1. The rules of the Parliament prevent me from asking crucial questions about the scandal over the Scottish National Party’s finances, so I cannot dwell on that, but I want to use my opening question to give the First Minister an opportunity to be transparent.
Last night, the First Minister became the SNP’s treasurer, so, although this is still a party matter, it is also now a Government matter if the First Minister is compromised, if his hands are tied, if the party of government is about to go bankrupt or if he himself becomes involved in the police investigation. Yesterday, the Deputy First Minister said:
“Going forward, the governance of the party needs to be ... about transparency, openness and people should be able to be able to question ... about the accounts.”
We agree, and we believe that there are legitimate questions that the Scottish public deserve answers to. In the interest of transparency, will Humza Yousaf agree to make a statement to Parliament on the financial scandal that is engulfing the party of government in Scotland?
Mr Ross, according to the Parliament’s standing orders, First Minister’s question time gives the opportunity to put questions to the First Minister that fall within the responsibilities of the First Minister as First Minister and, of course, the responsibilities of his Government. I am not entirely clear that that question met the requirements of the standing orders. I am looking at the First Minister to see whether he wishes to add anything to what I have said.
I am happy to answer the question. I know that there are, of course, some serious issues for the party that I lead—the SNP—to address; I am not going to shy away from that. That is why in my very first act as SNP leader, attending my very first national executive committee, I am pleased that we got agreement from that committee—the body that oversees the party, which is elected by our members—to our review of transparency and governance. There was agreement not only to a transparency and governance review but to one that has external input, particularly on issues of finance oversight.
That is an important role for me, as leader of the SNP, but let me also say that what I am doing—and what the Government that I lead is doing collectively—is focusing relentlessly on the day job. That is why, in the first few weeks of being First Minister, I not only doubled but tripled the fuel insecurity fund. I know that Douglas Ross will not want to talk about that, because it lays bare the harm that the Tory cost of living crisis is doing to households up and down the country. [
Douglas Ross will no doubt be pleased that it was me that got interrupted for once.
That is why, in my first few weeks as First Minister, I announced £15 million for school-age childcare that is targeted towards the lowest-income households, an additional £25 million to support the just transition, additional funding to support general practices in our areas of highest deprivation and £25 million to be able to buy back or long lease empty properties for the social rented sector. Those are priorities for me, and they are the priorities of the Scottish people. Although I take my responsibility as leader of the SNP extremely seriously, I and the Government that I lead will focus relentlessly on the priorities of the Scottish people.
The first words from the First Minister when he stood up were that he was happy to answer the question, but he then basically refused to do so. I simply asked for a statement and for transparency, which I think are needed from the First Minister, because the secrecy must end.
I will move on to one of the matters of substance that the First Minister should be focusing his attention on, instead of on the huge distractions within his party. Last year, an SNP Government agency introduced guidelines that encourage more lenient sentences for under-25s, even for some of the worst crimes. The Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Home Affairs was asked about that in the session before First Minister’s question time. Does the First Minister fully support the policy that was brought forward for consultation when he was justice secretary?
That is a very important issue. Although I will not comment on individual sentencing decisions, as it would not be right for me to do so as First Minister, let me clarify some important issues around the sentencing guidelines. I heard Angela Constance make these points in response to the question earlier.
Sentencing guidelines are, rightly, entirely the responsibility of the independent Scottish Sentencing Council. Decisions about whether to approve those guidelines are for the High Court. The new Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Home Affairs has written to the chair of the Sentencing Council to discuss its important work. That letter notes that she will discuss how the council plans to keep those published guidelines under review.
It is also important to note not only that decisions on sentencing are rightly for the independent judiciary but that they are evidence based. Anybody who has read those sentencing guidelines—I assume that Douglas Ross has done so—will have seen a comprehensive guideline that is evidence based in relation to the sentencing of young people.
Notwithstanding all the good that is in there, the last point that I will make on that sentencing guideline is that it is very clear that there is no bar on imposing a custodial sentence on a young person where the judiciary considers that to be appropriate. However, that must be a decision neither for the First Minister or Government ministers nor for Opposition colleagues; it is a decision that is, rightly, for the independent judiciary.
A few weeks ago, my party and almost everyone in Scotland were outraged at the case of a 13-year-old girl who was raped at a park in Dalkeith. Her attacker, Sean Hogg, was found guilty of rape, but he did not go to prison. All that he had to do was carry out 270 hours of unpaid work. The judge said that, if Hogg had committed that crime when he was over 25, he would now be behind bars. That confirms that the problem is the sentencing guidelines that were introduced. It is very clear that the SNP’s justice system is broken. Will the First Minister fix it?
With that caveat in place, let me also say in reaction to that case that I can understand why people have concerns. However, I must go back to the central point that sentencing decisions are, rightly, for the independent courts and judiciary. The Lord President reminded me of that when he made some remarks on the public record when I attended the Court of Session to give my oath as the First Minister of Scotland. I committed to upholding the independence of the judiciary, which is a responsibility that I take with the utmost seriousness.
I read the very distressing account of the victim, who was 13 years old at the time. I also heard from her family in the public statements that have been made. Everybody would sympathise with the strong feelings of the victim. Talking generally and not about that specific case, I think that it is important to say that 98 per cent of all those who were convicted of rape between 2018 and 2021 received a custodial sentence.
It is important that we continue to give the judiciary the independence that it has, and that we have that separation between Government and judiciary. However, in the letter that Angela Constance sent to the Scottish Sentencing Council and the Lord Justice Clerk, she said that the Government would like to discuss the issues around how the sentencing guidelines are kept under review. I take Douglas Ross’s point that there is clearly public interest in the sentencing guidelines.
The grandfather of the victim said:
“With this new ruling they’ve got, any person under 25 can go out and do any crime they want, however horrendous it may be, and there’s a good chance that they will get a community payback.”
The survivor of the rape said:
“When I was told he had been found guilty I felt a wave of emotions. I didn’t know how to react. I cried, I think I cried with relief ... Now it makes me think, why did I even bother reporting the rape in the first place.”
“Whoever is in charge of the justice system needs to sort this out: you say you care about victims like me, but how can a serial rapist receive 270 hours community payback?”
Her final line was,
“Why is it ok to rape anyone and not go to jail?”
The First Minister seems to be hailing the statistic that 98 per cent of people who are convicted of rape go to prison. One hundred per cent of rapists who are convicted of that crime must go to prison. I will repeat the words of the victim as my question to the First Minister:
“Why is it ok to rape anyone and not go to jail?”
Speaking in the general and not about a specific case, I agree with the sentiment that, if somebody commits rape, they should go to jail. I believe that, but I also believe very firmly that it is up to the independent judiciary, including judges in the High Court, to make a decision about the appropriate punishment for an individual for the crime that they have committed.
I refer back to the sentencing guidelines, which are the central issue that Douglas Ross raises. The guidelines make it clear that, as well as looking at issues around rehabilitation and consideration of sentencing for young people under 25, other factors, including
“protection of the public; punishment ... and expressing” strong
“disapproval of offending behaviour”,
should also be taken into account.
Therefore, the courts can still, even with the guidelines that are in place, impose a custodial sentence on a young person if they consider that to be appropriate in the light of all the facts.
I take what has been said by the victim and her grandfather very seriously. That is why we are looking to improve the justice system, particularly when it comes to women, who are often the victims of sexual offences and rape. We will shortly introduce a criminal justice reform bill, which will seek to make those changes to the court system and to the justice system in order to improve the experience and outcomes of justice for victims of sexual offences and rape. I hope that it will get support from across the chamber.