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by Margaret Taylor
11 April 2022
The independent thinker: An interview with Ash Regan

The independent thinker: An interview with Ash Regan

For someone who once tried to eschew her Scottish identity to fit in with her English classmates, Ash Regan has risen quickly through the ranks of Scottish public life, starting out as a volunteer in the pre-referendum Yes movement before going on to hold a key ministerial position in the SNP government.

Serving under justice secretary Keith Brown as community safety minister, Regan is currently responsible for everything from reforming how the legal sector is regulated to setting legal aid fee rates. She has proposed legislation designed to restrict the sale of fireworks and mooted new laws to protect women working in prostitution, and has also set up a panel focused on improving the outcomes for women involved in the criminal justice system.

It is a wide and varied remit she has enjoyed sinking her teeth into since being handed portfolio responsibility in 2018, but it might never have been if a presumptuous intervention from her now-ex-husband hadn’t undone the identity crisis she experienced when her mother sent her off to a Devonian school decked out in an eye-catching tartan kilt.

“I was brought up in Biggar, but my parents were from Glasgow – my dad was a catholic and my mum was a protestant,” Regan recalls. “I’d go to one set of aunts and uncles and cousins and hear things that weren’t pleasant then I’d go to the other side and hear things that I now know were slurs. My parents moving out of Glasgow was for that reason.

“When I was about 10 we moved to Devon because my mum’s sister lived there. My mum had had a kilt shop on Sauchiehall Street and she must have had left-over stock because when I started at Ilfracombe primary school and didn’t have a uniform, she sent me to school in a kilt.”

Though she doesn’t remember the precise impact that had on her, Regan assumes that means it was bad. Either way, the red-haired kilted girl with the Scottish accent instantly lost her Scottish brogue and Regan went on to assume something of an English identity while studying international relations at Keele University and embarking on a public relations career in London.

Pictured after winning the Edinburgh Eastern seat in 2016

After moving back to Scotland in 2003, Regan gave birth to twin boys a year later, a difficult time for any new mother but one that was made harder by the fact her own mother was unable to help because she was living in France while her mother-in-law was based in Wales.

A development management degree with the Open University helped her restore her sense of self as the boys grew and by the time the Yes campaign was getting under way a decade ago Regan was ready to play a part. Though she was indignant when her then husband assumed she’d be in the No camp, ultimately it was him that gave her the little push she needed to get involved.

“We were having a dinner party in 2012 and the independence thing came up – someone said ‘there’s going to be a referendum, what are you going to do?’,” she says.

“My husband, who is English, said ‘I think we will be voting no’. I went off and did some research and realised I was a yes voter. He said, ‘this will be a really big thing politically, you should get involved’, so I did but perhaps not how he had thought.”

Regan’s initial involvement came via campaign group Women for Independence, when she answered their call for female speakers to come forward to break the stranglehold of ‘manels’ in the public sphere. Though she was almost sick the first time she stood in front of an audience, the experience was ultimately exhilarating and enabled her to articulate her views about the kind of place she wanted Scotland to become.

“I was really passionate about Scotland becoming an independent country – I felt the arguments were really strong and I wanted Scotland to have more democratic choice,” she says. “I really enjoyed it as well.”

The outcome of the referendum itself was, Regan says, “really upsetting”, but her involvement in the movement had clarified her thinking about what she wanted to do with her life and so her focus shifted to winning a seat in the 2016 parliamentary elections.

“If a movement or something is beaten, usually that’s the end but it didn’t happen like that – the referendum galvanised the yes side to keep going,” she says. “After that I thought I should think about becoming an elected politician.”

After winning the Edinburgh Eastern seat vacated by SNP – and now Alba Party – bigwig Kenny MacAskill, Regan did not have to wait long for a ministerial brief to come along and, though she does not have a legal background, she jumped at the chance when First Minster Nicola Sturgeon offered her community safety.

“When you get called in to be appointed the first minister just asks if you’ll take a specific portfolio but there’s not much chance for saying you’d prefer something else – you just say ‘yes, thank you very much’,” she says.

“I have no legal training or anything like that so I thought someone else would get that one but I have gone on to really enjoy it. There are a lot of interesting challenges in this portfolio and I’m looking for an area where I can really make an impact and make things better. There’s a lot of opportunity for that in community safety, which has been great.”

“Interesting challenges” is an understated way of characterising some of the issues Regan inherited when she took over the role from Annabelle Ewing. Ewing had commissioned two high-level reports during her two years with the brief, asking then NHS 24 chair Esther Roberton to look into whether the way the legal profession is regulated should be shaken up and tasking then Carnegie UK Trust chief executive Martyn Evans with coming up with a new model for managing the legal aid system. Both reviews took some time to conclude; neither went down well.

For my part, I’m a woman and I want to see if I can improve things for women in the justice system

“The central recommendation that Esther Roberton put forward [that a single regulator with oversight for all branches of the law be created] in general terms was not well received by the legal profession,” Regan states.

“We have to try to find a way through this. If the status quo is not working and we want to move to something that’s more modern and more transparent, deals with complaints in a better way and is more user focused how do we move forward? There were different opinions on that so we consulted again. 

“We haven’t come forward with a definitive plan but there will be legislation coming up soon. It will be out in a few months and we’ll legislate in this parliamentary term.”

If Regan thought the response to Roberton was bad, it was nothing to the way the Evans report went down, with legal aid lawyers taking umbrage at his finding that there was “no justification” for recommending an increase to existing fee levels. Those working in the sector have complained for many years that the rates paid for publicly funded work – something that is seen as a vital public service – are woefully inadequate. The report added flame to their fire and they have staged protests and court walk-outs since, the catchy slogan ‘Gowns down, where’s Brown’ both protecting Regan from their ire and ignoring the fact it is her – not her male boss – who has ultimate responsibility for managing the legal aid fund. 

Regan accepts the instinct to go straight to the top is natural when someone has a problem they want solved and she sees the Brown chant as no slight on her, but she says it is frustrating that, despite her efforts, the profession still accuses the government of being ignorant to its plight.

“I fully understand there’s a lot of concern about legal aid rates,” she says. “I’ve really, really tried to address this by speaking to the members of the profession. That has been over years because I’ve been in this role for quite some time. I’ve been trying to understand what’s important to them and how we can help them.

"We’ve put in millions and millions of pounds in across-the-board fee rises. There was a 3 per cent rise when I was quite early in post then 5 per cent and another 5 per cent. In total that’s a large increase. I’ve also put through a new payment for holiday courts and have put to the profession a set of other reforms that amount to several million pounds for them to look at. I’ll be able to progress those quite quickly.

“I am listening and I am really trying to put money in but one of the things they asked for was a 50 per cent across-the-board fee rise for legal aid rates. I’m not able to fund that unfortunately – it would be more than £50m a year.” 

Presenting her plan for 'the safe and approriate use of fireworks' to the Holyrood chamber

More positively, the Fireworks and Pyrotechnic Articles (Scotland) Bill is not something Regan inherited and she says the process of bringing forward a piece of legislation that was entirely her own making has not only been less controversial, but has been rewarding too. 

“There was no intention to legislate on this but I came in and had witnessed a lot of antisocial behaviour and harms associated with fireworks – I’d got the sense that the public was sick of this and wanted something to be done,” she says. “I ran a consultation as a way to test if my gut instinct was right. Over 16,000 people responded – it was the fourth or fifth most responded-to consultation at that time.”

That bill is slated for a stage-one debate later this month. Meanwhile, Regan has promised to bring forward legislation aimed at tackling the harms associated with prostitution by reducing the number of men that pay women for sex. Part of the government’s Equally Safe agenda, the bill, when it comes, will have the protection of women and girls at its heart, but Regan says she is aware of how polarising the topic is likely to become, with some women working in the sex industry arguing that using the law to supress demand drives their work underground and actually makes them less safe as a result.

“The government has taken a strong line on this and we’re working towards a model for Scotland that will reduce the number of men that are paying for sex,” Regan says.

“This can be a polarising issue so we’ve formed a group of key stakeholders in the area and will be coming up with principles for what the Scottish model for supressing demand will look like. I’ve commissioned a piece of work on what lived experience looks like. It is polarised but we’ve got to remember that we are all coming at it from a place that wants women and girls to be safe. We can’t expect to just get something through, we have to work with everybody.”

Regan is taking a similar approach to reform of the Gender Recognition Act, a piece of work she has not been involved in drafting but which she recognises is also leading to a polarisation of views. Though the aim of the reform is to enable trans people to self-identify their gender and so more easily live their lives, concerns have been raised that doing so would erode some hard-won women’s rights. With MSPs gearing up to debate the subject at the moment, she says it is vital that all sides of the argument are heard before any final legislation is put forward.

“I want trans people to be able to live with dignity and respect and live their lives free from discrimination,” Regan says, choosing her words carefully. “Now the bill is in parliament politicians need to be able to scrutinise the provisions of the bill; debate needs to happen and it needs to be respectful of both sides. Women’s groups have highlighted concerns and we need to be able to hear those to get to a place where we have a law that protects everyone’s rights.”

In the meantime, Regan is focusing on a project she embarked on at the beginning of this year that aims to make women’s experience of the criminal justice system – whether as victim or offender – a better one.

Last month human rights barrister Helena Kennedy QC, who was commissioned by the Scottish Government to investigate whether misogyny should become a standalone offence, noted that the law as it stands is written by men for men to deal with men’s behaviour. Kennedy has recommended that three new crimes be introduced to highlight how misogynistic attitudes influence some offending behaviour while also making misogyny an aggravating factor in a range of other offences.

That is with the government for consideration at the moment, but Regan wants to address how the misogynistic legal system affects women in other ways and has convened a panel including Solicitor General Ruth Charteris QC, Cornton Vale governor Jacqueline Clinton and Centre for Women’s Justice director Harriet Wistrich to take it forward.

“We want to create a strategic framework that will help inform the way we develop policy in the future – that’s never been done before. It’s quite an exciting piece of work,” Regan says. “It’s great to have the opportunity to work on this and there are a lot of women working in the system who have a lot to tell us about what works and what doesn’t work. For my part, I’m a woman and I want to see if I can improve things for women in the justice system.”

Though the panel won’t report until later in the year, Regan says the scope is there to really shake things up, noting that the government has just followed through on its promise to no longer send children and teenagers to young offender institutions, finding other ways instead to deal with offending behaviour. With the vast majority of women in prison serving time for non-violent crimes, it could be possible to do something similar for them.  

“We had a large number of children in the criminal justice system and the government made a concerted effort to say it didn’t think that was appropriate and [it would] get the number down,” she says. “Prison is not the right place for them – it doesn’t lead to the right outcomes. You could make that argument for a lot of women. In the cohort of women’s prisoners, about 40 per cent of them have head injuries from domestic violence. They are a really vulnerable cohort. We want to reimagine the prison estate with women’s needs in mind.”

In government as well as legal circles change never happens fast, but when it does it has the potential to be radical. 



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