Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Bill

– in the Scottish Parliament at 4:00 pm on 30th June 2010.

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Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party 4:00 pm, 30th June 2010

The next item of business is a debate on motion S3M-6604, in the name of Kenny MacAskill, on the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Bill.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party 4:12 pm, 30th June 2010

I am pleased to open the stage 3 debate. For the purposes of rule 9.11 of the standing orders, I advise the Parliament that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Bill, has consented to place her prerogative and interests, so far as they are affected by the bill, at the disposal of the Parliament for the purposes of the bill. It was necessary to obtain Crown consent for the bill on the basis that part 9 of the bill makes amendments to the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005, for which Crown consent was needed.

Some fifteen months ago—in March 2009—we introduced the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Bill into Parliament. It would be appropriate at this juncture to give thanks to all those who have been involved in what has been a substantial bit of legislation, particularly the bill team and the convener and members of the Justice Committee. I am aware of the great periods of time that had to be given to investigating matters that are very complex, as we discovered earlier today, and matters that are deeply sensitive, as we experienced this morning.

The bill as introduced contained provisions relating to around 80 different topics. After stage 2, that number has grown to around 100 topics. The bill is a comprehensive piece of legislation that takes forward the Government's priorities to reform our justice system by providing measures that strengthen, simplify and modernise it. Despite disagreements over some of the content of the bill, we had some excellent debates this morning, as would be expected. I place on record my thanks for all the work that was done by everybody involved. With a bill this size, it cannot have been easy.

One of the Government's key priorities is to tackle serious organised crime. For too long, these crooks have terrorised and brought misery to Scottish communities. That is unacceptable and we are fighting back, but we require to have the appropriate legislation. Serious organised crime is very wide ranging and constantly evolving, and any response needs to reflect that. The four new measures on serious organised crime—the statutory aggravation and the offences of involvement, direction and failure to report—should be seen as a package of measures that will strengthen the hand of law enforcement agencies and the Crown Office to have better, more effective tools and more flexibility to tackle organised criminals at all levels and make it easier to prosecute individuals who organise others to commit crimes.

We have introduced a power of retention of fingerprints, palm prints and other physical data for a limited time from those who have been prosecuted for but not convicted of a serious violent or sexual offence. That correctly brings the laws for the retention of fingerprints, palm prints and other physical data into line with the current laws on DNA retention. We believe that the forensic data provisions in the bill are proportionate and fair; they strike a balance between the needs of the justice system, the protection of the public and the rights of the individual.

We are committed to supporting children's rights as a key strand that underpins our activity to improve outcomes for all Scotland's children and young people. Raising the minimum age of prosecution from 8 to 12 is an important move, which addresses key concerns about the very young age at which children in Scotland can currently end up in the criminal justice system. It also brings us into line with most of Europe and strengthens our commitment to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

We have provided a statutory regime for disclosure of evidence in criminal proceedings. It is a long-established rule in the Scottish legal system that the prosecutor has an obligation to give the accused notice of the case against him and to tell him what charges he faces and what evidence the Crown intends to bring to prove the charges. Any exculpatory material should be identified and given or disclosed to the accused or the defence. A fair trial demands that, and rightly so. We are glad that the Parliament has generally welcomed our proposals on that. The provision is deeply complex and it will have to be scrutinised, but we believe that it provides the right balance.

We appreciate the different opinions in the chamber on community payback orders. I hope that everyone recognises the desire of all members to break the culture of recidivism, to end reoffending and to ensure that paybacks are made. We all want to work together to achieve the goal of ensuring that we punish offenders but address the areas of offenders' lives that need to change and which fuel much of their offending.

On short custodial sentences, we have advanced a proposal that has evidence, experience, and expert support on its side. We recognise that the proposal has divided the chamber, but it has been passed and we need to work at it. As I said earlier, we will work with the judiciary on the matter. I can only remind those who are aggrieved at the decision that it is a matter of a presumption. The Government position is clear: when a sheriff believes that that presumption is overturned, they will have our full support. We are about empowering our judiciary.

We believe that the evidence on the subject is clear. As I said earlier, the reconviction rate after two years for offenders who receive community service orders is 42 per cent whereas, for offenders who receive short custodial sentences—whether of six months or less, or of less than three months—the reconviction rate after two years is around 74 per cent. The experts are clear. When David Strang, the chief constable of Lothian and Borders Police, spoke for the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland at the Justice Committee last year, he said:

"the likelihood of reoffending is less with a community sentence than with a repeat short prison sentence. ACPOS welcomes that proposal in the bill."—[Official Report, Justice Committee, 26 May 2009; c 1930.]

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

I am interested in the detail of this. Which groups of offenders were identified in the research as recidivists?

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

I do not have the information in front of me that would allow me to drill down to which groups were identified. As I said, the research shows that those who are given a tough community sentence are less likely to reoffend—I refer to the three fifths who do not reoffend as opposed to the three quarters who do. Clearly, if we were to drill down, we would find individuals with deeply troubled lives. Part of the community payback order is meant to ensure sometimes that people do tough work. Equally, though, for many young women offenders, for example, we have sometimes to address underlying problems, which may not be simply physical but may be to do with child care—

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

Twenty per cent of the order can be aimed at addressing underlying problems such as alcohol, drugs, low-level mental health or educational failure.

This is a positive bill that drives forward. We appreciate that there are areas on which the chamber is divided, but the areas on which members are united are much greater. I hope that we can get the support of others to make our communities safer and stronger. I move,

That the Parliament agrees that the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Bill be passed.

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour 4:19 pm, 30th June 2010

Like the cabinet secretary, in the closing debate of the protracted consideration of the bill I pay tribute to those whose efforts have enabled the issues that the bill covers to be properly discussed and scrutinised over a period of well over a year. Labour members do not currently benefit from the advice of the civil service and rely on the extraordinary efforts of a small team. I thank Gordon Aikman in my office and Gavin Yates and Julia Braun in the Labour support unit, as well as the Scottish Parliament information centre, for its assistance. I congratulate the Justice Committee on its scrutiny of the bill, which would not have been possible without the diligence and patience of the clerks, who have been patient with a number of us. I am sure that members from all parties recognise the superb efforts of Andrew Mylne and his team. I congratulate the committee convener and members, especially the Labour members, Bill Butler, James Kelly and Cathie Craigie.

The bill arrived in the chamber in a good condition, as legislation that we could support, with a sensible approach on sentencing and meaningful action on violent crime. However, the bill as it now stands is very different, with measures that we cannot support. Unlike Iain Gray with the Scottish National Party manifesto, I will not rip the bill in two, for obvious reasons, but I emphasise how much it has been eviscerated during today's proceedings.

I must tell the cabinet secretary that what divides us on the bill is far more significant than what unites us. A bill that arrived in the chamber without the Scottish Government's flawed and reckless proposal for a legislative presumption against custodial sentences of six months and under now includes such a proposal for three-month sentences. It will apply not just to minor offending but to 28 per cent of those who are convicted of indecent assault, 68 per cent of those who are convicted of crimes of domestic abuse and almost a quarter of those who are convicted of knife crimes. The Liberal Democrats' amendments demonstrated that the measure is unworkable and unfunded, but they supported it anyway. The additional 7,000 community sentences that will follow the proposal will put an intolerable strain on an already stretched system. We support more and better community sentences; that is why we supported the plans for a pilot community court in Glasgow, which the Scottish Government opposed. That exposes the lack of consistency and credibility in its position.

At the beginning of my speech, I congratulated many of those whose hard work has been crucial to the scrutiny of the bill. I also pay tribute to those outside the chamber who have contributed to the bill's consideration. In particular, I thank John Muir, Kelly McGee and all of the families of the victims of knife crime, who have taken their campaign so passionately and—for some of us, at least—so persuasively to the Parliament. It is almost beyond belief that the Scottish Government and others have actively removed from the bill a robust and necessary measure to tackle knife crime, in the form of our proposal for mandatory minimum sentences for knife possession. That proposal has not succeeded today, but I assure the families of the victims of knife crime and the 30,000 Scots who signed their petition that this is not the end of the campaign. We will continue to work with them until we change the law in this country to take the action against knife crime that we need.

In other areas, such as tackling prostitution, the bill is also inadequate or silent. There are proposals that we can support, such as the establishment of a sentencing council, and some measures that are beneficial. We particularly welcome the new provisions on stalking. I congratulate Rhoda Grant on her important work in the area, which was inspired by those who have been victims of such crimes. If the bill falls today, I know that she will employ her member's bill as an alternative legislative vehicle to make the changes. In that event, we make clear that we will support fast-track legislation to put in place the other measures in the bill on which there is clearly consensus.

However, such measures are outweighed by the bill's failure to act on knife crime and the reckless proposals on sentencing. For more than a year, we have made clear that there are two lines in the sand for us that will determine our support or opposition to the bill. The need to reject the legislative presumption on sentencing and the need to take robust action on knife crime have always outweighed for us any other benefits of the bill. Those lines have been crossed today, so we will act as we have consistently advised the chamber that we would. Regrettably, we cannot support this flawed bill. Accordingly, we will vote that the Parliament should not pass it.

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative 4:24 pm, 30th June 2010

It is unfortunate, to say the least, that, although there is much of value in the bill, its effect has been lost by the approach on sentencing policy. The steps that have been taken to combat serious and organised crime are praiseworthy. Issues to do with disclosure cause problems, but the Scottish Government and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service have worked constructively with the Justice Committee to ease problems. The approach to the age of criminal responsibility has been sensitive, sympathetic and realistic.

However, that is not the real issue. The approach to sentencing in the bill will cause immeasurable damage in the years ahead. It is little short of tragic that there will be no deterrent and nothing to force people to co-operate with community sentences, which can offer a constructive approach. We all want the community payback system to work. There are serious issues to do with the financing of the system, which James Kelly and other members have raised consistently and persistently, but we are all committed to ensuring that community payback works.

However, when the community payback system does not work, there must be a custodial remedy. For many of the tiny minority of people who cause us problems, getting up early in the morning to do community service is not on the radar. Those people are not prepared to pay fines, and the fines enforcement system in the country borders on the farcical. Unless we are able to persuade people that there will be an unpleasant alternative, they simply will not co-operate. That is the tragedy of the situation. I acknowledge that the Government has worked hard, but there is a real and unfortunate parting of the ways over the issue.

If the sentencing proposals had not been in the bill, we would have supported the vast majority of the measures in it with enthusiasm and alacrity. However, those provisions are in the bill and, to some extent, the Government has turned its back on the campaigners on knife crime whom we saw in the Parliament today. That is very unfortunate indeed, and we will therefore not support the bill at decision time.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat 4:27 pm, 30th June 2010

Like other members, I thank the clerks, in particular, Government officials and members of the Justice Committee for their work on the bill. I am always impressed by the elegance of the solutions that the clerks come up with on the difficult issues that we present to them.

The bill is complex, as the cabinet secretary said, but it has emerged from the process considerably improved. I absolutely part company with Richard Baker and Bill Aitken in that regard. The end result is a bill that contains significant measures. We have got the provisions on the Scottish sentencing council right, after making changes to make it an advisory council. We have sharpened up support for community sentences, and I pay tribute to the cabinet secretary's work in that regard. As I said during consideration of amendments at stage 3, Richard Baker should reconsider the cabinet secretary's comments to me on how the matter will be taken forward. There are substantial measures in that regard.

Some provisions are less liberal and less radical than I would have liked them to be, such as the provisions that raise the age of criminal responsibility and the provisions on the DNA of children.

The major issues that dominated the debates at stage 3 were knife crime and short-term sentences. The end result is a liberal bill that Liberal Democrats are happy to support. We have made the presumption against short-term sentences practical and workable. We have reduced by half the scale of the issue—in relation to the numbers that will be affected—which is a valid approach and will provide a bit of breathing space.

I accept that, as members said, the credibility of the Government and the measures will be at stake to some extent as we go forward, but some members have taken too dismal an attitude to what is possible. It seems to me that, in providing for advances in human opportunity and advances in the protection of the public through a more effective criminal justice system, the bill has much to recommend it.

From the outset, I took the approach that I would judge the proposals on what the evidence tells us about what works and makes a difference. I regret that, on the major issues, that has not been the position of some parties in the Parliament. However, let me try to put the matter in perspective and quote from a speech by Mr Ben Skosana MP, who was the Minister of Correctional Services in South Africa. Talking about the problems that came from overcrowding in prisons and the financial challenges that South Africa faced—I suspect that the difficulties there were rather greater than they are here—he said:

"it is an indisputable fact that the vast majority of the inmates in our prison system are from the previously disadvantaged groups who are unskilled and of little value in the labour market. It is our responsibility as Correctional Services to see to it that they too are the beneficiaries of the new democratic dispensation by providing them with the necessary basic skills to better their chances of becoming economically active ... and thus helping to break the cycle of crime."

He went on to make a number of other similar comments.

In that speech, Ben Skosana also quoted from Winston Churchill in his days as a minister in the great Liberal Government of 1906, when he was Home Secretary. Churchill's comments were echoed to a degree by the current Prime Minister at Prime Minister's questions today, when he supported the equivalent of the presumption against short-term sentences at the UK level. Churchill said:

"The mood and temper of the public with regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country. A ... desire and eagerness to rehabilitate in the world of industry those who have paid their due in the hard coinage of punishment"

and

"unfailing faith that there is a treasure, if you can only find it, in the heart of every man. These are the symbols, which ... measure the stored-up strength of a nation."

That is how we should approach the bill and the opportunities in its liberal measures.

Photo of Stewart Maxwell Stewart Maxwell Scottish National Party 4:31 pm, 30th June 2010

I thank the clerks, the witnesses, the Scottish Parliament information centre and the other committee members for a long experience in dealing with the bill—it took around a year, from memory.

The bill has been a difficult one to get through. We have had to discuss and come to a conclusion and consensus on various difficult and complex parts of the law. We arrived at consensus on many areas, which had much to do with the willingness of many members of the committee to work hard on the bill. Other members of the committee appreciate that. The committee does not always agree, but we did a pretty good job on the bill as far as we could.

I will address some of the comments that have been made on the bill. To be frank, I am a bit disappointed that the Labour Party and the Conservatives will vote against it, not because they perceive difficulties with some parts of the bill, such as the presumption against short sentences—we have said it many times, but it is a presumption—and the lack of mandatory sentences for the carrying of knives. I must point out to both those parties that, if they successfully vote down the bill, they vote down not only the presumption against short sentences or the approach to knife crime but extremely important and much needed measures on serious and organised crime, genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes; articles banned in prison; sexual offences, particularly indecent images of children and extreme pornography; people trafficking, slavery, servitude and forced or compulsory labour; fraud, embezzlement and conspiracy; sexual offences prevention orders—

Photo of Stewart Maxwell Stewart Maxwell Scottish National Party

I have not finished yet.

They will vote down measures on foreign travel orders, sex offender notification requirements and risk of sexual harm orders. Those provisions and the amendment moved by George Foulkes on the issues that disabled people face with getting out and about and being with friends of an evening, which we all supported, will fall. On their heads be it if that is the case.

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour

Does Mr Maxwell acknowledge that I have already made it clear that, on those areas where there is consensus—there clearly are such areas—we support fast-track legislation? That would quite easily be done and there would be no need to go through all the normal process. Indeed, emergency legislation may well be required in the Parliament in October anyway.

Photo of Stewart Maxwell Stewart Maxwell Scottish National Party

I am sorry, but no matter how fast the track might be for fast-track legislation, it would be slower than the bill that is before us tonight because, if Richard Baker and his colleagues vote down the bill, it will at the very least delay the measures on the issues that I raised. They are serious issues indeed for the people concerned and I am extremely disappointed in the Labour Party and the Conservatives on that.

I will make a couple of points about mandatory sentences for the crime of carrying a knife. We have a limited amount of money to deal with these issues and the choice that we face is clear: do we want to have more police to lower crime rates, or do we want more prisons to hold more and more people, creating long-term criminals? My choice is for more police on our streets lowering crime rates, rather than the choice that the Labour Party wishes to make.

The presumption against short-term sentences and the introduction of community payback orders, which are obviously linked, are a radical but very progressive move and I am disappointed by the reaction of other parties. The Conservative party is, this very day, facing in at least two different directions on the issue.

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

No. I am sorry, but there is no time for one final point.

Photo of Charlie Gordon Charlie Gordon Labour 4:35 pm, 30th June 2010

Carry a knife, go to jail is a sentencing policy that I have advocated since my time as leader of Glasgow City Council when there were, as there continue to be, high rates of knife crime in Glasgow.

As a rookie MSP back in May 2006, I floated an amendment during the passage of the Police, Public Order and Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill proposing mandatory jail sentences for knife possession. Back then, Parliament's overwhelming view was that the way forward was to double the maximum sentence for knife possession and oppose bail for repeat knife offenders. Four years on, knife possession, knife assault and knife murder rates remain unacceptably high. In addition, many knife assaults go unreported and knife murder rates would be far higher were it not for the skill of our surgeons.

Not enough has changed since, four years ago, my constituent Craig McCulloch strolled home from a celebration. He encountered some younger acquaintances and they bantered together homeward. Two teenagers appeared and threatened Craig and his companions. Craig's reaction was typical of one who, when a schoolboy, counted two victims of bullying as his friends after Craig had sorted out the bullies: he sent his young companions home. By now, the two aggressors had armed themselves with knives. Alone, Craig offered them a square go—an old-fashioned Glasgow term for a fair fight with the fists. However, we live in different days: one of his assailants used a knife. He took the life of that fine young man, Craig McCulloch, on Craig's 18th birthday.

I want young people to aspire to live their lives like Craig McCulloch lived his, but I want to help them to avoid replicating the tragedy of Craig's death. I do not refer only to the young men of Glasgow; for be in no doubt tonight that, not only in our cities but in our seaside towns, in our rural villages and in our leafy suburbs, hundreds of teenagers will carry knives. To be sure, some will be the scared wee boys who were referred to in the debate on the amendments, but some may seek to practise the obscenity known as recreational violence. This is a major problem for our country, which has not gone away.

Carry a knife, go to jail is a campaign that will not go away until the Parliament does yet more to save the lives of our young people.

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

We need to move to the wind-up speeches. I offer my apologies to members whom I could not call.

Photo of Nicol Stephen Nicol Stephen Liberal Democrat 4:38 pm, 30th June 2010

I add my thanks to the clerks, the officials, the bill team, the minister, all the individuals and organisations that have contributed to the bill, the members of the Justice Committee and, especially, the front-bench spokespeople who have all worked so hard on the bill. I give particular thanks to Robert Brown for all his efforts on behalf of the Liberal Democrats. Politics and the media often deal in slogans: we hear about the revolving door of crime and also the cycle of reoffending and prisons and young offenders institutions are called colleges of crime. This is our chance to do something about the big issues.

Remember the minister's words. He said that, of those who go to prison for a short sentence, three quarters reoffend, whereas of those who are given a community sentence, three fifths do not reoffend. Having tried to sort out the maths in my mind, I reckon that that means that 15 out of 20 people who go to prison will reoffend, whereas eight out of 20 who are given a community service order will do so. The proportion is not quite double, but it means that about 75 per cent more offenders will carry out a further offence if they are given a short-term prison sentence rather than community service. That is the scale of the problem and that is how serious the issue is. Serious issues deserve serious consideration and a serious response, not populism.

It might sound tough to call for longer prison sentences and automatic prison sentences as an alternative to the Scottish Government's policy proposals, but let us be clear that, if the Labour or Conservative option was followed, it would be more expensive and would lead to more crime in our communities, more victims and more lives destroyed. That is why the bill is so important.

The Liberal Democrats have been at the heart of the debate surrounding the bill. We have had many successes to date, including the deletion of sections 1 and 2, which were on the purposes and principles of sentencing, and the conversion of the Scottish sentencing council into an advisory body. The Liberal Democrats believe that we need to change the mindset of our criminal justice system so that the goal of reducing reoffending is a key objective in the effort to cut crime in Scotland.

Although imprisonment might be appropriate for serious or violent offenders, sending people to prison for short periods is a hugely expensive way of making bad people worse and communities less safe. Introducing a presumption against custodial sentences of three months or less will be a big success not just for the initiative that Robert Brown has taken on behalf of the Liberal Democrats but, I believe, for Scotland. It is a hugely significant reform. The presumption against sentences of three months or less—rather than six—will ensure that the resulting increase in the number of community payback orders is manageable.

Throughout the passage of the bill, we have pursued a robust approach that has emphasised that the quality of community payback orders is vital. We have pressed the Government to put additional money into existing community sentences to make them speedier, more robust and more effective. In their populist efforts to appear tough on crime, Labour and the Conservatives have completely ignored the fact that replacing short sentences with tough, effective community penalties is the right way to reduce reoffending and to cut crime in Scotland's communities.

Labour has been populist on all the big issues today. If all its proposals were so fundamental and crucial and urgent, why did Labour not take the action that it has urged during its 13 years in power in England and Wales?

Photo of Nicol Stephen Nicol Stephen Liberal Democrat

I have no time for an intervention, but I think that that is a very strong point on which to finish.

Photo of John Lamont John Lamont Conservative 4:43 pm, 30th June 2010

The bill has been on a long journey, and not just as it has passed through its final stages today. As others have said, many have been involved in getting the bill to this stage. I will not waste time repeating the thanks that others have given, but I will particularly thank Erin Boyle in the Conservative research team for her help to me during the stages of the bill.

The bill is complex and covers many areas of our criminal justice system. It is true that many aspects of the bill are not contentious and act simply to tidy up the existing criminal justice system, so much of the bill can be welcomed. However, as members have heard today, we take serious issue with the proposal to create a presumption against short-term sentences. The language might have changed, but the SNP Government's enthusiasm to empty Scotland's jails without putting in place a robust community sentencing regime is no less diminished.

The failing in the current system—this is a key point—is that our prisons do not offer short-term rehabilitation options to those prisoners who are on short sentences. Indeed, some would suggest that effective rehabilitation is not in place for any of our prisoners. It is bizarre to suggest that people can be rehabilitated in their communities based on a few hours of contact each week but that absolutely nothing can be achieved during a short-term sentence in prison. Simply because our prisons are not successfully rehabilitating people during short-term sentences does not mean that we should abolish such sentences completely. Much more must be done to identify the underlying causes of criminality, what can be done to support offenders during their time in prison and, perhaps more important, what agencies should be involved in their rehabilitation once they are released.

On the other side of the coin, we should consider the impact on communities of short-term sentences when a disruptive individual has been removed and put in prison, albeit for a short time. It might not be for very long, but those residents whose neighbourhoods have been blighted by the activities of that individual—many of us have constituents in that situation—often get the respite that they have been longing for. Similarly, during the detention, albeit for a short period, opportunities might open up for local antisocial behaviour units and housing associations to put in place more permanent solutions to deal with the individual concerned.

The bill has been through a long process, so it is unfortunate that we find ourselves unable to support it at stage 3. We have supported the need for short-term sentences for many years, and the Government could have had our support today had it not insisted on reinstating the controversial proposals on sentencing. It is with much regret, but in the interests of Scotland's criminal justice system and the law-abiding majority of Scots, that we will vote against the bill at decision time.

Photo of James Kelly James Kelly Labour 4:46 pm, 30th June 2010

As others have done, I pay tribute to the clerks and members of the bill team who assisted with the amendments. The bill is complex and technical and, as Robert Brown said, we must pay tribute to those who make sense of our policy intentions and turn them into amendments.

It has been a long day of debates and we have covered a lot of issues, but the decision comes down to short-term sentences and knife crime. We do not support the policy of a presumption against short-term sentences. Sixty-eight per cent of those who are found guilty of domestic abuse are serving sentences of three months or less; others are serving such sentences for crimes such as indecent assault and robbery. To me, it stands to reason that the correct place for such individuals is to serve time in prison. Some members have argued with that by saying that reoffending rates have gone up. I will not run away from that issue; I have spoken about it consistently throughout the process. However, I do not accept that, because there is an issue with reoffending rates, we should just release difficult prisoners into the community. That is illogical.

The challenge is for all political parties to come up with a policy programme that makes prison work and ensures that we work with prisoners, particularly in the final days of their sentences, to try to transfer them into the community with some stability. The Wise Group in Glasgow has had some success in that, and 19 per cent of those in the group that it has been working with have been able to go on to stable employment, compared with 6 per cent of those who have been on the normal Scottish Prison Service scheme. We should be looking towards such schemes.

As I have said throughout, the presumption against short-term sentences is the wrong policy. I also do not believe that the correct amount of finance has been put behind it, and real problems could lie ahead if there is no additional money to support the policy intention.

Today's other major issue was knife crime. The cabinet secretary spoke at length about crime statistics, indicating that homicide rates had fallen, and I understand all that. However, it is quite clear that, over a period of time, knife crime continues to rise in Scotland. Last year, 58 per cent of homicides involved knife crime, and over a 20-year period from 1982 to 2002, during which homicides rose by 83 per cent, homicides by knife rose by 164 per cent.

We heard earlier about the costs to the national health service associated with knife crime. The Sunday Times indicated that there are costs of £500 million as a result of 1,170 admissions, but that figure has risen—as Iain Gray revealed yesterday, last year there were 1,857 admissions to national health service hospitals as a result of knife incidents. Clearly, that puts a great deal of pressure on NHS finances. The violence reduction unit has acknowledged that and the cost of violence in general. There is also an issue as people are more vulnerable in certain parts of Scotland. For example, someone is 32 times more likely to be the victim of a knife attack if they stay in a socially deprived area. Considering all those factors, I submit that action on knife crime would save costs in certain areas.

Stewart Maxwell characterised the argument as whether we want more people in prison or more police officers on the street. As I look at it, if we pursued the minimum mandatory sentences for knife crime, we would perhaps not have to hear sad tales such as the one that Charlie Gordon gave of his constituent, Craig McCulloch, and we would save more lives. That point weighs much more heavily than the issue of cost.

The Liberal Democrats have faced both ways on a number of the issues. In December 2008, Robert Brown was quoted in The Sun—he was pictured in it as well—saying:

"Carrying knives is always stupid and should normally lead to a prison sentence for those caught with weapons."

There has clearly been yet another change of policy from the Liberal Democrats.

Knife campaigners arrived here this morning looking for the Parliament to make a difference, but they were given a slap in the face by the Scottish National Party and the Liberal Democrats. Actions speak louder than words. The SNP and the Lib Dems ignored the powerful messages from John Muir and Kelly McGee, the voices of the 30,000 who signed the petition, and the voices of knife campaigners throughout Scotland. That is shameful, and Labour will stand with the campaigners at half past 5 and vote down the bill.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party 4:52 pm, 30th June 2010

We should remind ourselves that we are dealing with the final stages of a huge bill. Everyone who has spoken has correctly paid tribute to those involved. What I am most aggrieved, surprised and perplexed by is the position that has been taken by Labour and the Tories.

Richard Baker said that more divides than unites us. I have been looking at the bill again. It is one of the biggest bills that we have ever brought to the Parliament. There are nine parts to it, and many sections in it have not been contentious at all. However, because Labour and the Tories disagree with the votes of Parliament so far on a presumption against short sentences and on knife crime, whole swathes of the bill are to be ignored. For petty party politics, Labour and the Tories are jeopardising many provisions.

Let us consider what Labour and the Tories want to vote down: provisions on serious organised crime to tackle the Mr Bigs in the city of Glasgow—not just the wee neds, but the people who hang around and sometimes apparently, if rumours are to be believed, corrupt even those in the body politic. They want to vote down those provisions.

There are provisions on articles banned in prison. We know that hits are sometimes organised from prison, but we will seek to deal with mobile phones in there. There are provisions on indecent images of children, but Labour and the Tories do not want to take action against them. There are provisions on extreme pornography, but they do not want to take action against that. The bill includes foreign travel orders to prevent the perverts and paedophiles in our communities from going away, whether to Thailand or anywhere else, to carry out abuse. Labour and the Tories want to vote down those measures simply because they did not get their way earlier in stage 3.

Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green

I am sorry to ask to lower the temperature just a little, but I wonder whether the cabinet secretary will say a little more about one of the measures that has had less debate and attention but which involves some contention—the measure that he mentioned on extreme pornography. He will be aware that the measure that exists in England and Wales is having no effect in reducing the production of genuinely violent or abusive images, but is being used just as a top-up charge in a small number of cases in which the most serious offence is rape or sexual assault, which attract a higher sentence. If we end up in a similar situation—with the charge being used in a similar way in Scotland, as a mere top-up—will we not have to look again at whether it serves any purpose?

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

I am more than happy to discuss that with the member afterwards. We must have appropriate laws, and such things have been dealt with by the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency. Sadly, there are individuals in our communities who would perpetrate such offences.

Huge swathes of the bill are not contentious and will change criminal procedure in Scotland—which needs to be changed—for the better. We have not even debated many of the bill's provisions, which have, correctly, gone through unchallenged. Yet, Labour and the Tories say that they will vote down legislation that would make our communities safer, protect our children from sexual perverts and protect our communities from serious organised crime, simply because they did not get their way.

As we keep being told, we are a minority Government; therefore, this is not something that we have foisted on the Parliament. Let us be clear: there are aspects of the bill that the Government has had to bend to the will of Parliament. For example, the position that we have reached on the sentencing council is not the position that we started out from. Nevertheless, we recognised the merits of what was put forward and the pragmatism of what can be achieved and we agreed with that. We began with a presumption against sentences of six months or less, but we accepted that, to get the bill passed and make the progress that we needed, we had to change that to a presumption against sentences of three months or less. We are grateful to Robert Brown and Patrick Harvie for the positions that they have taken on that. It is not a matter of our forcing or foisting anything on the Parliament.

Let us be clear: the decisions on knife crime and on sentencing that we made earlier were not made by an autocracy or enforced by me; they reflected the will of Parliament and a majority vote of the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and Margo MacDonald. Those decisions have not been foisted on the Parliament by some corrupt autocracy; therefore, it is a strange position that the Labour-Tory coalition has got itself into. When those parties do not get the wee things that they want, they are prepared to bring down the whole bill because they are opposed to it. There is something perplexing in the society that we live in when Ken Clarke is much more liberal in his policies not simply than Jack Straw, but than the Labour Party north of the border.

The bill contains some contentious elements and things that people disagree with, and there are matters that the Government has had to accept—that is democracy. Equally, in a democracy it is incumbent on each of us to protect our children and our communities. If Labour and the Tories vote against the bill, they are voting against clear policies and legislative progress that would make Scotland much safer and stronger. We can continue to disagree on matters such as sentencing and knife crime—that is why, as a Government and as a body politic, we will have elections next year. However, they should not jeopardise the interests and safety of our communities simply because of that.

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour

Is the cabinet secretary saying that, if the bill falls tonight, he will not introduce legislation that we could support and which could be passed in a matter of days, which would cover all the issues that he is talking about?

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

It is utterly preposterous for Mr Baker to suggest that, if the bill falls, we can pass emergency legislation on all those matters before the Government ceases to be in government, next year.

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour

You did it for the budget.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

Order. One debate at a time, please.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

Is Richard Baker really suggesting that we could pass emergency legislation on serious organised crime, indecent images and child pornography? Frankly, that is utterly ridiculous. Sometimes, members must accept the decision of Parliament. The Government has had to accept it both in government and, in the past, when we were in opposition. Labour had eight years in government and never addressed any of those matters.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

Labour had 13 years in government, as Nicol Stephen correctly points out, yet it took no action on those matters. The fact is that Labour is failing to address what is necessary.

It is a good bill that will make Scotland safer and stronger. There are areas on which we divide and disagree, but we must recognise that it has been voted on by Parliament and promoted not simply by the SNP, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, but by police officers, the violence reduction unit and those who are in the front line of Scottish policing. I commend the bill to Parliament.