SINCE the mid-1970s an important tenet of our system of law has been the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act.
Its aim is a simple one – to try to ensure that an offender’s misdeeds in the past do not necessarily mark them down for life as a criminal, and so blight their life opportunities. Under this law, after a set number of years have passed, offenders no longer have to own up to past convictions when applying for most kinds of job. There is a moral purpose to this law, in that it tries to create the space for redemption. Everyone deserves a second chance, it seems to say, an opportunity to get back on the straight and narrow. This principle is an important and compassionate aspect of our legal system. What it cannot be, however, is a shield behind which malevolent men can hide their true nature and pursue a course of serial assaults on women.
As we report today, senior Scottish police officers are pushing for the Scottish Government to follow the lead of England and Wales and prepare the way for a law that would give women the right to check if a new partner has a history of violence. There are already measures that allow single mothers to check if a potential partner has a record of sexual offences, to help protect children. But this would be going a step further. South of the Border, such a measure is called Clare’s Law, after a particularly upsetting example of when it could have made a difference, and there are pilot projects already in place. Home Office ministers are said to be keen on introducing it England-wide. Now senior police officers here are concerned that women in Scotland will have fewer safeguards than women in England. They are right to be concerned.
This is obviously an issue of competing imperatives. Should a woman’s right to know if her new partner has a history of violence be more important than the man in question’s right to try to turn over a new leaf? The brutal fact is that for some men, violence against women is a way of life. Time and time again the courts encounter men whose first instinct in a quarrel is to lash out with their fists, or worse. Women have a right to be protected from such men, so yes, in this case the right of the woman trumps the right of the man.
The police proposals go further. They propose that as part of a sentence for domestic violence, a man should be bound by a court order to divulge his past misdeeds to any new partner. This, again, makes sense. It does not necessarily deny the man a partner – a combination of openness and true penitence may well prove to be the start of a fruitful new relationship. Redemption is still possible, but only in the context of honesty and full disclosure. Such a measure must, however, be accompanied by safeguards to ensure that if a woman decides to break off a relationship as a result of discovering a criminal conviction, she is afforded support and protection.
Asked about its intentions yesterday, the Scottish Government issued an encouraging statement that seemed to suggest ministers are open to a fresh look at this issue in Scotland. That is to be welcomed. Our criminal justice system has made great strides in recent years to ensure it is equal to the task of protecting women from predatory men. Advances in the area of rape have been particularly impressive, both in changes to the law and changes to how police investigate complaints. Specialist units in Police Scotland aimed at sex crimes have been another step forward. It is time now to turn the focus on prevention and public safety. The women of Scotland deserve no less.
Jobs worth having
ONE of the consistent themes of the past two decades has been the push to create a more educated workforce through a huge expansion in places in our universities and colleges. But, as the Scotland Institute think tank points out in our report today, it is all very well to urge the young to improve on their qualifications as long as there are jobs of sufficient worth and sufficient quantity available at the end of the educational process. Too many of our brightest and best are now working in bars and waiting on tables in jobs which – however important themselves to the economy – are poorly paid, short-term and transient. How can a generation be inspired when all they have when they leave higher education is the chance to make lattes? One of the keys to bringing down youth unemployment – now at an appalling 20 per cent – is to provide jobs that engage the skills and aspirations of young people who have set out to earn the very best paper qualifications they can. Science and technology are booming areas which need more help to attract our most able graduates at the earliest possible age and to help the country compete globally against other nations not intent on squandering talent. The institute is right to insist that ministers step up their efforts to help make sure that more rewarding careers are available.