By Bill Heaney
Any form of violence against women and girls is simply unacceptable and the Scottish government are investing significant levels of funding in front-line support services to ensure that women and children can safely access the support that they need, according to Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf.
Labour MSP Neil Bibby asked him how the Scottish Government Police Scotland are ensuring that women are protected from harassment and violence, following the tragic death of Sarah Everard in London at the weekend.
Mr Yousaf told him: “Recent events have shone a spotlight on this issue and the scale of the abuse, violence and harassment that women and girls face every day in our society.
MSPs Neil Bibby, Shona Robison, Annie Wells and Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf.
“We are investing significant levels of funding in front-line support services to ensure that women and children can safely access the support that they need.
“Police Scotland continues to prioritise cases of domestic abuse and harassment, and we are working closely with all our justice partners to ensure that perpetrators receive a robust response and are held to account for their actions. I will meet the chief constable [Iain Livingstone], right, later this week, and will raise the matter with him directly.”
“We have recently established the independent misogyny and criminal justice in Scotland working group to look at misogyny in Scotland, which is led by Baroness Helena Kennedy QC and will report within 12 months. It will consider how best we might tackle misogynistic behaviour, including street harassment, across our society. It is making excellent progress, with its first evidence session taking place on Friday.
“The Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People has extended an offer to meet the organisers of the reclaim these streets vigil in Edinburgh to discuss these hugely important matters.”
Mr Bibby said: “The tragic events of last week—the disappearance and death of Sarah Everard—and the outpouring of women’s stories about harassment have been a reminder of men’s violence against women and of the fear that women too often face when they are going about their daily lives.
“That is an issue not just in London or elsewhere in the United Kingdom, but right here in Scotland. Statistics that have been published today show that although 89 per cent of men report feeling safe while walking alone in their local areas after dark, for women, the figure is only 65 per cent, which is a decrease from the figure from before the pandemic. I am sure that the cabinet secretary would agree that that is unacceptable and that we need to act now.
“What has the Government done to improve the safety of women on Scotland’s streets, and what further prevention work will it do now to tackle the serious issue of men’s violence towards women, ahead of publication of the report by the working group on misogyny and harassment?”
In West Dunbartonshire, which has the highest rates of domestic abuse in the country, the then Labour-controlled council turned down the street lighting to save money, and Cllr Martin Rooney went on TV news to boast about it. This was followed by a protest march through Renton and Alexandria.
Humza Yousaf told MSPs: “I agree with the substantial point that Neil Bibby makes. He referenced the Scottish crime and justice survey, which suggests that the majority of women feel safe in their communities, but he is absolutely right that there is a disparity between the number of men who feel safe and the number of women who feel safe, and that cannot be right.
“We will continue to fund important organisations including Engender and Zero Tolerance where we can, and we will support organisations such as White Ribbon Scotland that challenge men to stand up against male violence towards women.
“Ultimately, we have to listen to women; I mentioned that the Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People is meeting the organisers of the reclaim these streets vigil.
“Where we can, we will also take action that is necessary through legislation to protect women. As Neil Bibby is aware, tomorrow the Parliament will debate at stage 3 the Domestic Abuse (Protection) (Scotland) Bill, which will allow police and courts to issue a suspected perpetrator of domestic abuse with a protection notice or order.
“That will mean that the victim of domestic abuse—of course, in 80 per cent of cases, the victim is a woman—will not have to flee their home for their own safety.
Neil Bibby said Labour would work with the Government on a cross-party basis to tackle the issue.
He added: “We have all been horrified by the story of Sarah Everard, who lost her life due to men’s violence simply by walking home. However, even at home, women are not safe from violent men. We know that victims of violence are too often forced into economic hardship and forced to upend their lives in order to flee from violence, whereas their abusers too rarely face retribution for their actions.
“Domestic abuse is the fourth most common reason that is given for a homelessness application in Scotland. As the cabinet secretary said, tomorrow we will vote on the Domestic Abuse (Protection) (Scotland) Bill.
“Will the Government support [Labour MSP] Rhoda Grant’s amendments, which seek to ensure that no victim loses their right to a home from a social landlord following their experience of abuse? What has the Government done to explore how those rights could be extended to the private rented sector?”
Humza Yousaf said the SNP Government intends to support a number of Rhoda Grant’s amendments in tomorrow’s debate – “There might be one or two that we think would have unintended adverse consequences, which we can debate tomorrow, but the Government will certainly be looking to support a number of Rhoda Grant’s amendments.
“I am pleased to say that, when it comes to domestic abuse, the Parliament has often managed to reach not just consensus but unanimity in our desire to tackle that particularly pernicious crime. As I have said, I will continue to work with members across the political spectrum to see what we can do to ensure that not just our streets and our communities but our homes are safe for women.
“That process must start with listening to the quite frankly horrendous testimonies that we have heard from women about how they feel unsafe in our communities. I pledge to work closely with any member who wishes to stamp out male violence against women.”
Shirley Ann Sommerville, The Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People.
The SNP’s Shona Robison said: “The horrific murder of Sarah Everard has been strongly felt by many. My thoughts, too, are with her family and friends. Many women, including me, have reflected on not feeling safe on the streets and holding our keys in our hand. We should not have to feel like that.”
And she asked: “Does the cabinet secretary think that, in addition to the work of the newly formed misogyny working group, we need to consider urgently what further action needs to be taken to ensure women’s safety? Surely that must include working with boys at an early age to change the attitudes of the next generation?”
Mr Yousaf said: “We do not have to wait for the working group in order to get on with taking action. There will be an example of that tomorrow, when the Parliament will, I hope, pass the Domestic Abuse (Protection) (Scotland) Bill. Equally, where we can work with other organisations, including third sector partners, to work with young men and young boys in society, the Government will absolutely support that.”
Tory Annie Wells criticised the government’s “soft touch approach” to domestic abuse.
She said: “The latest figures from the Crown Office highlight how prevalent domestic abuse still is within our society, with the number of domestic abuse charges in 2019-20 at a four-year high. However, any domestic abuser who is convicted and sent to prison for less than four years will automatically be let out half way through their sentence.
“That soft-touch approach to justice does not protect victims. Will the SNP and the cabinet secretary commit to ending automatic early release for perpetrators of domestic abuse as well as for other criminals who enjoy that luxury?”
However Mr Yousaf told her: “Trying to frame the debate as being about soft justice versus hard justice is, I am afraid, not doing the issue any justice whatsoever. We will follow the data and evidence, and we will continue to take a smart justice approach.”
Top picture: Pupils from West Dunbartonshire schools are being briefed on violence against women.