Offender Management Plan

– in the Scottish Parliament at 2:15 pm on 8 January 2009.

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Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party 2:15, 8 January 2009

The next item of business is a debate on motion S3M-3174, in the name of Kenny MacAskill, on protecting Scotland's communities—the Scottish Government's offender management plan.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party 2:55, 8 January 2009

On Wednesday 17 December, the Scottish Government delivered on its commitment to publish before the end of the year our plan for a coherent offender management strategy. I was visiting the young offenders institution at Polmont when the plan was launched. Polmont is in the throes of a major refurbishment that will give us a modern, fit-for-purpose young offenders institution. However, in common with the majority of our prisons, it is full.

What makes the situation at Polmont particularly distressing is the fact that that the offenders there are all young men aged under 21, many of whom have been in prison before. Youth is not an excuse for serious or dangerous behaviour, and the young men who have been convicted of serious crimes deserve to be there. [Interruption.] Nevertheless, that is nothing like the whole story. Records show that, in 2007-08, there were more than 1,100 receptions into Polmont for a sentence of less than six months. Those receptions will not have involved 1,100 different young men; more likely, a substantial proportion of them are the same young men caught in a cycle of reoffending.

That is the picture across the whole prison estate. In 2007-08, there were more than 11,000 receptions for adult males and 829 receptions for women. [Interruption.] The Scottish Prisons Commission report said that, in 2006-07, nearly 7,000 offenders who got a prison sentence had already accumulated between them a staggering 47,500 previous spells in prison—at a time when the level of recorded crime is at its lowest for 25 years.

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

Order. The cabinet secretary may have a BlackBerry or other electronic device in his pocket that is interfering with the sound system.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

It is off.

We remain committed to providing a modern, fit-for-purpose and, for the most part, publicly run prison service. We have committed to three new prisons and we are investing a record £120 million each year in prison capacity. However, we cannot and will not keep building more and more prisons to fill with offenders who are caught in the cycle of low-tariff reoffending.

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour

The cabinet secretary is opening prisons that we commissioned when we were in government. What is his response to reports last night that there will be a delay of some two years in the construction of the Low Moss replacement prison?

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

That is just not true. There has been a delay in the construction of Low Moss because, for two and a bit years, the previous Administration faffed around deciding whether the contract should be awarded to the public sector or to the private sector. That cost us £2 million when we could simply have delivered a public sector prison whose first wall might have been up or at least started by now. We are delivering not simply a new prison at Low Moss; we are delivering a public sector prison, where the top priority is safety, not private profit.

However, prisons do not come free. One new prison means fewer new schools or hospitals or less support for our elderly. At a time when resources are tight and must be spent prudently, we want to provide for our pensioners, not pander continually to prisoners. Today, Parliament has the opportunity to debate our plans for a modern offender management strategy that is based on the twin planks of a robust regime of community penalties and strong and proportionate management of offenders who are sentenced to prison. Our aim is to deliver immediate, visible, effective, high-quality, flexible and relevant justice.

Our plan has grown out of the major reforms to the Scottish criminal justice system that are already under way or are complete, such as the 2007 review of community penalties and the valuable and much praised work of the Scottish Prisons Commission. The commission's key themes of swift justice, payback, reparation and better management of offenders for whom prison is the right option underpin our vision for change.

Reflecting all those developments, our plan will bring about the introduction of a new community payback sentence to allow courts to impose a range of requirements on the offender, including taking part in unpaid work, supervision, alcohol or drug interventions and programmes to address offending behaviour.

We want to speed up the process for delivering community sentences. Under our proposals, the offender will have to sign off on their undertaking before leaving court and will have a first appointment with criminal justice social work within one working day. Any unpaid work or activity will have to start within seven days and the entire sentence will have to be completed within six months, instead of the current 12, unless the court decides otherwise at the point of sentencing.

We will legislate to make it clear that judges should not impose a custodial sentence of six months or less unless they believe that the circumstances suggest that no other option is appropriate.

We are not doing this on a whim or a fancy. The Scottish Prisons Commission recommended that approach based on the available evidence. In 2004-05, three quarters of those sentenced to six months or less were reconvicted within two years. In comparison, three fifths of those given community service orders were not reconvicted in the same period of time.

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour

I think that the cabinet secretary is comparing apples with pears.

Can the cabinet secretary tell us how the new community sentences that will be handed out will be resourced?

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

I dispute the assertion that we are comparing apples with pears. We are comparing the rates of reoffending of those who were sentenced to six months or less with the rates of those who were given a community service order. I do not think that the two groups cannot be compared.

On resourcing, the member will be aware of the record funding that the Government is investing. We have also committed to an additional £1 million this year and another £1 million next year. Further, the issue is being addressed in conjunction with local authorities, which I will talk about later. For now, I merely point out that Councillor Harry McGuigan, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities' spokesperson for community wellbeing and safety—who is a member of the Labour Party—is driving forward in unity with us on this agenda.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

Mr Baker raised the question of resources. Can the cabinet secretary give us any indication of the timescale for the process of replacing short-term sentences with community service orders?

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

Obviously, that will be, to a certain extent, dependent on primary legislation. However, as I have said to Mr Brown elsewhere, there is a journey that must be undertaken, and some decisions that have been taken on the bench demonstrate that that journey is already under way. We have to ensure that adequate resources are provided, and I can give members an assurance that they will be. Equally, we have to ensure that the process can be ramped up.

We accept that, in an ideal world, even more money would be invested. However, we live in a time of economic problems, we have inherited a prison estate that is not fit for purpose, and we are having to invest £120 million a year to sort out what was not dealt with before. We are doing what we can, and we will ensure that the appropriate measures are in place.

We will make the necessary changes to the Custodial Sentences and Weapons (Scotland) Act 2007 to deliver, in due course, a more proportionate and effective system for end-to-end sentence management of offenders, and consequently end the current arbitrary system of early release that is provided for in the Prisoners and Criminal Proceedings (Scotland) Act 1993.

Our plan is not starting from scratch. We have already invested heavily in the criminal justice system. We are completing the justice reform package that was started by the previous Administration, to its credit.

We have invested an extra £1 million for speedier and more immediate delivery of community service orders and will be investing a further £1 million through community justice authorities to assist local authorities to reorganise service provision to meet much tighter timescales in delivering community sentences. We have also funded three community justice authorities to evaluate new approaches to improving the visibility of community sentences in their areas.

We will move forward to deliver the key elements of our new offender management plan. However, the reform agenda is huge and we cannot deliver it alone. The key to success is commitment from our local authority partners, health and third sector providers, the community justice authorities and the judiciary at every level.

When our plan was published, Councillor Harry McGuigan, COSLA's spokesperson, said:

"We welcome this latest and important step on the road to tackling re-offending and making communities safer."

He added:

"We ... look forward to continuing this productive partnership as CoSLA, the Scottish Government and the Community Justice Authorities"— that is, the strategic partners at the local level—

"work to deliver our shared objective of fewer short prison terms and more offenders paying back to communities for the harm they have done."

In many respects, there is nothing new about the agenda. We have debated the same points for a number of years while prison numbers have continued to grow and more and more offenders get drawn into the hopeless cycle of reoffending. As Cathy Jamieson said on 6 December 2004,

"There are no simple ... solutions to tackling crime and offending in Scotland. However, I am clear that locking up offenders for short periods of time, and releasing them back into the community without action to address their behaviour, is not the answer."

We have always said that prison is absolutely the place for serious and dangerous offenders. Through tough community penalties, however, I want minor offenders to give something back to the communities that they have damaged, instead of their simply sitting in prison for a few weeks or months at the taxpayers' expense. Reducing the number of people whom we imprison will also free up valuable Scottish Prison Service resources and enable it to deal more effectively with those whose crimes are serious and who present an unacceptably high risk to public safety.

As the Scottish Prisons Commission said, Scotland has choices. Let us make sure that we make the right one.

I move,

That the Parliament supports the Scottish Government's plan for delivering a coherent offender management strategy built on a robust regime of community penalties and payback and a strong and proportionate management for offenders sentenced to prison and welcomes the publication, on 17 December 2008, of Protecting Scotland's Communities: Fair, Fast and Flexible Justice, which sets out the Scottish Government's strategy to tackle reoffending and enhance public safety through a system that will deliver immediate, visible, effective, high quality, flexible and relevant justice.

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour 3:07, 8 January 2009

The core purpose of our justice system must be to protect Scottish communities. Any changes to the way in which we deal with offenders must be driven by that goal and no other. Despite the motion's title, we do not believe that the plans will better protect Scotland's communities.

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice is failing to act on overcrowding in prisons. There were reports last night that the replacement for Low Moss prison will be further delayed, and that is because the cabinet secretary alone decided to change the funding mechanism.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

Is the member arguing that we should have proceeded with a private prison? That goes against the position that David Whitton and Wendy Alexander have taken. Is Labour once again campaigning for private prisons?

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour

I am pretty certain that the cabinet secretary is misquoting Mr Whitton. Also, we would certainly not put political dogma ahead of public safety. The cabinet secretary has his answer.

The cabinet secretary plans, in effect, to abolish six-month sentences at a time when there are cuts throughout the country to the budgets that support the current number of community sentences, never mind budgets to expand them. I entirely agree with Cathy Jamieson's words, which he quoted. I do not resile from one word of that quotation. What he suggests is something very different. He proposes a totally unresourced step change, and that is why it is dangerous.

The motion calls the Scottish Government's plan a "coherent ... strategy". The reality is that it is anything but coherent.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

Will Richard Baker clarify whether his objection is to the funding, in which case his objection is entirely appropriate, or to the principle and the direction of travel of the Government's proposals?

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour

I object in principle to the removal from sheriffs of all discretion on the matter. We all favour the encouragement of more community sentences, but we cannot do that by the proposed mechanism alone, and we certainly cannot do it if the reform is not properly resourced.

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour

I will take one more intervention and then I must make some progress.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

The member said that he is against removing all discretion from sheriffs, but that is not what is proposed. We are not removing discretion but creating a presumption. Does he accept that his analysis of the Government's position is fundamentally flawed?

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour

I do not agree with that. It is clear that the Government plans to remove that discretion. The Sheriffs Association has also raised fears about that.

Of course, the fact that we have a comparatively high prison population is not something of which we should be proud. We should always seek to drive down reoffending and explore new sentencing options to help achieve that. The report of the Scottish Prisons Commission, which was chaired by Henry McLeish, had those clear goals in mind and there is much in that report that we can welcome.

The Labour Party does not support the proposal that will effectively lead to the abolition of six-month sentences. It is not only that we oppose the measure in itself, which will lead to thousands of offenders—many of whom are responsible for serious offences, including assault and knife crime—no longer going into custody. It is also that a lack of investment in the services that are needed to back up community sentences means that the existing level of demand for those services is not being met, let alone the demand that will be created by some 4,000 additional offenders—£1 million will not meet that demand.

The Scottish Prisons Commission's report states:

"the Government and the people of Scotland should be left in no doubt that we first need up-front investment in better services in and for Scotland's communities."

That is not happening; specifically, it is not happening in services that support community sentences.

Changes to sentencing policy must be driven by what will best protect the public. The previous Labour Executive introduced many more community disposals because we believe that tough community sentences can be effective. However, the cabinet secretary's proposals on six-month sentences are being driven by his mismanagement of the prison estate and his fixation on having an arbitrary number of prisoners to match his budget, rather than having prison numbers that reflect the needs of justice and communities. He has claimed that he is bringing forward new prisons, but, in fact, he significantly delayed the opening of the new Low Moss, and Addiewell was commissioned by the previous Executive. He claimed today that the prison estate that he inherited was crumbling, but Her Majesty's chief inspector of prisons stated in his 2006-07 annual report that

"Scottish prisons have been transformed in the last four years", and described the improvement as "remarkable." We can only hope that the further plans for development of the prison estate will be delivered on a reasonable timescale, but even with those developments in place, there are no plans for extra capacity. Although we do not want to go on building more and more new prisons, I question an approach that allows for no new capacity.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

If the member is of the view that the prison estate that we inherited was in such pristine condition, why have we now not only had to commit to Grampian prison—to replace Peterhead prison—and to Bishopbriggs prison, but started work on planning permission and investigations regarding both Greenock and Highland? We are now committed to four prisons because the estate that we inherited was not fit for purpose.

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour

The cabinet secretary is obviously in stark disagreement with the chief inspector of prisons, given the comments in the chief inspector's report. Many of the improvements to which the cabinet secretary refers were already in the pipeline when we left office.

We are not saying that we should not aspire to have more offenders carrying out community sentences that offer real and visible payback to the communities who have suffered because of their crimes. However, Henry McLeish has said that such sentences cannot be a cheap option, and expanding their use so significantly without providing the right resources will damage public confidence in them.

The real gap in the cabinet secretary's aspirations for change, and something that makes them a threat to community safety, is that, far from increasing investment or putting in record investment to enable such a massive increase in community sentences to take place, the community safety budget and the criminal justice social work budget are flatlining.

At a local level matters are even worse. Sacro, an organisation that does so much to tackle reoffending, stated in its newsletter of August last year:

"The current round of funding cuts shows no signs of abating and it is no consolation that Sacro is not alone in having to withdraw valuable services. We are doing all in our power to minimise the effects of these cuts ... and the resultant impact on the communities that we serve."

I understand that in Fife alone Sacro lost about £1 million of services. In Aberdeen, Albyn house, which supports offenders with alcohol misuse problems, remains under threat of closure, and in Dumfries and Galloway Scottish Government funding for restorative justice programmes has been withdrawn.

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour

I may later on, if I have time.

In West Dunbartonshire, there have been huge cuts in the community safety budgets. Throughout Scotland, the number of drug treatment and testing orders issued has dropped by 14 per cent. In that context, how on earth will 4,000 more community sentences be sustained every year?

The cabinet secretary has presided over a situation in which there has been sharp increase of 14 per cent in breaches of community service orders. A lack of public confidence in such orders is not surprising when we hear stories of community sentences resulting not in payback but in offenders watching videos.

The McLeish report rightly says that community sentences should be served speedily after sentencing. When I asked the cabinet secretary how long offenders currently wait for placements for community sentences, he told me that he does not know. That is a far cry from instant justice.

The Liberal amendment reflects our concerns about investment. However, given Robert Brown's concerns about knife crime, which we share, we are surprised that he supports moves that would in effect end custodial sentences for about 81 per cent of those involved in knife offences. The Conservative amendment is sensible and we will support it should ours fall.

On other aspects of the Scottish Government's strategy, ministers are rightly progressing other recommendations of the Prisons Commission, including that on the rolling-up of cases, but it is regrettable that other proposals will not be considered further, such as those on electronic monitoring of curfew for those on bail and the establishment of a national community justice council. We want much clearer progress to be made on ending automatic early release and we look forward to having more details on some of the wider measures that ministers have outlined. However, overall, we cannot agree that the measures represent a coherent strategy. That can be no surprise when we have a cabinet secretary who wants to release thousands from custody, whereas the Scottish National Party candidate in the recent by-election in Glenrothes, Peter Grant, boasted in a leaflet:

"there are more prisoners in our jails than ever before. That's good news".

Perhaps he should have spoken to Mr MacAskill first.

It is irresponsible to have no fallback position on prison capacity other than the proposal to end six-month sentences, particularly given that sheriffs often apply such sentences as part of the disposal of cases in which people are accused of significant offences. We welcome real efforts to improve community sentences and we are proud of our record in government in promoting them. However, the fact is that the proposal for a massive, unfunded expansion in such measures, driven by the abolition of six-month sentences, is unwise, unrealistic and irresponsible and will not help to protect our communities. That is why we challenge the Government. We will continue to do so, because we will always put public safety first.

I move amendment S3M-3174.1, to leave out from "supports" to end and insert:

"expresses concern that the Scottish Government's proposals for the abolition of six-month sentences are unworkable and will not improve community safety; agrees that it is right to seek to expand the provision of tough effective community sentences and payback but that to be effective such measures must be properly resourced and that this is not the case under current national and local funding settlements, and believes that any changes to the sentencing system must put first the delivery of justice and protecting the public."

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative 3:16, 8 January 2009

I was decidedly disappointed by the cabinet secretary's speech. As usual, he gave good mileage, but there was nothing new. I thought that we were going to get some positive ideas about the route forward and some practical solutions but, no, we simply had a rehash of what has gone before.

On short-term jail sentences, the cabinet secretary always comes out with the fact that some people spend only a few days in jail. His statistics may well be correct, but is not the basis of the problem Cathy Jamieson's super-duper early-release scheme, which he built on? As a result of that scheme, it is not the sentence that is wrong, but the time that is spent in jail. The cabinet secretary must face up to that.

On judicial independence, I note the cabinet secretary's point that he will not legislate to force sheriffs on sentencing, but he will certainly seek to influence them along a certain route, which I am sure they will not greatly appreciate.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

We could conclude from that point that Bill Aitken might suggest that the current sentencing guidelines and the work of the Sentencing Commission for Scotland are an interference with judicial discretion. Does he not accept that such measures are on-going and that all that we propose is to legislate for what currently exists?

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative

I do not accept that assertion for a moment. At the end of the day, the appeal court determines the appropriate sentencing. That has been the situation for hundreds of years, and I do not think that we require Mr MacAskill's direct intervention in that respect.

The cabinet secretary dealt with the sentencing options that he intends to make available under the proposed legislation that will no doubt be introduced. However, I was somewhat puzzled when I tried to work out which of those options is not available under existing law. Probation orders are made day in, day out and are subject to conditions. Sentences are deferred for people to be of good behaviour, subject to certain conditions. There are drug treatment and testing orders that require the accused to take drug treatment and to undergo testing. There is very little new at all.

Then, of course, we had the inevitable canard of a comparison of the recidivism rate among those who serve short-term custodial sentences with the rate among those who do community service. I pay the cabinet secretary the tribute of having sufficient intelligence to know that the reason for the outcome of that comparison is that those who are sent to jail are the more hardened offenders and those who are ordered to do community service are somewhat further up the offending food chain. However, the reoffending rate among those people is unacceptably high, to the extent that it causes an even greater problem, because they commit further crimes while at liberty, while those who are in custody do not have the opportunity to do so.

I have never received a satisfactory answer from the cabinet secretary as to who he suggests should not get sent to prison. As someone who has practised in the courts, he must know that nobody gets sent to jail if another option is available; even people like me would turn somersaults to try to prevent people from being sent to prison. Who is he suggesting should not get a sentence of six months or less? At the risk of repeating myself, I point out that that is a typical sentence for the wife-beater, the three-times-disqualified drunk driver, the violent offender who causes mayhem in an accident and emergency unit and the petty thief with 40 convictions. Which of that batch of offenders is he suggesting should not be sent to prison?

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

I wonder whether Bill Aitken is approaching the matter from the right direction. The issue is why offenders have had to come back into the system when previous sentences have failed. What has gone wrong with sentencing policy in the past? What can we do to improve the situation in relation to reoffending? That is the real question, is it not?

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative

In many instances, those offenders come back into the system because Mr MacAskill has let them out after they served a quarter of their sentence. That is a principal consideration. The deterrent effect of prison sentences has been significantly reduced over a number of years. I recognise that the previous Conservative Government has a degree of culpability in that regard, too. The deterrent effect has certainly been reduced as a result of early release.

The Conservatives have never asserted that community sentences are not an appropriate disposal in many instances—indeed, we introduced them when we were in government. However, at present, there is no public confidence in those disposals. Perhaps more important, there is no judicial confidence in them, either; if there were, the courts would have handed out many more such sentences.

Community service is not respected by the offender; it is honoured in the breach rather than in the acceptance. Many offenders are simply not prepared to get out of their bed in the morning to go and do it. Sometimes, they have been failed by a system that has no community work for them to do. Mr MacAskill has not explained today exactly which measures he will take—I know that he has said that he will take measures, but at this stage in the game he has to be much more specific than he has been in the past.

The breach rate for community sentences is absolutely disgraceful, given that such sentences are imposed as a direct alternative to custody. I am sorry to return to this theme, but the only way in which community sentencing will work is if it is operated in the same way that the New York scheme is operated. In New York, offenders have to do the work—if they do not, they go to jail for a fortnight and do the work when they come out. The word would soon get around if that happened.

Mr MacAskill talked about making community service visible, but, again, he gave no explanation about how that would be achieved. We are now so far down the road of this debate that specifics should be coming out much more clearly than they have been.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

Is it not a bit sweeping to say that the public have no confidence in community disposals, given that 1.3 million hours of community service is performed and thousands of people are engaged in supervising that work? Is it not a real slur on Scottish citizens who are trying their best to carry out that difficult work for Mr Aitken to say unequivocally that the public have no confidence whatever in those disposals?

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative

At the moment, those individuals are certainly not doing their best to make community service work; I understand that they are on strike in Glasgow today—I have just had phone calls about that. Leaving that aside, the fact is that the public do not have confidence in community sentences. I can provide no more eloquent testimony than to tell the minister that this morning, after Mr McMillan and I had debated the matter on the radio, the call-in part of the programme was full of people calling in to make the same point.

There is no merit in Robert Brown's amendment. There is considerable merit in the Labour Party amendment, for which we would have voted but for problems with pre-emption. It is really for Mr MacAskill to come forward at the next opportunity—which, on the basis of this session's programme, will not be far away—with plans that are much more specific. Until then, we are certainly not going to support him.

I move amendment S3M-3174.2, to leave out from "supports" to end and insert:

"recognises that in some cases custody is the only appropriate disposal and prison should offer a greater opportunity for rehabilitation; believes that it is vital where community penalties are imposed that there is a much tighter and rigorous control of these orders, including making community penalties more robust and visible to the community and, in particular, to the victims of crime, and notes that only when these measures are in place will the public start to have more confidence in the criminal justice system."

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat 3:25, 8 January 2009

I am hurt by Bill Aitken's curt rejection of the Liberal Democrat amendment.

This is an important debate. The Liberal Democrats support the cabinet secretary's proposed direction of travel. We know that short-term sentences fail abysmally to protect the public. They also fail in their main purpose, which is to deter or divert offenders from reoffending. When three quarters of offenders who are given short-term sentences go on to commit more crimes within two years of release, it is obvious that the system is not working properly or in the public interest. A double whammy is involved: not only do the public suffer the crime, but they pay up to £40,000 of vital public resource to lock up each offender for a year. Members of the Labour and Conservative parties who take a hostile view of our amendment should bear that in mind.

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative

Mr Brown rightly refers to members of the public, but does he agree that the public suffer greatly from the activities of people who reoffend while they are undertaking community sentences?

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

The reoffending rate for those who receive community sentences is less than it is for those who receive prison sentences. That said, I accept Mr Aitken's earlier point about being careful when making comparisons. The reoffending rate for people who come out of prison is very high. The rate for those who are given community service is higher than I would like it to be—indeed, I am sure that it is higher than the cabinet secretary would like it to be. The reasons for that should be examined. For example, is the issue speed, resources or the types of sentences? We need to look into that.

I concede the basic point that protecting the public is the first duty of Government. There is no argument in the chamber that serious and dangerous criminals should be locked up for the safety of the public. However, even those criminals—or many of them—have to come out of prison some time. The reality is that the pressure on the system from the churn of short-term prisoners damages our ability to make long-term prisoners safe to return to society.

The cabinet secretary and the Scottish Prison Service told the Justice Committee recently that most of our prisons operate for long periods of time above the assessed safe operating levels, the result of which is that rehabilitation and health services may be restricted to maintaining methadone prescriptions and similar provisions.

Our support for the cabinet secretary comes with a number of substantial caveats. First, we know that council spending on the main community sentences went up by 80 per cent between 2000-01 and 2005-06, partly because of the use of the highly successful but more expensive drug treatment and testing orders that were piloted in 2000. In 2006-07, a total of 19,102 community service orders were made.

In its briefing for the debate, the Association of Directors of Social Work says that one council has estimated that there will be a 30 per cent increase in its workload if all short-term sentences are dealt with in the community. The cabinet secretary should give the chamber more detail on his Government's assessment of these matters. How many additional community service orders will there be? What will be the balance between cheaper supervisory orders and more sustained disposals such as DTTOs? What is the estimated cost? What is the timescale over which orders will be introduced? Like the Scottish Prisons Commission, does the Government have a target to reduce the prison population to 5,000? The Government paper and the cabinet secretary's speech were remarkable for their lack of detail on those key matters.

The cabinet secretary cannot do all of this at no cost. Introducing the community payback regime that the Scottish Government proposes is the right thing to do, but before sheriffs are asked to stop giving out short-term sentences on a routine basis, the public are entitled to know that the Government has put in place the projects and facilities that will enable speedy, effective, properly resourced and supervised community sentences and alternative disposals to be made. I give the SNP Government credit for its £1 million investment to speed up services, but it has given us no real indication that it is targeting the necessary resources at the new system. That could be a recipe for considerable difficulty.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

I fully appreciate the member's concerns. We accept that resources are fundamental, which is why we are seeing a 185 per cent increase in the spend on community justice authorities over a 10-year period. We are seeking to build on that.

Despite the suggestion from the Scottish Prisons Commission, we have not set a target for the prison population—

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

We have not set a target; we are leaving the matter to the judiciary. However, I assure the member that we have increased spending and that the necessary resources will be provided.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

I am grateful to the cabinet secretary for his intervention, but he still has a distance to go on these matters.

My second caveat is that there should be clarity about what the Government is doing. My concern is fuelled by the change of tone—and, perhaps, of policy—between the November paper on the review of community penalties and the current paper. In November, the Government stated that its principal aim was to minimise offending by tackling the underlying problems that contribute to offending, and talked about the need for community service orders to include opportunities for offenders to change how they think and behave. However, I think that the Government's public relations people have got at the current paper, because in it the place of the rehabilitation element seems to have been reduced. Instead of there being a single community service order with provision for rehabilitation, the order is now called the tougher-sounding community payback sentence. Can the cabinet secretary tell us in clear terms the extent of the change of policy that that involves? Public understanding will be aided if the order has a name that indicates clearly what it does.

Community service work and the involvement of the community in helping to decide the projects on which offenders work are important. However, above all, it is important to use methods that get the offender back on the right tracks and that protect the public—the Liberal Democrat amendment is strong on that point.

Given all the caveats that Bill Aitken voiced in response to my earlier intervention, it is vital that we drive down reoffending rates so that the public see value in the huge sums of money that are spent on the criminal justice system. Eighty per cent of people do not have confidence in the prison system, never mind the community service system. Two thirds of prisoners test positive for drugs on admission, 40 per cent have alcohol problems and 70 per cent have mental health problems. Many lead chaotic lives, and many left school with poor reading and counting abilities and no skills that are of use to employers. Before we can expect offenders to get on with their lives, to get jobs and to become useful members of society, those issues must be tackled both in prison and in association with community orders, preferably before people commit serious crimes.

I have some concerns about six months being the cut-off point for the presumption against prison. We prefer to concentrate on sentences under three months, which might help the cabinet secretary. Broadly, the offences that attract sentences of between three and six months are more serious—they include knife crimes, robberies and more serious assaults and housebreakings. Such offences bear a greater resemblance to those that attract longer-term sentences than to those that attract sentences of less than three months.

The Government's proposals could be the basis of a significant and effective refocusing of the criminal justice system, but ministers must get the details right, have the projects and people in place first, repulse their desire to let presentation lead the substance of the policy, stick with the principle of supporting what works and tackle full on the underlying causes of crime. If they do that, they will have our whole-hearted support.

I move amendment S3M-3174.3, to leave out from "supports" to end and insert:

"welcomes the publication on 17 December 2008 of Protecting Scotland's Communities: Fair, Fast and Flexible Justice, which sets out the Scottish Government's strategy to deliver a coherent offender management strategy built on a robust regime of community penalties and payback and proportionate management of offenders sentenced to prison; recognises that community sentences that are completed speedily and enforced with rigour offer greater benefits to communities and individuals than short prison sentences and that their planned expansion must be adequately resourced; calls on the Scottish Government to incorporate in its offender management strategy effective action to tackle the underlying causes of crime and factors and circumstances known to have a link with offending behaviour; reaffirms the importance of judicial independence free from executive direction, and looks forward to constructive engagement with the Scottish Government on the detailed implementation of the programme."

Photo of Stuart McMillan Stuart McMillan Scottish National Party 3:33, 8 January 2009

The speeches that we have heard this afternoon from Labour and Tory members have been quite high on rhetoric and short on substance with regard to a serious issue that the SNP Government is determined to tackle. I did not expect Labour or Tory members to welcome the cabinet secretary's proposals whole-heartedly, but I was sure that they could and would accept some of them.

I welcome "Protecting Scotland's Communities", which has some really positive aspects. The first is the proposal for a community payback sentence, which will shorten the time within which an offender must undertake payback from 12 months to six months. That is evidence of a speedier response. The second is the plan to legislate to make clear that sentences of less than six months should not be imposed unless no other option is suitable. That should enable work to be undertaken with offenders to tackle their issues and reoffending capabilities. The third is to end the existing arbitrary early release system that the Tories introduced, so that there is an effective end-to-end sentence management system. The fourth is the plan to abolish the sending of under-16s to prison and instead to provide them with more appropriate secure accommodation, which should be welcomed throughout the chamber. I could go on to list the many other positive aspects of the document that will ensure that Scotland becomes a safer and more just country, but I will focus on the community payback sentence and on sentences of six months or less.

Prison should be used to get dangerous people off the streets, to make our streets safer and to ensure that work can be carried out with offenders to turn their lives around. It should not be used as a free bed-and-board hotel to satisfy the Tories or the Labour Party, who appear to be having a competition to see which of them can be the more right wing. Bill Aitken has suggested that old hospitals or Royal Air Force bases could be used as prisons, while Richard Baker wants those who are on community payback projects to wear high-visibility jackets. In fact, Labour should just go the whole hog and seek the reintroduction of prison suits with arrows or of stocks in town centres. If Labour members want to humiliate rather than rehabilitate people, they should keep going as they are. Thankfully, if media reports are correct, Mr Baker does not have his own party's unanimous support for his proposals.

I have to say that I fully agree with comments that Cathy Jamieson made in the past. In 2007, for example, she said:

"Community sentences are proving to be an increasingly credible way of dealing with offending behaviour", while in 2004 she said:

"I am clear that locking up offenders for short periods of time, and releasing them back into the community without action to address their behaviour, is not the answer."

Moreover, last September, when she was the Labour justice spokesperson, Pauline McNeill said:

"We support making payback to the community more central to the offender's punishment, addressing the underlying causes of offending behaviour, and expanding the range of community sentences."—[Official Report, 11 September 2008; c 10770.]

Such comments clearly show that there has been an immense volte-face in the new Labour Party of Iain Gray and Richard Baker.

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour

Stuart McMillan should really have considered rewriting his speech after he heard what I said earlier. I made it quite clear that we view the proposals as very good ways of developing community sentences, but we oppose both the way in which they have been driven by the abolition of six-month sentences and the total lack of resourcing to achieve them.

Photo of Stuart McMillan Stuart McMillan Scottish National Party

I simply point out that SNP members are not criticising the cabinet secretary in the media about their party's proposals.

As for Bill Aitken's suggestion that former hospitals and RAF bases be used as prisons, I am afraid that, when other Tory MSPs say that it is not a good idea and simply not possible, he should consider it a non-starter. Pursuing it would be a waste of time. Given that and the fact that the Tories built no new prisons and introduced the automatic early release system, it is clear that their soundbites have no substance. Considering the Labour and Tory positions on this matter, I have to say that Mr Baker seems to be a wee bit more right wing than Mr Aitken. That will come as something of a surprise—not least, I am sure, to Mr Aitken.

Last summer, I visited a community service programme in the West of Scotland region. One of the guys on the squad told me that he had a funny shift pattern which meant that he might be off work for five days one week and only one or two days the next. However, under the programme, he was allowed to do only one day of community service a week. Under the Government's proposals, that guy would be able to do more community service on his five days off to get the sentence out of the way more quickly and to show that he is doing the work that he is supposed to be doing. The proposals will ensure that future offenders can carry out their community payback sentences in a shorter time, that the payback is relevant to the community and that the work is visible. Surely that is better than simply putting people in prison.

Photo of Richard Simpson Richard Simpson Labour

What will be done about offenders—not that many, I admit—who are in full-time employment? Will they be restricted as well?

Photo of Stuart McMillan Stuart McMillan Scottish National Party

The guy in my story was in full-time employment; the problems arose because of his shift pattern. I point out to Dr Simpson that current working arrangements are totally different from what they were in the past.

The SNP Government has proposed a means of tackling reoffending behaviour in order to make our communities safer. Changes to the offender management plan should be judged on their positive impact on our communities; in other words, we should not just lock everyone up and do nothing to tackle the individual's reoffending capability.

Scotland is not an overly lawless country, but if some people are to be believed the police have lost control. I do not believe that for a moment, although, like the SNP Government, I accept that certain issues in Scotland's communities need to be addressed. The Government's proposals are sensible. The ADSW said in a briefing that it sent to all MSPs that it was

"Supportive of the Scottish Government's approach to managing offenders".

It raised legitimate issues for consideration, but I would rather trust the SNP Government to manage offenders than the Tories and new Labour with their right-wing attitudes.

Photo of Bill Butler Bill Butler Labour 3:40, 8 January 2009

As a member of a democratic socialist party, I support the amendment in the name of my colleague Richard Baker.

The subject of the debate is the creation of a Scotland that is safer and stronger because the legislature has developed "a coherent penal policy." That is what the cabinet secretary said in the chamber on 6 June 2007, and he was right. Mr MacAskill also said:

"Prisons should be for serious and dangerous offenders"— which is correct—and

"we need to shift the balance, with the less serious offenders who currently clutter our prisons being sentenced to community punishments."—[Official Report, 6 June 2007; c 408.]

He was, again, correct.

I said in that debate and again in a debate on 20 September 2007 that there was little, if any, disagreement among parties about the need for a rational and resilient penal policy, and I still believe that. However, such a strategy must be capable of delivering several objectives: an improvement in public safety; the delivery of condign punishment when necessary; the protection of victims' and communities' interests; and a contribution to reducing reoffending and promoting rehabilitation. Those desirable outcomes are common ground throughout the Parliament, but determining how we achieve all or any of them is where the challenge lies and where serious debate is necessarily focused.

We all know that the previous Labour-led Executive worked hard to lay the foundations for a stronger and more coherent justice system and for a safer Scotland. The SNP Government knows and—to be fair—has acknowledged several times since taking office that tougher laws on prosecution and weapons, much-needed reforms of the courts, and improved support for victims and witnesses were all introduced by the ministerial team of Cathy Jamieson and Hugh Henry. For the sake of accuracy and completeness, I say that Labour members acknowledge that those reforms had the support of most, if not all, members.

Of course, complex and serious questions remain, to which no easy answers or soundbite solutions exist. I accept that the ministerial team is wrestling with deep-seated problems. I acknowledge freely that the Government's strategy paper "Protecting Scotland's Communities: Fair, Fast and Flexible Justice" is a serious attempt to detail the multifarious challenges and will fundamentally inform the Government's forthcoming criminal justice and licensing (Scotland) bill. However, I cannot and Labour will not give every aspect of the Government's suggested offender management strategy a blanket welcome. That would be an abdication of our responsibility as a serious Opposition party to examine rigorously the Government's suggested solutions.

Photo of Bill Butler Bill Butler Labour

I will not give way at the moment.

Too many unconvincing assertions are made, especially about resources. For instance, the Government's paper trumpets an extra £1 million in the financial year 2009-10 to assist local authorities in delivering community sentences, yet we know that Sacro and other organisations that administer community sentences are experiencing funding cuts that hamper their effectiveness. In Fife alone, Sacro is experiencing the negative consequences of a £1 million funding cut. That is extremely worrying, and reveals a credibility gap between the Government's claims and the reality on the ground. Unless community sentences and penalties are properly resourced, they will not convince the people in our constituencies and they will give little reassurance and less comfort to the citizens of Scotland. We do not want that.

We all know that one of the most difficult questions in this policy area is how we not only strike a rational balance between custodial and community sentences but develop a consensus on the symmetry between punishment and rehabilitation that is acceptable to people in our communities and recognised as being workable. At this moment, I remain unconvinced by the SNP's stated policy of ending sentences of less than 6 months other than in exceptional circumstances. Although the policy, if implemented, would not forbid sheriffs from imposing such sentences—I agree with Mr Ewing on that—it would restrict their scope to act and, as Mr Ewing said in an intervention, create a presumption. That would be unnecessarily prescriptive and bind the judiciary's hands for no good reason.

We should be equally concerned that such a legislative change would send out entirely the wrong message to the public. Pace, Stuart McMillan—I say that sentences of less than six months are not imposed on fine defaulters alone but cover those who push class A drugs in our most vulnerable neighbourhoods, some of which I and other members represent. Those sentences cover housebreakers, who leave behind a trail of damage and heartache, and common fraudsters, who prey on the old and weak in our communities. They also cover thugs who employ physical violence that can leave innocent passers-by hospitalised and, in some case, permanently disfigured.

Because the policy lacks specificity, ending six-month sentences would be a serious misjudgment at this stage. Society needs to retain the ability to prevent people who commit serious offences such as those that I mentioned from roaming our streets. Labour believes that the public should be protected from such individuals—I hope that we all believe that—but ending six-month sentences, however well intentioned the measure, would diminish the public's confidence in the rule of law. We do not welcome that aspect of the SNP's plan—

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

I am afraid that the member's time is up.

Photo of Nigel Don Nigel Don Scottish National Party 3:47, 8 January 2009

I will return to the issue that Robert Brown introduced and remind us who we are talking about being in prison. The McLeish report tells us that people in prison are mostly men, are 13 times more likely to have been in care as children and are more likely—I will not repeat the numbers—to have been truants, to be unemployed or to come from families with criminal backgrounds. They have poor writing, numeracy and reading skills. They are more likely to be on drugs and are seriously more likely to have mental disorders.

If that is an accurate description of the people who are in prison—and I think that it is—I respectfully suggest that it is a pretty accurate description of the fraction of people who are on the margins of prison. They are the ones we are talking about—people who might finish up in jail, who might be given a community disposal or who might not be in front of the courts at all if they accept a fiscal fine. They are at the margins of our criminal world and are all seriously deprived. We must be absolutely clear that some of them are evil, for want of a better word, and that we will have to treat them accordingly, as they will not take much notice of interventions from our society, but most of them reach their position due to their backgrounds, about which they had little choice.

Our judicial process is about trying to punish criminal behaviour, and society is quite good at defining what is criminal. However, as I think we all accept, the judicial process should also be about trying to rehabilitate offenders so that they do not reoffend. Those of us who are parents, and most of us who have observed parents, know that that is what we do with our children. In their early years, they do things that we think are bad and we tell them not to. We use every mechanism that comes to us to change what they do so that they understand that it is not the way to make friends and influence people.

It seems to me that the people about whom we are talking, who we do not want to go to prison, are at the margins and need interventions that, if I can put it crudely, their parents failed to provide—I realise that some youngsters' parents try hard, so I am not blaming parents across the board. If those are indeed the people whom we are talking about, sheriffs need disposals that, first, punish, because we must send that signal; secondly, provide meaningful payback to society as part of the punishment, which contributes to changing people's behaviour; and thirdly, provide support that returns to the young criminal's life missing elements that have contributed to the criminal behaviour that we want to change.

We should not be arguing about the length of sentences; we should be ensuring that sheriffs have available to them disposals that are appropriate to the youngster who is not evil but has simply gone astray.

Photo of Nigel Don Nigel Don Scottish National Party

I ask the member to forgive me. I do not have time to take an intervention.

There are resources out there. I am a citizen of Aberdeen and I am aware that Aberdeen Foyer, which provides social enterprises in the city, has just been awarded £1 million over 10 years to provide programmes such as lifeshaper, which helps youngsters from chaotic backgrounds to develop life skills that will keep them out of trouble.

I could say much more, but time is against me. We should support the cabinet secretary and the minister, who are trying to divert people from a life of crime at as early a stage as possible. That approach will not change what sheriffs do with hardened petty criminals who appear in court for the 20th time—we are not talking about such people. The people whom we can hope to deal with are the youngsters—they are always youngsters—who are at the margins of becoming criminals and who will probably become criminals if they are sent to prison. We need to ensure that all the extra effort is put in at that stage, to try to divert such youngsters from crime and to educate and rehabilitate them. If that happens, over time we will reduce the prison population.

That is why I am not quite as worried as other folk are about resources. There is not the slightest doubt that the disposals that we are talking about need to be resourced, and I know fine well that the cabinet secretary understands that. Although we need to ensure that everything is covered, that is not the big issue; the issue is that, over time, we will be able to divert youngsters towards those disposals. The approach to hardened petty criminals is likely to remain the same as it is now, because there is not much more that sheriffs can do with them.

I have a moment to take an intervention from Robert Brown, if he wants to intervene.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

I thank the member. Does he accept that if we are to increase the number of community sentences that are available, we must direct resources at them, particularly if there is to be a statutory direction on such disposals, as the cabinet secretary proposes?

Photo of Nigel Don Nigel Don Scottish National Party

I entirely accept that adequate resources are needed. I remind folk that it costs more than £30,000 per year to house a prisoner and that the community service disposals that we are talking about are very much cheaper—by a factor of 10, at least. We do not need huge sums of money; we need money and the right people in the right places. The Government has got its mind around that. We simply need to ensure that resources are put in the right places.

Photo of Richard Simpson Richard Simpson Labour 3:53, 8 January 2009

I will take a slightly different approach, by considering the historical perspective in more detail.

The growth in our prison population began after the second world war. Since the war, prisoner numbers have grown from only 2,000 to the recent high of 7,400, which is one of the highest levels in the European Union. The trend cannot be reversed simply through statements, political will or diktat, and it is meaningless to set an arbitrary target of 5,000. If prisoner numbers are to be reduced, a careful analysis needs to be undertaken, so that we can understand, first, why numbers have risen, and secondly, why alternatives to custody have not achieved the objective that we all hoped would be achieved. I will consider why the efforts of the Administration in the first session of the Parliament, in which I was involved, which were focused on women offenders, were only partly successful.

I will not have time to talk about some of the important issues that Nigel Don and others have touched on, but there is no doubt that the situation in our prisons and criminal justice system has materially altered during the past 25 years. Drugs are now a significant problem that comes on top of the continuing and growing problem of alcohol. Literacy and numeracy are also continuing problems, and mental health problems are increasing. Problems relating to personality disorders have always been around, and I urge the cabinet secretary to consider them closely, because there is a renewed interest in their treatment.

I will start by considering the numbers. The core of today's debate is about short-term offenders, and all speakers have mentioned them. However, the biggest increase in prisoner numbers has not been among short-term offenders; the biggest increase has been among prisoners on remand. Over the past four or five years, the daily prison population has increased by 600—or by 66 per cent. Over the past 25 or 30 years, there has been an increase in the length of sentences; and there has been a tendency to up the tariff. That is reflected in the increase in the number of people who are being recalled from licence—people who were released on parole from long-term sentences. The number of such people in the daily population has grown from 76 to 590, which is a staggering increase. The increase in the number serving a sentence of between six months and four years has been only from 1,413 to 1,736—although that is still an increase of 25 per cent.

Since 2002, there have been some positive trends. For example, among those serving six months or less, there has actually been a reduction—from 540 to 490.

As others have said, an understanding of the difficulties faced by the Scottish Prison Service is not complete unless we fully appreciate the difference between the daily resident population—the capacity that we have been talking about—and the admissions. Even if it were possible or desirable to eliminate sentences of less than six months—and I and the Labour Party would question whether that is desirable for more serious offences—it should be self-evident that it would not solve the capacity problems.

The churn of admissions and liberations disrupts the SPS's ability to tackle the more serious and recidivist offenders, and the increase of 600 in the number of prisoners on remand is part of an increase from 16,000 to 23,000 receptions. In the same period, the receptions of sentenced prisoners have actually decreased from 22,300 to 18,300. The number of fine defaulters among that group has almost halved in the past six years—from 7,200 to 3,400. However, the reduction of 4,000 in the number of receptions has reduced the prison population by only 100.

We can all agree that serious and violent offenders must serve lengthy custodial sentences; we can agree that the rate of reoffending is too high; and we can agree that short-term sentences—representing around 80 per cent of admissions—cause the SPS considerable problems.

It was Henry McLeish who said that we should do something about women offenders. He has been quoted as saying that we should reduce the number of women offenders by half—although there is dispute about that. Iain Gray set up a working group, and when I took up the work I said that we would not attempt to reduce the number in the daily population but would attempt to reduce the number of admissions substantially. At that time, in 2002, there were 800 women prisoners on remand, 600 serving short-term sentences, and 600 fine defaulters.

By various means, we attempted to reduce those numbers. We wanted to reduce the number of fine defaulters by two thirds, and we succeeded in reducing it by half by using supervised attendance orders. We also proposed a community reparation order, but the pilots failed. They were not explained clearly to the judiciary, who did not understand them. The current Administration has apparently abandoned the pilots. They would have been visible to the community and would have helped to reduce the number of fine defaulters.

Short-term custody is only a punishment. I worked in prisons for 23 years, and prisoners who are in for less than three months get nothing. If they are lucky they might get an assessment, but they will certainly not get any treatment. Who is punished by that? The offender is certainly punished through losing their liberty. However, we also punish the prison service because the churn makes it unable to address the more serious reoffending behaviour of the prisoners to whom Bill Aitken, Richard Baker and others referred. We also punish the families of offenders, especially if the offender was in work; the children of offenders, because they are taken into care; and society, because £20,000 for six months of warehousing is a very expensive way of tackling the issue.

We therefore need many low and medium-tariff sentences to sort things out. We introduced DTTOs, drugs courts, restriction of liberty orders and the time-out centre, which has not been mentioned in the debate and which would take over 500 women out of the system. Why do we not have time-out centres for men? Why do we not extend that scheme? We have drugs courts, but we have not extended them either. We should extend that approach to alcohol treatment and testing orders. We should have alcohol courts and more time-out centres.

Remand remains the most important area to reduce. We must improve the bail arrangements, arrest referral, bail supervision, bail information and transport, bail hostels and curfews, because unless we reduce remand we will still have significant problems of capacity.

b

I was taken to court for 7 years by the man who raped me, for "paternal rights". I was repeatedly threatened with prison, and I know those were not idle threats either, as many women have been jailed using PAS as an excuse, by these secret family courts.

How can this be happening in the UK? Why won't any of you Parliamentarians do anything about it? It's a horrific thing to have to go through. I am disgusted with this country's so called justice system. I am the victim, yet I am the one who has been pursued and punished by the system! Why? What have I ever done to offend everyone in charge of this country? I was one of the Staffordshire Pindown abused children as well. Why are we abuse survivors so hated? Why can't we be treated with respect? Will someone please explain this to me?

Submitted by barbara richards

Photo of Angela Constance Angela Constance Scottish National Party 4:01, 8 January 2009

I would never expect political opponents to support sycophantically any of the Government's endeavours. Indeed, I am no sycophant myself. However, notwithstanding the more recent speeches from Bill Butler, Robert Brown and Richard Simpson, large chunks of which I may disagree with, but which contributed consideration and detail to the debate, I lament the lack of mature, calm and reasoned debate.

There has been a lot of political posturing in the press. Of course, being politicians, we tend to fight fire with fire, but I will resist as much as I can the temptation to respond to the political posturing that we heard earlier in the debate and that we have had in the media in the previous weeks and months. There have, of course, been sensationalist, scaremongering media reports, so I will emphasise some of the misconceptions that we have read in some of the red tops. It is important to stress that the Government is not emptying prisons. We are changing what happens at the point of sentencing; we are not opening the doors of prisons and having floods of offenders in our communities. As Bill Butler acknowledged, the presumption is against sentences of less than six months, but they are not being abolished or prohibited. There are good reasons for that presumption: such sentences do not work. That is not to say that, when there are issues of public safety, a very short sentence is not appropriate, but we must change how we do business and how we think.

Photo of Richard Simpson Richard Simpson Labour

I do not think that the parties are in disagreement on that. Can I give the member an example? When I was working in her constituency, I was assaulted by a drug dealer, who then got four months. Is such a person not to go to prison for punishment? We are not going to alter his behaviour. He needs to go to prison for punishment, in my view. I say that as the victim in that case.

Photo of Angela Constance Angela Constance Scottish National Party

I thank Richard Simpson for raising that point because I, too, have been assaulted in the line of duty. It was done with a knitting needle, actually, and I had some bruising and so on. However, my personal view is that how our judiciary views crimes of violence and crimes against people needs challenging. I often came across offenders who were serving lengthy sentences for crimes against property. I am not condoning such crimes, but I would sometimes come across sex offenders and violent offenders who were serving significantly lower sentences. I think that we, as legislators, should challenge the judiciary's mindset in that regard.

I know that judicial independence and all the rest of it must be protected within our legal system, but I am still concerned that we sometimes place more value on property than on people. To give an example from my constituency, a paramedic who works for the Scottish Ambulance Service in Livingston had her nose broken by—as we could all have guessed—an alcohol-fuelled offender. He was dealt with very leniently, despite all the emergency worker legislation. The issue, I suggest, is how we view crimes against people. We have a responsibility to raise such issues and to push that agenda forward.

As a former criminal justice social worker, I would be the first to admit that robust community sentencing cannot be done on the cheap. Henry McLeish is 100 per cent correct to make that point repeatedly—including on the radio this morning—but we also need to consider some of the positive aspects. We have a fair local government settlement, despite a tight spending round. Some £95 million is being invested in criminal justice social work services, which represents a 185 per cent increase over a decade. As the cabinet secretary said, additional resources of £2 million over this year and next are being targeted at additional recruitment in recognition of the fact that workloads will increase.

Of particular interest to me is the Government's support for Edinburgh's criminal justice social work development centre, which brings practitioners together to learn from research and to share effective practice. Some 1,000 practitioners from throughout Scotland will have had the opportunity to participate in such events. In addition, 300 people will have been trained as trainers so that they can pass on their skills on how to work with young people who display sexually harmful behaviour.

Of particular importance is the recommendation that case information should travel with the offender. The amount of time that I used to spend chasing up information on a particular client could be hours, weeks or sometimes months. There are many positives, but there is much to be done.

I can see by the clock that I am running out of time. I had hoped to concentrate more on what should happen to children and 16 and 17-year-old offenders. McLeish recommended that they should go to secure units rather than to prison. The Government's response states that, where such offenders are imprisoned, we should ensure that they are kept separate from adults. There is a real debate to be had on that issue, but I warmly welcome the fact that the days of 14 and 15-year-olds being imprisoned under unruly certificates will soon be gone.

Finally, I want to flag up the fact that we need to debate the age of criminal responsibility. Bill Aitken said that he had hoped that we would have more debate from the cabinet secretary. The political posturing to date has prevented much of that detailed debate, which we need to have.

l

Angela Constance you got off lightly assaulted with a knitting needle. If you were in closed court and this was your partner or ex-partner and you dared to give this evidence GOD HELP YOU !
The have great status in these courts ; PAS is used in their favour and if you mention domestic violence ,well they remove the child and give you no contact or little contact the abuser gets to continue to legally abuse the children.They Children learn not to speak out in court or their mothers will be sent to prison .

Submitted by linda mcDermott Read 2 more annotations

Photo of James Kelly James Kelly Labour 4:08, 8 January 2009

I speak in support of the Labour amendment. That this debate is important has been shown by some of the speeches that we have heard.

As MSPs, many of us have experienced people coming to our surgery to express frustrations about criminal activity and the inability of the police and court service to track down and punish such activity. We must keep those frustrations to the fore in recognising the issues that we are considering.

Like Bill Butler, who spoke about public safety, and Bill Aitken, who spoke about public confidence, I think that it is important that we reassure the public by the legislation that the Parliament makes. We need to reassure communities and punish criminals.

We also need to look at how we tackle prison overcrowding. Recent trends show that there has been a decline in crime, but there has also been a rise in the amount of serious crime in certain areas, along with a rise in detection rates, which has contributed to the rise in prison numbers.

Some aspects of the McLeish commission's work are to be welcomed and are being included in the offender management plan. It makes sense that we have an efficient prosecution service that operates effectively so that those who are charged with crimes are brought to court quickly and justice is administered effectively. That would restore the public confidence that members have been talking about.

I echo other members' comments about younger prisoners. Mingling with older prisoners can have an adverse effect on younger people who are entering prison for the first time, so it is important to keep them separate from older prisoners and to have separate youth facilities. It would also be helpful to have a separate youth hearings system.

Angela Constance made some important points about consistent sentencing and she gave some good examples of the variations that exist. Sentencing guidelines need to be consistent and some aspects of the McLeish commission's work on sentencing are being implemented.

If we are to stop people reoffending, we need to reintegrate them into society, so it is crucial that social work and health services are able to provide backup and support as people return to the community. Again, some work on that is being taken forward.

There are, however, some flaws in the SNP's thinking. Richard Simpson noted the logic around the numbers, which I do not think stacks up. It seems that the commission, and the Government in its work that followed the commission, are saying that prisoner numbers are at 7,500 and they want to get them down to 5,000. There does not seem to be a lot of evidence on how and when we will get to that figure of 5,000. More work needs to be done on that.

We also need to look at why serious crime is on the rise in certain areas, and why people are reoffending, re-entering prison and boosting the prison population. I share some of the concerns that have been expressed about the ruling out of six-month sentences. For example, that could allow 81 per cent of knife criminals to re-enter the community, and that is dangerous. Mr MacAskill and Mr Ewing are in danger of becoming the "Softly Softly" task force with regard to that.

There are also some important issues about costs. Robert Brown mentioned the brief from the ADSW and the fact that one council indicated that there would be a 30 per cent increase in its workload if it had to take on those who are currently serving sentences of less than six months. If that situation were to be replicated throughout the 32 councils in Scotland, it would put a lot of strain on budgets, which, as other members have pointed out, are already under severe pressure in areas such as Fife. Indeed, in the past 18 months, we have seen that the number of staff who deal with such cases has been cut by 500. We need to take a joined-up approach to dealing with those issues. We need to look at how to reduce prison numbers and consider the costs of resourcing that properly.

I welcome some of the proposals in the offender management plan, but I am concerned about the ruling out of sentences of six months or less. We need to pay greater heed to victims and I welcome David Stewart's work on a member's bill to create a victims commissioner. We need to send out a strong signal; a soft approach is not the way forward. We need to continue to make it clear that crime does not pay.

C

Well, if you research the material the judiciary are being brainwashed with, then it is all crystal clear.

Just because someone has spent his/her life in a University, does not mean they are experts and have the right to feed their views to the judges etc.

what of our very own, Brehon legal system which was renouned world wide as the most advanced.?Yet we choose the Roman Barbaric ways.

We had no prisons and so little crime as Brehon system was based on honour- a little like the Japanese system.

The corporate care system is a breeding ground for offenders, because our children are treated in the most barbaric way from birth, by the very system which claims to protect them.

If we love the children, then we must show it, by stopping demonising Motherhood, and allowing the nature bond to grow without hinderence from poverty, etc.

So many unemployed people who would love to be out painting and adding colour to our grey zones of misery.

Eugenics is not the answer either as his-story has taught us.

Adopted children are very often fragmented adults,who also help to fill prisons, but society does not want to look at this truth, because there is ££££ to be made from trafficing children, and also ££££ in the prison industry.

Submitted by Catherine Mills

Photo of Ian McKee Ian McKee Scottish National Party 4:15, 8 January 2009

In my working life I have met many criminals—although I hasten to add that, as far as I am aware, the number has decreased since I entered Parliament. I remember Bill—not his real name and not Bill Aitken, either—who regularly used to consult me about the dangers of swallowing petrol, which is an occupational hazard of those who siphon fuel from cars. I warned him that the hazard would be increased should he choose my car for his activities; however, Bill reassured me that the gang that he was in allowed beginners to work only on Fords, which was not my choice of car at the time.

Bill moved on to setting cars alight—an occupation that calls for a certain amount of skill to avoid self-immolation. Apparently, some people would benefit from an insurance claim if their car unfortunately burst into flames. They paid Bill a deposit, gave him the registration number of their car and parked it in the street while they visited the cinema. On leaving the cinema, they would find that their car had been totally burned, allowing them to make the claim. That was the theory but, as we have heard, a lot of the people on the fringes of crime are not desperately well educated. In practice, Bill often got the wrong car, he did not get paid and the owner did not get the insurance money. Such was the bad blood engendered that Bill gave up that line of work, retreating to the safer occupation of shoplifting.

I tell that story because Bill, and many like him, had learned those and other practices from more established criminals who they met in prison while they were serving short sentences. For one reason or another—early life circumstances, genetic make-up or whatever—they had turned to crime, had been caught and had been sentenced to prison. Their contact with family, friends and normal life had been interrupted and, instead, they had been introduced to a network of hardened criminals. They had attended a virtual university of crime and society as a whole had paid the tuition fees.

Eighty-three per cent of all sentences that were passed in 2005-06, the latest year for which I could get figures, were for a period of six months or less. Although that term of imprisonment is far too short for any form of remedial work to be undertaken, it is more than adequate for setting someone on the path to a life of crime. That is why I warmly welcome the policy aim of reducing short-term sentencing in favour of meaningful community service. Not only will that shield wrongdoers from the bad company that would lead them further into mischief; it will reduce the prison population, allowing prison staff to offer more help to those who are serving longer sentences.

Such a change is necessary. Today's Scotland has an average daily prison population of 141 per 100,000 citizens—the fourth highest in Europe. Much worse, each year Scotland imprisons 754 per 100,000 citizens—three times the rate for England and Wales and more even than Russia, which has the world's second-highest per capita prison population. The reason? Our reliance on short sentences instead of non-custodial punishments.

Like latter-day Alf Garnetts, Richard Baker and Bill Aitken vie to be the most reactionary in asking for more and more of our citizens to be locked up.

Photo of Ian McKee Ian McKee Scottish National Party

I will, although I have not mentioned Richard Simpson's name.

Photo of Richard Simpson Richard Simpson Labour

In the past five years, the number of people entering custody has fallen below the number of those who receive non-custodial sentences. That reversal was achieved by the previous Administration and—to give credit—has been continued by the present Administration. The member should not ascribe policies to the Opposition in the way that he just has.

Photo of Ian McKee Ian McKee Scottish National Party

I add Richard Simpson's name to those of Richard Baker and Bill Aitken as those who are striving to be latter-day Alf Garnetts. I stick to my position that the policy has failed, yet is still being recommended. I have heard it said only today that we should keep more people in prison on short-term sentences.

For the remainder of my speech, I will concentrate on the important relationship between drug use and offending, although I accept what Richard Simpson said earlier about the need also to take into account mental illness, personality disorder, alcohol abuse and various other things.

We know that 44.5 per cent of all offenders are reconvicted within the following two years. That is bad enough, but when we consider only those who are given a DTTO, the figure rises to a staggering 88 per cent. Further, the top four crimes that are committed by all reoffenders—theft, housebreaking, shoplifting and prostitution—are all popular ways of raising money for the purchase of illicit drugs, which suggests that drug use has a disproportionately high influence on the overall crime rate.

In that context, I warmly welcome the recommendation in "Scotland's Choice" that all public services should be involved in the rehabilitation of offenders. However, as far as drugs are concerned, much more needs to be done to achieve the co-ordination that is necessary for the effective management of drug users. The moment that a person on a drug programme is admitted to prison, there should be good communication between the prison's medical service and the doctor or institution that is supervising that programme, so that the treatment can be continued without interruption. However, that communication does not always occur. Similarly, when an offender on drugs is released, full details of their treatment in prison should be immediately passed on to their general practitioner or whoever will be responsible for further treatment. Again, often, that does not take place.

Welcome though the Government's response to "Scotland's Choice" is, I suggest that a coherent offender management strategy must give a higher priority to the treatment needs and support of drug users if its objective of reducing crime is to be achieved.

However, that is a small quibble. I congratulate the Government on a coherent and well argued strategy, which is in stark contrast to the negative, punitive and regressive arguments of two of the Opposition parties.

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Labour 4:21, 8 January 2009

I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate, after a considerable period of self-imposed exile from justice debates. I decided to impose a gagging order on myself, as it were, partly because I thought that it was important that the new Administration should have the opportunity to take forward its agenda and also because I wanted to allow my party's new justice spokespersons to settle in and develop their identity in those roles. A further reason was that I wanted to wait and see what would be announced with regard to the strategy that we are discussing.

I did not come with a prepared speech, because I genuinely wanted to listen to the debate. However, we have heard some members of the SNP almost rewriting history and speaking as if the previous Administration had made no investment in the prison system, had not modernised any aspect of our justice system and had not put some of the issues that we are discussing at the top of the agenda. The fact is that we did all those things, and, with regard to tackling reoffending, Scotland was leading not only Europe but a number of other countries. It might have been reasonable if some members had acknowledged the work that the previous Administration did, given that, if they had read the Government's strategy document carefully, they would have seen that it does so.

Some SNP speakers have criticised Labour's approach to the matter. That is amusing, given that all the initiatives that will be introduced in the offender management programme—apart from the proposal to do away with sentences of six months or less—come directly from work that the previous Administration did. Everyone expects there to be a bit of political knockabout in the chamber, but we should try to have a serious and honest debate and not try to rewrite history.

The subtitle of the Government's strategy document is "Fair, Fast and Flexible Justice". I have no issue with justice being fair and fast. However, I worry that the flexible justice to which reference is made might lead to injustice—it must not be allowed to do so. We must ensure that appropriate sentences are passed and that appropriate resources are put in place to deal with the offender's behaviour. Sentences must be given to ensure public safety and not simply for the convenience of the various agencies that are involved in offender management; I say that with all due respect to the people in those agencies, who work hard every day on our behalf.

Let me lay to rest any suggestion that there is a difference of opinion between me and my Labour colleagues about short sentences. I do not take back anything that I have said on short sentences. I do not want anyone to go into the prison system for a short sentence and come out the other end with no work having been done, with no change having been effected, with no punishment element, and with no rehabilitation element. That is the context in which my remarks have been made, and I know that my Labour colleagues absolutely agree with me on that.

I disagree with some of the present Administration's proposals. It says that short sentences do not work, but they work for hard-pressed communities and victims who have suffered the consequences of offenders' actions. We heard salutary lessons from a couple of members who have been the victims of violent offences, who recognise that we cannot simply rule out all short sentences. Imposing short sentences is sometimes the right thing to do because it is in the interests of hard-pressed families who are trying to cope. Both when I was a social worker and in my role in the justice system, families often said to me, "Thank God somebody did something to take him off the streets for his own protection, before he did something even worse."

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

I accept Cathy Jamieson's point, but does she accept that the advantage to the community is limited to the time when the offender is in prison? Unless we get a better result when they come out, we will just get them back again with the same difficulties that they had before. The strategy ought to be about seeking a better result.

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Labour

I understand Robert Brown's point. I am saying that it is important that the judiciary has the discretion and the ability to use short sentences when they are required in the interests of the wider community or the family. That is an important point.

A point was made about young people in the prison system. Like most of us, I want an end to the system whereby under-16s end up in our prison system. I took a close interest in that when I was Minister for Justice. I am pleased that the document "Protecting Scotland's Communities: Fair, Fast and Flexible Justice" reflects the positive work that the previous Administration did on the secure estate and recognises that we now have a world-class service that we did not have before. However, many young people who ended up in prison previously were there because there were no secure accommodation places for them—I hope that that has been remedied—or because nowhere in the secure estate could take them because of their particular circumstances. There needed to be a safety valve in relation to that. I ask ministers to continue to reflect on how that situation will be managed.

I am slightly concerned about the proposal that there will be no further roll-out of electronic monitoring on bail. The message that such monitoring will be used only when bail is breached implies a softening of approach. It implies to the criminal that it is okay to breach trust and that there is now a tariff system—that they will get away with it the first time round, and that they will get a tag thereafter. That is not a good message to send out.

There is much in the report that I welcome, and I assure ministers that I will support the principles and the way forward where that is the right thing to do. However, I ask the cabinet secretary and his team to think again about short-term sentences. The problem will not be solved simply by administrative means. The way in which to reduce the prison population effectively for the sake of our communities is to ensure that people do not offend and do not reoffend.

Photo of Mike Pringle Mike Pringle Liberal Democrat 4:29, 8 January 2009

If anything has been established in the debate, it is that the approach that characterised Scotland's justice system for a generation is no longer fit for purpose. We heard from members about continued problems with prison overcrowding, reoffending and lack of public trust in the justice system. As my colleague Robert Brown and several other members said, the figures speak for themselves. I do not mind repeating that more than 75 per cent of those who enter prison reoffend within two years, whereas only 42 per cent of those who carry out community sentences reoffend in the same period.

Various solutions to those problems have been suggested. The Conservatives may advocate building further prisons; indeed, Annabel Goldie has maintained repeatedly in the chamber that prisons work. However, the truth of the matter is that although prison can be a useful tool for the rehabilitation of offenders who are correctly placed there, it is not working in Scotland as a result of problems with overcrowding and the funding gaps that that creates. As far back as 2004, Dr McLellan remarked:

"The impact of the best strategies in the best prisons carried out by the best staff is hopelessly weakened by overcrowding."

Since he made those remarks, the problems have only got worse. At the 2007-08 annual average cost of £32,358 per prisoner, overcrowded prisons remain an expensive and ineffective solution.

Meanwhile, as Richard Baker confirmed—I am sorry that he has left the chamber—the Labour Party remains opposed to replacing short-term custodial sentences with effective community deterrents. The excellent previous Minister for Justice, Cathy Jamieson, has been quoted by a number of members, including Stuart McMillan and others. I do not hesitate to say that I fully supported her when she remarked in 2004 that

"Prison is not the best option for less serious offenders who stand a better chance of getting their lives back on track through community sentencing."

Nigel Don said that he did not think that funding was the top priority. I fundamentally disagree with that; I think that funding is a key issue. Without adequate funding, the SNP's proposals will not work.

So, what has changed? Problems with overcrowding and reoffending continue to mount and the facts paint a bleak picture. Scotland's prison population has risen by more than 5 per cent in the past two years and it is expected to reach record levels this year.

Locking people up for one to three months only for them to reoffend on their release will not foster public confidence in the justice system.

I suggest to Bill Aitken and Bill Butler that there are two good examples of groups of offenders to which community sentences could apply. Bill Butler mentioned several other groups, but he did not mention shoplifters and those who commit breaches of the peace.

Perhaps Bill—Ian McKee's friend who turned to shoplifting—is one of the 1,326 shoplifters who were convicted in 2007-08, of whom 623 were sentenced to less than three months. The figures reveal that there were 1,232 convictions for breach of the peace; 887 of those offenders were sentenced to less than three months. A grand total of 1,510 people were sentenced to less than three months, at the annual average cost of £32,358 per prisoner. Not sending those people to prison would represent a significant saving to the taxpayer and reduce prison overcrowding.

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative

Does the member agree that breach of the peace can sometimes be a most serious offence, which causes serious alarm and fright to vulnerable members of society? Does he further agree that the shoplifters to whom he refers usually have about 40 or 50 convictions?

Photo of Mike Pringle Mike Pringle Liberal Democrat

As someone who has sat on the bench, I do not agree with either of those assertions. A policeman said to me that breaches of the peace can be graded from 1 to 10. Those who commit breaches of the peace from grade 1 to grade 3 are the people who are often sent to prison for three months. As we have heard from many other members during the debate, they end up back in prison—I do not think that they should go back to prison. The cabinet secretary outlined the cost of people serving such sentences; I agree with him that that money could be better spent on schools, hospitals and the elderly.

For any system of community sentencing to be effective, it needs to be both flexible and robust; it must also have the ability to provide tailor-made sentencing solutions quickly. Again, I agree with the cabinet secretary that community sentences must be quick, immediate and must happen over a short period of time.

I have personal experience of someone who had to do 300 hours community service—it took more than 15 months, which is too long.

Photo of Bill Butler Bill Butler Labour

What is the Liberal party's position on dealing with inveterate shoplifters? What is the Liberal policy?

Photo of Mike Pringle Mike Pringle Liberal Democrat

That is entirely up to the people who are sentencing. My point is that a substantial number of people go to prison for shoplifting. Many people who receive short sentences of between one and three months have not committed huge numbers of crimes. Mr McKee expressed the point that it does those people no good to go back to prison time after time.

Although I agree with the principle of the minister's commitment to community sentencing, I am concerned that his proposed method of delivery—the establishment of a sentencing council—is likely to create a burdensome and unnecessary extra layer of bureaucracy. We require a new solution: the replacement of the Scottish Prison Service with a custody and rehabilitation service that has links to the community to improve reintegration. We also need far more focus on preventive measures as well as on drug and alcohol rehabilitation through treatment and testing orders. It is far better to intervene early to prevent offending than it is to deal with the consequences. To achieve that, we must address the underlying causes of offending and build on schemes that provide vulnerable individuals with education and skills for work, not crime. Every time that somebody in Scotland who might have turned to crime chooses not to reoffend, they might avoid a lifetime of reoffending, thereby saving themselves, and in turn saving the taxpayer thousands of pounds.

Photo of John Lamont John Lamont Conservative 4:36, 8 January 2009

The debate has again highlighted the SNP's drive with, it seems, the help of the Liberal Democrats to create a soft-touch Scotland in which people will have to be very lucky indeed to end up in jail. Yet again, the underlying thrust of Government policy is that we should use our prisons even less than we do at present. It is a great pity that the SNP Government has become completely preoccupied with cutting Scotland's rising prison population by setting prisoners free, rather than with tackling the underlying problem of high crime rates. I have said before and I will say again that we do not cut crime by cutting the prison population; instead, we cut the prison population by cutting crime.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

Will the member take an intervention on that point?

Photo of John Lamont John Lamont Conservative

I want to make progress.

I will focus on a couple of aspects that have been discussed in the debate. The first is the Government's desire to scrap sentences of six months or less and the proposed interference with judicial independence. That is likely to have a limited impact on the total prison population. The average daily prison population in 2007-08 was 7,375, of which 570—just 8 per cent—were serving sentences of six months or less. It is therefore questionable what impact the ending of short sentences will have on the prison population. Further, it would be wrong to assume that, under the Government's proposals, all those prisoners would automatically escape prison altogether, as some might end up serving longer jail terms if the sentencing judge believed that prison was the right disposal for that offender.

I believe that the Government has thought of that, which is why it intends to interfere with sentencing policy by creating a body called the Scottish sentencing council, which we are told would

"develop and oversee a national system of sentencing guidelines".

That is nothing more than an attempt by the Government to force the courts to comply with its ridiculous prison population target. The Government's role should be not to decide sentencing policy, but to support the courts in their sentencing policy and to ensure that adequate provision exists to allow disposals to be carried out. It is a judge's job to take into account all the circumstances of a case and to pass a suitable sentence. The Government's job is to provide sufficient resources to allow the sentence to be enforced. The independence of the judiciary must be maintained, with judges and sheriffs left in charge of sentences.

That leads me to my second point, which is about how little attention is given to the victims of crime. Nothing dismays victims more or brings the entire criminal justice system into greater disrepute than the fact that criminals almost never serve the sentence that is handed down by the court. The Government's proposals will do nothing to help deal with that perception. In the list of the Scottish Government's proposals at the back of its policy document, "Protecting Scotland's Communities", victims are mentioned only once. What does that say about the focus of the Scottish Government's policy? The Government is clearly more interested in emptying our jails than it is in protecting the public. When it comes to tackling crime, there is no doubt that the public want criminals who have been sentenced to a custodial sentence to be sent to prison.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

The logic of the Tory position is that there will need to be new prisons. Mr Aitken announced previously that he was looking for suitable hospitals—in use or, perhaps, not in use. Will Mr Lamont give us an update on his hospital hunt? How is it going? Has he found any and, if so, where are they? Has he worked out how much it might cost to convert these as-yet-unidentified hospitals into secure prisons?

Photo of John Lamont John Lamont Conservative

We were not looking simply at hospitals; we were looking at a number of premises that were not being used. It is for the Government to provide the space to allow the sentences that the judiciary hands down to be accommodated.

It would be very nice to live in a society where there were no prisons, just as it would be nice if there were no hospitals because there was no illness. However, until someone comes forward with a plan to make crime history, prisons are here to stay. The challenge for the Government is to create the prison space that the courts require and to create prisons that genuinely rehabilitate—prisons with a purpose.

It is obvious that overcrowded prisons that are awash with drugs and a system that gives short-term prisoners limited or no supervision or support on release are almost certain to fail. However, it is simply daft to argue, as Angela Constance did, that because short-term prison sentences are not working at present, we should stop using them altogether.

The case for community sentences must not be driven simply by a desire to deal with prison overcrowding. A preference for community sentences cannot be an act of faith. In their current form, such sentences are usually unsuitable alternatives to imprisonment, not least because they are insufficiently robust. Community-based penalties should have a sufficiently punitive element to command public confidence. That could involve making them much more visible—the Government has talked about that repeatedly but is yet to deliver. Those sentences should also have a strong supervised rehabilitative element. In the absence of robust community punishments, prison is, and will remain, the only option for most of the offenders who are currently sent there.

Photo of Paul Martin Paul Martin Labour 4:41, 8 January 2009

I note that in his document entitled, "Protecting Scotland's Communities", the Cabinet Secretary for Justice wants to ensure that our communities

"feel as safe and crime free as possible."

The Labour Party is arguing that scrapping six-month sentences just does not equate to protecting our communities. Bill Butler has said a number of times that we need to recognise that there are some serious individuals who need to be imprisoned for the safety of our communities, which should not be jeopardised by the Scottish Government's drive to empty our jails because it has failed and because it is so inept and lethargic when it comes to procuring our new prisons.

I call on the cabinet secretary to confirm when the new Low Moss prison will be complete. I am not interested in the construction start date or in the procurement process at this time—that will be a debate for later. We want to know when the prison will be complete. I would be more than happy to accept an intervention from the cabinet secretary on that point, but he is not willing to make one.

A number of members expressed genuine concerns about how the Government will ensure that the many measures that are set out in the document will be delivered. We want to know how they will be delivered in financial terms. The document will mean nothing unless the Government sets out clearly how it will ensure that the resources for a "fair, fast and flexible" justice system are delivered. It is not good enough simply to produce a glossy document that says nothing about how the Government will deliver on it. Robert Brown, Bill Butler and Bill Aitken all made that point a number of times. It is about attention to detail and about ensuring that we know how the measures will be taken forward.

Delivering a "fair, fast and flexible" justice system will be resource intensive—I think every member who spoke made that point a number of times. It will require new programmes for payback schemes and additional resourcing for drug treatment and testing orders, to which Richard Simpson referred. The money is simply not there. If the minister is confident that the money is there, he should show us. I am happy for the minister to give us a chance at some point—perhaps in another document—to follow the money so that we can ensure that it is brought forward.

The Government must stop hiding behind the so-called historic concordat, which is now prehistoric, and show leadership by making it clear how it wishes to advance its vision.

A number of members asked why Labour members are so strongly opposed to the scrapping of six-month sentences, and accusations have been made that Richard Baker and Bill Aitken are competing for right-wing credentials. We are opposed to the scrapping of six-month sentences because we are in touch with the realities of our local communities. We are on the side of the people in those communities and we understand their genuine concerns about community safety. Bill Butler was extremely effective in amplifying those concerns on behalf of his constituents. We will take every opportunity to express the genuine concerns of our constituents.

Many offenders have been given two, three, four or five opportunities to mend their ways. For us, the safety of our communities is the paramount consideration. It is simply not good enough to make statements in a glossy document: the Government must mean what it says. Of course we want to provide opportunities for people to be rehabilitated inside and outside our prisons, but we must at the same time consider our communities.

The Government's document mentions the kind of alternatives to custody that offenders would be involved in. The section entitled "Paying back to communities" gives the example of the wibbly-wobbly wall that was built by offenders in Orkney. Is that an example of the tough alternatives to custody that Henry McLeish mentioned in the Scottish Prison Commission's report? Wibbly-wobbly walls have been built by offenders for many years—in recent years, Bill Aitken might even have given a number of people community service sentences that have involved such activities. Community service has been carried out for decades. The wibbly-wobbly wall that has been built in Orkney is not an example of "innovation", so why does the minister refer to it as such? Community service orders have been available for decades; they are not an innovation.

Although the idea of payback sounds good, we must track offenders more effectively after payback, once they have served their sentences. Labour has said on several occasions that no effective evaluation has been carried out to ensure that community disposals work.

The Government's policy is based on the assumption that the judiciary's increased use of custody over the years reflects dissatisfaction with the rigour of community-based alternatives and that if community sentences were more rigorous, more severe sentencers would make more use of them, thereby reducing their use of custodial sentences. That is a simplistic belief. As Bill Aitken acknowledged, many factors come into play, including the offender's circumstances, their condition, the nature of the offence and the nature of the offender's past convictions. The Government's commentary that sheriffs are using community sentences to deal with daft laddies who need a bit of tender loving care simply does not add up. The Government must address such issues.

As Labour members, we are proud of our record on justice. When it mattered to local communities, we were on their side. That will always be the case. I am delighted that my colleague Dave Stewart will lodge a proposal for a member's bill to set up a new victims commissioner, which I hope will receive the support of members of other parties. I call on members to support the motion in the name of Richard Baker.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party 4:49, 8 January 2009

The debate has been about offender management. It germinated in the work of the McLeish commission, which set out a clear vision and a stark choice in relation to how we as parliamentarians who belong to different parties should approach the future. It was about the Scotland that we would like to exist. Some of us should perhaps lift our eyes to the horizon a bit more, because the Scotland that we occupy at the moment is a Scotland of conundrums.

Despite the fact that recorded crime is at its lowest level for 25 years, which is a remarkable statistic, the prison population has been at record levels of well over 8,000—I say to Richard Simpson—compared with the approximately 7,600 at which it currently rests. We have one of the highest imprisonment rates in western Europe and it is roughly twice that of Ireland or Italy. I assume that no member would argue that Scottish people are more evil—to use Nigel Don's characterisation—or more prone to carrying out crimes than Irish people or Italians. Crime is also at its lowest level for 25 years, so we plainly face a conundrum.

In "Protecting Scotland's Communities", his response to the McLeish commission, the cabinet secretary last month set out an extremely clear vision of the future. As someone who is generally relentlessly positive in mien, I believe that a kind of consensus is lurking covertly in some of today's speakers, whom Angela Constance described as engaging in idle "political posturing". Members including Cathy Jamieson acknowledged that we may have shared objectives, even although the rhetoric at times reached a high point on the centigrade scale.

I found the debate interesting and will comment on some the themes that were discussed. It is important to highlight what the Government is actually saying about sentencing because our position has not—deliberately or otherwise—been accurately represented in the debate. What we propose is summarised on page 26 of the document, which states:

"We will legislate in the forthcoming Criminal Justice & Licensing (Scotland) Bill to ...reduce the very short term prison population by legislating to make it clear that judges should not impose a custodial sentence of 6 months or less, unless the particular circumstances of the case lead them to believe that no other option would be appropriate."

We go on to say that we will require sheriffs

"passing a sentence of 6 months or less to explain in court the circumstances which made them conclude that only a custodial sentence could be imposed".

I do not know about you, Presiding Officer, but one thing that irritates me in my life as a parliamentarian is replies from an authority—whether it be the Scottish Government, the United Kingdom Government, a quango or local government—in which it states its decision but refuses to give the reasons for it. That happens a great deal. Assertion without evidence was the prerogative of Joe McCarthy, as I recall, but it is not the Scottish Government's modus operandi. We do not believe that sheriffs should have no requirement to explain their decisions. Mr Baker mischaracterised our position as removing sheriffs' discretion. We are not doing that—I have just read out what we are proposing, which will create a presumption, but will by no means remove sheriffs' discretion.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

Not at the moment. The document states that if a sheriff passes a custodial sentence of six months or less he or she must

"explain in court the circumstances which made them conclude that only a custodial sentence" is appropriate. That is an extremely sensible suggestion that I am happy to defend. I am confident that, once the heat has lessened and the light has obtruded back into the room, we may be able to persuade colleagues that the proposal is sensible. I can imagine Bill Aitken explaining why he intends to send people to prison—perhaps he does so at the moment—but it is eminently sensible that our judges should have to explain why a community disposal is not being applied. We have not ruled out sentences of six months or less; we are not removing discretion at all. I have set out our proposal in black and white.

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour

If the minister is not seeking to remove judicial discretion on this matter, why is the measure being introduced at all?

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

It is because there are too many people in our prisons. Despite the fact that crime is at its lowest level, Scotland has more people in prison serving short sentences than the other countries that I have mentioned. Indeed, the cabinet secretary quoted the Scottish Prisons Commission's finding that, in 2006-07, 7,000 prisoners had in total served 47,500 previous sentences. Part of the purpose of a prison sentence is to prevent reoffending; if that figure is not proof that prison is not working, I do not know what is.

The document—which, putting it as kindly as I can, Mr Baker should reread—has two watchwords. The Liberal Democrats have grasped that and we are pleased to have their support although, typically, their support is not entirely unqualified. The first watchword is "safety". We need to protect the community against people who should, must and will continue to be in jail. I repeat: those who commit serious crimes will remain in jail. That is the Government's view—let no one talk about us emptying prisons or putting prisoners on the streets. Such rhetoric should be recognised for the complete and utter rubbish that it is. I see the Tories smiling in recognition; perhaps that is a sign of their guilty consciences.

The other watchword is "prevention". We need to prevent reoffending. After all, what is the use of a penal policy if people keep going back to jail? What better proof do we need that we have all failed in this matter in the past? If the Tories think that they are going to solve the problems by scouring the country for hospitals to convert into prisons, I wish them good luck in their efforts. So far they have found one in Broughty Ferry, one in Pitlochry and one in Cumnock, but I do not know whether they have told those communities about their plans. They should let us know. Perhaps Bill Aitken can give us an update on the hospital hunt.

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative

On finding prison space, does the minister accept that I am simply trying to do something that he and his colleagues have been negligent about and have disregarded? There must be some form of accommodation for people who need to be put into custody. It is the minister's job to find it, but his only answer is to let these people out after they have served a quarter of their sentence.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

The comparison that Ian McKee drew between Bill Aitken and Alf Garnett was not entirely apposite—even if these debates can, in their longevity, feel like an episode of "Till Death Us Do Part". Do the Tories seriously think that the public is going to be persuaded by this plan—which has been announced by Annabel Goldie and reported in the annals of that august journal The Courier under the headline "Tories' prisoners plan criticised"? A better comparison would be with Michael Crawford in "Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em". As she scours the country for hospitals to turn into prisons, Miss Goldie has no doubt been marking out the cells in each ward and wondering whether the matron can be retrained as a prison officer. If the Tories seriously believe in this plan—and, chaps, it is the only policy you have come up with since this Government was formed—I suggest that they go back to the drawing board.

Returning to my theme, I thank Angela Constance, Richard Simpson and many other members who, had this debate been a round of golf, scored an albatross or an eagle with their speeches—unlike the several double bogeys that were scored by certain members on the other front benches. Of course, good grace prevents me from naming those members.

Joking aside, I make it clear that we support this policy 100 per cent and I believe that, as our proposals come forward, all members of above-average intelligence will see the good sense in them. We will drive forward to make Scotland a safer place and to deal more effectively with those who break the law.