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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Tuesday, October 3, 2023


Scotland’s Prison Population

The Presiding Officer (Alison Johnstone)

The next item of business is a statement by Angela Constance on Scotland’s prison population. The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of her statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.


The Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Home Affairs (Angela Constance)

Over the course of this year, the prison population has risen by about 600 from 7,303 to, as of yesterday, 7,937, which is an increase of about 9 per cent. That represents a significant challenge, and further increases will have a serious impact on those who work in our prisons and on the prison population. Scotland is not unique in that challenge. There have been increases of similar proportions in England and Wales.

As I made clear in my letter to the Criminal Justice Committee two weeks ago, that acute pressure is a great cause of concern and I am taking action to address it. As I also made clear, the Scottish Government is not changing its position on the use of prisons—they are necessary in society to punish, to protect, to rehabilitate and to reduce reoffending. Therefore, our independent courts must continue to have the ability to remove an individual’s liberty when appropriate. Protecting victims and the public from harm is my absolute priority. Whether custody or a community-based alternative is used, ultimately, the goal is the same: less crime, fewer victims and safer communities.

Crime has reduced and the number of people entering prison each year has fallen substantially, so why does the prison population level not match those changes? We must consider the reasons behind that and what the evidence shows us on the effectiveness of prison and alternative sentencing. We know that community sentences lead to safer communities, as they are more effective at reducing reoffending than short-term custodial sentences. That is why we have protected investment in community-based interventions and are providing a total of £134 million to support community justice services this year.

However, although the number of individuals on community sentences has increased, so has the number of people in prison. Yesterday, we had 312 people serving sentences of six months or less. While recognising the independence of our courts, we must consider the reasons for that and work on increasing confidence in alternative sentencing, particularly in community justice. Since January this year, there has been a 19 per cent rise in sentences of under four years. That is one of the reasons for the rising prison population. Another reason is remand. Although the post-pandemic court recovery programme is doing its job in clearing the backlog, there has been an unanticipated increase in the remand population, which has now reached a historic high, particularly with women.

Another reason for the increase in the prison population is the substantial change in the individuals who are in prison. In the past decade, prisons have become increasingly populated by individuals who are convicted of violent and sexual offences and those who are serving longer sentences. The average length of prison sentences has increased by 14 per cent over that period. This, of course, also shows the success of other areas of our justice system in improvements in clear-up rates and increased reporting and investigation of crimes such as sexual offending.

The age profile of the prison population has also changed. The longer-term reduction in the number of individuals spending time in custody each year has been driven almost entirely by a reduction in young people and those aged under 30. However, the prison population is mirroring our society in terms of demographics. Over the past 10 years, the average daily population of male prisoners aged over 50 has nearly doubled, from 647 to 1,201. That brings its own challenges to the Scottish Prison Service. As the SPS sees the welcome reduction in young people, it has also seen an increase in the need to contract for social care for an ageing prison population. That is an issue that I have spoken to SPS officers about on my many visits to Scotland’s prisons—I have visited the majority of them in the six months since I became Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Home Affairs.

Those are the reasons for a changing and increasing prison population. I now want to address the actions that we have already taken and further action that we will need to take. We took action when it became clear that the GEOAmey contract was not working as it should be and was causing disruption to court efficiency and for the Scottish Prison Service. We did that by providing the SPS with additional flexibility to work with GEOAmey to support improved staff recruitment and retention to improve the situation. I am grateful to justice partners for working with the SPS to find solutions and for implementing practical changes that reduce the demands on GEOAmey.

To decrease the use of custody in appropriate cases in favour of more effective community-based alternatives, we have extended the presumption against short sentences from sentences of three months to those of 12 months. That supports people to have a stable life, including staying in employment. To address the remand population, we have introduced electronic monitoring on bail and have invested £3.2 million this year to support bail assessment and bail supervision services as a direct alternative to remand. That has now supported the establishment of bail supervision services in 30 local authorities, with the final two to be established by the end of the year.

Since we introduced electronically monitored bail, in May 2022, more than 1,200 electronic monitoring bail orders have been granted, and around 375 individuals are currently being monitored. The 25 per cent increase in the use of electronic monitoring since last year is driven by bail and other court orders. Future development of the service will include exploring the use of GPS technology, which could change how people are monitored and support decision making in relation to, for example, individuals on home detention curfew.

The Bail and Release from Custody (Scotland) Act 2023 seeks to refocus remand so that it is reserved for those who pose a risk to public safety or the delivery of justice. It enables courts, when passing sentence, to take into account the time that an accused spends on electronically monitored bail in a way comparable to what they can do with time spent on remand.

We aim to commence those provisions by the end of this year. They will be a further tool for the independent judiciary when sentencing. In addition, investment in community justice is a key strand to a longer-term solution to the issue. We need to improve confidence in appropriate alternatives to imprisonment, because we know that they are effective and support people to avoid reoffending. We are, therefore, urgently planning increased support for people in relation to alternatives to remand, with a particular focus on mentoring and one-to-one support.

We also support the SPS in the actions that it takes to respond to the increase in number of people in its care, which include considering what can be done in the existing prison estate to safely accommodate additional prisoners and making further improvements to the process of progression to the open estate and our two new community custody units, to help prisoners better prepare for their eventual release and return to our communities.

We also remain committed to modernising and improving the prison estate to ensure that it is fit for purpose and supports the rehabilitation of offenders. We have provided an extra £29 million this year to support SPS to deliver a stable and secure prison system on top of the £97 million in capital funding to continue the modernisation of the prison estate in order to better meet the needs of staff and prisoners.

Although we are taking action to deal with the immediate issue that is in front of us, I am also determined to develop longer-lasting and robust solutions that continue to put public safety and victims first. We have, therefore, established the prison population leadership group, comprising senior representatives from the justice sector and beyond, to identify long-term and short-term options to address the challenges and ensure a collective response.

I want a justice system that takes a whole-system approach, uses multiagency partnerships and has a clear focus on early and effective intervention, diversion and rehabilitative support. Prisons contain some of society’s most vulnerable individuals. Around a quarter of the prison population have been in care and just under half are from our most deprived communities.

To bring about a reduction in the prison population, we must work together as a society to address the underlying causes for much of that offending. That includes tackling poverty, inequality and substance misuse as well as wider work to grow the economy, improve educational standards and reduce health inequalities. We must always ensure that we put victims at the heart of our decision making.

I will finish by paying tribute to all those who work in our prisons—SPS staff, national health service staff, social workers, educators, chaplains and many others. I have seen at first hand the extraordinary work that they do. I know that those who work in our prisons—particularly SPS staff—are working diligently to respond to the pressures that have been caused by the rising prison population.

I want to hear members’ views today, and I will hear from justice spokespeople tomorrow. I believe that the situation requires cross-public sector and cross-party collaboration to be addressed. Scotland has demonstrated the ability to achieve significant justice reforms. We need to rise to the challenge of a rising prison population to deliver on our ambitions for a just, safe and resilient Scotland.

The Presiding Officer

The cabinet secretary will take questions on the issues raised in her statement. I intend to allow around 20 minutes for questions, after which we will move on to the next item of business. I would be grateful if members who wish to put a question were to press their request-to-speak buttons now.

Russell Findlay (West Scotland) (Con)

I thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of today’s statement. However, I find it astonishing that it contains not a single mention of the impact of drugs on the prison population. Prison officers deal with violent and volatile prisoners who are under the influence of highly dangerous psychoactive substances, but the Scottish National Party Government dithered while jails were flooded with drug-soaked mail, which caused mass overdoses, some of which were fatal. The BBC has today reported that drones are increasingly being used to smuggle contraband, including weapons, into prisons. Staff are being terrorised by organised crime gangs and there have been at least 10 fire-bombings of vehicles. A senior Prison Officer Association Scotland official, who is also an SNP councillor, says that threats and intimidation are the worst he has seen in 30 years.

That is all relevant to the prison population. The SNP has allowed drugs to spiral out of control. Those who leave prison in the grip of addiction will almost certainly find their way back inside.

We know that the SNP cannot seek to undermine judicial independence by freeing dangerous criminals who are behind bars for good reason. If the Government is intent on reducing prisoner numbers, does it accept that tackling the drugs epidemic is of critical importance?

Angela Constance

Mr Findlay is, of course, correct to raise the impact of drugs. The harsh reality of an increase in the prison population is that it makes many issues that the SPS has to tackle all the harder day in, day out.

We know that the scale of the challenge of drugs in prisons often reflects what is happening in the community. When the Prison Service closes down one drugs route, it needs to be swift and alert because another will invariably open up. That is an on-going challenge.

The Prison Service works closely with Police Scotland. I am not going to go into a lot of detail about the more covert intelligence or security measures, but I would be happy to have a further discussion with Mr Findlay about that. I emphasise that the Scottish Prison Service and the Government treat the welfare and safety of prison officers and staff with the utmost seriousness. We know that, as a result of the criminal justice system doing what it should be doing, the system contains more people from a serious organised crime background. The Scottish Prison Service takes measures day in, day out to ensure the welfare and safety of its staff.

It is important to remember that, over and above disrupting the supply of drugs going into our prisons, we need to focus on treatment and recovery. I was pleased to see that, in her annual report, His Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons for Scotland paid tribute to the recovery work that is now being done in our prisons.

Katy Clark (West Scotland) (Lab)

I thank the cabinet secretary for the update on the increasing prison population, and I note what she said about the extension of the presumption against short sentences and the ageing prison population. Does she believe that the prison population will continue to increase because of court backlogs and the increasing number of convictions for sexual offences? Will she share with us her projections for future prisoner numbers, and will she confirm that there will be no further delay in the modernisation of the prison estate, including at HMP Glasgow and HMP Highland, and the commencement of work at Greenock?

Angela Constance

Katy Clark is again correct to point to the issues in and around short sentences and the ageing population within our prison estate.

Projections were published during the summer months, and further projections will be published in November. Given the seriousness of the issue, which requires serious scrutiny and a serious, sober debate about the future and the way forward, I felt that it was imperative to share as much information with the committee and the Parliament as possible. The success that we have had with the court backlog is, indeed, adding to the prison population, but although it was anticipated that the remand population would fall as the sentenced population increased, that has not happened.

We are, indeed, utterly committed to the replacement of HMP Barlinnie with the new HMP Glasgow, and, over the summer, I visited HMP Inverness to discuss its plans in and around HMP Highland. For brevity, the member and I have corresponded a lot around HMP Greenock, which I also had the pleasure of visiting over the summer, and I have no doubt that we will continue to do so.

What more can the Scottish Government do to harness technology to increase the use of electronic monitoring, particularly as an alternative to remand and short jail sentences?

Angela Constance

Electronic monitoring is a tried-and-tested feature of Scotland’s justice system and a key tool to support moving on from prison or to use as an alternative to a custodial sentence. It supports reintegration and allows for swift responses from Police Scotland and other justice partners when any conditions are breached.

The member will know that we introduced electronic monitoring on bail last May and that that option has become more widely used. We are exploring GPS with partners and are considering whether it might offer options around other forms of release that are currently available. Because electronic monitoring requires the development of further technology and the support mechanisms that underpin it, some of the work around it is not necessarily a short-term measure but is certainly one for the short-to-medium term.

Sharon Dowey (South Scotland) (Con)

The recent rise in Scotland’s prison population is due to more criminals being sentenced for more serious crimes, despite the SNP Government and others doing their best to empty Scotland’s prisons through the presumption against short prison sentences, the under-25s sentencing guideline and the diversion of criminals from prosecution. Does that not confirm that the SNP’s policies have removed the deterrent to commit crime and have allowed serious offending to spiral out of control?

Angela Constance

Oh, dearie me. The member is half right when she says that more serious offenders are spending longer in prison, which, indeed, indicates the effectiveness of our justice system. There is nothing soft, however, about having one of the highest prison populations in Europe, nor is that smart justice.

As I have indicated in great detail, both in my letter to the Criminal Justice Committee, which I hope the member has had an opportunity to read, and in my statement, we are seeing not just a rise in the number of long-term serious organised crime or sexual offending prisoners but an increase in the number of remand prisoners—that is, untried prisoners—which is at an historic high.

As I intimated in my statement, as of today, more than 300 people in our system are spending less than six months in prison. In some cases, that might be entirely appropriate—our judiciary is, of course, independent—but we must rise to the challenge of doing more to ensure, as I am determined to do, that we have more effective and visible community disposals that make our communities safer, and to increase confidence in and around that work.

Ivan McKee (Glasgow Provan) (SNP)

The cabinet secretary will be aware that HMP Barlinnie, which is Scotland’s largest prison, lies in my Glasgow Provan constituency. In my conversations with people who engage regularly with the prison, they have expressed concern that, in their words, many prisoners probably should not be there, and that treatment for addiction, poor mental health or other root causes would be a more effective use of the significant public funds that are currently spent on incarceration. What data does the cabinet secretary have on reoffending rates? Does that data show that more successful outcomes, with lower re-offending rates, are achieved by non-custodial sentences than by custodial sentences?

Angela Constance

I will always stress that prison is necessary for those people who pose a risk of serious harm. However, it is important to recognise that the reconviction rate for individuals who are given a community payback order is consistently lower than that for individuals who are given short sentences.

The latest statistics show a reconviction rate of 25 per cent for those on a community payback order, but the rate nearly doubles to 47 per cent for those who are given a custodial sentence of one year or less.

It is clear that people in custody often present with higher levels of risk and vulnerability than the general population as a whole. They often have complex health needs, including mental health issues, and a history of being looked after. We are working with our key partners to improve the health and wellbeing of the people who are in our care in prisons. I am determined that we will have safe, effective and person-centred care. Of course, there is our national mission on drugs to improve the lives of those who are impacted by drugs, which is not just for people in the community but for people who are imprisoned.

Claire Baker (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

Although there has been a welcome investment in the estate in Stirling and the opening of the Bella centre in Dundee and other centres, we are seeing a worrying increase in the number of women who are being held on remand. Will the cabinet secretary expand on what she thinks the reasons for that are and how we will address it?

Angela Constance

The reasons for women being held on remand are complex. Part of the Bail and Release from Custody (Scotland) Act 2023, which was passed before recess, will result in the gathering of more data in and around that. If I look at statistics on the prison population this week, I see that 28 or 29 per cent of the male population is on remand, whereas, for women, the proportion is 34 per cent, and it is as high as 37 per cent some weeks.

We have achieved much in improving the women’s estate and in moving forward with trauma-informed approaches. I am determined that we will do more for all groups of prisoners, particularly women, through community alternatives.

The reasons for women being held on remand are complex and, ultimately, a matter for the court, but we are committed to providing robust alternatives to manage the higher levels of risk and vulnerability and to furnishing more data-driven evidence on that.

Fulton MacGregor (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)

Has the cabinet secretary considered whether any measures that have been introduced in England would be appropriate options for Scotland? For example, I understand that, since March, sentencing guidance on the relevance of prison overcrowding should be taken into account for shorter sentences. What impact does she believe the strategy for community justice is having in reducing the prison population and reoffending?

Angela Constance

What we know is that the strategy for community justice and the underpinning delivery plan is having an impact. More people are taking part in community justice disposals, but we see in our daily prison population that more people are being imprisoned.

On measures that are used elsewhere in the United Kingdom, it is important to stress to members that there is a four-nations, UK-wide dialogue on the issue. We want to share information about our shared challenges and look at the different solutions that are being deployed in different jurisdictions, whether in the UK or elsewhere in Europe. I can confirm that we have no plans to use police cells, for example, as additional capacity for prisons. Before taking any such step, I would have to carefully consider the practical and feasible impact of that.

Part of the purpose of bringing together the prison population leadership group is to really focus. We have been here before, as a Government, a Parliament and a country, with significant rises in our prison population. Instead of considering any measure in isolation, we need to expand on the whole-system approach and get the right solutions for now and for the future.

Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

The cabinet secretary is right that the reasons for the shockingly high numbers in Scotland’s prisons are complex, but they are not new, and His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons for Scotland has been warning of the implications for some decades now. Recent data suggested that, in the adult male prison estate, every prison is at or over capacity, with the exception of Castle Huntly—the Scottish Prison Service’s low-security open estate prison—which is operating at half capacity. The prison inspectorate has highlighted the institution as being inspiring and a flagship establishment but severely underused. What can the cabinet secretary do to ensure that the institution is better utilised to improve rehabilitation and ease some of the strain across the prison estate?

Angela Constance

Mr McArthur is correct in pointing to the recent report and, indeed, to previous reports by the chief inspector of prisons. Although she praises the good work that has been done, she also makes a clarion call for a collective response. We need a strategy to tackle the issue of prisoner numbers being beyond capacity. We must also learn from our success in tackling the previously high numbers of women and young people in custody and apply that learning to the male estate.

Mr McArthur is correct in saying that 10 out of 17 establishments are over capacity, which is something that I put on public record in response to a question from him. We must tackle the historically high number of prisoners on remand, which will help us to address some of the issues about progression. There are other actions that we will have to take to ensure better progression. It is absolutely correct to say that we must maximise the use of world-leading, excellent facilities, including the community custodial units for women and Castle Huntly.

I am keen to get in all the members who have requested a question and would be grateful if we could pick up the pace.

Ruth Maguire (Cunninghame South) (SNP)

Many offenders absolutely should be in jail. However, we know that family relationships, housing and work are all affected by short sentences and that that can increase the risk of reoffending. What has the Scottish Government done to encourage more community justice sentencing to help people sustain their family relationships and employment?

Angela Constance

We know that using community-based interventions and sentences rather than short-term custodial sentences can help to ensure that justice is served and can be more effective in reducing reoffending and assisting rehabilitation, leading to fewer victims and safer communities, which is what we all want to see. That is why we extended the presumption against short-term sentences and it is why we have protected, and continue to invest in, the community justice services budget.

I am determined to do more to bolster capacity in community justice and to strengthen alternatives to remand. I will also look at other potential actions, such as the wider use of structured deferred sentences and investment in the services that would underpin that.

As I said to other members, I am actively exploring ways to invest more in, and to do more with, community justice.

Maggie Chapman (North East Scotland) (Green)

I thank the cabinet secretary for her statement, which highlights how important it is to ensure that the community justice strategy works and that it reduces both the prison population and reoffending. Will she outline what more we can do to implement the actions in that strategy? Specifically, how can we ensure that vulnerable people—such as those who are themselves victims or survivors, and those with poor mental health or with addiction issues—are not unnecessarily incarcerated and criminalised but are supported through the use of community and/or restorative justice?

Angela Constance

A range of community sentences and other interventions are available to decision makers in our justice system and can be used as alternatives to custody. I am also open to further improvements that could encourage the wider use of community sentencing and other interventions. The national strategy for community justice, along with the delivery plan, sets out a range of actions to improve the delivery and effectiveness of community justice.

Our current work includes ensuring the availability of bail supervision services and increasing the knowledge and awareness of other interventions, such as restorative justice. We also remain committed to developing restorative justice services that are safe, consistent and of a high standard nationally, while also being person centred and reflecting local needs and circumstances.

John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

The cabinet secretary said in her statement that around a quarter of the prison population have been in care and that just under half come from our most deprived communities. In other words, they are very vulnerable individuals. Is that inevitable, or does she think that it can be changed?

Angela Constance

I think that it should be changed. I do not think we should ever throw in the towel and think that anything is inevitable. This is, first and foremost, about the safety of our communities, and if we have the courage to engage in that debate to improve community safety, we have to improve reintegration and rehabilitation.

I point the member to the success that we have had in drastically decreasing the number of young people in, for example, HMP Polmont. That is a good example of where we have had the courage and the consistency to take a whole-system approach, and it has achieved better outcomes for young people and for communities. We now need to scale that up and do it with a much larger, more complex population.

Annie Wells (Glasgow) (Con)

If judges decide that more criminals need to go to prison, that is where they should be, yet this SNP Government has failed to build replacement prisons to cope with the rise in violent and sexual offenders. Barlinnie’s replacement has reportedly quadrupled in cost and is likely to be a year late. Can the cabinet secretary confirm that it will be built on time? Can she also confirm whether the proposed capacity of the prison could fit Barlinnie’s current population?

Angela Constance

Let me be crystal clear. Someone does not have to be an economist or a master builder to know the impact of the severe constraints that the construction industry is under in terms of labour costs and the supply of labour as a result of Brexit, or indeed to know that the price of concrete has gone up by 87 per cent, never mind the price of steel.

I am on the record as saying that I am absolutely committed to a replacement for HMP Barlinnie—the new HMP Glasgow, which will of course be developed with the best of practice in mind. Once the design plans are finalised, we will have a much better and more accurate estimate of both costs and timescales, but it is a journey that we are determined to pursue.

Stephen Kerr (Central Scotland) (Con)

It was the cabinet secretary who used the phrase “throw in the towel”, so let us talk about community payback orders. It is typical of the SNP’s soft-touch approach to justice that ministers have a track record of discounting the backlogged hours of unpaid work. At the end of 2022, there were 700,000 hours of backlogged unpaid work. What is the backlog now? What will the cabinet secretary do about it?

Angela Constance

It is important to recognise the dedication and the importance of the work of community justice service staff, including justice social work services. The work that they do is incredibly important in the same way as the work of those working within our prisons. It is also important to recognise that community payback orders have a 74 per cent completion rate. I have already said—


A 74 per cent completion rate.

Mr Kerr.

I have already said in the chamber on a number of occasions that the reconviction rate for community disposals is much lower than that for short-term sentences.

What is the backlog?

Let us dump the rhetoric on soft justice, let us focus on substance and let us focus—collectively, I hope—on smart justice. I will, of course, write to the member.

The Presiding Officer

Thank you, cabinet secretary. Mr Kerr, you will appreciate that you should not contribute from your seat. Thank you.

That concludes the ministerial statement on Scotland’s prison population. I will allow the front benches a moment or two to organise themselves for the next item of business.