The Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry (SCAI) is currently hearing evidence on the actions of central government on issues arising from the non-recent abuse of children in institutional care. These hearings are also exploring the reasons why calls for a public inquiry throughout the period between August 2002 and December 2014 were turned down by Scottish Government.
In this context, SCAI heard evidence on 20 November 2020 from the former First Minister of Scotland, Jack McConnell, now Lord McConnell. On 1 December 2004, speaking as First Minister in the chamber of the Scottish Parliament, he offered “a sincere and full apology, on behalf of the people of Scotland, to those who were subject to such abuse and neglect.” This apology was made on behalf of the people of Scotland rather than on behalf of the Scottish Executive (which later become Scottish Government) so as not to prejudice the executive’s position in litigation. A petition had been lodged with the Scottish Parliament in August 2002 calling for a public inquiry, an apology and compensation for survivors of childhood abuse. Lord McConnell told SCAI that “there was never any doubt from the first discussion in 2002, that at the right minute I’d deliver an apology and that it had to be done by the First Minister, and in the strongest possible terms” but that “there were survivors who were uncomfortable with the idea of an inquiry.“
Two days earlier, on 18 November 2020, SCAI had taken evidence from Peter Peacock, a former Education Minister in the Scottish Executive. He spoke to a memo received by Scottish Ministers in May 2003 which concluded “the criminal convictions have been isolated and there is no evidence of widespread abuse. It would therefore be feasible to do nothing. We do not recommend a full inquiry as the allegations are not substantial enough to justify.” Lady Smith, chair of SCAI, asked Mr Peacock “there were 300 cases, convictions taking place – how many more did you need to think there was enough weight for an inquiry?” to which Mr Peacock replied “these are matters of judgement. On balance, we felt it didn’t warrant a public inquiry. But that was our view – other people might judge differently.”
An inquiry, SCAI, was ultimately set up in October 2015.
On 27 November 2020, SCAI will take evidence from John Swinney MSP, the Deputy First Minister of Scotland. Speaking in that capacity in the chamber of the Scottish Parliament on 23 October 2018, he apologised in these terms “today, on behalf of the Scottish Government, I offer an unreserved and heartfelt apology to everyone who suffered abuse in care in Scotland. We are deeply ashamed of what happened.” The Apologies (Scotland) Act 2017 is of note on this. From 19 June 2017, when this legislation came into force, an apology is not admissible in a Scottish civil case as evidence of anything relevant to wrongdoing.