27 April 2017

S5M-05290 Limitation (Childhood Abuse) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame): I am moving straight on, as time is tight in this debate as well. The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-05290, in the name of Annabelle Ewing, on the Limitation (Childhood Abuse) (Scotland) Bill at stage 1.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

Like others, I welcome the bill, although I take no pleasure in the fact that we have had to come to a legislative solution to such a problem.

Some survivors that we spoke to made the point that not all of them are looking for a court solution and that there are some for whom there is no resolution. The issue is not just about institutional abuse, because the bill covers abuse by individuals perpetrated on individual children and in some cases the abuser is simply no longer around—they have died—and such closure cannot be given. I am grateful to the person in that position who came to tell their story. That was very emotional for the person concerned and for those of us who heard it because in such cases we cannot provide any way forward through legislation.

The courts are one way in which to get peace after suffering abuse. The Jersey process, which went farther back than 1964, but in very limited and different circumstances, was of interest to the committee because it provided a quicker way of dealing with some things and was perhaps a less stressful approach. There is scope for considering whether there are ways in which we can assist people through pre-action protocols and other non-court approaches. We should not yet discount such ways of helping people.

During our committee consideration I made a very brief reference to an issue that I have subsequently thought further about, which is whether there is further scope for our thinking about what is a child. A child is someone who has not reached the capacity of someone of more than 18 years old, but the description may also be held to reasonably apply to people whose calendar age is in excess of 18, but who have not got the capacity of an adult. I wonder whether there is an opportunity to ensure that we capture people of a greater age, but a more limited capacity, who have suffered exactly the same kind of abuse.

Paragraph (2) of proposed new section 17A of the Prescription and Limitation (Scotland) Act 1973 simply defines “child” as

“an individual under the age of 18.”

There might be scope for looking again at that. It is not something that the committee has considered in detail, so I will understand if we cannot see how we might move forward on that.

As we discussed in the committee, the bill is structured so as to make it clear that we must look at the circumstances of the abuse in the light of the legal and practical position at the point when the abuse took place. That is, of course, a difficult issue, because it almost means that we are endorsing abuse that we would now castigate in law, in practice and in our moral code, because it might not have been so castigated at the point when the abuse took place—post-1964, which is the period that is covered by the bill. I see no resolution that would enable us properly to address that.

There is also the issue to do with cases in which a nugatory financial settlement was made—perhaps £1, although it is fair to say that there seems to be no evidence of such nugatory settlements, so perhaps that is an academic issue. On the principal point, which is that there would be risks to the bill’s legitimacy as a whole if provision were made to reopen cases in which a financial settlement had been made, I think that I have ultimately been convinced—I was not initially convinced—that the bill is cast in the right way.

The bill is very simple, in that it covers two sides of paper, but the complex legal issues that it covers are much more substantial than is suggested by the limited number of words in it.

Members mentioned the financial memorandum and the uncertainty about the number of people who are involved. I think that the minister’s response to the committee was simply that there are other views, which is correct. All the views that can be expressed by various people are no more than that—views. No one actually knows.

We must rise above a rather pointless debate about numbers and say that this is a principled matter and that we wish to support people who have suffered childhood abuse. We simply have to deal with the practical effects of that when we come to them, while making proper initial provision to cover what we think is a middle-point estimate. Let us not imagine that we can keep looking at the numbers and find a magic, certain answer—I am convinced, as I think others are, that there ain’t one to find. We do this as a matter of principle, not as a matter of money.


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