The next item is consideration of six Parliamentary Bureau motions. I ask Graeme Dey to move motions S5M-17939, S5M-17940 and S5M-17941, on designation of lead committees; motion S5M-17942, on a committee remit; motion S5M-17943, on parliamentary recess dates; and motion S5M-17944, on the office of the clerk.
That the Parliament agrees that the Health and Sport Committee be designated as the lead committee in consideration of the legislative consent memorandum in relation to the Birmingham Commonwealth Games Bill (UK Legislation).
That the Parliament agrees that the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee be designated as the lead committee in consideration of the Scottish Elections (Franchise and Representation) Bill.
That the Parliament agrees that the Education and Skills Committee be designated as the lead committee in consideration of the Disclosure (Scotland) Bill at stage 1.
That the Parliament agrees that, for the purpose of allowing a proposal for a Committee Bill regarding the arrangements for financial assistance to non-Government political parties represented in the Parliament to be referred to the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee as lead committee, the following be inserted after Rule 6.4.1(a) “(ab) a proposal for a Bill relating to the arrangements for financial assistance to non-Government political parties represented in the Parliament;” until the publication of the Committee’s report on the proposal under Rule 9.15.5.
That the Parliament agrees the following parliamentary recess dates under Rule 2.3.1: 8 to 16 February 2020 (inclusive), 4 to 19 April 2020 (inclusive), 27 June to 30 August 2020 (inclusive), 10 to 25 October 2020 (inclusive), 24 December 2020 to 8 January 2021 (inclusive).
That the Parliament agrees that between 31 January 2020 and 31 January 2021, the Office of the Clerk will be open on all days except: Saturdays and Sundays, 10 and 13 April 2020, 8 May 2020, 22 and 25 May 2020, 18 September 2020, 27 November 2020, 24 December (pm), 25 and 28 December 2020, and 1 and 4 January 2021.—[
The Presiding Officer:
I ask Graeme Dey also to move motion S5M-17945, on approval of a Scottish statutory instrument.
That the Parliament agrees that the Presumption Against Short Periods of Imprisonment (Scotland) Order 2019 [draft] be approved.—[
Liam Kerr would like to speak against the motion.
I rise to speak against the draft
Presumption Against Short Periods of Imprisonment (Scotland) Order 2019, which will bring in a presumption against courts imposing on criminals prison sentences of 12 months or less, unless there is no alternative.
The underlying rationale for the order is that Scotland has the highest prison population in western Europe and that community-based sentences are more likely to reduce reconvictions.
However, the Justice Committee heard that data on populations that are subject to imprisonment or community sentences, their circumstances and the interventions that have succeeded, is sorely lacking.
The conclusion that community sentences lead inexorably to lower reconviction rates is, according to Professor Tata, “dodgy”. The Scottish Sentencing Council is clear that it does not automatically follow that offenders who are given community sentences in lieu of three months’ imprisonment will show similar reconviction rates to those who would otherwise get 12 months imprisonment.
Furthermore, the presumption aims to substantially increase the numbers of criminals entering a system in which a third of sentences and two-thirds of drug treatment orders are not completed; in which a quarter of sentences do not involve work or meaningful activity; and in which a third take longer than mandated to commence. All that is in a context in which the funding and resources for community sentences are challenging. The Howard League For Penal Reform In Scotland said:
“We must avoid a situation in which courts are discouraged from imposing custodial sentences, but effective community-based alternatives are unavailable.”
There are better ways to reduce the reconviction rate and increase rehabilitation, without the risks. We could adequately resource prisons, we could ensure that all prisoners have access to rehabilitation, and we could look at there being proper housing and work available on release. We could examine the Howard League’s suggestions on women in prison, we could review use of remand, and we could properly collate data on what works, why and for whom.
We have not done those things. Instead, the SSI imposes on the independent judiciary. Our judges are experienced, well-trained and knowledgeable in determining the appropriate sentence, yet the SSI will impose a requirement on how to dispose of a sentence, regardless of the individual facts of a case, and despite the failure to ensure that sentencers have trust in the alternatives and that there is more uniform provision across Scotland.
I foresee the SSI going one of two ways. Sentencers might continue to hand out the sentences that they think are appropriate and the prison population will stay static—or, ironically, increase, due to up-tariffing. In that case, we will have wasted time and resource, while ignoring the real challenges and blockers to rehabilitation in the system, such as the lack of resources and data analysis.
Alternatively—and according to the Government’s predictions—sentencers will feel pressured to put into the community criminals whom they would otherwise have put in prison. I fear that the Scottish Government is taking a risk with the safety of the public and, in particular, as Scottish Women’s Aid has said, with the safety of victims of domestic abuse.
I worry that victims and the public have, as we have heard from victims groups, little faith in community sentencing, and I am certain that there are better, safer and more considered ways to achieve what Parliament desires.
Therefore, I urge the Parliament to vote against this SSI.
“I want a smarter justice system that reduces repeat crime by providing robust community alternatives to ineffective short prison sentences—supporting offenders to turn away from crime for good.”
“If we can find effective alternatives to short sentences, it is not a question of pursuing a soft-justice approach, but rather a case of pursuing smart justice that is effective at reducing reoffending and crime.”—[
, 5 February 2019; Vol 654, c146.]
There is a disconnect between what Conservative spokespeople say here in Scotland and the policies that are being pursued by their colleagues in the UK Government. The reason for that disconnect is, to be frank, not that Liam Kerr has the interests and concerns of victims in mind, but that he is concerned about his next
Daily Mail column, and that is just about it.
He referenced the Howard League throughout his remarks. Of course, the Howard League supports the presumption against short sentences of 12 months. I welcome the Justice Committee’s scrutiny of the issue. The committee voted overwhelmingly—seven to two—in favour of the order, with only Conservative members opposing it.
We have increased the resources and protected the criminal justice social work budget of £100 million. We have also increased the funding for community alternatives. I say to Liam Kerr, and to others who are listening who have any scepticism about the presumption, that it is a presumption and not a ban. Of course, the UK Government wants to introduce a ban on sentences of six months, but we are suggesting a presumption, which means that sheriffs will have discretion in sentencing. Therefore, if there are any concerns about people who commit offences of domestic abuse, sheriffs will still be able to put those people behind bars, if that is what the sheriffs wish to do. That is why we waited until the training in that had been completed and the new domestic abuse offence had come into force before we introduced the order.
All the research shows that community alternatives are far more effective at rehabilitation than are damaging short sentences. For some people, it will absolutely be the case that, at the time, the only place for them, and the right place for them, will be prison, and sheriffs will have discretion in that respect. However, that does not apply to the vast majority of people. Short sentences disrupt family connections, tenancies and employment opportunities, and all those things mean that people are more likely to reoffend. If they are more likely to reoffend, there will, of course, be more victims of crime. If there are more victims of crime, we have a serious problem. I think that all members are on the side of victims, so we want fewer victims and less crime being committed.
Rather than pay attention to the Conservatives’ naked opportunism, I want to say how delighted I am that an overwhelming majority in the Parliament—the Labour Party, the Scottish National Party, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats—can come together, look at the facts, the data and the evidence, and collectively support progressive justice reforms that we have developed and which will make us all safer as a country and a society. I hope that, by approving the order, we will have fewer victims of crime, which is a win-win situation for everybody.