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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 03 December 2019

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Scottish Prison Service (Auditor General’s Report), Glenrothes (Living Wage Town Campaign), Veterans and the Armed Forces Community, Decision Time, Point of Order, Purple Light-up Campaign


Scottish Prison Service (Auditor General’s Report)

The next item of business is a statement by the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Humza Yousaf, on the Scottish Government’s response to the Auditor General for Scotland’s report, “The 2018-19 audit of the Scottish Prison Service”.


The Auditor General’s report on the 2018-19 audit of the Scottish Prison Service highlights the significant challenges that are facing the Scottish Government and the Scottish Prison Service, including the rise in prison population numbers, budgetary pressures, the demands on prison officers and staff and the reform of the physical prison estate.

I have previously acknowledged those challenges to Parliament, for example in my recent evidence to the Justice Committee for its pre-budget scrutiny. It is worth noting that, despite those challenges, in her most recent annual report, Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons indicates that she is reassured that, despite a rising prison population,

“staff and prisoners ... reported feeling safe.”

However, I recognise the absolute seriousness of the issues that are raised by the Auditor General and the pressures that we face. I am keen to work with members across the Parliament to address those concerns.

It may be helpful if I set out some of the actions that we have already taken, and I will begin with the budget. As noted by the Auditor General, the SPS revenue budget, as for other public bodies, has been constrained over recent years. That occurred during a time that the prison population was falling and the SPS was operating within, or below, its annual allocation.

Going into 2019-20, we acknowledged that the SPS faced a number of uncertainties in its budget, including on pay, pension costs and the costs that are associated with the rising numbers of prisoners in its care. As a result, an additional £24 million has been made available this year to help the SPS meet a range of cost pressures. I will continue to keep the budget position under review throughout the remainder of this year.

Budget allocations for next year are being considered as part of the current budget process, which includes consideration of the factors that gave rise to additional funding being provided to the SPS this year.

Many of the challenges that are raised in the Auditor General’s report are a consequence of the rapid increase in the prison population that began in 2018. Although crime, including violent crime, has fallen considerably in the past decade, we know that the nature of the offending that is being prosecuted through the courts has changed over that period, including there being more focus on serious organised crime and sexual offending, including historical cases and crimes that are committed online. That means that the average length of custodial sentence that is being imposed is at its highest in the last 10 years—it has increased by 21 per cent since 2008-09. That, along with other factors such as longer minimum punishment parts for life sentences, the ending of automatic early release for the most dangerous offenders and a reduction in the use of home detention curfew, has contributed to Scotland now locking up a greater proportion of its people than any other nation in western Europe.

I have been unequivocal that that is not a statistic to be proud of—far from it. It is a stain on our country’s collective conscience. While prison will always remain the best option for some of the most serious offenders, we know that those numbers are far too high and we have been working closely with our justice partners to take forward a range of progressive measures aimed at bringing those numbers down and easing the pressure on our prisons.

First, we know from the evidence that short-term sentences simply do not work to rehabilitate individuals. Individuals released from a custodial sentence of 12 months or less are reconvicted nearly twice as often as those who are given a community payback order. That is why we brought in a presumption against short sentences, to extend the current presumption against short periods of imprisonment from sentences of three months or less to sentences of 12 months or less.

Secondly, the Management of Offenders (Scotland) Act 2019 includes provisions to expand the availability of electronic monitoring alongside community sentences as alternatives to custody.

Thirdly, the Scottish Government, SPS, the Risk Management Authority and their partners have worked to develop revised operational guidance and processes for the release of prisoners on home detention curfew. In addition, we have asked Community Justice Scotland to take forward work with local authorities to collect information on the local availability of community justice services that can be shared with sentencers to help inform sentencing decisions.

Finally, the 2019 programme for government includes a commitment to undertake work to review the law on bail and remand. The Scottish Government has issued a commission for research to enable us to better understand the factors driving the relative use of bail and remand.

Those are just some examples of the progressive reforms that this Government is undertaking to address the challenges and to reduce the numbers of people in our custody.

I will move on to the physical prison estate. Since 2007, we have invested almost £600 million in the prison estate across Scotland. That investment has delivered three new prisons—Low Moss, Addiewell and Grampian—and the significant refurbishment of existing prisons, including Polmont, Edinburgh, Glenochil, Shotts and Perth.

In terms of our current priorities, delivering the bold and progressive plans for the new women’s custodial estate is vital. Our plans to create community custody units to sit alongside a smaller national facility reflect the recommendations made by the commission on women offenders and they will be more responsive to the specific needs of women who are in prison. Work on this project is well under way and the SPS aims to deliver the first of two local community custodial units in Dundee and Glasgow by the end of 2021. We know that concerns have been raised about the physical condition in parts of HMP Barlinnie and the replacement of HMP Barlinnie is one of our priorities. The preferred site at the former gas works at Provanmill for the replacement facility was confirmed by the SPS earlier this year and it is taking forward an application for an outline planning consent.

In the meantime, we have committed to considering proposals for additional funding to help to deal with the immediate infrastructure issues at Barlinnie, ahead of the replacement prison being completed. I appreciate that members are as keen as the Scottish Government and the SPS are to get the new facilities up and running but, as with any other significant infrastructure investment, there are many factors at play that affect the timetabling for large and complex projects, including the commercial marketplace and due diligence. However, I assure members that we are working at pace to deliver the new facilities. On-going investment in our prison estate will ensure that it is fit for purpose for the future, with modern infrastructure enabling maintenance of the safe, stable and secure environments that we can rightly be proud of in Scotland’s prisons.

The Auditor General’s report discusses some of the pressures that are being faced by the hard-working prison officers and staff in our prisons. I am sure that the entire Parliament will want to put on record our appreciation for the tough job that prison officers do. They deal with the most vulnerable people in our society and face an increasingly complex prison population on a daily basis. They do that job with great professionalism and I am greatly appreciative of their efforts.

One area of staffing that is highlighted in the Auditor General’s report is the increase in sickness absence among prison officers. The rise is largely attributable to mental health-related conditions. Multiple contributory factors both inside and outside the workplace are triggering illnesses, and the SPS is taking forward a range of measures through its employee wellbeing policy to support officers in their challenging roles. The measures include, to name just a few, lifestyle screening with physical health checks; a critical incident response and support process; an employee assistance programme, which is a free, 24-hour, confidential support service that provides telephone and face-to-face counselling; and an online health platform with multiple tools to monitor and improve wellbeing. Both HMP Inverness and HMP and YOI Grampian are showing a downward trend in the number of staff working days lost due to sickness, and the SPS continues to work hard to maintain that trend.

I have seen at first hand some of the challenges that our prison officers face on a day-to-day basis, so I am pleased that SPS management, unions and staff reached agreement in relation to the recent pay offer. It was a significant offer, which exceeded rises in previous years and pay deals across the public sector—and it was significant in comparison with offers for counterparts in England and Wales. It rightly reflects the hard work and dedication of our prison officers, whose work is difficult, often dangerous and largely unseen by the wider public.

In closing, I extend an invitation to every member in the Parliament. Today I have set out some of the wide-ranging measures that the Government has undertaken to bring about reform to the justice system and to bring about the changes that we want to see in a progressive society. We are clear, however, that we must go further. We want prisons to continue to be used to detain and rehabilitate those who present the biggest threats to our communities, alongside robust community alternatives and interventions to keep out of our prisons those for whom prison is not the best option.

However, we know from the evidence and from international comparisons that there is no silver bullet or magic wand to solve the complex, multifaceted and wider societal challenges in our prisons. I believe in the cross-portfolio, multi-agency and collaborative approach that the Government is taking, and my invitation to those who are here in the chamber is to be part of the solutions and reform. My door has been and will continue to be open to members with ideas and resolutions to the challenges, but we must find a solution to them, and I, as Cabinet Secretary for Justice, am determined that we do.

I thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of his statement. The Auditor General’s report made for pretty grim reading, highlighting that the

“SPS is facing threats to its financial sustainability and its operational safety and effectiveness.”

Prison staff, who are the bedrock of the system, are facing serious challenges. The number of serious prisoner assaults on staff is double the number in 2016-17. Stress-related sickness rose by a third in 2018-19, with the average number of days lost now 17 and staff working vastly increased hours. Throughcare—an aid to the rehabilitation that we all desire—has had to cease due to a lack of officers. Rehabilitation would be greatly assisted by work in education, yet the number of hours that are provided dropped by nearly 300,000 in 2017-18 to the lowest level since 2011.

What steps are being taken to address the lack of workforce planning, particularly at HMP Grampian, where 80 per cent of the vacancies exist? When can we expect that to yield results, so that the SPS can reintroduce throughcare and rehabilitation opportunities? Will the cabinet secretary at least consider the roll-out of body-worn cameras to protect prison officers?

I thank Liam Kerr for some very important questions. I agree with him that the report made for very grim reading—I do not doubt that, and I hope that I have set that out clearly. I also hope that I made clear my intention that we will work and invest to bring down those pressures on our Prison Service.

Regarding the violence that prison officers face, we have a more complex population in our prisons, and there is no doubt that we now have more serious organised criminals. I have been into SPS headquarters to see the important work that is done by the operations team there to ensure that various crime groups are kept separate in different facilities. That is a very complex job, but it is one that the SPS is doing well.

All that said, the most serious prisoner-on-staff violence went down from 2017-18 to 2018-19, although one serious assault is one serious assault too many.

On the question of body-worn cameras, I ask Liam Kerr to do as he asks me to do. I will keep an open mind in exploring that issue with both the Prison Service and the POAS. It is fair to say from my most recent conversations with the POAS that it was not particularly persuaded. That does not mean that we should not explore the idea, and I will do that. I have raised the matter with the Prison Service before, and I will commit to do that again, as I can see that it could be a welcome move in many instances. I will keep an open mind on that.

With regard to workforce planning, Liam Kerr is right to raise what is a particular issue at HMP Grampian, which is a prison that the member will be familiar with given that he represents the Grampian region. During my most recent conversation with the chief executive of the Prison Service, I spoke at great length about the workforce challenges. I offered to speak to him about where further investment could be made in the staff—I will look on that favourably—as we go into the post-election spending review and the United Kingdom budget. The challenges in Grampian are difficult due to its geography. I would be happy to meet the member, but I would also be happy for the SPS to speak with the member in more detail about what can be done for HMP Grampian in particular.

I thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of his statement. The Auditor General’s report is serious and it highlights the overcrowding crisis in Scottish prisons. Our prisons are bursting at the seams and, at the same time, the revenue budget has been reduced by £50 million over the past four years. The Government’s response has lacked urgency. Recently, when the Justice Committee visited Barlinnie prison, we were shocked at its substandard conditions. At Barlinnie, more than 90 per cent of prisoners are housed in double-occupied cells that were designed for single occupancy and there are only five cells available for disabled prisoners, only one of which has wheelchair access. What specific actions will be taken to deal with that unacceptable situation?

James Kelly makes reasonable points, but it is important that I bring some balance to them. I would not classify the situation in our prisons as a “crisis”. There are certainly significant challenges. However, it is down to the hard work and dedication of our prison officers that we still have prisons that, as HM chief inspector of prisons said, are “well-maintained” and “safe” for staff and prisoners alike. That is important. That is not to downplay the seriousness of the Auditor General’s report—I agree with James Kelly that it is extremely serious.

On the question on revenue, as I said in my statement, the prison population was falling over the decade and the SPS was coming in either within or under budget. I do not agree with James Kelly that we have not shown any urgency. For the current financial year, the offer that I made to the SPS was that we would keep its budget under review and, when pressures came to light, we would fund them. We have done that to the tune of £24 million, as I explained in my statement.

I agree with James Kelly’s final substantive point. I have been to HMP Barlinnie and I share James Kelly’s reservations. I do not think that we should be proud of that prison’s facilities in a modern progressive country, particularly when it is 150 per cent over capacity. The prison is simply not designed to cope with a population that is as high as it is at the moment.

To give the member some reassurance, I have asked the SPS to come to me with some proposals for interim measures. With the best will in the world, we know that the new Barlinnie will not be ready for a number of years so if the SPS deems that we need to give urgent attention to interim measures to improve the healthcare facilities, the reception facilities or any of the other facilities, I will explore that with an open mind.

We know that there is a range of complex factors that cause an increase in the prison population, which is why it is vital that Parliament continues to back the Scottish Government’s progressive justice reforms. Will the cabinet secretary expand on the work that is being done to ease the pressures on the prison population, including female prisoners in particular?

There is a range of progressive reforms, and I mentioned some of them in my statement. I was pleased that the majority of the Parliament got behind the presumption against short sentences, which disproportionately affect women—if I remember correctly, around 90 per cent of women in our prisons are serving sentences of 12 months or less. Our investment in community alternatives to custody will also yield positive results, particularly when it comes to the female population.

As I mentioned in the statement, there is no silver bullet that will fix the prison population or lower it significantly. We have to be willing to look at radical and bold measures. Some of those will be uncomfortable to discuss in this chamber, but we have to discuss them if we want to see a reduction in our prison population. We can do that only by being progressive. I fear that the moment we have a knee-jerk reaction, perhaps in the face of some terrible tragedy, or we begin to become regressive, the prison population will simply increase, not decrease.

I thank the cabinet secretary for early sight of the statement on what is a very grim report from the Auditor General. As others have said, the prison population has soared, self-harm and suicide are increasing and the SPS’s throughcare services have been abolished, yet there do not appear to be any new or radical proposals in the statement to respond to the Auditor General’s report or to what I think everybody has to accept is a mounting crisis in our prison system. Given the pressure that staff are now under, given that they were promised a share of 800 extra mental health professionals, and given the lack of detail about how those would be distributed, such that we have asked the Scottish Information Commissioner to intervene, can the cabinet secretary tell us today how many extra mental health staff there will ultimately be in our prisons?

I do not have that figure to hand, but I undertake to write to Liam MacArthur with it. I know that there has been additional investment in mental health staff in our prisons. I take the issue extremely seriously. That is why I asked HM chief inspector of prisons in Scotland to look at mental health, particularly at YOI Polmont, because, of course, the issue affects the youngest and most vulnerable people in our care. I also take extremely seriously the issue of the mental health of our staff. I hope that I have given some detail and some reassurance in the statement about what the SPS is doing to help members of staff with any mental conditions, stress or problems that may arise from working in the prison estate.

I also take the issue of throughcare very seriously. That is why the Government worked closely with the third sector to see where it could come in when the throughcare service was suspended by the SPS and we had to use those experienced prison officers back in the main prison estate. I was pleased that, with its agreement, the third sector was able to step in. That is a temporary measure and, of course, if we manage to reduce the prison population, we can have a further discussion on how things can progress thereafter.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that prisons should be managed by the public sector and not run for profit by private companies? The fact that we have private prisons is a legacy from previous Administrations. Can he tell us how much the private finance initiative contracts for HMP Addiewell and HMP Kilmarnock have cost the public purse?

That is a good question. Given the budgetary pressures that we face, the unitary charges for our private prisons are pretty eye-watering. I have always said, and the Government has always maintained, that prisons should be very much run for the public, not for private profit. We have not built private prisons—they were, of course, commissioned before the Government came into power—and when the contracts expire, let me be unequivocal that those prisons will come back into the public sphere and back into public ownership.

The unitary charges for each of the private prisons in the estate are, over the course of the contracts, more than £368 million for HMP Kilmarnock and £955 million for HMP Addiewell, which is an eye-watering total cost of more than £1.3 billion. That underlines why prisons should be run publicly as opposed to being run privately for profit.

The Scottish Government’s presumption against short-term sentences of three months or less, and now 12 months or less, relies heavily on community payback orders and other alternatives to custody working effectively. Given that the success of those orders and other alternatives to custody relies heavily on the third and voluntary sectors being adequately funded to deliver those programmes, will the cabinet secretary commit to ensuring that third and voluntary sector organisations have sustainable three-year funding delivered directly to them, rather than through local authorities, which are competitors?

Margaret Mitchell will, of course, be aware of the budget challenges that we face. We have had a decade of austerity, and we will see what the general election brings and what the budget will be. I suspect that we will get a one-year budget from the UK Government as opposed to a multi-annual budget. It becomes difficult for us to do a three-year budget because of those constraints. I am sure that I will reflect those conversations with the finance secretary.

Margaret Mitchell’s wider point is not lost on me at all. The third sector is an important partner when it comes to community alternatives to custody. We will continue to engage with the sector. It is represented in part of the work that we do in and around the national community justice leadership group, so I will continue to engage with it and listen to its concerns about financing and resources.

The cabinet secretary mentioned reconviction in his statement. What can we do with people coming out of prison, to make sure that they integrate with the community again and do not get in with the wrong crowd?

That is a really important point. Essentially, we want to stop the cycle of reoffending. To return to Margaret Mitchell’s question, we provide £3.4 million a year to the third sector, to support throughcare services for men and women. In addition, to ensure that people do not enter a cycle of reoffending we have to look at measures such as home detention curfew. That is about reintegrating people back into the community and testing that reintegration in the community.

We know the very good reasons why a review was conducted into the use of home detention curfews and changes were made to it, but a range of measures such as that, which can be challenging and controversial, are much needed in order to test people in the community with minimal risk—with, no doubt, the job of the risk management authority and others being done properly—so that we can hopefully break the reoffending cycle.

I note that the cabinet secretary acknowledged the hard work and dedication of prison staff; he also acknowledged the pressure that they are under. Although a wage increase is welcome, that will not resolve the major issues.

I recently met staff from Perth prison. The situation that they described to me is one in which staff morale is at rock bottom. The staff are stressed, under pressure and anxious, as the cabinet secretary acknowledged. The sickness levels are adding to the pressure, because of the lack of cover, which is also leading to prisoners being kept in their cells for far too long. All that pressure is bubbling away—it is like a pressure pot that staff are frightened will blow. Do we need more staff in our prison service? Has a proper analysis been done of the current and required staffing levels? Will we actually take the action that is required in order to put in place a proper workplace staffing programme, to ensure that prisons are adequately staffed?

I thank Alex Rowley for that important question. I join him in paying tribute to the staff at HMP Perth and across our prison estate for their hard work and dedication.

We recognise that hard work, which is why we brought forward and helped to fund an extremely ambitious pay award that recognises the difficult job that prison officers do. A 14 per cent pay rise over the next three years is a significant recognition of that hard work, particularly in comparison to England and Wales, where the pay rise is between only 2.2 per cent and 3 per cent, depending on the band.

That does not take away from the points that Alex Rowley made about the pressure points that exist in our prison service. Part of the pay award and, in particular, the agreement with the POAS, was about looking at how we can reduce staff sickness.

I mentioned some of the measures that the SPS has put in place to help to tackle mental health issues among prison officers. Interestingly, a number of staff days are also lost—I think it is around 15,000 per annum—due to physical pressures in the job and musculoskeletal problems. There are two things that I will say on that. One is that I am aghast at the fact that when the UK Government made its reforms to civil service pensions, it did not include prison officers. Due to that omission by the UK Government, prison officers now have to work until they are 68, which I think is a ridiculous notion.

The second point is that the SPS is investing in physiotherapy and a number of other initiatives that will help with some of those physical pressures in the job. Where those initiatives have been piloted, we are already seeing a positive impact on reducing staff sickness. I addressed the additional staff point in response to a previous question. I have spoken to the chief executive of SPS, as I frequently do, and, on the question of additional staff that are needed, I told him that I would expect proposals to come forward from the SPS. When they do, I will discuss them with the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work.

There are four other members waiting patiently to ask questions, if we can get to them.

Although we should never be complacent about the challenges faced by our prisons, does the cabinet secretary agree with Wendy Sinclair-Gieben, the chief inspector of prisons for Scotland? In the introduction to her 2018-19 annual report, she said:

“I am pleasantly reassured to see that levels of violence, self-harm and prison suicide, although rising, have not risen as drastically as they did under similar conditions in the English prison service.”

Why does the cabinet secretary think that is the case?

I agree with what Shona Robison said. However, although she is right about what the chief inspector said and it is important to put it on the record, I am not happy about the level of mental health problems, including issues around self-harm and suicide, in our prison estate. I do not think that we should ever be satisfied by what we are doing in that regard or complacent about the issue, and we should do more to reduce the number of those terrible incidents, particularly those involving self-harm and suicide.

On the question that Liam McArthur asked about mental health professionals, I have managed to find the statistics. We have 19 additional members of staff who are deployed in our prisons, and we will continue to invest in the number of mental health staff in our prison estate. That is one thing that we can certainly do.

Shona Robison will be aware that I asked the chief inspector to look into the issue of mental health in HM YOI Polmont. She will also be aware of the mental health review that is being undertaken by my colleagues the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport and the Minister for Mental Health, and I note that prisons will be included in the remit of that review.

We are looking to do a range of things. We are certainly not complacent. We await the findings of the review and we will continue to invest in mental health staff in our prison service. Certainly, one incident of self-harm or one incident of suicide is one too many.

There are still three more questions, so I ask members and the cabinet secretary to be succinct.

Barlinnie prison is currently operating over capacity, with prisoners doubling up in cells, which cannot help rehabilitation. Barlinnie’s age is such that there is a high risk of failure in parts of the building, such as the drainage and sewerage systems. What contingency plans are in place in case of such failures? For how long does the cabinet secretary envisage prisoners having to share cells?

I reassure Maurice Corry that contingency plans are in place in the event of, for example, a catastrophic failure in our prisons such that additional spaces require to be found. The contingency plans do not give us much comfort, in the sense that we would be looking at more doubling up in cells and having to use space that is currently used for things such as rehabilitation and leisure in the prisoner’s day. I would rather that we did not get into a position in which there is catastrophic failure, as Maurice Corry said, and that we invested in our prison service, as we are doing, including in interim measures, which I look on favourably in relation to Barlinnie.

Maurice Corry alluded to the answer to the problem, the conundrum and the question; the way round the issue is to reduce the prison population. I say this with all seriousness to my colleagues in the Conservatives, because I know that this is a political issue for them: only by being progressive on this agenda, while of course maintaining public safety and public protection—the issues are not mutually exclusive—will we see a reduction in the number of people who come into our prisons. If we reduce the number, I hope that we will not have to take some of the more undesirable contingency measures that we might have to take.

The cabinet secretary is aware that many young people who are held on remand or in custody are taken to HM YOI Polmont. I have a constituent whose family struggled to visit their son because of the financial cost associated with travelling from the Borders to Polmont. Will the cabinet secretary assure members that appropriate support will be put in place for families who are affected by imprisonment? I am asking about support for wellbeing as well as practical support.

We are pleased to fund prisoner visitor centres in our prisons. I have visited a number of centres and seen the good work that they do.

Emma Harper’s point is not lost on me. The SPS has established a family strategy group and an improvement plan is in place. I understand that a scheme is in place that can help families who wish to visit family members who are in the prison estate; I will write to Emma Harper to ensure that she has more details of the scheme, which can perhaps help her constituent.

HMP Inverness is overflowing. The cabinet secretary bought a site for the new HMP Highland at vast expense but has not yet said when work will start. Can he say that now?

I hope that Edward Mountain, in pushing for the next phase for HMP Inverness to be funded right now, is not suggesting that I should deprioritise the new female custodial estate, because that is currently the priority, as I said in my statement. There is a priority list and HMP Inverness is on it, but I hope that Edward Mountain understands that neither the female custodial estate nor HMP Barlinnie can be deprioritised because of HMP Inverness. There is an infrastructure plan, which is based on absolute need, and HMP Inverness is certainly among our top priorities. I hope that Edward Mountain is not suggesting that we deprioritise the new female custodial estate; that is something that I am simply not willing to do.