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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Criminal Justice Committee 19 January 2022

Agenda: Subordinate Legislation, Pre-Budget Report (Scottish Government Response)


Contents


Pre-Budget Report (Scottish Government Response)

Item 2 is consideration of the Scottish Government’s response to the committee’s pre-budget scrutiny report. I refer members to paper 2. I thank the Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans for his detailed response.

I invite members to share any views they have or follow-up action that they would like the committee to take in response to the cabinet secretary. I will bring in Russell Findlay, Pauline McNeill, and I think that I saw Fulton MacGregor’s hand go up.

There is quite a lot to go at, so I will not talk about everything that has jumped out at me. I am sure that other members will want to come in, and if anything has been missed, I could perhaps come back in at the end.

The cabinet secretary refers to the Scottish Drug Deaths Taskforce. It is not clear from the papers whether his reply to the committee predates the resignation of the task force chair and deputy chair, which happened during the Christmas and new year period. Those two individuals said that the Scottish Government’s approach is counter-productive and driven by meeting targets rather than sustainable change. That is clearly of significant concern to anyone who has an interest in our record drugs death levels. It is important to pay some attention to what is being said about that and to work out what has gone wrong, because something clearly has gone wrong.

I just want to make one other point, if it is okay. It is in relation to fatal accident inquiries. The cabinet secretary’s response says, “we are not complacent”, but it simultaneously seems to suggest that the system works. I am looking at paragraph 177 in the papers. Again, it is clearly not working. There is a huge and growing backlog. Some of that is to do with Covid, but not all of it. Many of these cases last for years and the pain that that causes to families who have lost someone is horrific. I do not see how the comment about not being complacent sits with the apparent position of everything actually being okay.

I will leave it with those two points and let someone else come in.

I will start with the point that Russell Findlay made about fatal accident inquiries. There is a lot to welcome, but I have a few points that need further investigation or amplification.

I, too, am surprised that the cabinet secretary thinks that the current system for deaths in custody represents the right model for the future, given the extraordinary length of time that families are waiting. A big piece of work by the Scottish Government is needed, along with some investment.

I do not fully understand the relationship between the response and the Scottish Government’s recent statement that deaths in custody will be investigated independently. We heard that powers will be given to those who are tasked with that to ensure that they can get on with the job of getting to the bottom of deaths in custody with no barriers and with unfettered access. We have had an extraordinary number of deaths in custody, and a lot of families are really concerned about the length of time that it takes to investigate them. I share Russell Findlay’s view that there seems to be a bit of complacency on the issue. I would have thought that there needs to be some investment attached to the measures.

My second point relates to the implementation of measures in the Victims and Witnesses (Scotland) Act 2014, such as victims being offered support when making a statement. It seems to be a theme for the committee to explore whether there should be more formal support for victims in the system, either through being legally represented or in other ways. We need further investigation into that.

Finally, the Government has an excellent and comprehensive programme on violence against women and girls. I would like to see investment to ensure that the action plan is sustainable and that we make achievements along the way. I have made the point in Parliament a few times that there are cross-cutting issues between the justice portfolio and, for example, the equalities portfolio in relation to attitudes to violence against women and girls. We have seen high levels of sexual harassment of girls at a very young age. In some of our private sessions, we have discussed concerns about rape culture and other social issues. I would like cross-cutting investment between the justice department and other departments that have an obvious interest in that matter.

I agree with Pauline McNeill on violence against women and girls. I would like more cross-cutting work on that between committees, because it is a huge subject that we need to keep pursuing and tackling head-on. I will not repeat all of Pauline McNeill’s comments, but I agree with all of them.

On fatal accident inquiries, clearly there have been and are serious issues, and families have concerns. However, the cabinet secretary’s response was that the Government is taking note of the recent report of the deaths in custody review and that he has made an extensive statement in the chamber about the issue. Obviously, this is up to you, convener, but, to acknowledge the seriousness, perhaps we could send a letter to drill down a wee bit further on that issue. The fact that the excellent and all-encompassing report on deaths in custody is being considered is a good thing, but we probably need a bit more reassurance on that.

Russell Findlay talked about the Scottish Drug Deaths Taskforce. I completely disagree with him that there is any point in our going over again the issue of the two members who left the task force. That has all been made public, so I see no merit in our drilling back into it. Certainly, it is fine to acknowledge the work that they have been involved in, but I do not see that going over the issue again would move us forward in any way, and I am not sure that there is a great deal of public interest in that. I think that what the public want now is for us to move on and get things done.

On FAIs, there have been issues with the procurement contract for pathology and toxicology. Audit Scotland raised that issue in its annual audit report. I took some comfort from the committee’s meeting with the Lord Advocate, who said that a new contract has been introduced, which might reduce the length of time that some FAIs take. I also just note that, obviously, there has been a big issue during the pandemic, because of the strain on the national health service.

I will try to rattle through my points. To be helpful, I will identify them in relation to the committee’s conclusions by number. I will start with our point 139. On the overall budget, the cabinet secretary’s written response says that there will be

“a 7% increase in the portfolio resource budget”,

but it is unclear from the response whether there will be any increase in the capital budget or what the increase will be. That is important, because it comes up later in some of our recommendations.

On prisons and prison reform, there is an increase of £15 million to the Scottish Prison Service resource budget. It is unclear where that money is going or what it is for. Is it for staff or other forms of people-related expenditure rather than things? The £73 million capital funding is merely an extension of existing commitments. It will enable the conclusion of the construction of the female custodial estate and other pieces of work such as those at Inverness and Barlinnie. We know that that work might already be going over budget. That does not seem to be new money.

Our point 162 was that there is no increase in the capital budgets for either Police Scotland or the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service. It seems to me that the only capital money that is mentioned is for things that we already knew about. For example, it will not cover any investment in HMP Greenock or HMP Dumfries. That might not necessarily mean complete replacements; it could just be necessary infrastructure upgrades as per the recommendations of Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons in Scotland.

In relation to point 162 and the police capital budget, it was clear from the evidence that was given to us not just by the police but by other stakeholders, including the Scottish Police Federation, that there is an absolute necessity for increased capital for essential modernisation. It is not just about cherry picking upgrades; it is for things that are necessary to allow the police to continue to perform their duties. There seems to be nothing for digital and information and communications technology, fleet, the police estate or the police’s greening or net zero targets. That is noted.

We heard from the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service—or at least from its union—that some of the fire service’s estate is not fit for purpose. There is £9.5 million mentioned for modernisation, although I am not quite sure where that is going. It certainly does not seem to scratch the surface of what is needed.

Those are not necessarily criticisms; they are just observations on the responses.

Our point 173 was about the national community justice strategy. The Government simply says in response that that is “under development” and will launch this year, but it does not mention what budget will be allocated. We made a specific ask that it should be adequately funded. I note that no response was given to that.

The other major area of contention for me is on legal aid. The committee took a lot of evidence on that issue. I accept that there is disagreement between various stakeholders, but we made it clear that the profession, if nothing else, is clear that the Government has failed to address issues on fees and the negotiations on them. The one-line answer was that the Government “does not accept” that position.

10:30  

The Government did not respond to point 182, nor to point 184, which included a helpful suggestion about the Public Defence Solicitors Office that I thought had come from other members as we worked through the process. No response was provided by the Government. That is just not good enough.

On the issue of tackling drugs deaths, it was disappointing that the Government did not respond to points 189 and 191. We made a specific recommendation for a modest injection of funds for recovery clinics in prisons, as the committee discussed earlier, and also for residential rehab and community day centres. We also asked for clarification of how all the budgets work together, because we know that the drugs deaths crisis crosses many portfolios. The Government provided no response to either of those points. Given the gravity of the situation, that is disappointing.

As we reflect on the budget process, we may want to look back on those issues or push the Government further.

I was going to raise a couple of the points that Jamie Greene talked about. First, we asked about the PDSO but did not get a response.

Secondly, I will go back to the Drug Deaths Taskforce. We all know that 1,339 people died in Scotland last year because of drugs. The task force has the job of doing something about that. The chair and the deputy chair, both of whom are credible and eminent people, have quit. I do not think that we know enough about that. There may be a tendency to want to move on, but if we put our fingers in our ears and do not explore that further that sends out a pretty bad signal. We know, by virtue of what has been in the media, that those two individuals believe that the direction of travel is counter-productive to doing something about the drug deaths toll. That is fundamental. It would be remiss of us not to explore that further.

I thank members for their comments. There is a lot in there. I agree with some of the issues that have been raised, including Jamie Greene’s question about the capital budget, particularly for policing. There is a lot in what has been said about issues such as FAIs and deaths in custody. We all acknowledge that a lot of work has been done and progress made on that, but we must keep an eye on the issue.

I propose consolidating the points that have been made. We may wish to follow that up with some correspondence to the cabinet secretary, seeking clarity on those points, or we may be content with the reply that he has provided. Do members agree to some follow-up correspondence with the cabinet secretary?

I sort of alluded to the issue of correspondence. On an issue such as legal aid, where the Government simply responds by saying that it respectfully disagrees, that is fine. The Government is entirely within its rights to disagree either with stakeholders who have given evidence or with the committee’s summary and recommendations. It is entirely appropriate for the Government to disagree with committees and their findings—that is common and I do not have a problem with it—but when the Scottish Government does not answer questions at all on important issues, I would push back, uncontroversially, and say, “With respect, cabinet secretary, the committee made a recommendation, and just to say that no response has been provided is not good enough.” If a further response comes back to say that a response is not possible or that the cabinet secretary disagrees with the committee, that is fine. That is a response. However, to say that there is no response is not a response. I would be minded to push back on those issues.

It is also worth noting, however, that this is just a draft budget. The budget will go through its iterative process. Political parties and their spokespeople are within their rights to press the Government for more money on whatever they want and that will form part of the negotiations. There may be other opportunities for revisiting these issues as the budget goes through the process. By the time we get to the final stages of the budget, we will know what the final numbers are. It is not necessarily a given that the numbers that have been presented to us are the final numbers, and I am sure that the cabinet secretary has the wherewithal to request as much as he thinks is needed, off the back of the committee’s recommendations, from his colleagues in Government. Perhaps we could schedule an opportunity for the committee to review later iterations of the numbers to see whether they meet us some way in some of our tasks.

I think that it is important that, in our response to the cabinet secretary, we push on the deaths in custody issue. However, it would also be useful to ask about the evidence that we have taken and the discussions that we have had about how sexual offences and domestic abuse are dealt with, and how that relates to the budget and, in particular, the new budget strategy. I am not sure, but it may be that the financial implications of the implementation of any measures that are necessary would be dealt with in the new justice strategy. If the Government is talking about significant changes in how sexual offences and violence against women and girls are dealt with, that must have financial implications. It might be quite useful to use the correspondence to see whether we can get more detail on what the thinking is.

Thank you for those follow-up comments.

As Jamie Greene said, we are at the draft budget stage, and I have no doubt that we will return to some of the issues that we feel quite strongly about. As we progress through our work programme, we will have an opportunity to monitor budgetary issues and aspects of the work that we are looking at. When issues come up around a particular topic, we can raise them at that point and in the appropriate way. Do members agree?

I see that no one disagrees.

Finally, I would like to pick up on Russell Findlay’s point about the task force and the recent resignations. I understand where he is coming from with that, but I am not sure that it is necessarily directly a budget issue. However, I am sure that we will have further discussions about that in the context of the issue that Mr Findlay raised.

If we are content not to issue any further correspondence to the cabinet secretary on the budget response that he provided us with, I will bring this agenda item to a close, and thank members for their comments and contributions.

That concludes the public part of the meeting. Our next meeting will be on Wednesday 26 January.

10:40 Meeting continued in private until 11:38.