Malcolm discussesa range of services to improve support to victims of crime
Debate on Victims and Witnesses (Improving Protection) Malcolm Chisholm (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab):
Can the cabinet secretary give an assurance that the category of victims of sexual offences and domestic abuse will include victims of stalking?

Kenny MacAskill (The Cabinet Secretary for Justice):
I am assuming that that will be the case, but I will confirm that for the member. Given the nature of that offence, I would be surprised if that was not the case. We are consulting on those matters. Like Mr Chisholm, I am aware of the deep distress that stalking causes...

Malcolm Chisholm (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab):
The rights of victims and witnesses are much greater than they were in 1999. I welcome the further proposed extensions that the cabinet secretary has outlined. Those extensions are, to some extent, driven by the draft European Union directive, which results from the new justice competences of the Lisbon treaty.

The problem - or challenge - is how those rights can be enforced, because there has been, and still will be under these proposals, an absence of mechanisms that allow people, victims in particular, to enforce them. I am told - when the Minister for Community Safety and Legal Affairs winds up, she will tell me whether I am right - that, in Australia, victims can go to court to enforce their rights. We should perhaps consider that option, but the victims commissioner proposed by David Stewart would also be very helpful in that regard.

Notwithstanding the progress that has been made, especially post 2001, it is fair to say that progress on the matter has sometimes been slower in Scotland than in England, perhaps because of the strength, and sometimes the resistance, of the Scottish legal establishment.

Special measures for witnesses had to be driven through. Although I welcome the extension of special measures to victims of sexual offences and domestic abuse, there is scope for much greater extension of special measures. Indeed, Victim Support Scotland has called for all witnesses to be allowed access to special measures. I hope that that option will be considered in the context of the forthcoming legislation.

I also support further specific measures for victims of domestic abuse. Lewis Macdonald and others have mentioned domestic abuse courts. I know from having twice visited the court in Glasgow how effective it has been. The court, which has specialist sheriffs, and the victim support service in Glasgow, called advice, support, safety and information services together - ASSIST - have been crucial in providing much better support for victims. I hope that the model can be rolled out further across Scotland. I welcome the fact that such an approach has just started in Edinburgh.

I also support widening the scope of the victim notification scheme, so that all victims of domestic abuse are informed when a perpetrator is released. Lewis Macdonald reminded us that that was a specific proposal in Labourís manifesto at the last election.

That leads on to the subject of information, which is central to the proposals. I welcome the proposals to give more information to victims and witnesses. However, we must ensure that protections are in place, especially with the proposed online information hub. I note that the IPPRís recent report on information for victims recommended that there should be accessibility via mobile phone and a secure website. It will be worth looking at the detailed proposals in that report when we consider our own legislation.

We must always think of victims and witnesses in the context of the information that is publicly available. In a recent justice debate, I raised concerns about court websites and the information that is available to everyone in the world who goes online and visits them. The cabinet secretary referred to protecting the personal safety of victims and witnesses. A lot of information about my constituentís divorce was on a court website, and her safety was put at risk. In fact, she became a victim. Obviously I do not want to go into the specific details of her situation, but I know that she wants me to raise the general issue of the information that is publicly available on court websites. As I indicated when I referred to the matter a month or so ago, her bank details were on the website. Although those have now been removed, she is concerned that her address is still available.

We need to look at that issue in the context of protection for victims and witnesses and not just allow the court service to do whatever it wishes in that regard. There is a democratic role for politicians in doing that. I know that the information commissioner is taking a close interest in that particular case and in the general issue.

A lot of information happens not online but in a one-to-one situation. Victim information and advice in our courts provides information to many victims. We need to look at the nature of that service and the extent to which it is sensitive to the concerns and needs of victims. I have been told by a constituent that VIA is perceived by her simply as an arm of the prosecution service. She did not feel that it was really sensitive to her needs and her situation. That is another aspect that we need to consider.

I welcome the proposals to make offenders pay and restitution orders for police officers. John Finnie referred to the shocking figures of 5,000 assaults on police officers in the past two years. However, we should remember that 12,000 council workers and 13,000 national health service workers were subjected to violence. Therefore I would support the proposal from the Royal College of Nursing that the bill should be widened to cover those workers.

Like other members, I welcome the proposals in general but hope that they can be built on.
June 13th 2012