consider how the Scottish criminal justice system currently deals with misogynistic conduct and whether there are gaps in the law that require to be remedied. The group is also looking at whether to add the characteristic of sex to the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act 2021.

The group is currently drawing upon a range of evidential sources, including a survey that was filled out by 930 participants, academic evidence and presentations from third sector and justice agencies, including Police Scotland, which will present at the working group meeting this week. The group is due to report in February 2022.

I do not agree with the Prime Minister that it is possible at this stage to rule out the need for a stand-alone offence of misogyny.

Meghan Gallacher (Central Scotland) (Con)

The tragic case of Sarah Everard has rightly raised concerns about how crimes against women and girls are treated by the Metropolitan Police, but we must also be aware of how such crimes are treated closer to home, by Police Scotland and other public bodies. It is clear that, had such a heinous crime taken place in Scotland, Scottish judges would not have been able to hand down a whole-life sentence. That means that families could be left worrying that a perpetrator could be released years later. Has the cabinet secretary reconsidered introducing whole-life custody orders in the light of recent events?

Keith Brown

As things stand, we believe that the courts have the ability to hand down extended sentences in cases in which they think that that is appropriate. We are, of course, continuing to have a dialogue, and other members of Meghan Gallacher’s party have put their case in debates. We will, of course, listen to those views, but, as things stand, we believe that the courts in Scotland have the ability to hand down appropriate sentences, especially in cases as grave as that which has been mentioned.

It is also true—and quite right to say—that the sentence that was handed down by the court in England reflected the fact that a police officer was involved. I think that we share the view across the chamber that we should protect police officers, because they hold a position of particular vulnerability as a result of the job that they do. However, we should also recognise the fact that they hold a position of trust and authority, so that, when they breach that trust, they should get a sentence that is commensurate with that breach as well as the substantive crime.

We will, of course, continue to keep things under review, but we currently believe that the courts in Scotland have the powers that are required.

Audrey Nicoll (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)

Does the cabinet secretary agree that comments that were made by the North Yorkshire police commissioner, who blamed Sarah Everard for her murder by saying that she “never should have submitted” to arrest, were completely inappropriate? Does he agree that we should never blame women or leave it up to women to fix the problem of male violence and that, for change to happen, it needs to be accepted by everyone?

Keith Brown

I completely agree with that, and my previous answers reflect that position.

Audrey Nicoll is absolutely right in saying that we should never blame any victim of crime for that crime. For far too long, in such crimes, we have pushed on to women the burden of responsibility for keeping themselves safe. That needs to change. For that reason, I do not agree with the comments that were made. I think that the First Minister has also made it very clear that she does not agree with those comments.

We require to focus our attention on men’s violence against women and the behaviours of men, and I think that that informed the police’s response in Scotland. Instead of talking about waving down a bus, the police in Scotland made sure that the onus in their new procedure was put on the police and not on somebody who may be confronted by a lone police officer. That is the right approach.

I certainly agree with Audrey Nicoll that the last thing we should be doing is blaming victims for the crimes that are perpetrated against them.

Pauline McNeill (Glasgow) (Lab)

I sincerely welcome the cabinet secretary’s comments at the weekend when he said that women should be included as a protected group in the hate crime legislation. That would send a very important signal that such behaviours by men are not acceptable in society.

I appreciate that the cabinet secretary was not the justice secretary when the legislation was passed, earlier this year, but the Scottish Government chose not to accept an amendment that would have included women specifically in the legislation. The cabinet secretary clearly agrees that it is obvious that misogyny should have been included in the hate crime legislation in the first place. Does he think that it is time to act now, instead of waiting until next year for the findings of the working group on misogyny?

Keith Brown

It is always important, when we bring legislation to the chamber, that we have carried out the correct diligence and consulted experts and others. I know that that was done for the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill. However, Parliament agreed that we should consider further a stand-alone offence of misogyny. I and other ministers have spoken to Baroness Kennedy on a number of occasions, and I am satisfied that she is making good progress on that. We are now a short time away from her coming to her conclusions, and it would be wrong to pre-empt those conclusions.

I understand that Baroness Kennedy will consult the Parliament’s Criminal Justice Committee, so Pauline McNeill will have a chance to discuss the issue directly with her. If we are to legislate further, it is right that we do so on the basis of the evidence that Baroness Kennedy has gathered, as well as the consultation process that has been undertaken.

Maggie Chapman (North East Scotland) (Green)

The cabinet secretary mentioned that Police Scotland has said that the onus is on its officers to provide reassurance to members of the public, particularly women, that they are acting lawfully. What other actions does the cabinet secretary think Police Scotland should take to ensure that the recent reported cases and allegations of sexual violence in other police forces are not repeated in Police Scotland? Does he have any concerns about members of the Metropolitan Police’s parliamentary and diplomatic protection command joining Scottish officers during the 26th United Nations climate change conference of the parties?

Keith Brown

I have spoken to the chief constable a number of times over the past few days, once when he was at the Met, talking to its commissioner about, among other things, COP26. The chief constable has made it absolutely clear to police forces from other parts of the United Kingdom that, when they come to help out at COP26, they will be under his direction and will follow the procedures that we follow in Scotland. That should provide some reassurance to the member.

For its part, Police Scotland has changed its vetting procedures, and there is almost a double vetting hurdle to be overcome to become a police officer in Scotland. However, as the member suggests, there is more to do, and Dame Elish Angiolini has made a number of recommendations. For example, there is more to do in relation to the list of barred police officers—officers who have been taken out of the service due to misconduct. It is, of course, not possible for such officers to rejoin Police Scotland, but we are very alive to the possibility that someone who has been barred from another force could join Police Scotland.

There is more to be done, but a great deal has been done, not least through the work of Elish Angiolini, some of whose recommendations are being taken forward by the police, as well as in relation to vetting and conduct in the police force itself. I hope that that provides some reassurance to the member.