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Elish Angiolini: The police wield significant power, we must get rid of officers who shouldn't be there

Elish Angiolini by Kirsty Anderson

Elish Angiolini: The police wield significant power, we must get rid of officers who shouldn't be there

One of the most striking things former lord advocate Elish Angiolini says to me is nothing more than a throwaway comment, tacked onto the end of a sentence amid a much wider conversation. It stays with me though, popping into my head over and over in the weeks following our conversation and stopping me in my tracks again and again.

It’s nothing major really, just that incarcerated women receive far fewer visitors than male prisoners, but the implications of that seem huge. First, there’s the idea that women will sacrifice themselves to ensure their menfolk receive regular prison visits – finding cash for train fares, organising childcare, travelling long distances on a weekly or monthly basis – while few bother to return the favour for them. Then there’s the realisation of how damaging that added layer of isolation must be to women who, the evidence shows, have already lived highly traumatic lives and are extremely vulnerable at the point of being locked away. It also speaks volumes about the incongruity of thinking a justice system designed to punish violent men is somehow suitable for sanctioning fragile women too. 

We should be trying to keep people out of prison unless there’s a real need to have them locked away because they are dangerous

The finding had a similar effect on Angiolini when she uncovered it a few years ago in the course of her work. She had been commissioned by then justice secretary Kenny MacAskill to review how women were treated in the Scottish criminal justice system after the chief inspector of prisons found repeated failings at Cornton Vale, Scotland’s only female prison. Her report, published in 2012, exposed how women’s experiences in prison differ significantly to those of male offenders and made a series of arresting observations, including that just two per cent of convicted women are incarcerated for crimes involving violence and that female prisoners are ten times more likely to self-harm than their male counterparts.

“The imprisonment of women inquiry was very interesting, particularly to me given [it’s focus] on what causes people to commit crime and the differences in what happens when women are imprisoned – even that women get fewer visitors,” says Angiolini, whose entire career prior to being appointed Solicitor General in 2001 then Lord Advocate in 2006 had been spent in the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service.

“The impact on women is huge. It seems strange for a prosecutor to say this, but great efforts are made to keep people out of jail. A person, even if the prison has great activities, will be in the company of other criminals. It’s like an indoctrination and very often you learn to be a better criminal. You get a bigger network and get sucked much more into it. We should be trying to keep people out unless there’s a real need to have them locked away because they are dangerous. That applies to men and women, but there are devastating consequences for women in particular.”

Cornton Vale is Scotland's only women's prison

In the weeks following our chat a row erupts in Scotland after Isla Bryson, a male-bodied self-identifying trans woman convicted of raping two women while living as a man, is temporarily housed in Cornton Vale to await sentencing. It further highlights the vulnerabilities of imprisoned women and brings into focus safety concerns that had been raised – but dismissed – when the Gender Recognition Reform Bill was making its way through parliament in December 2022. It shines a spotlight on the limitations of the bill, which looks likely to be shelved after being blocked by Westminster over fears it will interfere with the UK Equality Act, and causes embarrassment for outgoing First Minister Nicola Sturgeon who, despite sticking doggedly to the assertion that “trans women are women”, is unable to articulate whether she believes Bryson is a woman or not. The situation is exacerbated when another self-identifying trans woman with a history of violence – Tiffany Scott – is given permission to transfer to a women’s facility. Eventually, the Scottish Prison Service is forced to intervene, putting a pause on the transfer of violent transgender prisoners and stating that newly convicted trans people will be placed in an establishment “which aligns with their gender at birth”.

The murder of Sarah Everard by police officer Wayne Couzens reignitied the Reclaim the Night movement
Given her longstanding interest in women’s prison experience, and in Cornton Vale in particular, I email Angiolini to ask if she can talk through what she sees as the main issues with me. Perhaps in a sign of how febrile any discussion around gender reform remains – and perhaps in particular because she is now principal of a University of Oxford college, and students have a habit of cancelling people whose opinions on gender identity they don’t like – she declines to be drawn, saying only that it is a “complex” issue she hasn’t looked into in depth and that “it may require each case to be considered carefully on the basis of their individual circumstances”.

That aside, women and women’s experiences are central to much of the work Angiolini has done throughout her career, flavouring many of the inquiries she has overseen since stepping down as Lord Advocate in 2011. One, which began in 2013, looked into how the bodies of dead babies came to be cremated alongside unrelated adults at Edinburgh’s Mortonhall Crematorium, leading to the Scottish Government asking her to investigate practices at all crematoriums across Scotland; another, completed in 2015, looked into how the Crown Prosecution Service and Metropolitan Police Service investigate and prosecute rape cases in London. Currently she is investigating both the career of Wayne Couzens, the serving police officer who abducted, raped and murdered marketing executive Sarah Everard as she was walking home amid Covid restrictions – a horror that reignited the 1970s-era Reclaim the Night movement – and the culture that allowed him to operate from inside the London Met.

“Part one of the inquiry is looking at Wayne Couzens in particular,” Angiolini says. “It’s fact specific to the murder, looking at his life and career and what red flags, if any, were missed, what we can learn from that and what the wider issues are. That’s now written up but he’s been prosecuted for some other cases so I can’t report yet. Part two will look at the wider issues that come from that. It will look at much wider issues for policing, such as misogyny, culture, vetting problems, the management of individuals within policing.

Here we are in the 21st century and still we have a community where so many women are frightened to be out in the dark

“The protection of women in the public sphere is an issue that’s still very much evident and it’s a persistent issue. There’s a big, big issue here about women and safety and what can be done to ensure that we can take back the night. Here we are in the 21st century and still we have a community where so many women are frightened to be out in the dark. When these horrible events happen it feels like that’s for good reason. The police are a hugely important part of the community but they also wield significant power, therefore making sure we have the best officers in the country is important to everyone – as is ensuring those who shouldn’t be there aren’t there.”

In many ways Angiolini was a natural choice to take the lead on these inquiries, considering her focus when she was Lord Advocate. Given the darkly humorous nickname of the Sleaze Queen by Crown Office colleagues, in the early stages of her career her job was to trawl through pornography in the search for evidence. She moved on to prosecuting child abuse and sexual assault cases then, when she took the chief prosecutor’s role as Lord Advocate, tasked then Principal Advocate Depute Dorothy Bain KC – the current Lord Advocate – with reviewing how sexual crimes are prosecuted, the result being a report that led directly to the formation of Scotland’s National Sexual Crimes Unit.

When I interviewed Bain in 2021, I asked her if she thought she would have been commissioned to carry out such a review if the Lord Advocate at the time had not been a woman; whether it was notable that during the 500-plus years prior to Angiolini becoming Scotland’s first-ever female legal chief no one had thought to question the way the Crown dealt with cases of a sexual nature. She declined to comment, but Angiolini is less circumspect and is unashamed about owning that everything she worked on in the run up to being appointed coloured what she did after.

“I did a lot of prosecution of child abuse cases and sexual cases and as head of policy [Angiolini led the Crown’s policy unit between 1997 and 2000] had developed policy around these areas so I was interested in that,” she says. “Someone made the observation to me that was there not a danger that I would be seen as a Lord Advocate for women. I said I didn’t really think that was something that would trouble me too much. My predecessor Colin Boyd [now Court of Session judge Lord Boyd] was as energetic and as determined to address this issue as I was. He recommended me because of the interests that I had – domestic violence, which was another area that was a real Cinderella, also inequality, diversity, how people from minority communities were treated in the system. There was a whole number of areas that we were looking at at that stage.”

Angiolini was appointed Solicitor General by then First Minister Jack McConnell

Despite her experience, and how it dovetailed with what Boyd had been attempting to do with the prosecution service, Angiolini says being asked to step up from being procurator fiscal for Grampian, Highland and Islands to become Solicitor General – deputy Lord Advocate, in other words – and then to succeed Boyd came as a shock. She was not, after all, either a man or a member of the Faculty of Advocates – she was in fact both the first woman and, confusingly enough given the title of the role, the first solicitor to become Solicitor General – and, though she had been educated at selective girls school Notre Dame in Glasgow’s West End, was the product of a state education and a working-class upbringing. She did not, she concedes, fit the mould in any way.

“At that stage I was being asked to go south for a senior position in the civil service,” she says. “That conversation was starting and this came literally out of the blue; I had no expectation whatsoever. The then Lord Advocate came to a meeting of procurators fiscal at Peebles Hydro. He’d come down the day before to give a talk then went away again. I was having my pudding in the evening – my favourite part of any meal – and I was told that the Lord Advocate was outside in the foyer and would like to have a word with me. I was slightly miffed to tell the truth and I left my handbag because I was coming back to finish my pudding. I said, ‘did he not leave?’ but he was out there and he said, ‘can I have a word, is there anywhere private?’. There wasn’t, so we went for a walk and during that he said he’d been asked by the First Minister Jack McConnell to find out if I would consider becoming the Solicitor General for Scotland. It was like a joke almost because it was such an off the wall proposition. I said ‘I’m a procurator fiscal so I can’t do it’ and he said ‘you’d have to leave all that’. I was very, very honoured – and flustered – that both he and the first minister had thought of me.”

As the sole breadwinner in a family that by that point included two very small children, Angiolini did not immediately accept the job but, after a small push from her husband Dom, decided to go for it.

“I was up in Aberdeen at the time and had an 18-month-old toddler and an older one who was five or six,” she says. “My husband had given up work to look after the children, so it wasn’t a problem [to take the job] but I wasn’t going to pull my family up and down Scotland unless he was happy. I was given the weekend to think about it. In the meantime, I received calls from senior judges and lawyers who seemed to have been put up to it to encourage me to take it. I ultimately said to my husband, ‘I have a very secure job and I’m going into this role of politics’ and he said, ‘well what’s the worst that can happen?’. I said ‘I might not have a job after two days, there’s no job security in politics’. He said ‘as long as I can get a plate of pasta and a glass of red wine every so often I’ll be happy’. He said ‘Elish, I think you would regret not doing something more than you would having tried and failed’. He gave me tremendous support through that whole time and that made such a difference.”

In the end Angiolini served for a decade in the upper levels of the prosecution service, even surviving when the Holyrood government shifted from a Labour-Lib Dem coalition to minority SNP control in 2007. Having begun packing her things when the election result was announced, she received a call from incoming first minister Alex Salmond to tell her to stop. Though controversy remains over whether the Lord Advocate should be both Scotland’s chief prosecutor and the Scottish Government’s principal legal adviser – something that came into sharper focus when Salmond was tried, and fully acquitted, on sexual offences charges in 2020 – Salmond sought to depoliticise the position when he moved into Bute House, removing the presumption that the post-holder would attend Cabinet by default. 

Angiolini remained as Lord Advocate when Alex Salmond replaced Jack McConnell as first minister in 2007

It is now more than a decade since Angiolini left the prosecution service and became principal of Oxford college St Hugh’s, where she says she is privileged to work with “amazing young people and fabulous academics”, but her influence is still very much being felt in the Scottish justice system, with Bain continuing to push the envelope on how crimes of a sexual nature are dealt with. Angiolini convinced the legal sector that only those with specialist knowledge should be prosecuting and defending such cases; Bain wants to take that one step further with the suggestion that only judges, and not the public at large, should be responsible for deciding them. It has led to a backlash from the defence bar in particular, with one prominent KC even saying that juryless trials would put Scotland on a footing with Nazi Germany. It is a stance Angiolini has no truck with.

“What’s suggested about this being akin to Nazi Germany is outrageous because most of Europe doesn’t have juries,” she says. “I think juries can be very, very wise but there is an [issue] because we take people away from their lives. Some don’t want to be there and some can be intimidated by the environment so we’re creating a bit of a lottery. I think the thing about the fact that some aspects of crime are quite complex means you have to work hard to ensure that everyone can understand what it is. Judges work very hard at explaining the law but it’s a lot to take in in a day what other people have been studying for years.

“There are great strengths but also weaknesses with the jury system. I would support the Lord Advocate in saying this is something that should be looked at. We are putting specialist prosecutors in there and then leaving it up to a group of people who are shocked to the core [to decide the outcome]. There’s a basis to at least consider it so the justice system doesn’t stand still due to tradition. The great thing about Scottish justice is that it does look at itself and it does move and it does develop. Nothing shouldn’t come under scrutiny.”

When we wrap up our chat, Angiolini says I must come and see her in Oxford some day. We can have lunch and she’ll give me a tour of St Hugh’s. The last time I was in Oxford was for a Morrissey concert well over a decade ago, and the trip did not go well. The university’s animal research lab had been much in the news and the former Smiths frontman did a few turns before storming off because, he yelled at the crowd, “you support vivisection”. Lunch with Angiolini sounds like a much jollier affair, particularly as pudding is sure to be on the menu. 

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