Speech on Violence against Women 2nd. December 2009

It has been a mark of this Parliament that, since its establishment, it has sought to build an understanding of the causes and consequences of male violence against women. I believe that a consensus has been created across the chamber about the significance of the issue for the health and wellbeing of far too many women and children in our communities.

I recognise the significance of that consensus, but I believe that we owe it to our shared commitment to tackle violence against women not to settle for a cosy coming together. Rather, we should see the debate as an opportunity not only to acknowledge that but to reflect on a number of critical issues that need to be addressed.

On Monday, we marked St Andrew's day. For some, it was a day to acknowledge our Scottishness, for a bit of flag waving and perhaps for some sentimentality. I was privileged to hear Alastair McIntosh—a Quaker, author and fellow of the centre for human ecology—on Radio 4, providing a fascinating insight into and a challenging view of our patron saint. I will quote, or rather abridge, his words. He said: "Today is the day of Andrew, the patron saint of Scotland, but for some people—men and children, but I am thinking especially of women—it won't be a happy day to wake up to. It will be a day of nursing last night's wounds. In many ways, domestic violence is the most confusing type of assault, because it comes from those who are supposed to love you. We learn of St Andrew in the Acts of Andrew. These tell how he became the spiritual teacher of Maximilla, wife of the Roman proconsul, Aegeates. She confided how, every night, her husband came home drunk and forced himself on her. Andrew—whose name means 'manliness'—encouraged her to treat this with zero tolerance. Aegeates had him flogged, specially tied to an X-shaped cross to prolong the agony, and crucified at Patras. Here, domestic violence links to the ugliness of empire and strikes out far beyond the home. It profoundly distorts a person's sense of what is normal and acceptable. Andrew stood by Maximilla as she broke that spell of violence. May his gentle manliness be our inspiration. Let us today remember Andrew—patron saint of a woman's right to say no."

That wonderful contribution reflects a powerful message about the long existence of male violence, but it also gives us hope that male violence is not inevitable. Perhaps, in Andrew, we see a more optimistic view of what manliness might be. In our various debates about what a future Scotland might look like, we are determined to ensure that, whatever the constitutional arrangements, we must seek to create in our communities and our country a place where women and children are safe, where rape and abuse of women through trafficking and prostitution are tackled and women are protected, where perpetrators are challenged not tolerated and where our young people are taught to grow up together in safe and respectful relationships.

I will highlight a number of areas of concern that I would like the minister to address, given our shared commitment to protection, provision and prevention.

Our amendment notes that we are still awaiting a report on the implementation of single outcome agreements, despite a commitment that that would be available in September. If we cannot analyse what is happening with single outcome agreements in relation to violence against women, how can their effectiveness be assessed, how can confidence be given to those who were fearful of the consequences of the end of ring fencing for consistency of provision, and how can there be certainty that any problems with the agreements will be addressed?

The minister will be aware that I have fought hard to get John Swinney to agree not to accept single outcome agreements without evidence of an equality impact assessment having been carried out. I believe that that approach would respond to the concerns that were highlighted by the Equality and Human Rights Commission in its briefing.

The minister will also be aware of the analysis of single outcome agreements that was done by Scottish Women's Aid. That must ring alarm bells about the safety of women in our communities.

Women's Aid tells us that its analysis of single outcome agreements raises questions about whether the protection of women and children from violence is one of the highest priorities across Scotland. It points out that only 11 single outcome agreements state that addressing violence against women locally is a priority; that only 10 single outcome agreements include a specific reference to children affected by domestic abuse; and that only five single outcome agreements make reference to violence against women in relation to gender equality.

I am sure that the minister will agree that that is a troubling trend for those who are committed to consistency of understanding and provision across Scotland.

Linked to that are the concerns that have been highlighted to me that the work on violence against women is being diluted and increasingly subsumed into a more generalised community safety role. I am all for putting energy into addressing disorder and antisocial behaviour, but we all know that a fundamental of our understanding of violence against women and domestic abuse is that the crime needs to be named so that it can be tackled. It is essential to maintain a sharp focus on the distinctive nature of male violence and its consequences.

With regard to the protection of women and children, we must welcome the continued focus on multi-agency working, in which education, police, housing, social work and health all play a role in supporting women and minimising the impact on children. However, it is the justice system that is central in protecting women. We should never forget the horrific statistics on the murder of women, which show that women are most at risk from a partner or ex-partner and most vulnerable at the point of their decision to leave.

I commend Rhoda Grant's proposed members' bill, which will give women increased support and access to legal support; I believe that she will say more about that today. I welcome the Tories' amendment, which acknowledges the role of domestic abuse courts and repeats Labour's call for Kenny MacAskill to ensure that such courts are rolled out beyond Glasgow. It will be essential that the courts, in whatever form they are developed, allow for partnership working and effective risk assessment. That approach is currently provided in Glasgow through the advice, support, safety and information services together—ASSIST—project.

We need to explore the availability of perpetrator programmes, and, connected to that, programmes for the families of perpetrators. Women's organisations resisted the push for pre-court diversion for men who had committed domestic abuse offences in the past, as women believed that the crime should be recognised as precisely that: a crime.

Today, we need to take heed of what women's organisations are saying about the plans to end sentences of six months or fewer. We need to deter men by marking domestic abuse as a significant offence. There is no doubt that for some families, a sentence—even if it is for less than six months—can afford not only respite but, more critically, enough space for a woman to make a life-changing decision, and to get out and be supported to do so.

I raised that issue with the First Minister at First Minister's questions last week, and he replied that serious offences should attract serious sentences. I seek clarification on that. Does that mean that domestic abuse offences would be exempt from the presumption against sentences of six months or fewer, or that all domestic abuse offences would attract sentences of more than six months? How would such approaches be enforced?

Christine Grahame: Surely, in certain cases, the term "domestic abuse" is the wrong one to use. The offence is purely and simply a criminal assault, and should be dealt with in the courts—whether it is the sheriff court or the High Court—as just that: a criminal offence.

Johann Lamont: In the 10 years that we have been debating the issue, we have argued precisely the opposite. We have argued that we need to understand domestic abuse and violence against women in the context of the power of men over women in the home and in the community.

What action has the minister taken, and what work has been carried out by the equality unit, to ensure that that dimension of the justice proposals is taken seriously? Women's organisations say what they are saying because of their experience of working with women. That is why our amendment asks for a statement on how, across Government, policies are tested against their impact on those vulnerable women and children.

It must be a concern to us all—indeed, the minister referred to it—that the incidence of domestic abuse continues to rise. I acknowledge that that is due, at least in part, to more confidence among women and more rigour by the police. However, I ask the minister to reflect again—and I say this gently—on one explanation that he gave on television. He suggested that the rise in incidents was in part because we live in a time of economic recession.

We know that male violence is not caused, or excused, by poverty, and that male perpetrators are no respecters of class or income. I seek an assurance from the minister that he does not seek to perpetuate such a distorting view of where the problem manifests itself and what causes it.

I do not doubt the desire of members on all sides of the chamber to address violence against women, or their heartfelt wish to see women and children safe—and we must welcome anything that recognises the particular impact on children. However, we have a responsibility to bring together what we say and what we do. Caring is not enough, and will not in itself protect one woman, give one child back their childhood or open the eyes of one young man to a life of respect, not violence. Not one step on the road to greater equality was ever made by accident.

We need aspiration that is delivered locally bit by bit, wherever need is, throughout Scotland. The aspiration to deliver through the practicalities of action is laid out for all of us each week in the ASSIST bulletin. The reality of violence against women and the statistics may overwhelm us, but the results of the project give us great hope.

The Scottish Government must address the concerns and not dismiss them. If the current
processes to secure protection, provision and prevention are examined and found to be wanting, they must be changed. The Scottish Government and the minister would have our support if that happened. That would be a legacy of listening and responding of which we could all be proud.

I move amendment S3M-5307.2, to insert at end:

"and regrets that a report on the implementation of the first round of single outcome agreements has not yet been published, given the concerns of Scottish Women's Aid about the level of provision across Scotland; believes that the strategy of protection, provision and prevention remains central to the tackling of violence against women, and agrees that the Scottish Government should produce a joint statement from across its directorates to ensure that all its key policies are tested against their impact on women facing violence."