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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)

Meeting date: Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Point of Order, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Covid-19, Global Capital Investment Plan, Business Motion, United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill, Motion Without Notice, Decision Time, People with Learning Disabilities (Support during Pandemic)


Topical Question Time

Violence Against Women

To ask the Scottish Government how it and Police Scotland are ensuring that women are protected from harassment and violence. (S5T-02718)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice (Humza Yousaf)

I am sure that the member will agree that recent events have shone a spotlight on the issue and the scale of the abuse, violence and harassment that women and girls face every day in our society. I know that my thoughts, the Government’s thoughts and the thoughts of everyone in the chamber continue to be with the family of Sarah Everard.

I take this opportunity to make clear our Government position that any form of violence against women and girls is simply unacceptable. We are investing significant levels of funding in front-line support services to ensure that women and children can safely access the support that they need.

Police Scotland continues to prioritise cases of domestic abuse and harassment, and we are working closely with all our justice partners to ensure that perpetrators receive a robust response and are held to account for their actions. I will meet the chief constable later this week, and will raise the matter with him directly.

We have recently established the independent misogyny and criminal justice in Scotland working group to look at misogyny in Scotland, which is led by Baroness Helena Kennedy QC and will report within 12 months. It will consider how best we might tackle misogynistic behaviour, including street harassment, across our society. It is making excellent progress, with its first evidence session taking place on Friday.

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People has extended an offer to meet the organisers of the reclaim these streets vigil in Edinburgh to discuss these hugely important matters.

Neil Bibby

The tragic events of last week—the disappearance and death of Sarah Everard—and the outpouring of women’s stories about harassment have been a reminder of men’s violence against women and of the fear that women too often face when they are going about their daily lives.

That is an issue not just in London or elsewhere in the United Kingdom, but right here in Scotland. Statistics that have been published today show that although 89 per cent of men report feeling safe while walking alone in their local areas after dark, for women, the figure is only 65 per cent, which is a decrease from the figure from before the pandemic. I am sure that the cabinet secretary would agree that that is unacceptable and that we need to act now.

What has the Government done to improve the safety of women on Scotland’s streets, and what further prevention work will it do now to tackle the serious issue of men’s violence towards women, ahead of publication of the report by the working group on misogyny and harassment?

Humza Yousaf

I agree with the substantial point that Neil Bibby makes. He referenced the Scottish crime and justice survey, which suggests that the majority of women feel safe in their communities, but he is absolutely right that there is a disparity between the number of men who feel safe and the number of women who feel safe, and that cannot be right.

We will continue to fund important organisations including Engender and Zero Tolerance where we can, and we will support organisations such as White Ribbon Scotland that challenge men to stand up against male violence towards women.

Ultimately, we have to listen to women; I mentioned that the Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People is meeting the organisers of the reclaim these streets vigil.

Where we can, we will also take action that is necessary through legislation to protect women. As Neil Bibby is aware, tomorrow the Parliament will debate at stage 3 the Domestic Abuse (Protection) (Scotland) Bill, which will allow police and courts to issue a suspected perpetrator of domestic abuse with a protection notice or order. That will mean that the victim of domestic abuse—of course, in 80 per cent of cases, the victim is a woman—will not have to flee their home for their own safety.

Where we can take legislative action ahead of the misogyny and criminal justice in Scotland working group reporting, we will take it. Where we can work with third sector partners, we will do that, and where the Opposition and others want to work on a cross-party basis, the Government will absolutely make itself available to be part of that solution.

Neil Bibby

We will certainly work with the Government on a cross-party basis to tackle the issue.

We have all been horrified by the story of Sarah Everard, who lost her life due to men’s violence simply by walking home. However, even at home, women are not safe from violent men. We know that victims of violence are too often forced into economic hardship and forced to upend their lives in order to flee from violence, whereas their abusers too rarely face retribution for their actions.

Domestic abuse is the fourth most common reason that is given for a homelessness application in Scotland. As the cabinet secretary said, tomorrow we will vote on the Domestic Abuse (Protection) (Scotland) Bill. Will the Government support Rhoda Grant’s amendments, which seek to ensure that no victim loses their right to a home from a social landlord following their experience of abuse? What has the Government done to explore how those rights could be extended to the private rented sector?

Humza Yousaf

The Government intends to support a number of Rhoda Grant’s amendments in tomorrow’s debate. There might be one or two that we think would have unintended adverse consequences, which we can debate tomorrow, but the Government will certainly be looking to support a number of Rhoda Grant’s amendments.

I am pleased to say that, when it comes to domestic abuse, the Parliament has often managed to reach not just consensus but unanimity in our desire to tackle that particularly pernicious crime. As I have said, I will continue to work with members across the political spectrum to see what we can do to ensure that not just our streets and our communities but our homes, which Neil Bibby mentioned, are safe for women. That process must start with listening to the quite frankly horrendous testimonies that we have heard from women about how they feel unsafe in our communities. I pledge to work closely with any member who wishes to stamp out male violence against women.

Three members wish to ask supplementary questions. If questions and answers are concise, we will get through all of them.

Shona Robison (Dundee City East) (SNP)

The horrific murder of Sarah Everard has been strongly felt by many. My thoughts, too, are with her family and friends. Many women, including me, have reflected on not feeling safe on the streets and holding our keys in our hand. We should not have to feel like that.

Does the cabinet secretary think that, in addition to the work of the newly formed misogyny working group, we need to consider urgently what further action needs to be taken to ensure women’s safety? Surely that must include working with boys at an early age to change the attitudes of the next generation.

Humza Yousaf

I could not agree more with Shona Robison, who has often raised those issues in the chamber. We are pleased to work with projects such as the #EmilyTest project, which is led by the inspirational Fiona Drouet. That project seeks to work with young men and boys in order to deal with issues of toxic masculinity.

As Shona Robison said, we have to address those issues. I am pleased to have seen a project by Rape Crisis Scotland that goes into high schools and talks to young people, but predominantly aims its education—on issues including consent—at young boys.

I could not agree more with the general point that Shona Robison has made. We do not have to wait for the working group in order to get on with taking action. There will be an example of that tomorrow, when the Parliament will, I hope, pass the Domestic Abuse (Protection) (Scotland) Bill. Equally, where we can work with other organisations, including third sector partners, to work with young men and young boys in society, the Government will absolutely support that.

Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

I declare an interest as an ambassador for White Ribbon Scotland Orkney.

Like many people over lockdown, I have found a daily walk to be not a luxury but a need. I take that walk for granted, and I can do it safely day or night. With the news of Sarah Everard’s murder and the discussions that have followed, it is horrifically clear that too many women do not enjoy the same privilege. The stories of street harassment have been harrowing. That is not acceptable, and women should have the right to feel safe.

The Scottish Liberal Democrats believe that a commission should be established to build on the work of Baroness Helena Kennedy’s group, to make recommendations and to pave the way for the changes that need to be made. Does that idea command the support of the cabinet secretary?

Humza Yousaf

I would certainly be willing to explore that idea with an open mind. I heard Liberal Democrat Caron Lindsay on this morning’s “Good Morning Scotland”. I have often found her to be a very considerate and thoughtful individual, and certainly the idea of a commission that has been presented by Liam McArthur is something that I would be happy to explore.

In some respects, of course, we have to accept that, although legislation can play its part, it is not the only answer. We have heard from Shona Robison and others today that education is clearly a part of what is needed. A commission might help to bring all the strands of work together. I will certainly engage with Liam McArthur and anybody else directly on any proposals that they have to tackle the scourge of men’s violence against women.

Annie Wells (Glasgow) (Con)

I also send my condolences to the friends and family of Sarah Everard.

The latest figures from the Crown Office highlight how prevalent domestic abuse still is within our society, with the number of domestic abuse charges in 2019-20 at a four-year high. However, any domestic abuser who is convicted and sent to prison for less than four years will automatically be let out half way through their sentence. That soft-touch approach to justice does not protect victims. Will the SNP and the cabinet secretary commit to ending automatic early release for perpetrators of domestic abuse as well as for other criminals who enjoy that luxury?

Humza Yousaf

It is a shame that Annie Wells has chosen to politicise the issue in such a way. We ended automatic early release for long-term prisoners, which was introduced by her party.

The issues around tackling domestic abuse will be most effectively debated tomorrow, when Parliament has the opportunity to unite and, I hope, transcend the politics and pass the Domestic Abuse (Protection) (Scotland) Bill, which will allow Police Scotland and our courts to impose domestic abuse protection notices and orders so that, for the first time, a suspected perpetrator of domestic abuse can be removed from their home and the victim of that domestic abuse can remain with their family in the family home and not end up having to flee the family home or become homeless.

If Annie Wells would like to be part of the coalition that will give that additional protection to victims of domestic abuse, who are predominantly women, I would very much welcome that. If the Tories have any other ideas that we can take forward to protect victims of domestic abuse then, of course, I will listen to them.

However, trying to frame the debate as being about soft justice versus hard justice is, I am afraid, not doing the issue any justice whatsoever. We will follow the data and evidence, and we will continue to take a smart justice approach.

Curriculum for Excellence (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Review)

2. Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

To ask the Scottish Government whether its discussions have concluded with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development regarding publication timetables relating to its review of curriculum for excellence. (S5T-02717)

The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (John Swinney)

My officials have written formally to the OECD, highlighting the motion agreed by Parliament on 17 February, which called for the immediate publication of its draft report, asking the OECD to confirm whether that would be possible and to clarify its position on the matter. In responding, the OECD has made its position very clear. It will not publish its draft report, nor will it allow the Scottish Government to do so. The correspondence has been published on the Scottish Government website.

We now need to let the OECD focus on finalising its findings and the drafting process. I look forward to the publication of the final report in June and to its helping to inform a dispassionate discussion on the future of Scottish education.

Beatrice Wishart

I thank the cabinet secretary for that answer, but the problem is that he has got himself into a bit of a bind here. It is 322 days since the Scottish Liberal Democrats called for the public to hear from the OECD before the election. At the Education and Skills Committee in September, I specifically asked whether the cabinet secretary would contact the OECD to request an interim report. He replied:

“I will be happy to discuss that with it.”—[Official Report, Education and Skills Committee, 16 September 2020; c 32.]

Our consequent freedom of information request has shown that ministers did precisely nothing. It took a defeat of the Government in Parliament to coax the cabinet secretary into giving anyone anything before the election.

The public is being asked to judge the SNP on its record on education, but the cabinet secretary has orchestrated this obstruction through his agreements and inaction. Why did the cabinet secretary not contact the OECD in September, when he said that he would?

John Swinney

The OECD review was commissioned as a Government response to the decisions taken by the Education and Skills Committee and in Parliament. The proposals were put forward and the remit was agreed, but, since then, we have had the impact of Covid, which has disrupted the ability of the OECD to engage with schools because of the period of disruption going back to last March.

I explained to Parliament, in response to a Government-inspired question, the timetable that would be followed by the OECD, which was agreed to enable it to follow the proper process that it is taking forward. We have asked that respected international organisation to undertake that exercise, and we should leave it to do exactly that. I have made every endeavour to secure early publication in so far as that is possible, but the OECD has indicated that it is not possible.

Beatrice Wishart

The Government could have asked for a change and for something before the election, just as it asked the OECD to extend its work to cover exams. The Government is the client. However, timings are not my only concern. The Scottish practitioners forum is “shaping and developing” that report, which sounds sensible until we learn that Education Scotland and the Scottish Qualifications Authority are on that practitioners forum. They are under the microscope, so what are they doing on a group that is shaping and developing the report?

John Swinney

The points that Beatrice Wishart glides past in her question are the fact that we have, on two occasions, asked the OECD to extend the scope of the work that it is undertaking—it started off as an examination of the senior phase, it was extended to the broad general education and it has also extended into assessment, so it is no particular surprise that the timescale has extended—and the fact that we have also had the disruption of Covid.

The Scottish practitioners forum draws together a number of practising members of the education system in Scotland. It is led by Tony McDade, executive director of education resources at South Lanarkshire Council, and it involves classroom teachers, headteachers, heads of service from local authorities, a college principal, Professor Mark Priestley—who undertook what I would describe as the pretty challenging review of the SQA in the light of the exam issues last year—and, of course, Education Scotland and the SQA. That is to make sure that the OECD is able to speak to the range of different participants in the delivery of Scottish education. The OECD asked us to put together a practitioners forum that it could engage with in discussion and debate, and it has to be representative of the whole education system in Scotland.

If they are quick, I will allow supplementary questions from Jamie Greene and Ross Greer.

Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

On 17 February, the Deputy First Minister told the chamber that he

“will share draft findings from that work in March, with a final report to be published in June”.—[Official Report, 17 February 2021; c 29.]

Given that he is now saying that the OECD will not let him share those findings, I ask whether the OECD has changed its mind, whether the Deputy First Minister has changed his mind or whether the Parliament misunderstood his promise to the chamber.

John Swinney

I have placed a document in the Scottish Parliament information centre, which enables members of Parliament to access that material. That is precisely what I have done. The OECD has indicated—I have published the correspondence—that that must be treated as a confidential document. I am trying my level best to meet the terms of the Parliament’s requests along with the strictures that apply to me in a contract that we have agreed with the OECD. The Parliament asking a Government minister to breach a contract is not a particularly good look.

Ross Greer (West Scotland) (Green)

While we wait for the OECD’s report, a report by the Social Market Foundation was published today that covers much the same ground. It suggested that Scotland should move away from the single high-stakes end-of-term exam model and towards a continuous assessment approach. Without wishing to pre-empt the OECD’s report, does the education secretary acknowledge that the time for change in Scotland’s exam system has now come?

That was a slightly broader question, but you may answer briefly, Mr Swinney.

John Swinney

It may be broader, Presiding Officer, but it is absolutely relevant. There was commentary just yesterday morning in broadcast media from the commission on school reform, which has taken a slightly different point of view to Mr Greer’s.

Nevertheless, the point that Mr Greer puts to Parliament must be openly debated and discussed. We must have an assessment system that reflects our curriculum and that commands confidence in the country. There are perfectly legitimate arguments for a continuous assessment model or an end-of-session examination model—or for a mixture of both, which essentially describes some of the arrangements that we have now. The issue that Mr Greer raises is entirely legitimate for us to focus on, and there is plenty of evidence to enable us to have that discussion.

I call Clare Adamson.

We might have lost Clare Adamson, by the look of things—I am afraid that we have. That concludes topical questions.