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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament [Draft]

Meeting date: Wednesday, January 31, 2024


Point of Order

Pam Gosal (West Scotland) (Con)

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. This afternoon, a member accused me of failing to declare relevant interests during last week’s session of First Minister’s question time in line with section 3 of the “Code of Conduct for Members of the Scottish Parliament”.

I was accused of failing to declare my shares in three letting companies when I raised concerns about the Scottish Government’s rent cap. If the member was truly up to speed with my entry in the register of members’ interests, she would know that those are solely commercial letting companies, meaning that I had no relevant interests to declare, as the Scottish National Party’s disastrous rent control policy applies to residential property only.

I seek your guidance, Presiding Officer, as to how, in line with the Parliament’s standing orders, I can address the claims that were made against me earlier today and as to how the member in question might correct the record.

The Presiding Officer

With regard to the comments that Pam Gosal has made—which are, of course, now on the record—I reiterate that, under the code of conduct, I do not have responsibility in this chair for considering complaints of that nature.

We move to the next portfolio, which is justice and home affairs. I will allow a moment for front-bench members to organise themselves.

Justice and Home Affairs

Drugs (Prisons)

To ask the Scottish Government what steps it is taking to prevent drugs being smuggled into prisons. (S6O-03030)

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

The health and wellbeing of those who live and work in our prisons remains a key priority for the Scottish Government and the Scottish Prison Service.

Investment in technologies such as Rapiscan machines, which are now available in every prison, and the recent purchase of nine new body scanners, further enhance a comprehensive range of security measures that are already being deployed by the SPS. By working closely with partners such as Police Scotland, SPS must and does remain vigilant to the continuously evolving nature of drug use to ensure that the use of technology and tactical measures remains current, adaptable and capable of detecting drugs and preventing them from entering our prisons.

Russell Findlay

Scotland’s prisons are under siege from gangsters who control the drugs trade, with prison officers on the front line, and I do not say that lightly. The boss of HMP Edinburgh warns that new synthetic drugs are making inmates even more violent and unpredictable. At least one officer has become ill from inhaling drugs that were being smoked by prisoners. Drones are now being used to smuggle contraband. Only seven were detected in 2022, but there were 54 in the first nine months of last year. Many prison officers feel scared and unsupported. Other than warm words and platitudes, exactly what action is the cabinet secretary taking to protect them and to tackle the drugs gangs?

Angela Constance

I reassure Mr Findlay that the safety and security of our prison staff, who do a difficult and, at times, dangerous job, is of the utmost priority to me and this Government. Tomorrow morning, I will chair—as I do every quarter or so—the serious organised crime task force, which is about tackling the grip of organised crime in our communities as well as in our prisons, although, of course, the two are related.

Mr Findlay is right to point to the threat of synthetic drugs, particularly synthetic opioids, given their potency. A number of members, including himself and Ms Hyslop, have written about the impact of psychoactive substances on the health and welfare of staff, and I will discuss that with the chief executive when I next meet her in the not too distant future.

There needs to be a whole range of action, including continuing work to prevent contraband from coming into prisons in the first place, because that does not make prisons safer and it can often add to the violence in our prisons.

On technology, I will say briefly that the Scottish Prison Service continues to work with Police Scotland and an external provider to develop a pilot programme that is trialling covert technology that alerts establishments to drone activity in SPS airspace. That is one of the many actions that are being taken.

Emma Harper (South Scotland) (SNP)

Scotland’s national mission to improve the lives of those who are impacted by drugs is, of course, not just for people in communities but for those in prisons. With that in mind, will the cabinet secretary outline the Scottish Government’s work with partners to embed that work in prisons throughout Scotland?

Angela Constance

As well as disrupting the supply of illicit drugs, we need to reduce demand for those substances. It therefore remains imperative that we improve access to treatment and recovery opportunities in the community and that we ensure that there is parity of opportunity in our prison estate.

The Scottish Prison Service continues to work in partnership with vital third sector organisations and national organisations such as the Scottish Drugs Forum, Crew 2000 and the Scottish Recovery Consortium to enhance approaches to delivering consistent recovery pathways to help individuals to reintegrate into our communities. Thanks to the good work of prison officers, a full range of innovative projects are supported, such as recovery cafes, recovery walks and the work that mutual aid organisations do.

Crime and Antisocial Behaviour (Highlands and Islands)

To ask the Scottish Government what its priorities are for tackling crime and antisocial behaviour in the Highlands and Islands. (S6O-03031)

The Minister for Victims and Community Safety (Siobhian Brown)

The Scottish Government supports action by Police Scotland and partner bodies to reduce crime and antisocial behaviour in the Highlands and Islands and across the whole of Scotland.

Police Scotland and local authorities have a range of options available to them to address antisocial behaviour, and I have established a working group to examine our current approach to the issue and propose improvements.

The 2024-25 Scottish budget will increase funding for policing by £92.7 million, which is an increase of 6.4 per cent. That includes a 12.5 per cent increase in capital budget, to a record figure of £1.55 billion. As of 30 September 2023, northern division in the Highlands and Islands had 668 officers, which is an increase of 44 on the figure of 624 at the same point in the previous year.

Jamie Halcro Johnston

In the past few years, police stations have been lost across the Highlands and Islands while concern has been growing in many local communities, rural and urban, that, despite the efforts of officers, there is a move away from local policing and a reduced police presence. After the cuts to the previous budget, are there fewer or more police officers in the Highlands and Islands today than there were at this time last year? Does the minister expect that the number of police officers across the Highlands and Islands will have increased or decreased by this time next year?

Siobhian Brown

As I said in my previous answer, between last year and this year, the number of officers increased by 44.

Since 2017-18, we have tripled the capital budget for policing, which has supported continued investment in police assets. Responsibility for the allocation of those resources and for the management of the police estate, including police station closures, sits with the Scottish Police Authority and the chief constable.

I agree with Deputy Chief Constable Malcolm Graham, who has stated:

“Our presence in communities is not defined by buildings but by the officers and staff who work there”.

That is an important point. We have already introduced technology that enables our officers to remain in local areas and reduces the need for them to return to police stations to deal with paperwork. In essence, we want officers to spend more time in communities, and the role of modern policing does not mean that they should be tied to a station.

HMP Highland (Budget)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it anticipates that the total cost of HMP Highland will remain within the £139.5 million budget by its planned completion in June 2025. (S6O-03032)

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

We do not anticipate that the total cost of HMP Highland will remain within £139.5 million. The Scottish Prison Service is making good progress on the new state-of-the-art prison. However, like many large-scale capital projects, the project continues to face supply chain and labour market challenges, as well as increased costs due to inflation. That is consistent with the position of large-scale projects of such a nature globally. The costs of the construction contract are currently being finalised, and the contract award is scheduled to take place thereafter.

Edward Mountain

I am somewhat surprised by that answer. We have seen the budget for the new prison go from £86 million to £110 million to £139.5 million, and we have seen the completion date go from 2023 to 2025. If the cabinet secretary checked the Government website, she would see that it has been confirmed that there will be another delay and that the new prison will not be operational until 2026, rather than—as I mentioned in my question—2025. Can we really believe that, with another year’s delay, the price will not go up, as it has done over consecutive years during the design process?

Angela Constance

I know that Mr Mountain regularly asks questions with respect to the replacement of HMP Inverness, and I very much welcome members championing the local prison resource in their local communities.

However, although the delay has not been within anybody’s control, it is important to recognise that it is due not just to the pandemic but to the time that it has taken the contractor to secure prices in a very challenging market condition.

I hasten to add that there are some things, such as Brexit, inflation, hostile immigration policy and the cost of living crisis, that are not within my gift. The cost of construction labour in the UK rose by 30 per cent between 2015 and 2022, in comparison to a rise of 14 per cent in European countries. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s construction material price index has shown, for example, that the price of precast concrete has risen by 56 per cent and the price of doors and windows has risen by 52 per cent.

Briefly, please, cabinet secretary.

I very much look forward to that progress being implemented.

Katy Clark (West Scotland) (Lab)

The Scottish Government has committed to prison replacement at Inverness and Glasgow but not Greenock. I know that the cabinet secretary has visited Greenock and is aware of what His Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons has said about cells there being not suitable for human habitation. Will she provide an update on what work is being done and what consideration is being given to an allocation within the capital budget?

Angela Constance

As, I hope, I have explained to Ms Clark, the Parliament and the Criminal Justice Committee, significant financial and operational pressures have meant that the priority in replacing prisons is the new HMP Highland and the new HMP Glasgow.

There is recognition of the challenges in HMP Greenock, which the member narrated, and remedial action will, of course, be undertaken to maintain the estate, but there is no imminent plan to replace HMP Greenock, because, at this point, the priority is HMP Highland and, crucially, the new HMP Glasgow.

Police (Highlands and Islands)

To ask the Scottish Government what action is being taken to tackle any police staffing shortages and operational capacity issues in the Highlands and Islands. (S6O-03033)

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

The recruitment and deployment of officers and staff is a matter for the chief constable. However, Police Scotland recruited almost 600 officers in 2023, and there have been around 1,480 new recruits since the beginning of 2022. Furthermore, as I mentioned in response to an earlier question, Police Scotland’s N division, which covers the Highlands and Islands, had 668 officers as at 30 September 2023, compared with 624 at the same point in the previous year. Additionally, individual divisions can access specialist expertise at a regional and national level to meet demand, which would not have been possible before the creation of Police Scotland in 2013.

Rhoda Grant

The chief superintendent for Highlands and Islands division has stated that, due to centralised decision making, rural policing is facing a massive challenge. He quotes an example. Following an incident in Benbecula last year, staffing shortages meant that it had to be dealt with by two off-duty officers. The only two officers on duty on Lewis and Harris were also required to deal with the incident the following day, meaning that there was no police cover on the islands. That would be absolutely unacceptable in the central belt, but it is allowed to happen on our islands. What actions is the cabinet secretary taking to ensure that rural policing has the resources that it needs to keep people safe?

Angela Constance

The member raises a fair point: that there are particular challenges in and around rural communities, which are perhaps less obvious here in the central belt. Of course, this Government has duties with respect to the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018.

I have been advised by Police Scotland that local recruitment events have been undertaken in different areas of the division, which is inclusive of all three island communities. I will endeavour, at the member’s request, to make further inquiries and to report back to her.

There is much interest in that portfolio, so I would be grateful for succinct questions and responses.

Survivors of Domestic Abuse (Justice System)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to support survivors of domestic abuse while they are engaged in the justice system. (S6O-03034)

The Minister for Victims and Community Safety (Siobhian Brown)

Domestic abuse is abhorrent and totally unacceptable. It is vital that perpetrators are held to account and that women and children have access to front-line services that deal with violence and domestic abuse.

We are investing record levels of funding to support victims through a range of front-line specialist services. Our victim-centred approach fund will provide £48 million to 23 organisations between 2022 and 2025, including £18.5 million for specialist advocacy support for survivors of gender-based violence.

Of the annual £19 million delivering equally safe fund, £7,719,700 is provided to Women’s Aid groups across Scotland. In addition, the Scottish Government funds the domestic abuse and forced marriage helpline to offer free confidential support.

Clare Haughey

I thank the minister for meeting me earlier this month, when we discussed a number of issues that have been raised with me by constituents about their experiences with the justice system. Those issues included domestic abusers using civil courts to continue to exert power over the survivor, potential limitations to the disclosure scheme for domestic abuse Scotland and, among other things, the cost of taking out non-harassment orders. How is the Scottish Government listening to the views and experiences of domestic abuse survivors in order to inform future policy and legislative plans?

Siobhian Brown

The Victims, Witnesses, and Justice Reform (Scotland) Bill has been and will continue to be informed by listening to survivors, victims and their families. The bill includes provisions on special measures to protect vulnerable witnesses and parties in civil cases, recognising that domestic abuse can be raised.

Another example of our commitment to learning from lived experience is the targeted engagement that informs decisions, which is a fundamental aspect of the domestic homicide and suicide review model for Scotland. We are also working with SafeLives Scotland to explore how the expertise of people with lived experience can continue to meaningfully support the development of the model. We are committed to understanding and improving the interaction between civil and criminal courts.

In addition to the work on the domestic abuse round table, the Scottish Government is considering recommendations in the recent research on domestic abuse and child contact and the interface between criminal and civil proceedings. Workshops are being held with a range of interests to consider the issues and the improvements that are needed, and to discuss potential solutions.

I must continue to call for brief responses. I would be grateful, minister, if you could direct your microphone towards yourself. We have a brief supplementary question from Liam McArthur.

Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

The Law Society of Scotland has indicated that women seeking to leave a violent relationship often struggle to access the help that they need due to an absence of legal aid services. As I mentioned to the minister last week, the problem is even more acute in rural and island areas, where a small number of legal aid solicitors are stretched over an even wider area. There is a growing reluctance among mainland practices to take on clients in the islands. What action will the minister take to address that problem and ensure access to legal services for domestic abuse services in places such as Orkney?

Siobhian Brown

Solicitors in all parts of Scotland are able to access funding for the work that is carried out under the legal assistance schemes. The schemes are flexible enough to allow solicitors to travel to rural and remote parts of the country to carry out work, should it not be possible to instruct a local agent.

I had a question on the topic from Beatrice Wishart last week, and I have statistics that I could write to the member with.

Pam Gosal (West Scotland) (Con)

In recent years, Scottish Government statistics have shown domestic abuse incidents at record highs. New statistics for the past year have been delayed until March, so we do not yet have the most recent information about domestic abuse in Scotland. The given reason for that is to allow additional time to complete development work. Can the cabinet secretary give more details about that work and its progress? Will the statistics be stronger, and will that work provide greater information on repeat attacks, which we know account for more than half of domestic abuse cases?

Siobhian Brown

I do not have that information to hand, but I will write to the member regarding that. I know that the member has a proposed domestic abuse prevention bill coming forward, and I am happy to consider innovative policy interventions that commit to do more for victims of domestic abuse.

HMP and YOI Polmont (Adult Male Prisoners)

6. Alexander Stewart (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government, in light of reports that the housing of adult male prisoners at HMP and YOI Polmont is being considered, what its position is on whether such an announcement should be made to the Parliament. (S6O-03035)

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

The management and location of prisoners is an operational matter for the Scottish Prison Service. The SPS wrote to the Criminal Justice Committee and the relevant cross-party group on 19 January this year to notify them about the phased transfer of adult male prisoners, which will be undertaken in small numbers and which began on 23 January.

The safety and welfare of people in custody are a top priority, and the Scottish Prison Service’s decision has been made in the context of an 84 per cent reduction in the number of under-21s in custody between 2009-10 and 2022-23. The Prison Service has a strong track record of keeping different groups of prisoners separate, and robust mitigations are in place to provide separate accommodation for adult males, including separate regimes, a reception area and an exercise regime that involves no view to other residential areas.

Alexander Stewart

The Scottish National Party Government has let crime spiral out of control. As a result, there is a rapidly increasing prison population, which is putting enormous pressure on already stretched resources. Those factors mean that prison services feel that they have no other option than to house male adults in prisons alongside young offenders. Will the cabinet secretary confirm that the move is necessary because the SNP’s soft-touch approach to justice has failed to deter criminals from committing crimes that are serious enough for them to go to jail?

Angela Constance

A prison population of 7,898 does not smack of soft justice; neither, indeed, is it smart justice. I have always been clear that we need to respond to the rise in the prison population, and we will indeed.

As for the member’s assertions about crime statistics, I should let him know that the level of crime under this Government is among the lowest since 1974. Crime has actually fallen under this Government. The Conservatives are always soft on solutions and soft on options but—my word—tough on the old rhetoric.

HMP Kilmarnock (Public Ownership)

To ask the Scottish Government what evidence it used as the basis for its decision to bring HMP Kilmarnock into public ownership. (S6O-03036)

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

For 17 years, it has been Scottish Government policy that prisons should be owned and managed by the public sector. We do not believe that public safety, rehabilitation and wellbeing should be driven by private profit.

With the 25-year contract coming to an end, there were really only two choices. One was to retender the contract; the other was to bring the prison into public ownership, in line with our long-running policy on private prisons. The decision was made not to put the contract out to tender.

Brian Whittle

HMP Kilmarnock is one of the most cost-effective prisons in the United Kingdom. It is regularly recognised for the positive approach that it takes to community engagement and for its relationship with community organisations.

The current operator had reportedly offered to build a new wing at no cost to the taxpayer. Meanwhile, His Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons has described six Scottish Prison Service-run prisons as

“ill-suited to a modern prison system”,

and the replacements for two of those prisons are delayed and over budget. Will the cabinet secretary accept—as she did during my members’ business debate—that the decision is not being based on results or evidence but is being driven by ideology, regardless of whether it will deliver the best outcomes for prisoners and staff at HMP Kilmarnock?

Angela Constance

I say with the greatest respect to Mr Whittle that he is taking some liberty there. As he well knows, I have a high regard for the staff and the work that takes place at HMP Kilmarnock. I very much look forward to welcoming the staff and the establishment into public control, as they become part of the wider Prison Service family.

The decision was taken some time ago, and cost comparisons between the public sector and the private sector are not straightforward. In more recent times, under the pricing mechanism where costs increase at a rate that is greater than the retail prices index excluding mortgage interest payments, prices have escalated to a higher level in private prisons in comparison with public sector prisons. Of course, with the Conservatives, it is always about money and cost, as opposed to safety, security, care, rehabilitation and the terms and conditions of prison officers.

Willie Coffey (Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley) (SNP)

When I visited the prison on Monday, the director assured me that the transition process is going well. Will the cabinet secretary provide an update on the engagement process that has taken place between staff and the SPS to ensure that the transition programme is delivering on its objectives for everybody who is concerned?

Angela Constance

Staff engagement is of the utmost importance in the process that we are pursuing, and I very much welcome the enhanced engagement that the Scottish Prison Service has carried out with employees in group settings and on a one-to-one basis to support the transition and ensure a smooth move into public sector ownership. I assure Mr Coffey that the SPS continues to work closely with Kilmarnock Prison Services Ltd and Serco to deliver the smooth transition in a way that supports the crucial front-line staff and those who are in our care and custody.

Post Office Horizon Prosecutions (Frank Mulholland)

8. Murdo Fraser (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on whether the former Lord Advocate Frank Mulholland should make himself available to the Parliament to answer questions, in relation to matters for which he was responsible in his former role, in connection with Horizon information technology prosecutions in Scotland. (S6O-03037)

The Lord Advocate (Dorothy Bain KC)

As the Lord Advocate, I am accountable to Parliament for the actions of prosecutors, regardless of when those actions were taken. The wrongful conviction of sub-postmasters that arose from the Post Office’s failure to disclose errors in the Horizon system is deeply concerning. While cases that relied on Horizon evidence were being prosecuted, the Post Office did not disclose to prosecutors the true extent of the system issues. There is no record of Lord Mulholland discussing that issue with the Scottish Government or taking any decisions in relation to cases that involved Horizon evidence.

Murdo Fraser

I thank the Lord Advocate for her response and welcome her back to the chamber to answer questions about this disgraceful episode, in which innocent sub-postmasters were wrongfully convicted. When she was last here, she could not—or perhaps would not—answer the direct question that I asked her about why there was a delay between the Crown Office being alerted to problems with the Horizon computer system and its deciding to suspend prosecution proceedings against sub-postmasters. Will she now give me an answer, or do we have to ask Lord Mulholland?

The Lord Advocate

I reject what Mr Fraser said. I did answer the question clearly, and my statement was available to Parliament before I took to my feet.

In relation to the period between 2013 and 2015, the concerns that were raised then were not the concerns as they are now known to be. The Crown was told of limited concerns in England and Wales that did not impact on Scotland. Accordingly, engagement with the Post Office, as a specialist reporting agency, was appropriately directed and managed by prosecutors in the Crown Office. As the Post Office identified no systemic issues or concerns regarding Scottish cases, there was no need to take further action.

As I said last time, I stress that it was not until the judicial findings of the courts in England and Wales were issued in 2019 and 2021 that the true and full extent of Horizon issues became known. At that point, it transpired that the Post Office had misrepresented—deliberately or otherwise—the true extent of the problems with Horizon during its engagement with Scottish prosecutors.

That concludes portfolio question time. I will allow a moment for members to organise themselves before we move to the next item of business.