Jenny Marra  MSP : Victims and Witnesses (Scotland) Bill - Stage 1 Speeches in the Scottish Parliament debate

19 June 2013

Labour is happy to support the Government’s motion and the general principles of the Victims and Witnesses (Scotland) Bill.

Earlier this year, at the Scottish Labour Party conference in Inverness, we were privileged to hear about Helen Richardson’s journey through the Scottish justice system as an immediate family member of a victim of crime.

In 2010, Helen’s sister was murdered in her Angus home, which turned the lives of Helen and her family upside down.

During her powerful speech at the conference, Helen Richardson detailed her frustration as she moved through disjointed, confusing and protracted processes in the justice system at a time of great anxiety and grief.

We cannot escape the need for people such as Helen to assist in the disposal of justice but, while recognising her duty to the justice system, we must also recognise our responsibility to provide victims and witnesses with the knowledge and support that they need.

We agree with the underpinning principles of the bill, but it does not go far enough in practice to offer the required level of support.

For example, let us look at the measures to supply more information to victims and witnesses.

The bill seeks to improve the flow of information to victims and witnesses by placing a duty on the procurator fiscal, the Scottish Court Service and Police Scotland to disclose case-specific information.

We acknowledge that those measures will make more information available, but the Crown Office has made it clear that information will be useful only if the victim or witness who receives it can understand it.

Furthermore, changes such as those relating to victim statements in court or to victim and witness representations to the Parole Board will, while giving greater flexibility, inevitably demand more answers and decisions from victims and witnesses

For that reason, Scottish Labour’s proposal for case companions is compelling. As a single point of contact, a case companion would be assigned to a victim or witness from the moment when they were identified and for as long as their interaction with the justice system lasted.

They would be a central point of information and guidance, whether they were appointed as a third-party provider or internally in the justice system.

We believe that the provision of case companions would best embody the letter and spirit of the European Union directive that has brought us to the chamber today. That legislation states:

“Member States should consider developing ‘sole points of access’ or ‘one-stop shops’, that address victims’ multiple needs when involved in criminal proceedings, including the need to receive information, assistance, support, protection and compensation.”

Christine Grahame: I simply want Jenny Marra to confirm her position, because she signed up to the words: “On balance, the Committee does not believe that a compelling case has been made in support of the introduction of case companions”. What has changed for her?

Jenny Marra: Committee reports are always agreed by the committee, but Scottish Labour thinks that there is a compelling case for case companions.

Just as the Government is legislating to expand the choices and information given to victims and witnesses, so is it legislating to expand the need for guidance and support on making those choices.

To make his changes as meaningful as possible, I hope that the cabinet secretary thinks again about our call for case companions.

One area of concern that we have is about the bill’s monitoring and reporting procedures.

John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) (Ind): Given the member’s strength of feeling on case companions, did she think about whether it would have been appropriate to have a minority entry put in the Justice Committee’s report? The position that the committee’s convener outlined is entirely accurate.

Jenny Marra: As I said in response to the convener, committee reports are always agreed by the committee, and I think that we made our point in committee that we think that case companions are a good idea. Stewart Maxwell is shaking his head, but he was not there to hear the discussions.

Bruce Crawford (Stirling) (SNP): Will the member give way?

Jenny Marra: No.  As I said, one area of concern that we have is about the bill’s monitoring and reporting procedures.

Our concerns were raised during the committee’s evidence sessions and are reflected in the committee’s report.

Scottish Labour believes that the best way to achieve effective performance monitoring is through a fully independent victims commissioner, to which the cabinet secretary alluded in his opening speech.

Creating such a role would ensure transparent, independent and focused oversight of a complex system.

Christine Grahame: Will the member give way?

Jenny Marra: No.

The Deputy Presiding Officer: The member is not giving way. [Interruption.] Can we have order, please?

Jenny Marra: I clarify that I am speaking from the Labour Party’s position and that I am not speaking on behalf of the committee. [Interruption.]

The Deputy Presiding Officer: Order.

Jenny Marra: Creating an independent victims commissioner role would ensure transparent, independent and focused oversight of a complex system.

Gil Paterson (Clydebank and Milngavie) (SNP): Is this a Labour pamphlet that we are hearing?

The Deputy Presiding Officer: Mr Paterson, can we please have order in the chamber to hear Jenny Marra?

Jenny Marra: Creating a role such as a victims commissioner would ensure transparent, independent and focused oversight of a complex system. It would do so exclusively through the eyes of victims and witnesses and would lend a powerful voice to their cause.

When my colleague Dave Stewart consulted on the proposal in 2009, it gained a favourable 77 per cent in support from organisations, including Victim Support Scotland, which said:

“We look forward to seeing the development of the new office and hope it will play an active, tangible role in the protection and promotion of victims’ rights in Scotland.”

I hope that our call for a victims commissioner is considered more fully by the Government as the bill moves forward.

An important provision that I believe is missing from the bill and which Rape Crisis Scotland highlighted is the right of complainers of sexual offences to access legal advice when the defence requests records in relation to their sexual history, character or medical history.

Currently, complainers have no right to participate actively in that process or to challenge any application.

Victims are reluctant to come forward because they do not want their personal lives to be subject to intense scrutiny against their will.

I would therefore appreciate the minister commenting on Rape Crisis Scotland’s suggestion of affording complainers of sexual offences legal representation when the defence requests to raise matters of their sexual history, medical records or character.

We have concerns, as the convener said, about the use of the word “victim” throughout the bill and its impact on the presumption of innocence, which is a cornerstone of our legal system.

Similarly, the provision for victims to participate effectively in an investigation and proceedings remains ambiguous at best.

Murdo MacLeod, Queen’s counsel, stated in his evidence that he could :

“only imagine that it means that people can effectively participate in terms of giving evidence ... Beyond that, I have no idea what the provision means.”—[Official Report, Justice Committee, 23 April 2013; c 2653.]

I think that the Government has yet to address the concerns of the committee that the provision might falsely raise the expectations of victims.

We sympathise with the idea of a victim surcharge, but it is vital that it does not become a substitute for properly funded victim services. [Interruption.]

The Deputy Presiding Officer: Order. There are conversations taking place in the chamber when the member is trying to make her speech.

Jenny Marra: We would therefore appreciate assurances that it is feasible to collect the money and that the money will not simply be used to plug holes in a decreasing justice budget.

The bill gives us an opportunity to make a difference to the lives of victims and witnesses of crime.

However, we believe that the Government should do more to clarify the points that I have raised and should provide greater support and better oversight for victims and the organisations that support them.

Although we agree with the principles, there is still more work that can be done.

I look forward to working with the Government at stages 2 and 3 to address those issues.

Later in the debate

Jenny Marra: One of the most important opportunities that the bill has given us is the opportunity to listen to and learn from the experiences of people who have suffered damage—often irreparable damage—as a result of crimes that have been committed against them and their loved ones.

In that context, I will consider the bill’s provision for a national confidential forum for survivors of historical abuse.

Since 2004, successive Governments have sought to account for the abuse that children have suffered in residential care in Scotland.

The forum represents the latest development in that journey, as Duncan McNeil said, and stems from the time to be heard pilot, which listened to the stories of 98 survivors of abuse at Quarriers residential care homes alone.

We recognise the need for survivors to be heard in a confidential forum and fully support the approach. Many people’s suffering can be eased by acknowledgment of the abuse, which is hugely beneficial.

In her response to a parliamentary question in April from Neil Bibby, the Minister for Community Safety and Legal Affairs said that a consultation on the time bar in relation to historical abuse had just closed and that responses were being analysed.

She noted that the Victims and Witnesses (Scotland) Bill was going through Parliament and suggested that the member keep tabs on the bill in relation to the time-bar issue.

When the minister sums up, will she tell us what progress has been made in analysing the consultation responses and say whether we will have the opportunity to consider altering the time bar during the passage of the bill, as her answer to Neil Bibby suggested?

I understand that there have been no proposals so far from the Government to amend the bill in that regard, but I am interested to know whether the Government intends to propose changes to the time bar at stage 2 or stage 3.

We would like the bill to provide for additional protection for families who are affected by fatal road accidents.

The committee heard evidence from Scotland’s Campaign against Irresponsible Drivers, which is campaigning for a statutory right to access investigation materials on request.

The “on request” element is an important part of the proposal.

I listened carefully to Colin Keir’s personal account and am convinced that it would be extremely harrowing for a family to be given such documents when they do not want them.

That should not happen.

However, access on request will give grieving families the information that they need if they are to understand what happened to their loved ones.

 Colin Keir: Does Jenny Marra agree that grieving relatives would not necessarily know what they were seeking, even though they were asking for all the information? The information might include harrowing details of road traffic accidents, which might do more harm than good.

Jenny Marra: I take Colin Keir’s point; this is not an easy issue.

I have come to the conclusion that SCID’s campaign for a statutory right to access material on request is a better approach. Many families who gave evidence to the committee had not been given access to documents—documents that they really wanted because they did not know the circumstances under which their loved ones had lost their lives.

We need improvements in that regard.

Many families would like a statutory right to access information on request, so I hope that the Government will consider amending the bill at stage 2 to provide for such a right.

I note that there is support for the proposal among the Government’s back benchers, as Mr Allard articulated.

Sandra White commented on the need for better provision in the bill for victims of human trafficking, and the organisation CARE, which works with victims of trafficking, has made specific suggestions in that regard.

CARE’s proposals stem from provisions in the European Union anti-trafficking directive, which came into force in Scotland on 6 April this year.

The directive requires three steps to be taken to protect victims of human trafficking that are not included in the bill—to avoid unnecessary repetition of interviews during investigation, prosecution and trial; to avoid visual contact between victims and defendants while they are giving evidence in interviews and cross-examination; and to avoid unnecessary questioning about the victim’s private life, which I touched on more widely in relation to sexual offences in my opening remarks.

The directive also outlines a range of measures—in article 15.3—specifically to protect child victims.

Given that the date for implementing the directive has passed—it was 6 April—I would like to know whether the Government intends to use the bill as an opportunity to put those protections in place, because victims of human trafficking are particularly vulnerable.

I understand from correspondence between the cabinet secretary and me that the Scottish Government believes that it is compliant with that directive.

Perhaps the minister will tell us in her closing speech whether the Scottish Government believes that the protections for victims of human trafficking that I outlined exist in other legislation and do not, therefore, need to be put in the bill.

Although we back the principles of the bill, it is clear that many improvements could be made.

Labour’s proposals for case companions and a victims commissioner would improve how we interact with victims and witnesses as well as how we keep the system under constant review.

We have made suggestions in areas such as fatal road accidents, sexual offences and human trafficking, and we would like to hear the Government’s proposals for any alteration to the time bar on cases of historical sexual abuse, which the minister mentioned to my colleague previously.

All those suggestions warrant further consideration, and I hope to see progress on them as the bill proceeds to stage 2 and beyond. Scottish Labour will support the general principles of the bill today.

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