A Holyrood Committee has called on the Scottish Government to set out the steps it is taking to ensure women and children at increased risk of domestic abuse during lockdown have access to the support services they need to escape violence.
In a letter to the Minister for Older People and Equalities, Christina McKelvie MSP, the Scottish Parliament’s Equalities and Human Rights Committee asked what actions are being taken to protect vulnerable women during the coronavirus crisis.
The Committee, which is investigating the human rights impact of Covid-19 and the effect of the emergency measures imposed on people across Scotland, has heard evidence that women are at increased risk of domestic abuse due to lockdown restrictions.
Reduced capacity at refuge accommodation has resulted in fewer families being rehoused, while school closures have left children more exposed to risk of harm. A lack of outreach services available has also impacted women from black and minority ethnic communities, who may be living with multiple perpetrators and face additional technology and language barriers.
The Committee urged the Scottish Government to address these immediate concerns and to work with stakeholders and other public bodies in carrying out equality impact assessments and in developing all coronavirus-related law, policy and resource decisions going forward.
Committee Convener, Ruth Maguire MSP, said: “The Committee has heard distressing evidence about the detrimental impact of the response to this pandemic on vulnerable women across Scotland.
“We are asking the Scottish Government what actions it is taking to fulfil women’s right to protection during the coronavirus emergency, including monitoring and responding to the need for extra support, refuge places and housing, and clear communications further promoting the support available and women being lawfully allowed to leave home to escape violence.
“The Committee would like to know what the Scottish Government is doing specifically to help more vulnerable women who experience different and complex barriers, including, for example, where English is not their first language and who therefore cannot access helplines or access the internet to get the support they need.”
A further concern of the Committee is the impact of coronavirus legislation on mental health.
Schedule 9 of the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act 2020 provides for longer periods of emergency detention and makes it simpler for securing short-term detention certificates and compulsory treatment orders, but the powers have not yet been brought into force.
The Committee therefore recommends that the Scottish Government works with the UK Government to repeal Schedule 9.
The letter states: “These powers have not been used, even at the peak of the outbreak, and therefore can no longer be deemed as proportionate. The Committee is concerned that the longer these powers remain in law the harder it will be to reverse the position.”
MSPs also heard evidence about emergency powers relating to social care which, if brought into force, would allow local authorities to disapply key principles of the law relating to adults with incapacity, such as the requirement to take into account the views and wishes of the person and their relative, carer or guardian in connection with the provision of community care support, including moving home.
The Committee said it shared these concerns and asked the Scottish Government for its detailed views on its intention regarding these powers.
Another key issue raised with members was the importance of inclusive communication, specifically, the types of messaging and the means of communication used by the Scottish Government, local authorities and the medical profession.
The Committee has accordingly asked the Scottish Government what action it has taken to ensure that life-saving messages and key policy documents relating to Covid-19 and the support available have been provided in accessible formats to those who need them.
The full letter is available here.
Since the Coronavirus outbreak in the UK, both the UK and Scottish Governments have sought to slow the spread of the virus, control the pressure on NHS intensive care services, protect vulnerable people and reduce the number of deaths.
On 18 March, both the Scottish and UK Governments announced that schools would be closing at the end of that week. Plans were made to mitigate the impact on vulnerable pupils and those receiving free school meals; pupils undertaking coursework and receiving free school meals; key workers such as NHS staff and the police.
The UK Government announced on 23 March that to protect the NHS, these measures were to be tightened further, with wide-ranging restrictions made on freedom of movement, enforceable in law, resulting in the Coronavirus Act 2020, the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020 and for Scotland, the Health Protection (Coronavirus) (Restrictions) (Scotland) Regulations) 2020.
The Scottish Parliament debated and agreed a legislative consent motion on the UK Coronavirus Bill on 24 March. One week later, on 31 March, the Scottish Government introduced the Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill. The Bill was considered by a Committee of the Whole Parliament on 1 April and was passed that day, formally becoming law on 6 April.
During the passage of the coronavirus emergency legislation, Ruth Maguire, Convener to the Equalities and Human Rights Committee secured an amendment to ensure that the Scottish Ministers in exercising its functions under Part 1 of the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act 2020 must have due regard to the advancement of equalities and non-discrimination. She has also state that she would expect human rights and equalities considerations to be central to all scrutiny deliberations.
The Scottish Government will report back to the Parliament every two months, and the Scottish Parliament will review the application of the powers under the emergency legislation every six months; the powers under the legislation can be extended for six months at a time, up to a total period of 18 months.
On 27 April the Equalities and Human Rights Committee launched an inquiry into the implications for equalities and human rights arising from the Covid-19 pandemic. The remit of the inquiry is: “To consider what groups and individuals are disproportionately impacted by COVID 19; identify what the Scottish Government and other public bodies, including regulatory and oversight bodies, need to do to ensure that measures taken in relation to the pandemic minimise negative effects on equality and human rights; and examine measures taken by the Scottish Government and other public bodies and the impacts they may have on equality and human rights.”
The Committee has held two evidence sessions, on 28 May and 4 June, with a further meeting scheduled for 18 June before members hear from the Minister on 25 June.