Kezia Dugdale: Crime victims need a voice to bring change
It's been 18 months since Kevin Woodburn's son Shaun was killed outside a Leith pub. The grief for his surviving Âfamily is still very real and very raw. Somehow, however, the family have found the strength to stand back and use their pain to ask some hard questions of the justice system.
They do so in part fuelled by the anger they feel towards their own treatment, but also with a vigour that if another family is to experience what they have, it can – and should – be different.
If it can’t be different, it should at least be explained.
When I first met Kevin in late 2017 he wanted to know why 18 charges, including murder, against three different individuals had been whittled down to just one contested charge of culpable homicide. I couldn’t tell him.
He wanted to know why the one person who had been convicted following his son’s death got just four years in prison. How was that right or fair? I couldn’t explain it.
He wanted to know why his son’s body was cut open twice and whether two post-mortems which delayed his funeral were really necessary. I had no idea.
When elected members hold advice surgeries, there are broadly three different types of cases. The first are the easy to fix ones, where you are the first port of call for someone with a simple problem that can be fixed with a strongly worded letter to the right person, or a phone call to the right place. You know that it might take a few weeks, but you’ll get there.
The second group are the ones where you are the last port of call; where the constituent arrives with a folder thicker than an old-fashioned Yellow Pages.
The person in front of you is exasperated and at the end of their tether. They sit before you more in hope than expectation. These are harder.
Usually it takes a lot of reading and checking and working out if anything can be done. Sometimes you can help, but very often you can’t – and you are in the unfortunate position of being the person who has to explain to the constituent that the end of the road has been reached.
The third and final group are cases like Kevin’s. Where you sit in abject silence and wonder how a family can experience what they have and still get up in the morning.
I’m campaigning alongside Kevin now to improve post mortem procedures, to increase transparency when it comes to sentencing, and to ensure victims know their rights and can exercise them.
We’re battling on countless different fronts, but over the past year we’ve noticed the need for one thing that could make a real difference. A Victim’s Commissioner.
There’s one for England and Wales, and London even has its own, but there’s not one for Scotland.
We’ve got commissioners for other groups of people, including Children and Young People. When you look up that commissioner’s job description, it says they are there are to do three things. To ensure children know their rights; that those rights are protected; and to influence change. While one person is the face of the operation, they are an organisation that’s staffed up to fight for the rights of children every single day.
I think it’s high time that Scotland had a Victim’s Commissioner, someone whose full-time job is to act on the experiences of victims of crime – protecting and improving the system for those that follow. There’s something badly wrong when we have to rely on the pain of victims to fuel the change we’d all benefit from.
It wouldn’t replace the campaigning actions of people like Kevin, just echo his work. There’s nothing more powerful than personal testimony - but surely nothing more painful than the loss of a loved one in vain.
Exploitation of trafficked people must be tackled
Last week, police officers raided flats in Glasgow and Edinburgh as part of the fight against human trafficking across Scotland.
Ten women under the age of 25 were rescued after being brought to Scotland to face daily sexual exploitation.
One of those raids was at Lochview Court in Edinburgh, just a few minutes’ walk from my office in the Scottish Parliament.
This served as a stark reminder that human trafficking and exploitation can happen anywhere and impact on anyone. Often the headline cases relate to women trafficked into prostitution, however, many men are also trafficked for labour exploitation and even more alarmingly more than one quarter of the cases referred to police involve children.
In 2013, my MSP colleague Jenny Marra pushed forward proposals in the Scottish Parliament to introduce a Human Trafficking Bill with the aim of making it illegal to punish people forced to commit crime as a result of their trafficking. This led to Scottish Government legislation in 2014, with a commitment to tackling this issue across the country.
Last year, Scotland recorded 213 suspected human trafficking cases referred to the police, up 42 per cent on the previous year. This may be down to a greater awareness of the problem following the launch of the first national strategy on human trafficking, which highlighted a need for better victim support and disruption of perpetrators and the environments they thrive in.
So while the authorities continue to create a hostile environment for human traffickers and those who exploit individuals, we also need to work hard to help identify and support the needs of victims.
Who cares for the carers? Make your views known to get better support
Out of love, nearly 4,500 people across Edinburgh dedicate their lives to caring for friends and relatives.
They are unsung heroes who do not get nearly enough recognition for the massive unpaid contribution they make to society.
They save the government, particularly our NHS and social care system, billions of pounds because of their selfless care and attention they provide. Thank you for your incredible commitment. This year, the devolution of Carer’s Allowance is secured in Scotland’s new Social Security Act, and the new carers’ allowance supplement is starting to be paid into bank accounts.
This payment must be the start of the new support we provide to recognise the unpaid work that carers do, not the end.
Now is the time to think about the overall package of support provided alongside entitlement to carer’s allowance covering work, study, and across public services. A new consultation is seeking the opinions of carers on a number of suggestions aimed at increasing support for carers and their families, including maximising incomes and reducing council tax bills.
Other ideas include removing current limitations on other earnings or time spent in education, both of which can currently make someone ineligible for receiving carer’s allowance. I share the concerns of many that the carer’s assistance rate of £2.08-an-hour does not adequately provide the financial support to recognise carers’ contribution to society and our public services.
It can also hinder the financial, personal and social independence of carers.
The consultation can be found at www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/FJ7QB3S and I urge carers to submit their views.