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18 April 2018

S5M-11659 Historical Sexual Offences (Pardons and Disregards) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani): The next item of business is a stage 1 debate on motion S5M-11659, in the name of Michael Matheson, on the Historical Sexual Offences (Pardons and Disregards) (Scotland) Bill.

14:47
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16:27

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

I am delighted to join the unanimous support in the chamber for the Historical Sexual Offences (Pardons and Disregards) (Scotland) Bill. I have come to it comparatively late, and my starting point, as it often is, is that I have read the bill. I want to make one or two observations that I hope will be seen as seeking to improve it.

Section 5 is entitled “Application to have conviction for historical sexual offence disregarded”. I note that the Government is going to consult on the application process, but I think that we may be being too prescriptive in areas where we might need flexibility. My particular example is section 5(2)(b), which provides that an application must include

“the applicant’s name and address at the time of the conviction”.

That is not necessarily as easy as it sounds, because people, particularly those who have felt vulnerable, may have moved on a number of occasions and may not be able to provide the necessary accuracy in relation to their address at what might be a relatively distant event. The form of words in the next paragraph—

“in so far as known to the applicant”—

could usefully precede the reference to the address. It is a small matter, but the cabinet secretary might even consider taking the requirements at section 5(2) out of the bill and putting them into secondary legislation so that they can, if necessary, be modified relatively straightforwardly in the future.

Section 7(1) will require Scottish ministers

“in particular ... to obtain ...any record of ... any subsequent proceedings relating to the conduct.”

I raise the question whether that explicitly requires ministers to go and look at newspaper information, which might turn out to be the only preserved information that relates to the issue. I ask ministers to have a wee think about that.

There is a more substantial point to be made about removal of records. Section 10(4) says that

“Regulations may provide that removal from records means recording with the details of the conviction ... the fact that it is a disregarded conviction”.

High Court records go to National Records of Scotland after 10 years, and sheriff court records go after 25 years. That might be well within the lifetime of the person whose record has been marked as having been disregarded, and the marking will, of course, be a public record and available for people to see. I am not sure that that is absolutely right. I accept that the original record needs to be available somewhere, but I suggest that we think about redacting the personal information that goes to NRS, and about not making the record generally available until a substantial time has passed. The period in relation to the register of births is 100 years—I speak as someone who does genealogical research.

Section 10(5) provides that the Scottish ministers may designate a “relevant record keeper”, by Scottish statutory instrument. I invite the Government to ensure that National Records of Scotland is among the relevant record keepers, so that the provisions can cover NRS—otherwise, they might be thought not to do so. If the Government wants a model, I suggest that it consider how privacy is protected in the context of adoption records. Records are available in specified circumstances; I had to look for an adoption in relation to a probate case and was able to find the information, having given adequate reasons for my search.

Maurice Corry and Alex Cole-Hamilton referred to Alan Turing, who is someone whom I, as a mathematician and a software engineer, admire enormously. Alan Turing came from a family of Scottish merchants and was a computer scientist, mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst, philosopher and theoretical biologist. He covered almost the whole gamut. He was in charge of hut 8 at Bletchley Park during the war, where people were working in particular on Ultra and the code that the German navy used, which used aspects that the German army was not using and delivered some 16 billion billion variant outcomes.

Some people have suggested that the contribution of Alan Turing and hut 8 to the war effort helped to shorten the war by two years and might have saved as many as 14 million lives. That is the upper end of the estimate, but it could well be true. Alan Turing was recognised for his work—he was made an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 1946 and was elected as a fellow of the Royal Society in 1951.

None of that protected him when, in 1952, he was convicted of an offence such as those to which the bill makes reference. His security clearance was withdrawn and he could no longer contribute to the security and safety of the country. He committed suicide in 1954, as a result of how he had been treated. Today, we continue to celebrate Alan Turing’s memory—the Turing test is an important part of modern work on artificial intelligence.

Be they ever so great or ever so humble, the people who were convicted of such offences were all caught by the injustices of the past. We will not forget the records and the detail. Sometimes we see the past glinting through the mist. If members go to Rose Street Lane, they will see engraved on a wall, at the corner, “No loitering”. We have been talking about the particular meaning of “loitering”. Most people who look up and see the notice will be absolutely puzzled as to what it means. When we reach a point at which people are equally puzzled by the past in relation to the subject that we are considering, we will have succeeded.

16:34

Stewart Stevenson
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