Scottish Prison Service (Auditor General’s Report)

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 3rd December 2019.

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Photo of Humza Yousaf Humza Yousaf Scottish National Party

The Auditor General’s report on the 2018-19 audit of the Scottish Prison Service highlights the significant challenges that are facing the Scottish Government and the Scottish Prison Service, including the rise in prison population numbers, budgetary pressures, the demands on prison officers and staff and the reform of the physical prison estate.

I have previously acknowledged those challenges to Parliament, for example in my recent evidence to the Justice Committee for its pre-budget scrutiny. It is worth noting that, despite those challenges, in her most recent annual report, Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons indicates that she is reassured that, despite a rising prison population,

“staff and prisoners ... reported feeling safe.”

However, I recognise the absolute seriousness of the issues that are raised by the Auditor General and the pressures that we face. I am keen to work with members across the Parliament to address those concerns.

It may be helpful if I set out some of the actions that we have already taken, and I will begin with the budget. As noted by the Auditor General, the SPS revenue budget, as for other public bodies, has been constrained over recent years. That occurred during a time that the prison population was falling and the SPS was operating within, or below, its annual allocation.

Going into 2019-20, we acknowledged that the SPS faced a number of uncertainties in its budget, including on pay, pension costs and the costs that are associated with the rising numbers of prisoners in its care. As a result, an additional £24 million has been made available this year to help the SPS meet a range of cost pressures. I will continue to keep the budget position under review throughout the remainder of this year.

Budget allocations for next year are being considered as part of the current budget process, which includes consideration of the factors that gave rise to additional funding being provided to the SPS this year.

Many of the challenges that are raised in the Auditor General’s report are a consequence of the rapid increase in the prison population that began in 2018. Although crime, including violent crime, has fallen considerably in the past decade, we know that the nature of the offending that is being prosecuted through the courts has changed over that period, including there being more focus on serious organised crime and sexual offending, including historical cases and crimes that are committed online. That means that the average length of custodial sentence that is being imposed is at its highest in the last 10 years—it has increased by 21 per cent since 2008-09. That, along with other factors such as longer minimum punishment parts for life sentences, the ending of automatic early release for the most dangerous offenders and a reduction in the use of home detention curfew, has contributed to Scotland now locking up a greater proportion of its people than any other nation in western Europe.

I have been unequivocal that that is not a statistic to be proud of—far from it. It is a stain on our country’s collective conscience.

While prison will always remain the best option for some of the most serious offenders, we know that those numbers are far too high and we have been working closely with our justice partners to take forward a range of progressive measures aimed at bringing those numbers down and easing the pressure on our prisons.

First, we know from the evidence that short-term sentences simply do not work to rehabilitate individuals. Individuals released from a custodial sentence of 12 months or less are reconvicted nearly twice as often as those who are given a community payback order. That is why we brought in a presumption against short sentences, to extend the current presumption against short periods of imprisonment from sentences of three months or less to sentences of 12 months or less.

Secondly, the Management of Offenders (Scotland) Act 2019 includes provisions to expand the availability of electronic monitoring alongside community sentences as alternatives to custody.

Thirdly, the Scottish Government, SPS, the Risk Management Authority and their partners have worked to develop revised operational guidance and processes for the release of prisoners on home detention curfew. In addition, we have asked Community Justice Scotland to take forward work with local authorities to collect information on the local availability of community justice services that can be shared with sentencers to help inform sentencing decisions.

Finally, the 2019 programme for government includes a commitment to undertake work to review the law on bail and remand. The Scottish Government has issued a commission for research to enable us to better understand the factors driving the relative use of bail and remand.

Those are just some examples of the progressive reforms that this Government is undertaking to address the challenges and to reduce the numbers of people in our custody.

I will move on to the physical prison estate. Since 2007, we have invested almost £600 million in the prison estate across Scotland. That investment has delivered three new prisons—Low Moss, Addiewell and Grampian—and the significant refurbishment of existing prisons, including Polmont, Edinburgh, Glenochil, Shotts and Perth.

In terms of our current priorities, delivering the bold and progressive plans for the new women’s custodial estate is vital. Our plans to create community custody units to sit alongside a smaller national facility reflect the recommendations made by the commission on women offenders and they will be more responsive to the specific needs of women who are in prison. Work on this project is well under way and the SPS aims to deliver the first of two local community custodial units in Dundee and Glasgow by the end of 2021. We know that concerns have been raised about the physical condition in parts of HMP Barlinnie and the replacement of HMP Barlinnie is one of our priorities. The preferred site at the former gas works at Provanmill for the replacement facility was confirmed by the SPS earlier this year and it is taking forward an application for an outline planning consent.

In the meantime, we have committed to considering proposals for additional funding to help to deal with the immediate infrastructure issues at Barlinnie, ahead of the replacement prison being completed. I appreciate that members are as keen as the Scottish Government and the SPS are to get the new facilities up and running but, as with any other significant infrastructure investment, there are many factors at play that affect the timetabling for large and complex projects, including the commercial marketplace and due diligence. However, I assure members that we are working at pace to deliver the new facilities. On-going investment in our prison estate will ensure that it is fit for purpose for the future, with modern infrastructure enabling maintenance of the safe, stable and secure environments that we can rightly be proud of in Scotland’s prisons.

The Auditor General’s report discusses some of the pressures that are being faced by the hard-working prison officers and staff in our prisons. I am sure that the entire Parliament will want to put on record our appreciation for the tough job that prison officers do. They deal with the most vulnerable people in our society and face an increasingly complex prison population on a daily basis. They do that job with great professionalism and I am greatly appreciative of their efforts.

One area of staffing that is highlighted in the Auditor General’s report is the increase in sickness absence among prison officers. The rise is largely attributable to mental health-related conditions. Multiple contributory factors both inside and outside the workplace are triggering illnesses, and the SPS is taking forward a range of measures through its employee wellbeing policy to support officers in their challenging roles. The measures include, to name just a few, lifestyle screening with physical health checks; a critical incident response and support process; an employee assistance programme, which is a free, 24-hour, confidential support service that provides telephone and face-to-face counselling; and an online health platform with multiple tools to monitor and improve wellbeing. Both HMP Inverness and HMP and YOI Grampian are showing a downward trend in the number of staff working days lost due to sickness, and the SPS continues to work hard to maintain that trend.

I have seen at first hand some of the challenges that our prison officers face on a day-to-day basis, so I am pleased that SPS management, unions and staff reached agreement in relation to the recent pay offer. It was a significant offer, which exceeded rises in previous years and pay deals across the public sector—and it was significant in comparison with offers for counterparts in England and Wales. It rightly reflects the hard work and dedication of our prison officers, whose work is difficult, often dangerous and largely unseen by the wider public.

In closing, I extend an invitation to every member in the Parliament. Today I have set out some of the wide-ranging measures that the Government has undertaken to bring about reform to the justice system and to bring about the changes that we want to see in a progressive society. We are clear, however, that we must go further. We want prisons to continue to be used to detain and rehabilitate those who present the biggest threats to our communities, alongside robust community alternatives and interventions to keep out of our prisons those for whom prison is not the best option.

However, we know from the evidence and from international comparisons that there is no silver bullet or magic wand to solve the complex, multifaceted and wider societal challenges in our prisons. I believe in the cross-portfolio, multi-agency and collaborative approach that the Government is taking, and my invitation to those who are here in the chamber is to be part of the solutions and reform. My door has been and will continue to be open to members with ideas and resolutions to the challenges, but we must find a solution to them, and I, as Cabinet Secretary for Justice, am determined that we do.