I start by thanking everyone who contributed to the development of the Community Justice (Scotland) Bill, including members of all parties, all our stakeholders and, if I may, my bill team, of whom I am very proud.
I am particularly grateful to the stakeholders, especially local government colleagues, for their considered thoughts while the Government was shaping its policy and during Parliament’s consideration of the bill. I welcome their broad support for the bill, and I believe that it reflects the wide-ranging and effective engagement that we have had in developing its key provisions, especially the new national strategy for community justice and the performance framework. Following enactment, we will continue that dialogue as we take forward implementation.
I am grateful to the convener, Christine Grahame, and her Justice Committee colleagues for their detailed scrutiny of the bill. Indeed, I was pleased to lodge a number of amendments at stage 2 in response to the committee’s recommendations.
The bill will make positive changes to community justice. It comes at a time of broader reform in penal policy. Indeed, the bill and the new model for community justice that it establishes form a key part in delivering the Scottish Government’s commitment to reducing reoffending and the harm that it causes to individuals, families and communities.
Central to reducing reoffending is actively addressing the underlying causes of offending behaviour. The new model presents a more holistic and collaborative approach to identifying priorities and planning the most appropriate interventions. Such an approach requires community justice partners to co-operate with each other, especially at a local level. The provision around co-operation was strengthened by the stage 3 amendment that Dr Elaine Murray and I worked on together, and I again thank Dr Murray for her contribution.
The model will be driven forward at local and national level by the common aim of securing better outcomes for people and communities across Scotland. It is underpinned by a transparent and robust means of measuring and demonstrating progress in achieving those outcomes.
That transparency and clarity in delivering improved outcomes might in turn contribute to the Government’s vision of a fairer justice system in Scotland that reflects the values of a modern and progressive nation in which prison sentences, particularly short-term sentences, are used less frequently, and where there is a stronger emphasis on robust community sentences. It is important that individuals are held to account for the offences that they have committed, but thereafter it is also important that they are supported to be responsible citizens and contributors to our communities.
At stage 1, the Justice Committee and stakeholders raised a number of important points relating to key issues such as early intervention, engagement with the third sector and governance arrangements. I considered those points carefully and proposed a number of amendments at stage 2 that have strengthened the bill.
At stage 1, the committee and stakeholders called for a stronger element of prevention and early intervention to be reflected in the definition of community justice to enable effective intervention to take place earlier, with the aim of reducing the likelihood of further offending. Evidence shows that diverting individuals away from the criminal justice system is an effective way of preventing further offending. That is especially true when the diversion is complemented by an intervention that is designed to address the underlying causes of offending behaviour.
I recognise that waiting until someone is convicted may be too late and would mean that we lose an opportunity to prevent offending behaviour from escalating. That is why, with the committee’s support, we broadened the definition of “community justice” in the bill so that community justice services must be planned for people from the point of arrest onwards, rather than from the point that a conviction takes place, as had been set out in the bill at its introduction.
At stage 1, members and witnesses expressed a strong desire for prevention of further offending to be more strongly referenced in the bill, especially in the definition of “community justice”. The new broader definition responds positively to those representations, too.
Prevention is central to our aim of reducing further offending. Every intervention, support or management is an opportunity to work with an individual to aid prevention. As we discussed earlier today, the bill does not cover primary prevention, which means preventing people from offending in the first place, but I emphasise again the point that Alison McInnes made: primary prevention is being taken forward effectively by this Government through a range of other policies, such as early years interventions, raising educational attainment, tackling youth unemployment and our policies on health and housing. I am happy to reiterate that we will make sure that those policies are properly referenced in the guidance that will accompany the bill.
I will say a few words about the stronger provisions regarding the third sector that are now in the bill. At stage 2, I proposed and the committee agreed to a stronger participative role for the third sector—including victims organisations, as Margaret McDougall pointed out—in the planning of community justice, and in the preparation of key strategic documents such as the national strategy for community justice. That gives relevant third sector organisations stronger representation in the new model for community justice.
I fully recognise that the third sector is vital to the successful planning and delivery of effective and efficient services for individuals, and I am grateful for the positive contribution that the sector makes to community justice, at both a local and a national level, which I hope will be even greater in the future. I am also grateful to Margaret McDougall for working with me on framing the stage 3 amendment that provided that a statement of engagement is to be included when community justice partners are preparing their outcomes improvement plans. The statement will confirm that third sector bodies participated in the plan and confirm the efforts that community justice partners made to secure and facilitate the participation of third sector bodies and community bodies in their local area.
Margaret McDougall and I also worked together to amend the bill to make it clear that third sector organisations that represent victims and their families are to be consulted in the planning of community justice and on the preparation of key documents relating to it, where those organisations provide community justice services or perform an advocacy or advisory role. I trust that the committee and stakeholders will recognise the significant amendments that were made at stage 2 and stage 3 as being a positive response to the points that they raised with me and the committee.
I said earlier that being able to demonstrate to communities that better community justice outcomes are being delivered is a key part of the new model for community justice. Supporting the community justice partners in achieving those outcomes is one of the functions of the new national body, community justice Scotland. I understand that there have been misunderstandings about the role of community justice Scotland, and, indeed, some fears that it will be a regulatory body or a body with the potential to acquire unlimited new powers with no check or brake on that. Let me allay those fears now and be clear about how community justice Scotland will work with community justice partners.
I emphasise that the model is a decentralised one that places decision making in the hands of local people and agencies who know their communities best. Having 32 sets of community justice partners boosts the potential for learning from shared good practice, as there is greater scope for innovation. It also provides transparency over performance and the achievement of improved outcomes. That is why having a national body with oversight powers will be an asset to the new model.
At its core, community justice Scotland is being established to provide leadership to the community justice sector, as well as to support partners and stakeholders to deliver better outcomes for community justice in Scotland. As part of those overarching aims, community justice Scotland has a function to provide assurance on community justice partners’ progress towards national outcomes. To provide that assurance, community justice Scotland must be able to make recommendations to community justice partners, which will include promoting good practice and recommending specific action where progress towards an outcome is not being made.
The amendments that the committee agreed to at stage 2 reframed and expanded the provisions in the bill to make them clearer about the oversight powers that community justice Scotland will hold, especially in relation to its ability to make local improvement recommendations to community justice partners and national improvement recommendations to ministers.
In its stage 1 report, the committee said that if community justice Scotland
“does not have adequate powers of oversight to measure and drive forward improvements in performance, there is a danger that weaknesses in relation to accountability, strategic leadership and the ability to properly measure outcomes in the existing arrangements will persist.”
The amendments responded positively to that recommendation by providing clarity on the arrangements for oversight and performance improvement.
I will be clear about the roles of community justice partners and the Scottish ministers in performance improvement. The responsibility for resolving any local issues with planning or the quality of delivery, and for achieving progress against improving outcomes, rests with the statutory community justice partners of each local area. Existing accountability lines for individual statutory community justice partners remain through the respective organisations.
If partners should request assistance on issues that they have not been able to resolve locally, community justice Scotland will be able to offer support and advice. Where there are persistent issues in achieving improved outcomes, community justice Scotland can make recommendations to the Scottish ministers. Recommendations could be made around the requirement for improvement plans; on the potential for specific multi-agency inspections; and in exceptional circumstances—I stress the word “exceptional”—to establish a rescue task group to work with the local partners. Recommendations at a national level can also be made. I expect that persistent issues will be the exception rather than the norm.
First and foremost, community justice Scotland is there to support partners, share good practice and champion the community justice sector, giving parity of esteem to custodial and non-custodial sentences. It sits alongside the community justice partners, not above them, and we do not see it as a regulator, nor is it intended to be.
In conclusion, the Community Justice (Scotland) Bill lays a firm foundation on which we will build a robust, transparent and inclusive new model for community justice in Scotland. The new model places decision making locally with those who know their communities best and who will be most affected by community justice issues.
That the Parliament agrees that the Community Justice (Scotland) Bill be passed.