Covid-19 (Justice)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 21st April 2020.

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Photo of Linda Fabiani Linda Fabiani Scottish National Party

The next item of business is a statement by the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Humza Yousaf, on coronavirus: justice sector response. The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of his statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.

Photo of Humza Yousaf Humza Yousaf Scottish National Party

First and foremost, I express my gratitude to justice agencies and front-line professionals across the country for their response to the Covid-19 outbreak.

Scotland’s justice system is responding well. In the context of Covid-19, justice agencies face significant challenges in adapting how they work, maintaining where at all possible access to justice and continuing to protect our communities, vulnerable individuals and people in our care, while also ensuring compliance with essential public health advice and regulations.

In these unprecedented times, Administrations across the United Kingdom and internationally are having to take very difficult actions to boost and strengthen the justice response to help to combat, curtail and control the spread of the virus. I will set out briefly the Scottish Government’s justice response.

Police officers and staff are on the front line of our response to this public health crisis. I pay tribute to the crucial job that they are doing to protect the national health service and other services and to keep us safe. The approach that has been taken by Police Scotland when interacting with the public is very welcome. It makes sense to engage, educate and encourage, and then, only as a last resort, to use enforcement action where necessary. That is in line with our valued traditions of policing with the consent of the public. Only a fraction of those interactions have led to warnings or fines. Compliance with the regulations remains very high. I thank the people of Scotland for their common sense and recognition of our shared responsibility during the crisis.

I welcome the chief constable’s decision to invite John Scott QC to review Police Scotland’s use of the new emergency powers. An independent review by a highly regarded expert in human rights is a welcome check and balance, complementing the role of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland.

Quite rightly, we have heard a lot about the need for the police, as for many of our key front-line workers, to have access to personal protective equipment. I take the issue very seriously. The level of PPE that police officers and police staff must use is, of course, a matter for Police Scotland’s chief constable, given his statutory responsibility for the health and safety of his officers and staff.

PPE is not needed for routine policing activities where there are no suspected or confirmed cases of Covid-19. However, if police support is required at an incident involving suspected or confirmed Covid-19, trained officers in full PPE would be asked to attend. Police Scotland’s guidance on the use of PPE is proportionate and based on risk assessments for those circumstances, and follows advice and guidance from Health Protection Scotland. Training for officers has now been increased across the country, with specific roles being prioritised. By Friday last week, around 5,000 front-line police officers had been trained in the use of PPE and had a mask fitted. More than 7,000 kits had been issued.


Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, which works closely with other first responders across our communities, is also doing a fantastic job. I urge the public, who have increased time at home, to be mindful of fire safety in their homes and to follow SFRS guidance.

During this time, we have all been asked to stay at home but, unfortunately, home is not a safe haven for many people; those who suffer domestic abuse, including coercive and controlling behaviours, can feel isolated and vulnerable, unheard and unseen. Support is available 24/7 on Scotland’s domestic abuse helpline on 0800 027 1234. In addition, Childline is available to support children and young people.

Police Scotland’s response to domestic abuse remains unchanged. Officers will continue to respond to reports and endeavour to prevent harm. The Lord Advocate has confirmed that domestic abuse cases will continue to be prosecuted rigorously and fairly, and bail conditions and non-harassment orders continue to be enforced.

We have developed a Covid-19 domestic abuse emergency response to maintain the delivery of vital services. We have provided support to third sector organisations, including an additional £1.5 million to Scottish Women’s Aid and Rape Crisis Scotland. We have increased the victim’s fund to £100,000, which is available through Victim Support Scotland to help to meet the immediate needs of victims. We have relaunched Scotland’s domestic abuse campaign, which makes clear that, if a person is experiencing domestic abuse, help is available and they are not alone.

The courts’ spotlight has recently shone on how criminal business is handled, but I recognise that courts deal with an extensive range of civil business, much of which is rightly regarded as essential—a wide range of family law cases, guardianship orders and commissary business, to give but three examples. Maintaining the safety of litigants, the judiciary, court staff and, indeed, the wider public must always be the absolute priority.

The emergency legislation that was passed by the Parliament to facilitate court business has been of great assistance to the courts in progressing business safely. However, it is inevitable that many aspects of court business will be disrupted. I am grateful for the way in which the courts are engaging with the legal profession and others to identify and prioritise areas of work that can continue.

Difficult decisions have also had to be taken in the management of criminal business. That includes the decision by the Lord President and the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service, in the light of the social distancing advice, to suspend all jury trials in the immediate term. Let me be clear: the Scottish Government is absolutely committed to the principle of trial by jury. Last week, we published a discussion paper setting out a number of potential options, and we confirmed that judge-only trials are not the Government’s favoured option.

I was very pleased that a number of MSPs were able to join the first virtual round table to discuss the issues that our system is facing and the best way forward. I hosted sectoral discussions with, among others, the legal sector, the third sector and human rights organisations. The chief executive of the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service and the Crown Agent have shared the latest data on the numbers of cases that we are facing that cannot progress, and the likely backlog. In our paper, the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service estimates a potential backlog of 1,600 serious cases awaiting trial by August. We must not lose sight of the impact that backlogs and delays will have on real people, including victims, vulnerable witnesses and, indeed, those accused of crime who are held on remand.

I turn to the options in the paper. Based on the discussions so far, we will focus on a number of the options, including the potential for smaller numbers of jurors; social distancing measures within existing court facilities; measures to enable faster progression of jury trials to address the backlog following the easing of public health restrictions; and potentially adjusting the sentencing powers of sheriff courts.

I am aware that not everyone will be supportive of all those options. Representatives from the third sector spoke powerfully of concerns about any options that still require juries, due to the possibility that, in these times, there might be a greater likelihood of jurors falling ill or self-isolating, and of trials starting and not being able to proceed, which would cause extreme distress for victims. I am sure that every member has received the letter, signed on behalf of the four largest victims organisations, expressing some of their concerns.

Many challenges remain, but I am heartened by the progress to date. We will continue to work to mitigate and reduce the potential backlog of cases. However, we need to be realistic that the impact on the courts will continue for a significant period, even after the current health restrictions begin to be lifted.

I come to the most significant aspect of my update today. The Scottish Prison Service has taken comprehensive action to ensure that the social distancing requirements and public health advice are met within our prisons. Some of those measures, which were set out in recent amendments to prison rules, were necessary to ensure operational stability and to preserve safety and wellbeing across prisons.

Let me take this opportunity to thank prison officers and staff for the incredible job that they have done to maintain safety and order in our prisons during these challenging times. I also thank the range of social workers, public sector staff and third sector groups that have continued to support people in prison and after their release.

As of last night, 89 people in custody across 12 sites are isolated, as per protocol, and they are being monitored accordingly. The monitoring of conditions in our prisons continues to be very important, and I can confirm that Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons for Scotland will be implementing a remote monitoring framework shortly.

Measures to mitigate the impact of social isolation on those who are in the care of the Scottish Prison Service have been introduced, such as in-cell support material, which has been developed for those in SPS care by psychologists and experts in mental health wellbeing.

The suspension of prison visits, which has been in place since 24 March, will be being felt by prisoners and families alike. On Friday, I announced our intention to provide mobile phones to those in custody in order to allow them to maintain vital family contact, while putting in place robust restrictions to prevent their misuse. There are still, of course, some security, technical and legal issues to be resolved before phones can be rolled out, but that is a priority for the SPS and the Government.

We recently debated the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act 2020, and provisions on prisoner release secured unanimous support. Work continues within the SPS and justice social work to carefully assess prisoners and decide who can be permitted to spend the last section of their sentence on a tag on home detention curfew. The slowdown in court business has also reduced the number of people in prison.

However, we should not underestimate the challenges that our prisons face in protecting and managing the prison population in the context of Covid-19. There are still a significant number of prison staff who cannot be in work due to ill health or a requirement to isolate, or as a result of needing to take care of children or family members. Taken together with the changes to prison regimes, those factors make prisons an especially challenging environment at present for prisoners, prison officers, NHS staff and others who work in our prisons. We have also had recent confirmation of a further three weeks of lockdown, so we need to make arrangements now with a view to the continued running of prisons over the following weeks.

I can advise the Parliament today that, after careful consideration and in agreement with the views of the chief executive of the Scottish Prison Service, I will be asking the SPS to consider the release of a limited number of short-sentenced prisoners towards the end of their time in custody. I believe that that is a necessary and proportionate response to the current situation in our prisons. It is in the interests of maintaining security and good order in our prisons, and it is vital in maintaining and safeguarding the health, safety and welfare of prisoners and those who work in our prisons. The action will help to give the SPS sufficient capacity, including increased single cell occupancy, to continue to maintain a safe custodial environment.

By the end of this month, we will lay regulations to make use of the powers that Parliament agreed, and release will begin at that point. In advance of regulations being laid, I can advise members of some of the detail of the arrangements.

Only those prisoners who are serving sentences of 18 months or less and who are in the last three months of their time in custody will be placed under consideration for possible release. They are short-term prisoners who are already due to be released over the next three months as their time in custody ends, and they would typically be released without any further requirement for supervision in the community. The release process is scheduled to begin at the end of this month and to run for four weeks.

The act already rules out any early release for certain types of prisoner, such as those who have been sentenced for sexual or terrorism offences and those who have been sentenced to supervision orders after their release. The regulations for the process will rule out the release of further categories of prisoner, including those who are serving sentences for domestic abuse offences, those with non-harassment orders and those who have been convicted of certain Covid-19-related offences.

Under the act, prison governors will have the power to veto any individual’s early release where there is evidence that they would present an immediate risk to an identified individual. The individual at risk may be a specific person or a person who belongs to a specific group.

The process will consider for release around 450 prisoners, who will all be approaching their scheduled release date. The review and veto process will inevitably reduce the eventual numbers who are released. We will work with a range of public and third sector services to enable prison leavers to access the housing and healthcare benefits and other support services that they need.

Changes are being made to the victim notification scheme so that victims and their families who have signed up to receive updates from the VNS will be informed if an individual whom they are registered in connection with will be released under the arrangements.

I understand that that will a difficult decision for some, including, of course, victims of crime. Let me be clear: it in no way diminishes the harm that victims have suffered. However, in these exceptional and unprecedented times, we must take difficult decisions that best reduce the risk of further harm.

I am aware that that decision will not be universally popular. However, it is my judgment that it is the right course of action for the safety of those who work in our prisons, as well as for those in our care. At times like these, we must recognise our obligations to all those in society, including those who live and work in our prisons. The action is necessary and proportionate and is the right one for a responsible Government to take. I trust that members across the chamber will support that difficult but necessary decision. I will remain in dialogue with colleagues across the chamber and will listen to any concerns or suggestions that they may have.

I invite members to join me in expressing their appreciation for those who support, and work within, the justice system as we continue to deal with the profound impact of this public health emergency, and to work with us in taking the necessary actions to assist justice agencies and their staff to fulfil their roles.

The Government will continue to engage with others to provide the support and capacity to maintain public confidence, to keep people safe, to protect lives and to instil and maintain confidence in Scotland’s justice system. My thanks and deepest appreciation go to all those who are in the front line of our justice system, for all that they do to keep us safe.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

The cabinet secretary will now take questions on the issues raised in his statement. I will allow as long as I can for questions. If the cabinet secretary wishes the Lord Advocate to respond to a particular question, he should indicate that to me.

Photo of Liam Kerr Liam Kerr Conservative

We recognise the extraordinary circumstances that our prisons face, but victims and the law-abiding public will be very concerned by prisoner release, and will need reassurance. Will the cabinet secretary set out what evidence, and from which agencies, has led to the conclusion that that action is the one that is required to maintain a safe custodial environment? What support is being considered for those victims who might see their attacker out on the street and may be fearful for their own safety? Would it not be sensible and reassuring to tag all prisoners who are released early?

Photo of Humza Yousaf Humza Yousaf Scottish National Party

I thank Liam Kerr for the question and for his approach. He and I have an on-going and constructive dialogue on all justice matters.

This is not a decision that any Government would take lightly. When the UK Government decided on an early release scheme with temporary licences, that decision will also not have been taken lightly. That will be the same for the Government in Northern Ireland, which has taken a similar decision, and for Governments across the world. It is not a decision that anybody would take lightly.

I am more than happy to give Liam Kerr more detail, but we know that there are three ways in which the prison population may reduce. One is via the reduction in court business; one is

by the use of home detention curfew; and

one is by the use of emergency release powers.

We cannot release everybody with a tag as he suggests. There are also limitations in the capacity for HDC. At the moment, there are about 60 people on HDC. The contractor, G4S, has limitations: it, too, is dealing with staff absence and sickness. As the member knows, electronically tagging somebody requires close contact, as does installing the radio frequency unit. If that individual misses their curfew, they will get a phone call. If they do not answer or do not give a reasonable excuse, they may get a visit from an individual. When there are staff absences, that creates a capacity issue.

I can assure Liam Kerr that we will try to maximise the capacity for HDC, but we have to go above and beyond that capacity. That is why we are looking at using emergency release powers.

There is clear evidence from the dialogue that the Scottish Prison Service has had with public health officials that to increase single occupancy of cells—rather than the double occupancy that we have in our overcrowded prisons—would help us to contain the virus. I am happy to maintain a dialogue with Liam Kerr and others and to provide them with more detail.

Photo of James Kelly James Kelly Labour

I thank the justice secretary for his statement and join him in thanking workers in the justice sector for keeping the public safe. I welcome the constructive discussions that have taken place to deal with the backlog of trials, with a view to finding a solution that does not involve judge-only trials.

It is clear that the cramped and overcrowded conditions in prisons present a threat of the spread of Covid-19 to staff and inmates alike. Therefore, I welcome the cabinet secretary’s announcement on the release of prisoners who are coming to the end of their sentence, provided that they do not present any risk to the public. It is a correct and proportionate response.

I have two questions. What provisions will be put in place to ensure that those who are being released are free from infection? That will protect not only them but those with whom they come into contact in the wider community. What support services will be put in place to help prisoners who are being released? Specifically, can the cabinet secretary outline how he can guarantee that nobody will be put in a position whereby, on release, they will potentially be homeless?

Photo of Humza Yousaf Humza Yousaf Scottish National Party

I thank James Kelly for the approach that he has taken throughout this process, from the beginning of the pandemic. On the social distancing and lockdown measures that we have had to face, his approach has been very constructive, and I appreciate it very much.

On his two substantive questions, it is imperative that the Scottish Prison Service continues to follow public health guidance. It will always do that, and therefore it would not be wise to release any prisoner who shows symptoms of Covid-19. I say that, but of course the legal issues around that absolutely have to be worked out. That is what we intend to do, and we are working on it proactively.

For example, if a prisoner were due to be released automatically—not through the early release scheme—it is not yet certain that the legal position would allow us to delay their automatic release due to the fact that they were presenting symptoms. We have to work through some of those legal issues, but I can give James Kelly an absolute assurance on two things. First, not only do we take such matters seriously, we understand the importance of them, and secondly, I will keep him and the rest of the chamber updated on that legitimate and pertinent question.

On James Kelly’s second question, let me give the further reassurance that, in advance of today’s announcement, I have already been having constructive dialogue with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. Just yesterday, I spoke to Councillor Kelly Perry, who leads on these matters for COSLA, and we had a very good discussion. It is going to be important that the prisoners whom we release are released in a phased manner. I will be happy to provide more detail on that, so that we can work with local authorities to ensure that adequate housing is provided as well as access to other support services. I should also say that the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Planning, who is here in the chamber, and I have already had constructive dialogue on the matter. Again, I am more than happy to keep members updated.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

We move to open questions.

Photo of Mr Mark Ruskell Mr Mark Ruskell Green

I have received reports that prisoners at HMP Glenochil are exercising together in groups of 25. However, staff are not able to routinely wear PPE and there is no testing of prisoners for Covid-19. Does the cabinet secretary agree with the World Health Organization when it says that

“the global effort to tackle the spread of disease may fail without proper attention to infection control measures within prisons”?

Does he believe that all prisoners and staff must be tested, as part of a test, trace and isolate strategy, and will he clarify whether the UK coronavirus detention guidance applies to Scotland?

Photo of Humza Yousaf Humza Yousaf Scottish National Party

I will look at the specific matter that Mark Ruskell raises in relation to Glenochil. However, prisons are challenging environments and the rules, advice and guidance on social distancing are being adhered to as well as possible.

There are sufficient supplies of PPE. I speak to the interim chief executive of SPS many times during the week, and that is a constant topic of conversation. Perhaps we need to be careful about what we mean in relation to the routine wearing of PPE. The issuing of PPE to prison officers and staff is very much aligned to the public health advice that is given by Health Protection Scotland and others.

The vast majority of those who are self-isolating are in HMP Addiewell, and the vast majority of those individuals are isolating as a precautionary measure, so I do not think that there is a particular issue with the rise or spread of the infection in Glenochil, but I am more than happy to look into that.

We know that prison staff are being tested at some of the testing facilities that have been set up so that they can return to work, and that is why we have seen the absence rate across the Prison Service drop from 25 per cent at its peak to just below 20 per cent today.

Photo of Alex Cole-Hamilton Alex Cole-Hamilton Liberal Democrat

Making such decisions in the context of the pandemic is an unenviable task. It is all the more difficult because of where we started: Scotland’s prisons were in difficulty before Covid-19. Liberal Democrats think that emergency release, with the right protections in place, is the right thing to do.

In England and Wales, the Ministry of Justice has begun temporarily releasing all pregnant prisoners and those in mother and baby units. How many people within the Scottish prison estate are pregnant or are in prison with their young children, and are there plans for their release and for the support that they need?

Photo of Humza Yousaf Humza Yousaf Scottish National Party

I will endeavour to come back to Alex Cole Hamilton—I know the number, but I have to be cautious and take some advice about whether I can say it publicly, in case I identify individuals who may be pregnant. It is one of the first questions that I asked, when the pandemic broke out.

I give Alex Cole-Hamilton a very clear reassurance that, if those individuals can be released, they will be. We may be able to deploy powers for compassionate, as opposed to emergency early, release.

It is a very difficult conversation to have. Depending on the individual’s circumstances before they went into prison—

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Excuse me, cabinet secretary, but it is difficult to hear you if you do not speak into the microphone.

Photo of Humza Yousaf Humza Yousaf Scottish National Party

Depending on their family scenario, releasing them back out into those circumstances could do harm to the unborn child and indeed to the mother.

I hope that that makes sense. I have to be a little bit careful about what I can and cannot say, and I will take more advice in relation to what can be said about pregnant prisoners. However, members should be under no illusion: they should be assured that where we can compassionately release those who are pregnant, the Government will look to do that.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I warn members that we are not going to get through all the questions unless we pick up the pace a bit.

Photo of Rona Mackay Rona Mackay Scottish National Party

How is the Crown Office responding to the current situation, and what impact is the Covid-19 outbreak having on the prosecution of crime in Scotland?

The Lord Advocate (Rt Hon James Wolffe QC):

Over the past month, the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service has distributed more than 1,500 laptops to members of staff, enabling them to continue to work productively from home.

I would like to be clear with parliamentarians that the criminal justice system continues to protect individuals and communities. The police continue, and will continue, to respond to criminality and to report cases to the Crown. Where public or individual safety demands it, accused persons are reported from custody. They are appearing before 10 designated sheriff courts, in some cases remotely, by a link from the police office. The Crown continues to mark cases for prosecution and will continue to process both its existing caseload and new cases, as far as that is possible.

The fundamental constraint that we face is the limitation that the current circumstances place on the business that can be dealt with in court. A small number of summary cases, in which the accused is in custody, are proceeding to trial, but all other summary cases are being adjourned. Solemn cases in which the accused pleads guilty are calling, so that the plea can be tendered and the accused sentenced, but, as members are aware, no jury trials can take place at this time.

Accordingly, the Crown’s focus is currently on resolving those cases that can resolve by way of a plea, and on continuing to prepare cases—both its existing caseload and new cases, as far as that is possible—so that they are as ready as they can be when trials can again take place. The Crown will engage with the defence to that end, and I appreciate the constructive communication that the Crown has had with leaders of the legal profession in that regard.

The cabinet secretary has rightly warned colleagues that the impact on the courts will continue for a significant period after the current health restrictions come to an end or begin to be lifted. I know that parliamentarians are clear about the scale and seriousness of the challenge that we will face, and, as the cabinet secretary has observed, about the human impact of that backlog on accused persons and on victims of crime.

A lot of work is being done across the criminal justice system to respond to the immediate challenges and to address, in so far as we can, the mitigation of the challenges that we will continue to face as we live with Covid-19 and its consequences.

I am grateful for the opportunity to add my appreciation of the staff of the COPFS and all others across the criminal justice system for their continuing work.

Photo of Gordon Lindhurst Gordon Lindhurst Conservative

The cabinet secretary mentioned in his statement the option of social distancing in existing court facilities for jury trials during the pandemic. Can he update Parliament on the work that has doubtless been carried out during the past few weeks? On the basis of that work, I ask whether he can advise Parliament, first, on the specific steps that have been undertaken to enable that approach to happen and, secondly, on the number of trials that will now be able to proceed and the number of courts that can be up and running on that basis before the end of the month?

Photo of Humza Yousaf Humza Yousaf Scottish National Party

I am conscious of the time, Presiding Officer, so it may be helpful if I write to Gordon Lindhurst with some of the detail. Work is at a very early stage. So far, we have spoken to the sector and had dialogue with a number of other stakeholders. We have reduced the nine options that were in our paper down to about four, on which we think that we will concentrate. Once we work through the pragmatic and practical realities of those options, we will be able to give further detail on how many trials may be able to take place.

I will ensure that Gordon Lindhurst gets as much detail as possible on the work that has been done to date. If he is interested, I will ensure that he is kept up to date on these matters.

Photo of Ruth Maguire Ruth Maguire Scottish National Party

I welcome the provision of mobile phones to those in custody, and I agree with the justice secretary that maintaining family contact is vital. However, that news will be of concern to some people. What safeguards will be put in place to ensure that perpetrators of violence against women, domestic abuse or stalking are prevented from abusing, harassing or stalking their victims online or over the phone?

Photo of Humza Yousaf Humza Yousaf Scottish National Party

That is a hugely important question. At the moment, the phones that are used in prisons have some restrictions placed on them, and it is exactly that issue—security restrictions— that we need to work through with the handsets that we intend to provide. For example, prisoners will be asked for three numbers, which they will be able to input into the phone that we provide, and it will be for the Prison Service to verify that those are not inappropriate numbers to call. All that will take a bit of time. Therefore, although I have announced our intention to provide mobile phones for prisoners and those in our care, it will take time to work through those security, operational, logistical and legal issues.

Again, if the member wishes to have more information as—or even before—the roll-out begins, I would be happy to provide that, if she writes to me.

Photo of Claire Baker Claire Baker Labour

Following a change to the guidelines in England, the lockdown rules for the police and the public in Scotland and England differ. How will the Scottish Government and Police Scotland ensure that people are aware of the differences? How will people who follow English rules in Scotland be treated by the police? How challenging is it to deliver a message to the public when there is divergence, which is a situation that may become more common?

Photo of Humza Yousaf Humza Yousaf Scottish National Party

I am more than happy to look at the specifics of that issue. Again, in terms of the law, operational matters are for the chief constable. In relation to any difficulty with or confusion about the guidelines, or, indeed, the law, I am more than happy that the chief constable and I speak in an aligned manner, in order to ensure that no confusion exists.

From speaking to the chief constable—as I do almost daily—I know that he remains satisfied that there are very high levels of compliance with the laws and the guidelines in Scotland. He has not specifically raised with me—and I suspect that his officers have not raised with him—the issue of confusion around the guidelines. However, if Claire Baker is concerned about specific instances, I am more than happy for her to get in touch with me, and I am more than happy to raise them with the chief constable.

Photo of Fulton MacGregor Fulton MacGregor Scottish National Party

Shared Parenting Scotland has advised that there are thousands of children in Scotland whose parents do not live together but share parenting time for their children. Like many members, I have received constituency queries about that. The guidance that has been issued has been clear that travel between symptom-free homes is an exception to the overall travel restrictions, because there are benefits to the continuity of those relationships.

Does the cabinet secretary think that the message is widely understood? Will he offer encouragement and reassurance to parents who find themselves in that position? Will he also advise what actions might be available to a parent who, in the current context, is worried about domestic violence, including coercive control, and about their child perhaps not being returned to their care for some time?

Photo of Humza Yousaf Humza Yousaf Scottish National Party

I am very aware of the context of the first part of Fulton MacGregor’s question. I am a step-parent and my step-daughter travels between our home and her father’s home, as per the agreement that we have.

There is an exception to the rules for the circumstances that Fulton MacGregor described and, while ensuring that the health guidance is followed, a child may travel between homes, because we understand how important family contact is.

In the days after the lockdown measures were introduced, the Lord President helpfully gave an update to guidance for those specific circumstances. If Fulton MacGregor wishes, I will send him details of the Lord President’s guidance in relation to court orders and so on that must be adhered to. However, we understand that these are exceptional circumstances in which parental discretion will be important in maintaining the safety and wellbeing of children.

Fulton MacGregor also asked about domestic abuse. As I referenced in my statement, we are aware of and concerned about the vulnerability of women and children, in particular, during these times. I again state clearly and unequivocally that, regardless of how busy the police are, they have said that they want those who are threatened or being abused in their homes to contact the police when appropriate.

The police are available 24/7 and will deal with domestic abuse with a zero-tolerance approach, which is the way in which they have dealt with it previously. I commend the work that the police and, importantly, organisations such as Scottish Women’s Aid, Rape Crisis Scotland and many others are doing to support survivors and victims of domestic abuse.

Photo of Maurice Corry Maurice Corry Conservative

Will the cabinet secretary explain why prisoners with three months of their sentence left to serve are being released from Scottish prisons, while the cut-off in other parts of the United Kingdom is two months?

Photo of Humza Yousaf Humza Yousaf Scottish National Party

The decision on the threshold or cut-off date for prisons in England and Wales is a matter for the UK Government, and it will be specific to the challenges that the UK Government faces, which might be different from those that we face.

The UK Government’s release scheme will result in about 4,000 prisoners being released. In terms of our population share, we are not far off that figure with the 400 to 450 prisoners in Scotland to be considered for release, although that number will inevitably decrease once the governor‘s veto and other such measures are put in place.

I take decisions for the Scottish prison system. I believe the measures to be right and proportionate, and I am pleased that, broadly, they have support around the chamber.

Photo of Angela Constance Angela Constance Scottish National Party

I have written to the cabinet secretary and Her Majesty’s Prison Addiewell regarding reports from constituents of mine who are Addiewell staff about the presence of Covid-19 and their specific worries about access to PPE. Will the cabinet secretary outline how concerns about access to PPE will be addressed and confirm that measures will be taken in line with the most up-to-date public health advice with clarity about who should wear what and when?

Photo of Humza Yousaf Humza Yousaf Scottish National Party

I will ensure that Angela Constance gets a speedy response to her correspondence. As I already said, I speak to the interim chief of the Scottish Prison Service nearly every day, so I will raise that issue with her.

For those who are concerned for their loved ones, whether they work in HMP Addiewell or are in our care there, I note that of the large number of people who are self-isolating there, the vast majority do not have symptoms and are self-isolating because of the tailored advice that was given by NHS Lothian for the specific circumstances there. Although it will still be concerning for the people who are self-isolating at HMP Addiewell, for the vast majority it is a precautionary measure.

As I do regularly, I will raise the member’s question on PPE with the interim chief executive of the SPS. Again, I am told that there are sufficient supplies and that the guidance on PPE is aligned to advice by Health Protection Scotland.

Photo of Daniel Johnson Daniel Johnson Labour

Surgical masks might have some role to play in preventing the spread of the virus, but they do little to protect the wearer from acquiring it. Does the cabinet secretary agree with the Scottish Police Federation in calling for masks of no less than FFP3 standard to be issued to officers, because surgical masks are inadequate? If he does, when will FFP3 masks be available for all police officers who perform public-facing roles?

Photo of Humza Yousaf Humza Yousaf Scottish National Party

I might be wrong, and I am happy to be corrected, but I did not think that the Scottish Police Federation was calling for every officer to have FFP3 masks. I will go back and look over what the Scottish Police Federation said.

The federation has highlighted concerns around its interpretation of the effects of surgical masks, but I am wholly aligned with the chief constable’s approach. For as long as I have known him, the chief constable’s utmost priority has been the health and wellbeing of his officers and staff, as well as the protection of the public at large.

The revised guidance that Police Scotland issued absolutely aligns not just with Public Health Scotland but with the Public Health England guidelines that the UK Government follows. The guidance that Police Scotland has issued is therefore aligned to the health advice that is given to other public sector workers.

Police Scotland has an adequate supply of FFP3 masks. In my statement, I mentioned the number of people that have already been trained to fit those masks; I am incredibly impressed by the rate at which Police Scotland has carried out that training. Therefore, I am satisfied with the approach that Police Scotland has taken on PPE.

With regard to the concerns that federation raised, I will look again to see whether it is calling for FFP3 masks to be given to every police officer. However, where there is no suspected or confirmed case of Covid-19, I do not think that that would be necessary.

Photo of Stuart McMillan Stuart McMillan Scottish National Party

In his statement, the cabinet secretary spoke about Police Scotland engaging, educating, encouraging and then using enforcement measures. Can the cabinet secretary provide clarification on the issue of people leaving their home for non-essential travel? At the weekend, we saw queues of people at the reopened B&Q, as well as people still driving to parks to walk or run.

Photo of Humza Yousaf Humza Yousaf Scottish National Party

I thank Stuart McMillan for that question. We have been clear on the reasons that people can leave the house. When it comes to that once-daily exercise, which everyone enjoys—particularly in the weather that we have today—we have asked people to do that locally. There should be no need to drive to scenic locations for walks and exercise. We know the dangers of doing so: if it became popular to do that, those locations would become crowded and it would be very difficult to maintain social distancing. Therefore, the strong advice has been to walk or exercise locally, as opposed to travelling in the car.

As I said, the guidance is laid out and is specific. The advice is clear and, as the chief constable has often reiterated, the police will take a commonsense approach. The numbers that the police have fined or taken other action against are low, which demonstrates that commonsense approach. However, everyone should be in no doubt that enforcement action will remain an option for the police to take, if necessary.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

That concludes questions on the justice sector response to the coronavirus. I apologise to John Mason and Alison Johnstone for being unable to take their questions.