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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, September 30, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 30 September 2021

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Point of Order, Community Land Ownership, Portfolio Question Time, Point of Order, Autumn and Winter Vaccination Programme, Urgent Question, Brexit Impact on Supply Chain and Labour Market, Points of Order, Decision Time


Urgent Question

The next item of business is an urgent question.

Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry

I appreciate the opportunity to bring this matter to the chamber.

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the publication of the sixth case study findings by the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry, in which the chair, Lady Smith, criticised the Scottish Government for a “woeful and wholly avoidable” delay in setting up an inquiry into accusations of historical child abuse in Scotland.

The Scottish Government apologises unreservedly that it did not respond more appropriately and sooner to the concerns of survivors of abuse in care who called for a public inquiry. The response to survivors of abuse in care spanned different Administrations between 2002 and 2014. Steps were taken by the Government to respond in that period to the issues that were raised in the original petition, but that happened too slowly and did not go far enough.

An inquiry was announced within weeks of the current First Minister assuming her office in 2014. We welcome the inquiry’s on-going work, which is addressing the harrowing suffering experienced by survivors. We are grateful to survivors who have bravely come forward to participate and give their testimony. The Scottish Government will consider and address any future recommendations that are made by the inquiry to improve legislation, policy and practice. We are listening to all the issues and are determined to ensure that lessons are learned.

I appreciate the Deputy First Minister’s response to that question. I know that we have discussed this issue before, but Lady Smith stated that the Scottish Government failed to grasp the fundamental importance that the survivors appropriately and justifiably attach to their need for justice, accountability and redress and, furthermore, that there was a failure of ministers to listen to and engage with survivors.

The Redress for Survivors (Historical Child Abuse in Care) (Scotland) Act 2021 focuses on those who have suffered abuse in a care home setting, and the Deputy First Minister has stated that the act tackles abuse that had taken place in institutions that had the legal status and obligations of parents. Welcome though the report and the act are, they fail to recognise that there are victims with the same trauma from abuse that took place in local authority buildings such as schools, where similar parental responsibilities are afforded to teachers. Education legislation says that teachers have responsibility for a child where the child’s parents are absent—that is, they are “in loco parentis” while children are in the school. Why was consideration not given to those victims in the inquiry? Their abuse and the trauma are no less acute.

I understand entirely the sentiments that Brian Whittle expresses, and in no way would I seek to differentiate the suffering of individuals in any such circumstances. Wherever a child was abused, in whatever circumstance, it is wholly and utterly unacceptable, and the perpetrator’s conduct is reprehensible.

The establishment of the abuse inquiry focused on addressing the question of in-care settings where abuse had taken place. That was the substance of the original petition, and it concerned situations in which the state essentially assumed the role of providing parental support to a child on an on-going basis. In the example that Mr Whittle provides to me of schools, that role is not assumed on a permanent basis; it is assumed only for a period of time during the day, and parents retain the role of parents in those circumstances.

That explains the distinction, but I would not in any way want to establish any lack of equivalence in the suffering of individuals with regard to what they have endured in those circumstances.

Again, I appreciate very much the Deputy First Minister’s response. I have suggested to him in the past that I think that the way in which the law is drafted breaks the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child law and creates inequality. I have written to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and I await its response.

I have witnessed the deterioration of the mental and physical health of one of my constituents as I have been trying to help her with her journey through the judicial system as she searched for justice, redress and closure. From dealing with current and historical sexual abuse cases for constituents through my work on the Health and Sport Committee and the Public Petitions Committee, it is my conclusion that the system does little to support the victim in their search for justice. There are many agencies with a part to play that do not seem to be able to communicate with one another, so it is little wonder that the conviction rates are so low and the alleged victims of such crimes are continually retraumatised by the process.

Will the Deputy First Minister please take the time to look again at the journey of a victim through the justice system, consider the changes that are desperately needed and put the support in place to ensure that all victims’ voices are heard?

I am committed to ensuring that the voices of all victims are heard. That is precisely why the Government took the step, despite a number of different initiatives having been taken in the period from 2002 to 2014, to hear the voices of victims. I accept unreservedly that all those steps were not good enough until we had established the inquiry. In my view, the inquiry fulfils a difficult and painful, but necessary, role in Scottish society: to oblige our country to face up to its past. I hope that the forensic nature of Lady Smith’s interrogation of the evidence, and the power of her conclusions, provide survivors with some assurance that their voices are now being heard.

Mr Whittle—fairly, I think—highlighted the difficulties that individuals face where they have already suffered and have then tried to pursue issues through the judicial system. That is exactly why the Government established the redress system—because we want to minimise the suffering of individuals in trying to help them to achieve some form of redress.

Indeed, the evidence that I see from the advance payment system, which we have had in place for around two years, shows that individuals appreciate a pathway that enables them to seek some form of redress for their suffering to help them on the road to recovery. I assure Mr Whittle that the issues that he raises are taken very seriously by Government, and that they lie at the heart of our approach to establishing the inquiry and at the heart of the thinking behind the Redress for Survivors (Historical Child Abuse in Care) (Scotland) Act 2021, which Parliament has already passed into statute.

I place on record my thanks to Lady Smith and her team for a thorough report that puts beyond any doubt the serious failure of Scotland’s governing institutions and how badly survivors have been let down.

Is the Scottish Government satisfied that the catastrophic failures of process that are outlined in the report have been rectified in order to ensure that they no longer exist as a barrier to justice in Scotland? When will the first payments from the redress scheme be made? What progress has been made in setting up the survivors forum, which will ensure that survivors are supported throughout the process?

With regard to the process that we are going through, I assure Mr Marra that the Government is acting to rectify those past failures. I will not say in Parliament today that the journey is complete, because I await further conclusions from Lady Smith’s inquiry. Indeed, it would be premature for me to say that, because I do not know the scale of the challenge that Lady Smith will put to us. Nonetheless, I put on record my determination to ensure that the issues are properly addressed by the Government.

With regard to the redress payments, all the milestones for the establishment of Redress Scotland are being met. The chair and chief executive officer are in place, and I am confident that the steps to organise and open the scheme before the turn of the year will be met. What then flows in relation to payments being made depends somewhat on the applications that come forward and the nature of the process that has to be gone through to verify them. However, I assure Mr Marra, based on the experience of the advance payment scheme, that I am confident that payments can be made swiftly after the receipt of applications. I expect that some degree of time will be given for due consideration of applications, but the advance payment scheme has made payments very quickly.

With regard to the survivors forum, various steps have been taken to interview individuals who want to be part of the forum and, as I indicated in my earlier answer, the development work on that is on track.

In what ways does the Redress for Survivors (Historical Child Abuse in Care) (Scotland) Act 2021 provide tangible support for those who have experienced abuse in care?

As I explained to Michael Marra, the steps to establish the redress scheme are under way, as envisaged in statute. The advance payment scheme will remain open to enable those who are eligible to participate because of their age or the nature of their health assessment. I am confident that those arrangements are available timeously for individuals. Although the scheme can deliver payments to individuals, it is a question of whether that helps in their recovery from the trauma that they have suffered.

This is the sixth case study report; the other case studies focus on the individual settings in which abuse took place and they make, in my opinion, very difficult reading. I hope that, along with the redress payments, the prominence that the inquiry has given to those issues, the reflection of detail and Lady Smith’s powerful acknowledgement of the veracity of the accounts of events help to provide a route to recovery for individuals who have been badly let down by the state in those examples.

I welcome the Deputy First Minister’s apology and recognise his long-standing personal commitment to this issue, which has been around for far too long.

Lady Smith said:

“For far too long survivors’ voices were not listened to, nor heard; they were treated as if their views did not matter and as if they were not worth listening to, just as when they were abused in care.”

She said that we must learn the lessons from that tragedy, so I ask the Deputy First Minister to tell Parliament what safeguarding measures are in place to ensure that the voices of survivors are never again silenced by officials or ministers in that way.

Of all the comments that Lady Smith made in the report, the quote that Pauline McNeill has recounted to Parliament is the one that I find most difficult. Institutions of government handle issues in particular ways, but there is, quite simply, no defence or justification for the circumstances that led Lady Smith to write those words.

For example, I chair the national trauma training programme board in the Government, which is designed to address some of the behaviour that led to that dismissiveness towards individuals. That is just one example of how we are trying to change the culture within the Government, to ensure that the voices of individuals are listened to.

At a time when Parliament and its processes can often be attacked, one element of this Parliament’s process, the Citizen Participation and Public Petitions Committee, is at the heart of providing a platform and a voice for the individuals that Pauline McNeill raised. If it had not been for Chris Daly’s petition to the Parliament, the seriousness with which Michael McMahon, as chair of the then Public Petitions Committee, took it and his tenacity in challenging the Government about it—as well as the tenacity of other individuals, such as David Whelan or Helen Holland, to pursue those issues with ministers of successive Administrations over many years—frankly, we would not be in the position where we must, as a Government and an institution, confront some of these hard and uncomfortable realities.

I hope that, in the way that we deal with individuals, we will be the better for these findings, and some of the practical steps that we are taking, such as the trauma training and work that I preside over, is designed to address the exact circumstances that Pauline McNeill put to me.