As Ruth Davidson was, I was in the chamber when such issues were debated at stage 3 of the Management of Offenders (Scotland) Bill earlier this week. I thought that there was a good discussion. Many members made the point that a tag being removed for medical reasons, for example, should perhaps not be regarded as a crime.
However, the bill includes a new offence of being unlawfully at large. Given Ruth Davidson’s previous interventions on the issue, I would have thought that she would welcome that.
Through the passing of the
Management of Offenders (Scotland) Bill and last night’s approval of the Presumption Against Short Periods of Imprisonment (Scotland) Order 2019, this week has shown that the Government is introducing reforms to the justice system that will make our country safer. It is about smarter justice, and we have introduced exactly the kind of reforms that Ruth Davidson’s colleagues south of the border are pursuing. Perhaps it is Ruth Davidson who is somewhat out of line.
Let us spell out exactly what will happen under the Government’s newly passed Management of Offenders (Scotland) Bill, about which the First Minister talked. The Scottish National Party says that it wants to start emptying the jails and to let lots of people who would have been in prison out on the streets, wearing tags instead. [
.] That is what she said.
In my view, taking off a tag is equivalent to scaling the walls and making a run for it because, but for that tag, the person would be in a cell. Under the SNP’s new system, all that will happen is that the person will be sent a letter asking whether they would mind turning themselves in, please. A person cutting off their tag is not automatically a crime, and no extra penalty will be added to their sentence. Does the First Minister think that that sounds like justice to most people?
If what Ruth Davidson said was correct, she might have had a point, but it is not correct. It is worth pointing out that there are already—even before the Management of Offenders (Scotland) Bill was passed this week—consequences for people who tamper with their electronic tags. If a person who is on a home detention curfew tampers with a tag, that is immediately reported back to the prison, and that person is recalled to custody.
The steps that we have taken in the bill to bolster the law specifically create a new offence of remaining unlawfully at large for people who do not return to custody once they are recalled. That approach gives the police more powers to apprehend prisoners who are considered to be unlawfully at large, including when prisoners have tampered with their electronic tag. Those are precisely the changes to the law that people have been asking for.
Indeed—the justice secretary is saying that Ruth Davidson called for the changes.
The proposals that came from the Tories this week did not contain robust provisions. Under them, someone who damaged a tag in the course of their employment, or when carrying out sporting activities, for example, would have been committing an offence, with there being no appropriate defence in law. We have put in place robust and appropriate provisions, which is why they have been widely welcomed.
Ruth Davidson’s questions on justice and law and order seem to be based on the view that Scotland somehow takes a “soft on crime” approach. Nothing could be further from the truth. I ask Ruth Davidson to reflect on the fact that Scotland has the highest prison population in western Europe. The problem is not that we do not send enough people to prison; the problem is that we are not smart enough in our justice interventions.
As I said a moment ago, Ruth Davidson’s colleagues at Westminster are looking at and are emulating the proposals that we have taken forward this week. Perhaps Ruth Davidson should reflect on the fact that it is she who is out of line on these matters.
What I asked the First Minister was whether the measures sound like justice to her. Here are the people to whom they do not sound like justice.
Scottish Women’s Aid has said:
“To be a credible deterrent, breach of the electronic monitoring condition must be an automatic criminal offence.”
Victim Support Scotland has said that breaches of a tag must be punished
“to maintain the trust of victims and the community” because, as Victim Support also said,
“communities have no faith in community sentencing ... because ... it takes too long for someone to be found to be in breach of their order.”—[
Official Report, Justice Committee
, 8 May 2018; c 39.]
No. We did not follow that suggestion because it is not the right approach. That is why we instead put into the law a workable provision that will make a difference and will actually deal with the problem that has been identified. We have created a specific new offence to deal with people having tampered with electronic tags and being unlawfully at large because of that.
Ruth Davidson’s proposals, which her colleagues elsewhere have brought forward, would have meant that a person accidentally tampering with their tag would be an offence, and there would have been no defence in law. We have put in place a workable provision that makes sense. Perhaps it is the fact that it makes sense that left the Tories unable to support it in Parliament this week.
Our proposal made sense for Scottish Women’s Aid and for Victim Support Scotland.
Let us talk about the unlawfully at large issue that the First Minister has been waving around as a defence. It is two years since father of three, Craig McClelland, was stabbed to death by James Wright—a criminal who was unlawfully at large for six months after tampering with his electronic tag. This week, Mr McClelland’s father, Michael, said this:
“Why was James Wright out on a tag, how did he get it off and why wasn’t he lifted? ... where was the system when my son was murdered and why won’t they answer these questions?”
What is the First Minister going to tell Mr McClelland about why cutting off a tag is not a crime?
As I have done previously, I record my condolences to the
McClelland family for everything that they have gone through. I would say to Craig’s father that when that dreadful tragedy and crime took place, the specific offence that we have put into law this week—that of being unlawfully at large—was not on the statute book. The case is one of the reasons why we considered the matter and decided to legislate this week to put that specific crime on the statute book. I would say to
Craig McClelland’s family and to others who have suffered under such circumstances that the measures are a response to that, specifically.
The Cabinet Secretary for Justice has also taken other action to respond to what happened in that case. Issues to do with and decisions about wider considerations of the case fall to the independent law officers. It is precisely because of that case that the change in the law was made this week—a change in the law that my party and my Government voted for, and which Ruth Davidson’s party voted against.