We Need to Talk About Kenny…
Just to put it out there and, for the avoidance of doubt, I don’t belong to any political party. When I say I don’t think the case for scrapping corroboration has been made, I am not part of some Better Together conspiracy, nor am I a “unionist stooge.”
Thursday’s Stage 1 debate of the Criminal Justice Bill was a rather bad-tempered affair, with the majority of SNP contributors adopting a siege-like mentality. Accusing those who disagreed with the proposal to abolish corroboration as engaging in party politics, at best and being against victims of sexual and domestic abuse, at worst. It was a frustrating watch with many of the SNP MSPs engaging in the one thing they were accusing their opposition of; party politics. Sandra White MSP accused Labour of stating that in their 2011 manifesto they wanted corroboration to be abolished. What Labour actually stated in their manifesto (page 49, if you’re interested) was:
“We believe the time has come to consider the arguments for reforming the need for corroboration in rape cases and will consider the recommendations of the Carloway Review.”
“Consider the arguments” seems entirely consistent with their position in Thursday’s debate and to say otherwise as Sandra White did is wilful misrepresentation. There were some thoughtful contributions during the debate, particularly from John Finnie and Patrick Harvie. The latter stating that no side had a “monopoly of concern.” Therein lies the crux of the issue and something which has been lost in this debate so far. Both sides have good intentions. It is not rape apologists on one side, with justice deniers on the other. I haven’t been particularly helpful in removing the adversarial tone of the debate with the deliberately provocative, albeit facetious, title of mylast blog on corroboration.
We have now moved past Stage 1 of the Bill with Margaret Mitchell’s amendment to “remove the provisions abolishing the general requirement for corroboration” having been defeated. What’s the way forward? This isn’t a zero-sum game and if we must completely abolish corroboration (and I’ve yet to be convinced of this argument) then we must engage fairly and with a degree of flexibility. Getting rid of the hysteria would be a good start. On the culmination of Thursday’s debate, I saw some statements saying “today is the day Scottish justice died” and one particularly vexatious tweet hoping that those who voted for the SNP at the last election get prosecuted for a crime they didn’t commit on the say of just one person. Now, I get the ire of some due to the way the debate played out, but hyperbole and spitting the dummy out isn’t going to endear anyone to the cause. This shouldn’t be party political. It’s far too important for that. Unlike some, I’m not completely pessimistic about the way forward. As I’ve said, both sides have good intentions and can work together to ensure that complainers and the accused aren’t denied access to justice. I recognise that change is necessary, where there is discord, is how we go about that change and what change is actually necessary.
However, I highly doubt it is possible for us to move forward, in consensus, while the Justice Secretary remains in his position. From the beginning, he has been incredibly divisive, setting the legal profession against victim’s rights groups and painting those who were against the abolition of corroboration as having scant interest in the rights of victims. Mr MacAskill has frequently been unable to define corroboration while setting out his reforms in various interviews (a problem Police Scotland also had while giving evidence to the Justice Committee on their change of heart in supporting the abolition of corroboration). On the few occasions when the Justice Secretary has set out safeguards, he has essentially stated the safeguard was corroboration. Hardly the actions of a Minister who inspires confidence. Now, as a sop to all those who oppose his, at best, ill-thought out legislation, Mr MacAskill offers a review group led by Lord Bonomy, which will look into safeguards once corroboration is already abolished. As John Finnie noted on Thursday, the Government is limiting the scope of the group by ruling out the status quo before it even sits. This is a bizarre way to legislate and was the legitimate concern of many MSPs who supported the amendment tabled by Margaret Mitchell. Not all were ideologically opposed to the abolition of corroboration, merely the way in which it is being handled. As Patrick Harvie said, he is “open to the arguments once I see what the Government is proposing in its place.”
The nadir came with Mr MacAskill’s closing speech on Thursday. A speech which the convenor of the Justice Committee and SNP MSP, Christine Grahame thought was “beyond the pale.” The Justice Secretary did not look to foster consensus, or at least admit the rather controversial nature in which he proposes to legislate. Instead, he hubristically claimed he had won the argument (ignoring the concerns raised by the Justice Committee, no less) and saw this through the prism of the independence referendum. Those who oppose him are part of a Better Together conspiracy (conveniently ignoring the concerns of John Finnie, a former SNP member and Patrick Harvie, a prominent member of the Yes campaign). This was an appalling distortion and one which does the Justice Secretary and his Party no credit. I would be surprised if a motion of no confidence was not tabled against him. My faith in his ability to do his job was dwindling as it was, but now I have completely lost all confidence he is fit to continue in his position. There are many in the legal profession who feel the same way (some even resigning their membership of the Party due to Kenny MacAskill alone).
This has been a bad-tempered, unnecessarily adversarial debate so far, not helped by the overly partisan way the Justice Secretary has steered it. I am the first to admit that my tone has not helped make this less adversarial, but we need a clean slate. If we can be flexible and engage once more with the Government, perhaps we can find a solution that benefits all (the Lord Bonomy review is a step in the right direction). Sadly, Mr MacAskill is too tarnished to play any part in that.