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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 21 November 2017

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Minimum Unit Pricing of Alcohol, Suicide Prevention, Edinburgh Bakers’ Widows’ Fund Bill: Final Stage, Business Motion, Decision Time, Road Safety Week


Topical Question Time

Child Sexual Exploitation (Glasgow)

1. Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

To ask the Scottish Government what action has been taken in response to recent allegations of child sexual exploitation in the Govanhill area of Glasgow. (S5T-00778)

The allegations of child sexual exploitation in the Govanhill area that were made in the press over the weekend are deeply concerning, and anyone with evidence of suspected crimes should contact the police in the first instance.

Police Scotland has stated that, although it has no information or intelligence to substantiate the claims that were made in the article, those claims are being fully investigated. Should the police uncover any evidence that an offence has been committed or that there are children or young people at risk of harm, they will pursue that as they normally would. Should the investigation lead to the identification of any child protection concerns, Police Scotland will work closely with Glasgow City Council social work department, and with others, to ensure that children are protected from harm.

Scotland’s agencies work tirelessly to tackle all forms of child sexual abuse, and it is important that perpetrators know that their criminal acts, and exploitation in any form, will never be tolerated in Scotland. Everyone has a responsibility to protect children and young people from harm and abuse, and that includes reporting signs of child exploitation and abuse so that it can be stopped.

The claims that were made at the weekend on the back of the Times investigation are, as the cabinet secretary said, truly sickening. No child should ever be put in such an awful position.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that Olive Arens, who is chief executive of Up-2-Us, which is a charity that works with vulnerable teenagers, is reported to have said:

“It is very clear what was taking place but nothing ever happened to stop it.”

Social workers, community representatives and residents have also expressed concerns. Can the cabinet secretary confirm, therefore, whether Glasgow City Council, Police Scotland or any other body has ever received reports of that nature and, if so, what exactly was done as a result? The Times reported that social workers were aware of concerns. How were those concerns escalated?

Liam McArthur will recognise that Police Scotland is now taking forward an investigation. As Police Scotland has stated, all the individuals who were named in the article to which Liam McArthur referred will be invited to interview and to make statements, which will allow it to assess whether there is intelligence that substantiates the allegations that were made in the article. Police Scotland has stated clearly that it has not received any intelligence or information that substantiates the claims. In addition, Glasgow City Council has confirmed that none of the allegations that were made in the article had been brought to its attention previously.

With regard to allegations that have been made in the past, when information is received by Police Scotland or Glasgow City Council social work services, it is dealt with through the normal child protection procedures. If there are allegations or concerns about vulnerability regarding young people, they are fully investigated. Those matters are taken forward by Glasgow City Council’s child protection committee, which is a multi-agency body that is responsible for looking at issues relating to child protection and anything to do with child exploitation. Any allegations that were made in the past would have been dealt with through that process.

I assure Liam McArthur that, although there is currently no evidence or intelligence to substantiate the allegations, they are being thoroughly investigated by Police Scotland and by the Glasgow City Council social work department to address any concerns that arise from them. Should the allegations be substantiated, appropriate measures will be taken.

I thank the cabinet secretary for another detailed response. There has been atrocious abuse in areas such as Rotherham, where there is evidence that concerns were dismissed or ignored. Will the cabinet secretary ensure that there are no barriers that might discourage people from coming forward with reports, in particular from within the community itself, and will he report back to Parliament with a full statement in due course?

The issue of child sexual exploitation is complex. Abuse of children is an area of criminal activity that is very often hidden and underreported, which can present challenges for law enforcement agencies such as Police Scotland and for our child protection agencies in addressing matters in the way they would wish to.

That is why it is extremely important that we recognise that tackling issues around child abuse is not solely the responsibility of our police or local authority social work departments. We all have a collective responsibility to look after the welfare and the needs of our vulnerable young people. If we have any concerns about young people potentially being exploited or abused, we should have the confidence to report those concerns to the appropriate agencies.

I tell anyone who has evidence or concerns regarding any children in Govanhill—or anywhere else in Scotland, for that matter, because child sexual exploitation can take place in any community across the country—that the most appropriate way in which to take those concerns forward is to report them to the authorities, whether that is Police Scotland or the local authority social work department. That will allow those authorities to assess the information and, if necessary, to ensure that any children who are being abused get the right protection as quickly as possible.

I assure people that action will be taken sensitively by the police and by local authority social work departments to give children the support and assistance that they require as and when it is necessary.

The cabinet secretary is absolutely right about the importance of the collective, collaborative and holistic approach that needs to be taken. It was rightly recognised following the abuse cases in Rotherham and Rochdale that Scotland is not immune from such exploitation. Will he update Parliament on what steps were taken then to identify and address any weaknesses, to enhance co-ordination and intelligence gathering, and to improve child protection processes?

Action was taken in a number of areas by the Scottish Government to make sure that we have robust and effective child protection measures in place. One of those areas of work was the child protection improvement programme, which aims to ensure that effective protection is in place for all children who are at risk of abuse and neglect. Alongside that, work was done on measures relating to neglect, child sexual exploitation, internet safety, child trafficking, leadership and workforce development, joint inspections data and evidence, and the children’s hearings system. That independent system review also looked at our child protection committee system, including initial case reviews, significant case reviews and the child protection register. The report was published on 2 March this year and set out a range of recommendations, which were accepted in full. The national child protection leadership group, which is chaired by the Minister for Children and Early Years, is driving that improvement work forward. I hope that that reassures the member about the range of work and assessments that have been undertaken to make sure that our child protection measures are as robust and effective as possible.

However, we can never afford to be complacent in this area. That is why our agencies continually review the way in which they take forward actions relating to child protection to make sure that they are as robust and effective as possible. Improvement works that are being driven forward by the Minister for Children and Early Years together with the leadership group will help to ensure that we continue to develop the good programmes we have in place, while continue to reflect on where learning can be gained from within Scotland or elsewhere to ensure that the protections for children are as robust as possible.

These concerns are not new. They were first raised 12 years ago. Three years ago, the local community council was minuting its concerns as well, yet they have arisen again now. Can the cabinet secretary assure us that what is promised will be a full investigation going beyond normal police and child protection procedures?

We need to put this in context. Allegations have been made in a newspaper article. Police Scotland and Glasgow City Council’s social work department have made it clear that they are investigating them. As it stands, they do not have any intelligence or information to substantiate the claims. Issues relating to what happened in the past were dealt with at the time by both the police and the local authority. Now is the time to support our law enforcement bodies such as Police Scotland, our child protection social workers, who have a lead responsibility in investigating such issues, and the other third sector organisations that support children who may be vulnerable and who potentially are being exploited, in the work that they are doing to identify whether the allegations can be substantiated. If they are substantiated, action must be taken against the perpetrators and robust measures adopted to protect the interests of the children who have been exploited. At this stage, all members should be minded to support the organisations that are undertaking the investigation. They have assured us that this will be a thorough and detailed investigation into the allegations.

Will the cabinet secretary confirm that Police Scotland will go into Govanhill to instil confidence in local people?

I know Govanhill well and I regularly pass through the area. I have been struck by the police presence there in recent times. One of the key areas of work that police in the greater Glasgow command do is with the hub in Govanhill in order to work with and support a range of organisations. I recently had a discussion with the local commander for the Govanhill area, who explained to me the range of work that is undertaken with a range of partners in health and education. For example, officers are based in schools in the area to work with and support children and support teachers. All that work goes on on a regular basis in order to support and assist the community to address any issues and concerns that it has.

Are there areas in which the police could do further work? I have no doubt that, in their on-going engagement with the community in Govanhill, they will explore those matters. However, I have been assured by Police Scotland and have witnessed that there is considerable engagement between the police and the local community, and I have no doubt that they will want to maintain and build on that.

We should all acknowledge the seriousness with which questions are being asked and answered, and we should all, like the cabinet secretary, give our support to the police and local authority agencies that are looking to investigate the situation.

We know that some of the dreadful situations south of the border that have been referred to have been exploited by people who seek to promote racist and Islamophobic ideas on the back of them. Govanhill is an area with rich diversity, but it has also been subject to stereotyping in the past. Does the cabinet secretary agree that the serious response is that any genuine allegations must be handled in a way that avoids inculcating such stereotypes or giving any opportunity to people who seek to capitalise on them to promote racist attitudes?

You should be brief, if you can, cabinet secretary.

Patrick Harvie has raised a very important issue. Comments have been made in the press about such issues. Everyone has a responsibility to ensure that the issue is not exploited by people who wish to create disharmony in Govanhill. That is not to say that the matters should not be thoroughly investigated. I hope that members are reassured that Police Scotland and Glasgow City Council have said that they are committed to doing that.

Govanhill is the most ethnically diverse community in the whole of Scotland, and that brings a range of opportunities and challenges. Now is the time to get behind organisations with a lead responsibility for investigating the allegations and to support them in doing so in order to identify whether exploitation of children is taking place. If it is, robust measures and action must be taken against the perpetrators of those crimes, and we must support and assist children who have been exploited at any time in the past.

Sexual Crimes (Investigation and Prosecution)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the Inspectorate of Prosecution in Scotland’s review of the investigation and prosecution of sexual crimes. (S5T-00773)

The Inspectorate of Prosecution in Scotland reports to me as head of the system of prosecution and investigation of deaths in Scotland. I am grateful to the inspectorate for its report, and I accept all of its recommendations.

The Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service has a strong commitment to securing justice for victims of gender-based violence and other sexual crimes, and has a good track record in that regard. The service is well aware of the particular challenges that are identified in the inspectorate’s report, and has been implementing reforms with a view to addressing them. It has established specialist High Court sexual crime units to supplement the work of specialist Crown counsel in the national sex crimes unit, and its pre-petition recovery plan has more than halved the number of cases on pre-petition investigation in the past year.

Earlier this year, the service revised its victim strategy to improve the support that it provides to victims of crime. The inspectorate’s report identifies further improvements that the service can make, which will now be taken forward.

The inspectorate’s report makes some sensible recommendations for the Crown Office on improving communication with complainers. The recommendations are to be welcomed and must be implemented. However, that will not address the very negative experiences of rape complainers in giving evidence in court. Some victims have described doing it as being worse than being raped. Will the Lord Advocate commit to working with the Scottish Government to introduce video recording of evidence in sexual offences cases early, in order to avoid complainers having to give evidence in court?

We, as prosecutors, cannot bring the perpetrators of gender-based violence and other sexual crimes to justice unless victims have the confidence to come forward and give their evidence.

As Claire Baker will be aware, the taking of evidence from children and vulnerable witnesses is a workstream in the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service’s evidence and procedure review. The Scottish Government has also consulted on further measures to improve how evidence is taken from children and vulnerable witnesses.

I will continue to work with the Government and other agencies as we seek to improve the system for the victims of crime, whom we are seeking to protect.

Forensics is another area of the report that I want to raise. I was recently approached by a young woman who had reported a rape a few weeks ago. Her description of the care that she received, especially of the forensic examination, will break members’ hearts and make them angry. I will quote how she described her experience to me. She said:

“Think, just think, how it felt at the time of the assault, how it felt being in a barren environment where basic needs were only just being met (heating, water, food), where the male Forensic Medical Examiner did not have the tools to do the job.”

Can the Lord Advocate provide assurances that urgent action is being taken to address the clear deficiencies in how forensic examinations are carried out, as is highlighted in the report?

The Lord Advocate

The chief medical officer’s review addresses the whole issue of forensic medical examinations. That is the appropriate forum through which those matters should, and will, be addressed.

Brexit (Cost)

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it will make of the impact on Scotland of the cost of Brexit. (S5T-00781)

In August 2016, the Scottish Government published analysis summarising the potential impact that leaving the European Union could have on Scotland’s gross domestic product. The analysis was based on a range of recent economic studies. It implies that, by 2030, the output of the Scottish economy could be up to £11.2 billion a year lower under a hard Brexit, compared with the forecast GDP in the absence of Brexit.

Subsequent analysis by the Fraser of Allander institute confirms the risk that a hard Brexit poses to Scotland, and predicts that, after 10 years, employment in Scotland could be 80,000 lower after leaving the EU than would otherwise be the case.

We have seen reports that Theresa May is set to double to £40 billion the contribution that United Kingdom taxpayers must pay to Brussels to secure a Brexit deal. It might be more. Who knows? Does the minister agree, particularly given that Scotland did not choose to leave the EU, that our budget and our public services should not face more cuts to pay the Brexit bill?

As Ivan McKee points out, Scotland did not vote to leave the European Union, so it will not come as a great surprise to hear that I am not tremendously enthusiastic about Scots having to shoulder a share of the costs of leaving. All that we were told, on the side of buses, about there being £350 million a week—or whatever it was—that would come into the country as a result of Brexit has long since been dismissed as being far from the truth.

There is a cost. The UK Government’s continued unwillingness to address the financial settlement in the EU negotiations risks causing severe and long-term economic damage. The Scottish Government remains deeply concerned that no meaningful discussions have yet taken place with the UK Government on the precise detail of any EU funding guarantees.

The chaos around the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill and other matters associated with Brexit shows that the Tories are clearly bungling the negotiations. The case for Scotland’s voice to be heard has never been stronger. Will the Scottish Government continue to demand a place at the table in order to protect our place in the single market?

The Scottish Government uses the opportunities that are available to it to engage with the UK Government on the issues that Ivan McKee raises. We have the joint ministerial committees, for example. However, the main JMC was not convened by the UK Government during a crucial time—over a period of eight months.

However, let me put that to one side. We seek to engage positively, where we can do so. However, we feel that it is our duty to point out, as Ivan McKee has pointed out, that we are nowhere near any meaningful agreement between the EU27 and the UK, and that the UK Government has, thus far, no clear plan in mind.

I apologise to members who wanted to ask more questions. We must move on.