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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, October 3, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 03 October 2019

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Great British Beach Clean, Scotland’s Onshore Unconventional Oil and Gas Policy, Portfolio Question Time, Business Motion, Children (Equal Protection from Assault) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Motion Without Notice, Children (Equal Protection from Assault) (Scotland) Bill, Business Motion, Decision Time


Portfolio Question Time

Fire Stations (Pet Oxygen Masks)

To ask the Scottish Government how many fire stations have been supplied with pet oxygen masks by the organisation Smokey Paws Ltd. (S5O-03617)

Smokey Paws is to be commended for its work in raising awareness of the safety of pets in fires and fundraising to provide the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service with oxygen masks that are specifically designed for pets. In total, 251 pet oxygen mask kits have already been handed over to fire stations across Scotland, with another 25 in the process of being distributed to SFRS local senior officer areas. Those 276 kits have been supplied to the fire service through donations by the Smokey Paws charity, individual members of the public, firefighters, animal charities, dog-walking groups and a range of companies, including several veterinary practices.

I thank the minister for her response and for updating Parliament. My constituent Ron Ewing was at the forefront of the Smokey Paws campaign in Scotland. He co-co-ordinated the operation of Smokey Paws in Scotland and visited countless fire stations the length and breadth of Scotland to hand over the pet oxygen mask kits. He was also an enthusiastic member of the cross-party group in the Scottish Parliament on accident prevention and safety awareness, which is convened by my colleague Clare Adamson, and he is a former chair of Johnstone community council.

Ron Ewing was also a friend and was, in many respects, responsible more than anyone for the prevalence of the oxygen mask kits across Scotland today. Sadly, during the summer recess, Ron passed away after a short illness. Does the minister agree that Ron’s legacy is one of which his wife Carol and his family, friends and community can be proud?

I certainly agree with that. My thoughts are with Ron Ewing’s family and friends at this time after their sad loss. Clearly, Ron was the driving force in introducing the kits to the SFRS, and spent a large part of his time supporting their delivery, travelling the length and breadth of Scotland. His passion and dedication will be remembered, and his legacy will continue as Scottish firefighters use the oxygen mask kits in the line of duty.

Recorded Crimes (North Ayrshire)

To ask the Scottish Government what the percentage change has been in the number of recorded crimes in North Ayrshire over the past decade, and how this compares with the national figure. (S5O-03618)

The latest national statistics show that the number of crimes recorded in North Ayrshire fell by 36 per cent between 2009-10 and 2018-19, which represents a reduction of just over 3,300 crimes. Over the same period, recorded crime fell by 27 per cent across Scotland.

The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee has criticised the UK Government’s ability to tackle organised crime, including human and drug trafficking, drug dealing and cybercrime, and has suggested that the UK Government look to Scotland for answers. How is organised crime tackled in North Ayrshire and across Scotland, and to what extent is that reducing crime in our communities?

Kenneth Gibson raises an important point. He will probably know that I chair the serious organised crime task force, which the Lord Advocate attends, and that partners on that continue to take forward a range of activity to reduce the harm that is caused by serious organised crime in North Ayrshire and across Scotland.

That effort is supported by state-of-the-art facilities at the Scottish crime campus at Gartcosh, and by the collaborative approaches that its facilities engender, which law enforcement colleagues elsewhere across the United Kingdom look at with great envy. In fact, in July this year at Westminster, the chief constable of Merseyside Police, in evidence to the Public Accounts Committee’s inquiry into serious and organised crime, said:

“A lot of good things are happening ... in Scotland that we should keep a very close eye on”.

The Scottish Government is, of course, keen to continue the effort against serious organised crime, including human trafficking, which Kenneth Gibson mentioned. We routinely share information where we can, and when we can share good practice with forces and other partners across the United Kingdom, we are always happy to do so.

Not only has violent crime risen for the fourth year in a row, to the highest level in seven years, but clear-up rates for violent crime have dropped to their lowest level in eight years. There are more robberies and serious assaults, and fewer of the perpetrators are being brought to justice. Does the cabinet secretary have any answers to that? It does not seem so.

It is easy for anybody—particularly Liam Kerr—to pick out a statistic from a given year, but what he wants to look at is the longer-term trends, which are that violent crime has reduced drastically, by 43 per cent over the past decade, and recorded crime has fallen by almost half, over the same period.

Let us contrast that with Tory-run England and Wales, where the Conservatives have been in power for the past decade and where adults are more likely to be victims of crime. That is probably because the Conservatives have cut 20,000 officers, when we have increased officer numbers by more than 1,000. I will take no lectures from Liam Kerr and the Conservatives on how to deal with crime and law and order in Scotland.

If Mr Kerr is serious about tackling the issue, he should look at the underlying causes of some of the rise in violent crime. For example, we know that part of it is to do with operational reasons around stop and searches for drug possession. We are serious about reducing crime, which is why we have had such a good track record for just over a decade. Liam Kerr and the Conservative Party could learn from that.

One area of concern in the recent statistics is the rise in crimes of a sexual nature, which have gone up by 8 per cent and are at the highest level since 1971. In Glasgow, where the figure has gone up by 9 per cent, and South Lanarkshire, where it has gone up by 20 per cent, that has caused real anxiety. Does the cabinet secretary recognise the serious issue and the challenge that is presented by the rise in crimes of a sexual nature? What will the Government do to tackle the issue?

I thank James Kelly for asking that serious question on an important subject. I appreciate the tone in which he asked it.

My answer is not too different from the answer that I gave Liam Kerr, in that I will say that it is important to consider long-term trends, and the long-term trend over the past eight years has been a rise in sexual offences. A number of reasons underlie that rise, including the fact that a number of the offences are historical offences. We hope that that means that people now have more confidence about reporting, although I know from having talked to a number of victims’ organisations and so on that there is more we can do to increase confidence.

More worrying is that there has been a rise in use of technology in sexual offences, with cyber-enabled sexual offences occurring more often. Perhaps even more worrying is the number of offences of a sexual nature involving young people. To answer James Kelly’s question directly, I say that Dr Catherine Dyer has done an incredible piece of work on that particular matter. Her final report is due to be with us shortly: I will update James Kelly and Parliament once we have it.

Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Act 2011 (Convictions)

To ask the Scottish Government how many convictions for vicarious liability have been made under provisions in the Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Act 2011. (S5O-03619)

Up to 2017-18, which is the latest date for which information is available, four prosecutions involving relevant charges have been brought under section 18A of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, and those have resulted in two convictions. One person was convicted of four charges in 2014-15 and another person was convicted of two charges in 2015-16.

Vicarious liability was presented by the Scottish Government in 2012 as a strong response to raptor persecution. Civil society welcomed the provision and had high expectations that it would be effective. However, it is clear that there is no indication that raptor persecution rates have been positively affected and, as the cabinet secretary said, there have been few convictions. Why have there not been more, and does the cabinet secretary agree that the time is right for an urgent review?

The question that Alison Johnstone asks is incredibly important. With regard to why there have been only two convictions in relation to vicarious liability since 2011, there are a number of reasons why it might not be appropriate to pursue a charge of vicarious liability. For example, in common with the position for other crimes, there are evidentiary thresholds that must be met before a case can be brought, and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service must also consider whether it would be in the public interest to pursue a conviction.

The member will, of course, be aware of the introduction of the Animal and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Bill. Although that does not create new offences, it will look to increase the maximum fine and prison term that a court can impose on people who are found guilty of vicarious liability.

On raptor persecution, the member will be aware that we established an independent group to examine how we can ensure that grouse moor management is sustainable and compliant with the law. That review, which is led by Professor Alan Werritty, is due to report in the coming weeks and, again, I will ensure that the appropriate minister keeps Alison Johnstone updated on that process.

Landowners have a direct responsibility for what happens on their land. As there have been only two convictions for vicarious liability, will the cabinet secretary clarify whether it is legally necessary for there to have been a charge and a successful prosecution of the perpetrator of a crime against our wildlife in order for a vicarious liability charge to proceed, if the evidence of the crime is compelling?

Again, I can perhaps get more detail to Claudia Beamish about the exact dependencies of the law but, as I said to Alison Johnstone, a range of factors have to be considered in pursuing a charge of vicarious liability. Those include evidentiary thresholds and whether the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service considers that it would be in the public interest to pursue a conviction. I know that Claudia Beamish’s position would be that it often is in the public interest to do so, but that is a matter for the Crown, and is not something that I, as justice secretary, can interfere in.

I take the points that Alison Johnstone and Claudia Beamish have made, and I will certainly see whether I can write to Claudia Beamish with more detail on the specific question that she asks.

Domestic Abuse

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to protect families who have been affected by domestic abuse. (S5O-03620)

The Children (Scotland) Bill was introduced on 2 September. A key aim of the bill is to further protect victims of domestic abuse and their children in family courts.

In particular, the bill restricts the personal conduct of a case in proceedings that involve vulnerable witnesses, ensures that special measures to protect vulnerable parties are available in child welfare hearings, and establishes a register of child welfare reporters, which will ensure that reporters are appropriately trained in domestic abuse.

The Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018 created a specific offence of domestic abuse. It reflects that children are harmed by domestic abuse by creating a statutory aggravation in relation to children and enabling the court to use a non-harassment order to protect children, as well as the adult victim of the offence.

The minister acknowledges the harm that is done to children who are subject to domestic abuse, regardless of whether they have directly witnessed it. However, the civil courts continue to give parental rights and access to abusive parents, and the abuser often continues to control and abuse their victim using those rights.

Will the Scottish Government legislate to ensure that an abusive parent will no longer be granted such rights, and will it ensure that no victim of domestic abuse is faced with the horrifying choice of either sending their children into an unsafe situation or facing arrest and jail for contempt of court?

I thank Rhoda Grant for raising a serious issue. We are aware that some perpetrators of domestic abuse might seek to lodge repeated court cases regarding contact and residence in order to continue the domestic abuse. We propose to make regulations under section 102 of the Courts Reform (Scotland) Act 2014 in relation to vexatious behaviour in contact and residence cases, which will allow the Court of Session, the sheriff court or the sheriff appeal court to make an order in relation to a person

“who has behaved in a vexatious manner”.

There are also a number of provisions in the Children (Scotland) Bill that aim to put the child at the centre and protect victims of domestic abuse and their families.

Short Sentences (Impact on Female Offenders)

5. Clare Adamson (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what impact a presumption against short sentences will have on female offenders. (S5O-03621)

National statistics show that around 90 per cent of custodial sentences for women are for 12 months or less. Many of those women will have experienced abuse, mental health or addiction problems—or indeed a combination of all three—at some point in their lives.

Short prison sentences do little to rehabilitate people or reduce their likelihood of reoffending, and we know that they can disrupt families and adversely affect employment opportunities and stable housing, all of which, evidence shows, support desistance from offending.

The presumption is not a ban and decisions about sentencing are a matter for the independent court. However, the extended presumption is intended to help enable a further shift to community-based interventions, where appropriate, and is expected to positively impact on women in the justice system. The impact of the presumption will be monitored closely, including in relation to female offenders.

A recent analytical report from the Ministry of Justice, “Economic and social costs of reoffending”, shows that there is a societal cost of £18 billion a year in the United Kingdom. Therefore, does the cabinet secretary agree that Scottish Conservatives in the Scottish Parliament, and the new UK Government Secretary of State for Justice, Robert Buckland, should get behind the presumption against short sentences for the benefit of the whole of society?

I agree with that sentiment. I have often said that my approach to justice is an evidence-based approach. That was clearly also the approach that was being taken in terms of short sentences by Robert Buckland’s predecessor, David Gauke, and his junior minister at the time—the Minister of State for Prisons—Rory Stewart, who I know was well thought of by some members on the Conservative benches.

In his last speech as UK justice secretary, David Gauke stated:

“Whether through prison, community sentences or fines, offenders must face justice. And justice works best when punishment and rehabilitation are balanced and the cycle of crime is broken ... Let me be clear: I don’t want to see softer justice; I want to deliver smarter justice where offenders serve sentences that punish but also make them less likely to reoffend.”

We know that the economic and social costs of reoffending are significant. We know from evidence that short custodial sentences are not effective in rehabilitation. The extended presumption against short sentences is not a silver bullet. However, it is an important reform as part of an evidence-led, progressive approach to reducing crime.

According to Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons for Scotland, the number of women held in custody on 31 March 2019 was 318—as it was at the same time in 2018. Given that the new female custodial estate is due to accommodate 230 places, what assurances can the cabinet secretary offer that not only will the new community custody unit be completed in 2020, as promised, but that female prisoner numbers will be in line with capacity at that stage?

Liam McArthur raises an important point. The hope is that the presumption against short sentences will have an impact on reducing the female custodial population. He might be aware that, at the moment, there is capacity in other prisons to hold women. That is not the position that we want to be in. We want our new CCUs, along with the new national facility, to hold our female custodial population. However, there are other places that capacity could be found if needed, although that is not the intention. The intention is that the PASS will reduce the number of women in our female custodial estate and that the CCUs and the new national facility will meet capacity. However, there is capacity in other parts of the prison estate to hold women, should it be required.

In its recent report, Audit Scotland suggested that the presumption against short sentences would reduce the prison population by just 200. Given that we are 5 per cent over capacity, what other measures is the cabinet secretary considering either to reduce the prison population or to increase capacity?

I assure the member that I do not want to increase capacity: I do not want to be a minister who is building additional prisons—of course we will build new prisons to replace the ones that are closing down, but I do not want to build additional prisons. The answer lies in the first part of Daniel Johnson’s question, on how we reduce the numbers coming in. He is right to say that the presumption against short sentences will have an impact, which will be a reduction of around 200-300 prisoners.

What I am very keen to do—I know that Daniel Johnson has a keen interest in this—is to tackle the part of our prison population that is on remand. Bail supervision will be a large part of that: some of the provisions in the Management of Offenders (Scotland) Act 2019 will commence later this month and we can then look further at more bail supervision measures. We will also be investing in community justice alternatives so that sheriffs have confidence in those measures. However, despite the suggestion in Daniel Johnson’s question, there is no panacea or silver bullet to help us with that. We need to implement a range of measures. We are absolutely determined to take an evidence-led, progressive approach.

Drug Deaths

I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests as a member of Unite the Union.

To ask the Scottish Government to what extent the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service works with the University of Glasgow’s forensic toxicology service when responding to drug deaths. (S5O-03622)

All sudden, unexpected and suspicious deaths in Scotland are reported to the Crown. Where the death may be drug related, the Crown instructs a toxicological analysis of samples obtained at post-mortem examination. The University of Glasgow currently provides that service under contract to the COPFS for deaths in the east and west of Scotland. NHS Grampian provides a service for the north of Scotland. In such cases, toxicological analysis may be essential in order to establish the cause of death.

When we have a drug deaths emergency, there should be no disruption to such a vital service, which deals with 90 per cent of all cases requiring toxicological analysis. Can the Lord Advocate guarantee that there will be no gap in provision or knock-on delays if the current contract with the University of Glasgow ceases early next year?

It is perhaps important that I put the current situation with the contract into context. The Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service is engaged in a project that aims to improve the provision of pathology, mortuary and toxicology services across the board, including in relation to quality of service delivery, affordability, transparency and value for money. In the course of negotiations with the University of Glasgow, the university intimated that it does not wish to continue to provide toxicology services in the longer term.

The Crown has had constructive discussions with an alternative provider, with a view the work transferring from the University of Glasgow. The COPFS anticipates that, assuming the discussions reach a satisfactory conclusion, staff will have the option to transfer to the new provider. The COPFS is working with the alternative provider on a full assessment of future service requirements, as well as on the management of transition. No contract is yet in place, so I am afraid that I cannot say more about that at this stage.

In the meantime, I am pleased to say that, this week, the University of Glasgow has confirmed that it is willing, in principle, to extend the toxicology contract to the end of September 2020, with a view to the work transferring to an alternative provider thereafter. That will help to minimise disruption to that essential service and will, I hope, give reassurance to the staff involved.

I make clear the significant contribution that the pathologists and toxicologists at the University of Glasgow and elsewhere make to the investigation and prosecution of crime and to the investigation of deaths, and the value that I attach to that work. Last week, senior Crown Office officials met staff to discuss their concerns and to set out next steps.

It is very sad to have confirmed what I already knew from a letter from the university and from meeting staff. The letter that I received from the Crown Office mentioned the creation of a national forensic and non-forensic pathology service for Scotland. Will the new provider be that service, and will it be based in Scotland?

The work that the Crown Office is engaged in has the long-term ambition of establishing a national forensic and non-forensic pathology service for Scotland, with centres of excellence for relevant specialisms in different locations. For example, progress has been made on the establishment of a national neuropathology service, which will be provided by NHS Lothian. We have a strong interest in retaining such services and the relevant skills in Scotland. Through the work that I have described, the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service hopes to retain that work in Scotland.