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Chamber and committees

Criminal Justice Committee [Draft]

Meeting date: Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Agenda: Pre-budget Scrutiny 2023-24, National Care Service (Scotland) Bill , Correspondence


Contents


Correspondence

The Convener

Our next item of business is to discuss recent correspondence that the committee has received. I refer members to paper 5, in which the clerks have suggested some ideas on how we might take forward the various issues that are highlighted. If members have specific comments on or suggestions in regard to either pieces of correspondence, please come in.

I will take each letter in turn, starting with the one from the Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans on facilitating peaceful assemblies in Scotland and the work that the short-life working group has done on that. Do members want to make any points, or is the committee happy to note the letter’s content?

Collette Stevenson

Obviously, that is a big issue in central Scotland compared with elsewhere, in light of the sectarianism that goes on there. I know that it is quite significant even in East Kilbride.

11:30  

One thing that I want to note is that some civic and interfaith groups—the local chapel and churches are involved, for example—are working together to set up activities that are aimed at stopping sectarianism in schools. The groups have approached community councils and local authorities to seek more funding to deliver those to pupils in first and second year, because it is a big issue.

I know that I am slightly digressing from the issue of marches and parades, but all aspects of sectarianism have an impact. Those groups use a good model: they transport pupils to different areas or they teach them about the impact that sectarianism has.

In relation to the letter, I want some clarification on where the Government is trying to move the model to.

Thanks, Collette. I do not think that there is anything wrong with highlighting some of the good work that is going on in communities.

Jamie Greene

I thank the working group for its work on a difficult and sensitive issue, not least for members who represent communities in the west of Scotland.

It is unclear from the letter what will happen next around some of the proposals. I have concerns about the suggestion that decisions will be taken at a microlocal level. I also have concerns about whether local authorities will have new or specific powers in relation to marches and processions, and about what the consequences of that might be. We could have quite disparate outcomes, with certain types of marches allowed in one part of the country but not in another, for example. That would leave matters open to the vagaries of how different councils operate, depending on whether, for example, they are more member led or official led. We also need to bear in mind that councils come in different shapes, sizes and political colours.

I would like to get a bit more information, as it is a little unclear from the cabinet secretary’s comments whether he supports the proposal to give more powers to local authorities. He only says:

“I am keen to explore what, if anything, is possible and desirable”

in relation to the working group’s conclusion on that.

The cabinet secretary uses the phrase:

“improvements could be best handled by local partners”,

but the letter does not state who those local partners would be and what statutory roles they would play in making decisions.

Some people are disappointed that we will not have a Northern Ireland-style parades commission. I understand that the number of parades that take place is much lower in Scotland than it is in Ireland, but the consequences are often not dissimilar.

I ask that we are kept up to date on the issue. I would find it really helpful to get from the cabinet secretary any information on the Government’s direction of travel.

The Convener

Okay. Thanks, Jamie. Like you, I certainly got the impression that local management and participation in decision making around processions and parades is where the cabinet secretary is coming from. I mentioned to colleagues earlier that the issue is not as significant in the north-east as it is in other parts of Scotland. However, what has been suggested makes sense to me, so thank you for your comments.

Jamie Greene

I will just add that, if the process is revised, it is unclear who the ultimate arbiter would be or what appeals process would be in place if, for example, organisers of such events felt that a decision had been made wrongly at a local level. If there is no national consistency, how would that be presented at a local level? Those issues need to be cleared up.

Fulton MacGregor

Obviously, the letter and the work of the working group were about parades, specifically. However, people feel that some of the disruption to the community is sectarian, so the work is part of another attempt to address that stain on Scottish society, although, ultimately, it has led to no firm conclusions. In that regard, there is likely to be disappointment. However, there is likely to be understanding of that, too—when I heard about the working group, I thought that that might be the outcome.

I am a wee bit disappointed that the working group and the cabinet secretary’s response were focused on Glasgow. Although that is right because everybody from anywhere in Scotland would know that Glasgow is the most impacted place, Lanarkshire must be a very close second. Reference is made only to “some Local Authorities”. Possibly, that does not take into account the impact that sectarianism is having on communities such as Coatbridge, Airdrie, East Kilbride, Motherwell, Hamilton and Larkhall. Maybe that could have been recognised a bit more.

Local authorities, the police and others are doing all that they can to achieve a balance between observing human rights, including the right to parade, and preventing disruption to communities. If we are to move forward, we must continue supporting our local partners.

Those are simply comments rather than points for action, convener.

I would like a wee bit of clarification, too, including on Jamie Greene’s points about other parties, as well as on the timescales. How long will it take to come to a conclusion? It is a wee bit vague.

The Convener

That is fine—thank you for that, Rona.

I am happy to propose that we write to the cabinet secretary to raise those matters. In his letter to the committee, he said that he will write to us again

“in due course to update ... on progress in taking this work forward”,

but there would be no harm in our going back in the interim and raising members’ specific points. Is everyone content to do so?

Members indicated agreement.

The Convener

The second letter that we received is from the Solicitor General on the Rangers Football Club case. Members will see the recommendation that has been made in our papers, but I will open up the discussion to allow you to comment.

Russell Findlay

It is worth noting that the letter has been with us for almost two months but that we have been unable to refer to it until now. Its contents cover the latest twist in the malicious prosecution scandal. I was interested to read the confirmation that £15 million has been paid to the administrators but that that has been done with “no admission of liability” by the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service.

Last week, we heard from the interim Crown Agent, John Logue, who said that the pay-outs now stand at £51 million. We should put it on the record that the £15 million mentioned in the letter is part of that £51 million rather than on top of it. Mr Logue also confirmed that the Scottish Government has effectively signed a blank cheque for any future pay-outs. Of course, that has happened against a background of warnings about extreme budget cuts being made across the justice system. It is also worth noting that we were told about the £15 million pay-out only because it had been reported by a newspaper.

The entire scandal has spanned the reigns of three Lord Advocates, starting with that of Frank Mulholland and moving on to that of James Wolffe and now that of Dorothy Bain. It has caused significant reputational damage to the Scottish justice system. However, there appears to be a strange and worrying lack of meaningful contrition, explanation and accountability. Should we consider calling the two previous Lord Advocates to give evidence about what has happened?

Okay. At the end of the meeting, I will come back to members who have raised specific points.

Pauline McNeill

If ever there were to be a case for changing the rules of privilege in the Scottish Parliament to include questions that are sub judice, it would be this one. I understand why it is so, but I do not think that it is good enough that we cannot get accountability for the decision. I agree with Russell Findlay that the case has brought the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service into complete disrepute. We have been unable to ask any questions and it is now a long time since that all happened. I am beginning to worry about the quality of the answers that we will get.

I totally support the notion that, whenever we can do so, we should ask the Lord Advocates to come to the committee. The committee needs to be the body to question the Crown Office on how such a decision could ever come to pass. Who else will do so? The money is an issue to some extent, but at the heart of the matter is the question of why our Crown Office and Lord Advocate took a decision that, on the face of it, now seems highly questionable and which has been described as involving a malicious prosecution against the directors concerned. We need answers on what was behind that decision. The sooner we can get those, the better.

Thank you very much indeed. Does anyone else want to come in?

Jamie Greene

I will briefly recap an issue. The letter almost implies that £15 million is the settled amount, but the figure is nowhere near that, and nor is £51 million necessarily the end of it. At the end of her letter, the Solicitor General stresses that “proceedings remain live”; there might be other discussions and the £51 million is certainly not a cap on the liability.

On the financial side of things, it was helpful that the Crown Office made it clear last week that the money was not coming from its budget at a time when such budgets are under such pressure or are facing cuts. However, the question remains as to where the money is coming from. It is all very well saying that the Scottish Government will underwrite it, but which bit—which directorate—will do the underwriting? Does the Government take out insurance on such matters? At a time when ministers are keen to stress how difficult things are for it financially—which I totally understand—it is perfectly reasonable for us to ask where £50 million-plus of public taxpayer money will come from to subsidise the payment to the claimants.

Aside from the money—which is an important issue; it is actually a hell of a lot of money—there are other questions that lie alongside all this and which we have never really got to the bottom of. Why were the decisions taken in the first place? Why has no one ever been held to account? Russell Findlay mentioned that, too. A huge amount of taxpayer money has been spent, but, to my knowledge, no one has lost their job or properly apologised. A number of individuals have, rightly or wrongly, become overnight lottery winners as a result.

The Government must accept that, to restore trust in the Crown Office and its independent decision-making process, even with regard to historical decisions, some form of inquiry that is as independent as it can be must be held at some point. Whether that should happen in this parliamentary session or the next, I do not know, but I do not think that that faith can be restored until those questions are answered.

Thanks, Jamie. Do you want to come in, Rona?

Rona Mackay

First of all, an inquiry would cost more money, so are we just going to add to what has already been lost? I am struggling to know what the committee’s purpose is here. Do not get me wrong—I am not disputing what has been said about accountability and all the rest—but given that this is a complicated issue that goes back a bit and given where we are with it, is there anything that we can usefully add? Those would be my thoughts.

Russell Findlay

It is worth noting that the Scottish Government has already committed to having an inquiry, to add to the proliferation of inquiries that we have already and which are costing a small fortune in themselves. Could the committee, in advance of an inquiry ever happening, seek evidence from and speak to those directly involved? I do not think that we should rule out anything like that—it is perfectly within our gift.

The Convener

Thank you very much, everyone. Those comments have been helpful, and it is important to get members’ views on the record.

I very much recognise the concerns that members have expressed about what went wrong, and I note that Ruth Charteris says in her letter that she is very committed to supporting

“future public accountability, including the expectation that there will be a form of judge-led inquiry in due course.”

My view is that we should wait for the outcome of that and perhaps find out a little bit more about the timescales for it.

In response to Jamie Greene’s point, it is important that we seek some reassurance about who is paying for all this. I note that the cabinet secretary is coming next week, and we might be able to ask him some questions in and around the issue.

That would be my proposal at the moment. Are we agreed?

Members indicated agreement.

The Convener

That completes our public business. Our next meeting is on Wednesday 16 November, when we will hear from the Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans as part of our pre-budget scrutiny and in relation to the United Kingdom Government’s Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill.

As previously agreed, we now move into private session.

11:45 Meeting continued in private until 12:49.