First Minister's Question Time – in the Scottish Parliament at 12:00 pm on 15th April 2010.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Iain Gray Iain Gray Labour 12:00 pm, 15th April 2010

To ask the First Minister what engagements he has planned for the rest of the day. (S3F-2320)

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond First Minister of Scotland, Leader, Scottish National Party

My engagements for today will now be taken up by the emergency and contingency committees dealing with the volcanic ash issue that is causing disruption to airspace across the United Kingdom. Following a volcanic eruption in Iceland, an ash plume has entered UK and Scandinavian airspace overnight. At 4 o'clock this morning, the National Air Traffic Service took the decision to cancel all Scottish flights due to safety concerns, and that cancellation will be in force until further notice. At 12 noon, the rest of the United Kingdom has followed suit, and that cancellation will also be in force until further notice. The Scottish Government's resilience room was activated at 5.45 this morning, and officials from a variety of policy areas have been meeting since then. I convened the Cabinet sub-committee at 11 o'clock this morning, and a further sub-committee meeting will be convened at 3 o'clock.

The current situation is that airports are closed. An update will be provided at 6 o'clock this evening. The Scottish Ambulance Service has advised that guidance provided by the aviation authorities is that no aircraft should fly above 5,000ft. All aircraft that are flying are flying under visual rules only. The ambulance service, supported by the Ministry of Defence and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, will, as far as possible, continue to undertake missions where patients are in a life-threatening condition. Any missions in respect of non-life-threatening conditions are being deferred to ensure that the resources are utilised effectively. However, where that is not possible due to cloud or visibility restrictions, the patients must be cared for in the locality, and territorial national health service boards are ready to support that. Helicopter flights to the North Sea have also been suspended.

The quantity of ash that has been emitted is still unknown, as is the height to which the ash has been elevated. The meteorological forecasts indicate that the ash may be present over the United Kingdom today, tomorrow and perhaps into the weekend. Contingency travel plans are being put in place to keep the population and essential air travel moving across these islands, and emergency plans are being developed to deal with health service issues—in particular, cases in which patients must be transferred. The indications from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency's monitoring across the country are that there is no immediate threat to air quality at ground level. Forecasts and reports are being issued on an hourly basis.

A statement and briefing will be offered to the spokespeople of the Opposition parties at 5 o'clock this evening, after the next Cabinet sub-committee meeting.

Photo of Iain Gray Iain Gray Labour

I thank the First Minister for that update. Clearly, the whole chamber will support the Government in its efforts to deal with the problem that has developed.

This week, the Justice Committee stood up for knife crime victims throughout Scotland in backing Labour's policy of carry a knife, go to jail. The number of knife murders in Scotland is more than double the number in the rest of the United Kingdom. Will the First Minister finally listen to the victims and to our communities? Will he respect the Justice Committee of the Parliament?

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond First Minister of Scotland, Leader, Scottish National Party

The Parliament will have the opportunity to decide on the issue as a full Parliament. Of course I respect the seriousness of an issue that affects the livelihoods and lives of many people, but I do not respect the wish to play party politics with it.

I am not at all sure what the Labour Party is suggesting. I have seen the amendment in question, but I also have copies of the various petitions that the Labour Party has brought forward. The first said:

"Carry a Knife, Go to Jail".

That petition called for a minimum sentence for knife criminals. The second petition changed that; the proposal became a mandatory sentence for knife criminals in Scotland. The amendment that the Justice Committee considered argued that there should be a sentence unless there were exceptional circumstances. The Labour Party's story varies north and south of the border, the wording of its petitions has changed, and at every stage it seems to be more concerned with politicking on a serious matter of public safety than with respecting the voices of those who work to make our communities safer.

Photo of Iain Gray Iain Gray Labour

Tens of thousands have supported Labour's carry a knife, go to jail campaign and petitioned the Parliament. They are clear about what they want: they want those who have been convicted of carrying a knife to be sure that they will go to jail. The amendment to the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Bill is clear, and following the Justice Committee's meeting this week, it has been included in that bill. Will the First Minister respect that decision, or does he intend to try to remove that amendment from the bill when it comes to the chamber?

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond First Minister of Scotland, Leader, Scottish National Party

The Parliament will decide on that matter, and I am sure that Iain Gray will want to respect its views. When the full Parliament discusses the issue, members will remember that the average length of custodial sentence for carrying an offensive weapon has more than doubled from 2005-06, that the percentage of those who are given a custodial sentence of more than six months has doubled, and that the number of persons who are convicted and given a custodial sentence has increased by almost 40 per cent. Those are the facts and that is the reality behind how the Government has dealt with the serious issue of knife crime, as opposed to the previous Administration's record of inaction.

Photo of Iain Gray Iain Gray Labour

It is a fact that only 70 per cent of convicted knife criminals go to jail. That is bad enough, but it is worse that Alex Salmond wants to end six-month sentences and get the percentage of convicted knife criminals who do not go to jail up to 90 per cent. Only one in 10 convicted knife criminals would face a jail sentence. The Justice Committee rejected that, too.

Alex Salmond has been around Scotland saying that Scotland needs local champions to articulate community concerns. We know that he loves to articulate at great length and at even greater volume, but exactly which community in Scotland is telling him that it wants to see knife criminals released on to its streets?

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond First Minister of Scotland, Leader, Scottish National Party

It is absolutely right that the Scottish National Party should offer community champions to the people of Scotland, just as it is right that communities throughout Scotland are celebrating the fact that there are 1,000 more police officers on the streets and in the communities of Scotland, as opposed to the zero record under the Labour Party and its offer of no extra police officers at the previous election. The communities of Scotland are celebrating the lowest level of recorded crime for a generation. [ Interruption .]

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond First Minister of Scotland, Leader, Scottish National Party

They are also celebrating the fact that they have a justice policy and a Government that takes action on policing and solving crime, as opposed to the inaction of the previous Administration.

While I have been going round Scotland and celebrating with community champions who articulate the voices of communities, Iain Gray has been launching a manifesto. The English version of that manifesto does not propose the action that he has proposed in the chamber. Why did the Labour Party, when it was in government, not propose such a policy? Why should we be persuaded by Labour members' arguments today if they cannot even persuade Gordon Brown that they are on the right course?

Photo of Iain Gray Iain Gray Labour

I think that the First Minister rather missed the point that knife murders are running at double the rate in Scotland that they are in England. That is why we need special action here in Scotland. There is not much point having those 1,000 extra police officers if, when they arrest and convict knife criminals, the First Minister lets those criminals out.

John Muir, whose son was murdered; Kelly McGhee, whose brother was killed; Christine Halley, whose son died at the hands of a knife criminal—Alex Salmond is not their champion.

Whether it is Alex Salmond on knife criminals, Nicola Sturgeon on a benefit fraudster or Kenny MacAskill on the Lockerbie bomber, the SNP is all too ready to champion those who commit the crimes, not those who suffer the consequences. When the time comes and the bill comes before the chamber, will the First Minister choose to champion the criminals or our communities?

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond First Minister of Scotland, Leader, Scottish National Party

Let us listen to the people who are actually working with this issue, as opposed to trying to make an issue work for them politically. At the Public Petitions Committee knife crime debate, Detective Chief Superintendent John Carnochan of the violence reduction unit opposed mandatory sentences by saying:

"I have been a cop for 34 years. If I thought that it would work to give people four years in the jail the first time they are caught carrying a knife, I would be your man".

He went on to say that jail does not work and that we need early intervention and to reduce access to alcohol and knives. The people who are dealing with these issues in Scotland and making our communities safer back the Government's approach to them.

Iain Gray talks about England and Wales. The sentences for knife crime in Scotland are higher than they are in England and Wales. He thinks that the people of England will accept that they do not have a problem with knife crime. Of course they have a problem with knife crime, but what they will not accept is a Labour Party that is saying something different in opposition from what it was prepared to do in office; which says something different north and south of the border because it thinks that it suits it politically; which seeks to persuade this Parliament when it cannot even persuade the Prime Minister, who wanted no extra police in Scotland, as opposed to the 1,000 extra who were delivered; and which talks about law and order and public services when the Chancellor of the Exchequer—a Scottish Labour MP—is promising the people of this country cuts in public services that will be deeper and tougher than those of Margaret Thatcher.

When the Labour Party starts to back our police and our public services, Iain Gray can come to this chamber with a shred of credibility. If he ever gets any consistency in his policies, he will be fit to be First Minister, instead of not being fit to be an Opposition leader.