Skip to main content

Language: English / Gàidhlig

Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)

Meeting date: Tuesday, February 8, 2022

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Covid-19, Justice Services, Committee Announcement (Made Affirmative Procedure), Business Motion, Decision Time, The BBC (Funding)


Justice Services

The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-03098, in the name of Keith Brown, on a new vision for justice.


The Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans (Keith Brown)

I am grateful for the opportunity to present the Scottish Government’s new vision for justice in Scotland. We want to transform our justice services and put people at the heart of everything that we do.

We have a long and proud tradition of effective justice in Scotland and we have worked hard, over many years, to strengthen and modernise a justice system in which individuals and communities can have trust, but we recognise that we must do more. Our vision for justice will continue to strive to deliver a just, fair and resilient Scotland. I am bold in my ambition that the people of Scotland should be living in even safer, more tolerant and inclusive communities, free from inequality and hate.

Our vision is a Scotland where there is less crime and unintentional harm in our communities and where we all have fair access to justice, so that when we experience crime, something is done. It is a Scotland where we will be treated as people, first and foremost, and where our voices will be heard and we will be supported to recover from the trauma that we have experienced. It is a Scotland where those who have committed offences will be supported in rehabilitation by the most effective means, primarily remaining in our communities with support and opportunities for fair work, employment and housing.

I want to highlight two key messages from that vision. First, all our justice services, including those that are delivered by our third sector partners and the legal profession, must be person centred and trauma informed. No matter what our role is or what our interaction with justice services is, we know that how we are treated affects our feelings about justice processes and our confidence in them. Those experiences are often as important as the conclusion of a case or a dispute. Delivering person-centred services will ensure that a person’s needs and views are respected, that people receive timely and clear communication that they can understand, and that individuals and families will be involved in decisions that affect them.

Many of the issues that bring people to the justice system, whether as a victim or a person accused of crime, are very traumatic. It is our duty to minimise the inflicting of further trauma or retraumatisation and help recovery. We will embed trauma-informed practice and ensure that our justice services recognise the prevalence of trauma and adversity. We have already invested £250,000 over three years to fund a trauma specialist at NHS Education for Scotland to help to drive forward the development of a trauma-informed responsive workforce in our justice services in relation to the needs of victims and survivors.

Secondly, we must work across our public services to improve outcomes for individuals and focus on prevention and early intervention. The causes of crime are complex and varied, but we know that, to address those causes, we must tackle societal inequalities, such as gender inequality, child poverty, mental ill health, addiction and adverse childhood experiences. Those issues are beyond the responsibility of justice alone, but justice has a role in responding to them. I am determined that Scotland’s public services will work together to address those issues and that individuals will be supported at the earliest opportunity to improve their life chances and, ultimately, to reduce the risk of offending and reoffending. By focusing on early intervention, we can also ensure that the right services are provided at the right time and, where possible, that they support people to avoid contact with the justice services.

I have three priority areas of action. The first is women and children. Violence against women and girls in any form has no place in our vision for a safe, strong and successful Scotland. It damages health and wellbeing and limits freedom and potential, and it is a violation of the most fundamental human rights. The Government is committed to tackling behaviour that stems from systemic and deep-rooted women’s inequality. That inequality leads to violent and abusive behaviour by men directed at women and girls precisely because they are women and girls.

We must recognise the role that our justice system plays in perpetuating that inequality. Historically, our justice system was designed by men for men. Put simply, it does not meet the needs of women and children in our society. Survivors tells us that how they are treated by justice services affects their feelings of confidence in the justice process.

Low conviction rates for sexual crimes are also a real cause for concern. That is why we want to improve how the justice system can serve women and ensure that survivors have trust in the criminal justice process.

I welcome the establishment of the new women’s justice leadership panel, which is chaired by the Minister for Community Safety, Ash Regan.

In “Improving the Management of Sexual Offence Cases”, Lady Dorrian made a number of recommendations to benefit and empower women who have experienced sexual abuse. A governance group that is led by the Scottish Government and which comprises key stakeholders met for the first time on 21 December. That group will drive forward progress and detailed consideration of the individual and collective recommendations in Lady Dorrian’s report.

We also have work to do to improve justice for children. We are committed to keeping the Promise. We will continue to deliver our reinforced and reinvigorated whole-system approach to prevent youth offending and, to the extent possible, no under-18s will be remanded or sentenced to detention in a young offenders institute. We will continue to invest in services to strengthen support for families that are affected by parental imprisonment and to listen to the voice of the child in family law cases. During the lifespan of the vision, we will fulfil our commitment to provide access to a bairn’s hoose for every child who needs it.

Overall rates of offending have fallen under the Government, but we must ensure that victims are heard. We must offer approaches to justice that place victims at the heart of the process and support them in their recovery. We will deliver on our commitment to appoint a victims commissioner to provide an independent voice for victims. We will also look towards progressing different forms of justice, including restorative justice, which allow victims to take a prominent role.

We know that delay and uncertainty caused great stress to victims and survivors. Covid-19 has put significant pressure on our justice system, increasing the time for cases to progress through the criminal justice system, and that brings additional stress to victims.

While we continue to recover our services and reduce the backlog of cases, we must avoid going back to the system as it was before the pandemic. Instead, we should embrace innovative approaches that allow our services to operate efficiently and with the needs of victims at their heart. We have established a justice recovery fund of £52.3 million in the next financial year, which will be allocated to recovery, renewal and transformation activity across the justice system.

Although there will always be a place for prison in our society, we must support people in their rehabilitation in the most appropriate and effective setting. Many of those who offend have themselves experienced poverty, disadvantage, adverse childhood experiences and trauma, and have often had substance abuse or health problems that require our support. Ultimately, the evidence demonstrates that community interventions are more effective than short prison sentences in addressing offending behaviour and reducing the risk of reoffending. I repeat: community interventions are more effective than short prison sentences in addressing offending behaviour and reducing the risk of reoffending. Surely, we all want to reduce the risk of reoffending.

The consultation on bail and release from custody arrangements closed yesterday after running for 12 weeks, and that represents the first step in a wider discussion about how custody should be used in a modern, progressive Scotland. The responses to that consultation will inform the legislation that we will bring to Parliament for scrutiny. Additionally, a refreshed national community justice strategy has been developed, and it will set out clear aims for partners, with an emphasis on early intervention and encouraging a further shift away from the use of custody.

Public protection remains paramount, and, for many crimes that are committed, there are victims who have suffered and continue to do so. As we work to ensure effective rehabilitation and recovery for those who have offended, that must be balanced with the safety of victims and their own recovery from harm and trauma. That is a principle that we have taken forward in our work on bail supervision. The new guidelines place a specific emphasis on victim safety in decision making, with greater focus on using remand for those who pose a risk of serious harm.

There are two views about how the justice system can evolve. We can have the puerile practice of trying to look tough on crime after crime has happened and victims have suffered, which usually involves locking more people up for longer periods and building more and bigger prisons, paid for, presumably, by slashing police numbers by around 17,000; or we can be tough enough to make the difficult decisions that will lead to less crime being committed, which means that there are fewer victims and less suffering.

Our new vision for justice has been developed in collaboration with our justice partners and has been endorsed by the justice board for Scotland. Our year 1 delivery plan, also published today, demonstrates the commitments that Government and the justice agencies have already made, but we recognise that we need to do more. Therefore, over the coming months, we will work across the justice sector and beyond to develop a delivery plan setting out our medium and long-term actions for the rest of this parliamentary session and beyond.

I want to conclude by making a commitment that the minister and I will ensure that Scotland’s justice services are transformed to meet the needs of people in today’s society. To them, I say: justice will be for you and with you, at heart.

I move,

That the Parliament recognises that the new Vision for Justice enables a programme of work to transform the justice system to ensure that services are person centred and trauma informed; further recognises the need to work across public services, taking a whole-government approach, to improve outcomes for individuals and focus on prevention and early intervention, and making communities safer; acknowledges that there must be urgent action to improve the experiences of women and children and ensure that the voices of victims and survivors are heard and acted upon; acknowledges that, to address the causes of crime, any action must tackle socio-economic inequalities such as gender inequality, child poverty, mental ill health and addictions, and support individuals at the earliest opportunity to improve their life chances and reduce offending and reoffending, and acknowledges that, while there will always be a place for restricting people’s liberty in society, there must be a safe and secure environment for those in custody, as well as those who work in prisons, and that the balance should be shifted to ensure that the role of custody is used only when no alternative is appropriate, making greater use of alternative options in communities.


Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

I am pleased to be opening for my party in this debate. The Government’s latest iteration of its justice strategy comes off the back of a tremendous piece of work by the Parliament’s new Criminal Justice Committee, which, rightly, praises those at the coalface of delivering justice: our front-line police, prison staff and those in the third sector who support victims when they have nowhere else to turn. However, for every nod of thanks, that report also raises serious questions about some of the chronic themes that seem to recur in every session of Parliament and must be considered by every justice committee. After just seven months, it was clear to our committee that history was repeating itself. That is there in bold in the opening pages of the report, where we state:

“It is our view that we cannot keep scrutinising the same issues and recommending changes without seeing signs of substantive progress.”

These are perennial problems that one justice secretary after another, however well meaning, has fallen foul of. They have promised action but have underdelivered for the victims of crime, whether it be through the dragging of heels over Suzanne’s law, which Humza Yousaf promised to bring in last year, or the introduction of controversial new laws such as those on hate crime and offensive behaviour, which divided not just this chamber but the public itself.

I admit that the Government’s motion contains a number of sensible points on reoffending and giving victims a voice, but, notably and regrettably, it fails to take a shred of responsibility for any failures in the status quo, which is why my amendment gives those issues some much-needed air time. I make no apologies for doing so, because behind every statistic is a victim.

Victims of the justice system appear in different ways: the assaulted prison officer who is in hospital; the police officer who is in a leaky office or who drives an ageing car; the female victim of sexual crime who is forced to seek and find justice in the civil courts because the criminal courts have simply failed her; the family member of a murder victim who bumps into their child’s killer in the local supermarket when they had no idea that the person had been released; and the young woman whose case against her domestic abuser was dropped without anyone from the Crown telling her why or what happens next. Delivering justice for all of them matters. Every cog in the wheel needs to be properly resourced for us to work. Those are not abstract scenarios; they are real-life ones.

The pandemic has, of course, placed enormous pressures on our justice system—no one denies that—but the issues that I am raising are chronic ones, not Covid ones. The Government frequently rests on the laurels of its mantra, which we have heard again today, that overall crime is falling. However, let us take a look at that statement. The Government rarely admits to the fact that violent crime in Scotland has gone up every year since 2014, to the shocking rise in LGBT hate crime, which is up by 31 per cent in the same period, or to the doubling of sexual offences in the past decade.

The Scottish National Party’s 2007 manifesto boldly claimed:

“Public confidence is an integral part of … criminal justice”


“if the perception of it … is negative then it is fundamentally undermined.”

That was as true then as it is today.

Our police must be able to deliver without their hands tied behind their back. The Scottish Police Authority was abundantly clear with the committee and with the Government about what it needs. This year’s £45.5 million capital budget is the same as last year’s. Some people will call that protecting the budget, but others will call it what it is: a real-terms cut.

The SPA told us that it needs £466 million in capital funding over the next five years to meet its outcomes in the national performance framework. We already know that it is £218 million short in that period. Meanwhile, 25 per cent of our police stations are in poor condition and 50 per cent of police vehicles should have been replaced. Officers are stressed, underresourced and overworked. If the cabinet secretary does not believe me, he should talk to them. Those are not abstract problems; they are real-life ones.

When cases get to court, the problems do not end. Long before the Parliament had ever heard of Wuhan, there was a backlog of 13,400 cases in our sheriff courts. That has now tripled, and the backlog in our High Courts now sits at more than 45,000 cases. If a trial will not take place until 2026, how is that delivering justice for the accused or the accuser?

That leads to our next problem: remand. Between 2020 and 2021, the remand population grew by a shocking and staggering 78 per cent, which put huge pressure on an already creaking prison system. I point out that 42 per cent of young people in prison are on remand. Anyone who has spent more than a couple of hours talking to young men who are on remand in prison, who are probably held there for longer than even a guilty verdict would have rendered them there, should ask them whether they think that the Government has put their life chances at the heart of the justice system.

Equally, there are systemic funding problems in legal aid that the Government has not only ignored but wilfully argued against. We know that things are bad when defence lawyers go on strike, citing a lack of co-operation from the Government. The cabinet secretary says that there is nothing to see there, but the lawyers tell us otherwise. Either way, the situation must be fixed.

There are problems with the court process itself. Far too many victims of crime feel that the system is stacked against them. We have heard powerful evidence from victims of abuse. Cases have been delayed time after time and have been dropped with no reason having been given. We have heard about a lack of communication, that there have been no victim impact statements and about the torture for some victims of seeing the perpetrator handed a community sentence.

The presumption against short sentences leaves judges no option but to hand down community sentences. That is not theory; people are released early and go on to commit crime. The horrific case of Esther Brown should shock us all, and it is not enough to say that that was an isolated incident—in our eyes, one victim is one victim too many.

The same 2007 manifesto says:

“Individuals must accept that their actions have consequences. People are tired of excuses”.

My goodness—how things have changed in the Government. Instead of citing the rights of offenders, what about considering the rights of victims?

Diversion from custody works only if there is something to divert to. Meaningful community sentences must reduce the rate of reoffending, which goes back to my original point about confidence and perception. The public must have confidence that alternatives are meaningful, fair and realistic.

I end where I started. The Government must acknowledge the public mood on the issues. The promises that it made 15 years ago were admirable, but far too many people have been failed since then, and far too many are looking on in despair at the direction of travel.

Victims do not choose to be victims, but perpetrators do choose their situation. We forget that far too often in such debates. It is time that we put victims’ rights first.

I move amendment S6M-03098.3, to leave out from “recognises” to end and insert:

“notes the urgent, wide-ranging and chronic concerns raised by the Parliament’s Criminal Justice Committee in its recent report, Judged on progress: The need for urgent delivery on Scottish justice sector reforms; acknowledges that there have been worrying increases in violent and sexual crime in Scotland as evidenced by the 78% rise in sexual crimes over the last 10 years, and the rises in violent crime recorded so far this year adversely affecting women and children; believes that a number of factors resulting from Scottish Government policy decisions, including the presumption against short sentences, automatic early release from custody, and a concerted shift to custodial alternatives, have resulted in too many violent offenders evading custodial sentences; further believes that the Scottish Government’s strategy of sending fewer convicted offenders to prison and letting them out of prison earlier poses a risk to public safety; notes that prison officers are subject to unacceptable levels of physical and mental harm and abuse in Scottish prisons, which is fuelled by a failure to tackle illicit drugs and serious organised crime in prisons; further notes that the recorded quarterly number of police officers stands at 17,117, the lowest level since 2009; calls for Police Scotland to be afforded the necessary capital and resource budget that it clearly requested in submissions to the Criminal Justice Committee, which it states will ensure vital and necessary upgrades to infrastructure, the police estate, vehicles and ICT systems, allowing Police Scotland to ensure that violent criminals are caught, charged and successfully prosecuted; recognises that the current court backlog in Scotland could take at least five or more years to clear, leaving victims waiting years to get justice; notes with concern the growing breakdown of relations between the legal sector and the Scottish Government due to disagreements over legal aid fees, which may leave many without adequate access to justice and legal assistance; believes that non-custodial alternatives to sentencing must be meaningful, robust, and backed up by sufficient resources to command public confidence whilst delivering justice to the victims of crimes, which many do not currently believe to be the case; notes with disappointment the slow progress in reform to the dual role of the Lord Advocate, and regrets recent high profile cases of malicious prosecution, which have cost the taxpayer millions of pounds, and believes that the raft of measures to enhance the rights and voices of victims of crime and their families, as included in the proposed Victims, Criminal Justice and Fatal Accident Inquiries (Scotland) Bill, should be agreed by the Parliament as positive proposals to reset the balance of Scottish justice in favour of victims and their families.”


Pauline McNeill (Glasgow) (Lab)

I hope that the Scottish Government will support the Labour Party’s amendment, because we are being constructive in backing significant reforms to the criminal justice system in this parliamentary session, although we have specific views to offer.

I will begin with an overview of our prison system, which is far from modern—and the pandemic has set us back in many ways. I agree with Jamie Greene that it is deeply concerning that Scotland as a nation has such a large remand population. As the Scottish Government says in its vision for justice, that is a problem for population management. Overcrowding is a major problem in our prisons; reports have noted that Barlinnie has been operating at more than 40 per cent over capacity for the past couple of years, although I think that that has happened for a lot longer.

The vision notes that

“international evidence suggests that remand is associated with negative effects that may hinder longer-term desistance from crime including an increased risk of suicide and mental distress, disintegration of social supports and family ties and disruption to employment that increase the likelihood of reoffending upon release.”

No one should need any convincing that one of the Parliament’s jobs must be to reduce the remand population. We need to tackle the issue urgently. I look forward to hearing proposals from the Scottish Government on how it plans to reform bail legislation and to hearing whether electronic tagging will be used as an alternative to custody, when appropriate.

Our ageing prison estate accentuates the difficulties that are borne by staff and management. Prison staff have written to me—I have had several letters—to raise concerns about staffing levels putting pressure on prison officers, who are doing their job. I have asked twice to meet the Scottish Prison Service, and I will use this opportunity to say that I would like a response to my letter.

If we want to have minimum standards, we desperately need to modernise the estate. The work has still not started on the new Barlinnie prison and it is set to miss the deadline of 2025.

I agree with the cabinet secretary that prison is appropriate for many offenders and will remain so, but, for some, punishment is better conducted outwith prison and through community sentences. Community sentences can be more effective than prison sentences in preventing reoffending, but judges will use community sentencing more only if they are confident that such sentences are robust.

The number of deaths in custody remains too high—the figure was 54 in 2021, and the number has more than doubled since 2015. It is also taking far too long to complete fatal accident inquiries. In 2021, the average time that an FAI had taken was almost three years, which is unacceptable for families who are waiting to find out what an FAI has concluded. I await with interest the Government’s response to the independent review on deaths in custody, which said that, when such deaths happen, there should be unfettered access to establish the cause of death.

Keith Brown

I will quickly cover a couple of points. We have had a meeting to discuss the deaths in custody report with stakeholders, and a governance group will be established shortly.

The Government will support Labour’s amendment. On the request to meet the SPS, I will ensure that that happens as quickly as possible. The SPS is going through a recruitment exercise for a new chief executive.

On bail and release reform, I hope that the Labour Party and the member will support the proposed bail reform bill, because that is the only way in which we, as a Government, can tackle the issue. We cannot tell the courts to do those things; we have to do it through legislation. There may be a difference of opinion on elements of the legislation, but we hope that it will get broad support.

Pauline McNeill

I can guarantee that the Labour Party will give the proposed bill serious consideration when we see the actual formulation. We are clear that sheriffs and judges need to be given scope within the legislation to make different decisions.

I think that we all agree that there has never, in recent times, been a moment as critical as this when it comes to tackling the widespread problem of violence against women. Previous debates have highlighted that, and it is why Scottish Labour wants the equally safe programme to be rolled out across Scotland as soon as possible. The sad testimony that we have heard from women who have been victims of sexual violence illustrates why we need to make progress on cross-cutting work, which I note is mentioned in the vision that was published today. We need the justice, equalities and education portfolios to work together if we are going to make any serious progress.

Women are now having to seek justice for rape through the civil courts. A running thread is the testimony of women who say that, as victims, they feel that they are treated like criminals. That is why Scottish Labour wants to look at how we balance support for victims in the process. There should be one point of contact in the court system and the police for victims who want to know what is happening with their case. In addition, we need to broaden the scope of the circumstances in which a victim of a sexual offence can be given free legal advice.

The Criminal Justice Committee heard from Miss M that she had to constantly chase the procurator fiscal, as no one would tell her what was going on. Last week, on a BBC Scotland radio programme, another victim expressed exactly the same complaint. I believe that that is a recurring theme, and we need to make the process easier for victims—I agree with Jamie Greene on that point.

As the cabinet secretary said, 43 per cent of trials for rape and attempted rape result in a conviction, in comparison with 80 per cent overall for other crimes. That indicates that the balance that one would expect in a criminal justice system does not exist with regard to sexual offences.

One thing that is missing from the Government’s motion is any reference to access to civil justice. We do not currently have enough lawyers providing legal aid, and it is important that the question of civil justice is addressed in the vision.

I wish that we could have had a longer debate—as Jamie Greene said—in order to talk about how we can support our police force and thank them for what they did in the pandemic. There are many issues to be discussed in that regard. There should be full scrutiny of the Crown’s role in the case against Rangers Football Club. We do not want to see striking lawyers in the months ahead, so let us resolve the matter. We have a system of which we can be proud, but we need to make more progress. I am sure that we can do that in the coming years.

I move amendment S6M-03098.1, to insert at end:

“; understands that Scotland’s prisons have been characterised by overcrowding; notes that 27% of the Scottish prison population are remand prisoners, and that this highlights the need for reform; believes that conditions in prisons must be improved for both prisoners and staff; considers that offering robust and credible alternatives to custody will be a key part of the solution; regrets that women and children continue to be disproportionately impacted by court delays, and considers that clearing the court backlog, which currently stands at over 40,000 cases, and improving support for victims should be among the Scottish Government’s highest priorities for the justice system.”


Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

I am grateful for the chance to participate in the debate, which mirrors a debate that we held in June last year. On that occasion, I set out the Scottish Liberal Democrats’ case for reforming the fatal accident inquiry system, which is beset by delays and failings that deny families answers and deny society an opportunity to learn lessons.

I made the case too for splitting the dual role of the Lord Advocate, in recognition of the growing concerns over perceived and potential conflicts of interest. Sadly, both proposals were opposed by the SNP and by Green MSPs, who were presumably auditioning for the coalition Government yet to come. The case for both those reforms remains strong—indeed, they are referred to in the Tory amendment, although few issues do not get a name check in there.

I will concentrate on an aspect of our prison system, and wider justice system, that is critical in allowing individuals an opportunity to turn their lives around while reducing rates of reoffending and making communities safer. Of course we need a justice system that works in providing justice to victims and survivors, but it also needs to help—alongside interventions in education, health, housing and other policy areas—to reduce crime and offending behaviour.

In that sense, I have no difficulty in supporting the Government motion and Pauline McNeill’s sensible amendment. We should absolutely aspire to a

“person centred and trauma informed”

justice system, and design services accordingly. The only response to hearing that our prison population now exceeds anything found elsewhere in Europe, with the exception of Russia and Turkey, is to commit to prison reform and to reduce the numbers that we lock up. More than half of Scotland’s prisons are now over capacity, and 1,200 prisoners are double-bunking in single cells.

I am therefore disappointed that Jamie Greene—who is a good friend and someone whom I respect enormously—chooses, in his amendment, to pander to the “Bang ’em up and throw away the key” brigade. The dog whistles about soft-touch justice and criminals roaming free are wrong and counterproductive. They offer no answers to the question of how we build safer communities and opportunities for individuals to make positive contributions while moving away from offending behaviour.

Jamie Greene

I thank the member for his kind words, although perhaps not for his comments on the amendment. It remains the case that, over the past decade, 44 per cent of people who have been released from prison go on to reoffend. There is a systemic problem in how we deal with offences in prison. The current and historical strategies have clearly not worked. We know that people who spend longer in prison are less likely to reoffend.

Liam McArthur

The evidence shows that incarceration disrupts patterns of work, housing agreements and the relationships that people have in their communities, which is hugely destabilising. Throwing people back into the community and expecting them not to reoffend is unrealistic. In a second, I will come on to some of the behaviours or activity that we need in prisons to support that ahead of prisoners’ release, but I do not think that any of the evidence sustains the argument that locking people up for short sentences is effective.

Let me set out some ways in which the Scottish Government might actually turn a vision into practice in our justice system. Latest figures show that incarceration rates are up across almost all age groups and crime categories. That means that crimes are more likely, people are less safe and our prisons are operating what is ostensibly a revolving-door policy.

In 2020, a throughcare service that provided prisoners with support with housing, medical care and benefits after release was cancelled. That rehabilitation service helped 100 prisoners a month to move away from reoffending. It was dropped as staff were redeployed. Although third parties have stepped in, I believe that we need a reintroduction of that service, alongside a right to welfare, housing and healthcare appointments within 48 hours of release.

Purposeful activity in prisons is another key element in cutting reoffending. It equips people for employment by improving literacy and numeracy skills and offering opportunities for accredited qualifications. That all plummeted during the pandemic, yet evidence shows that shutting down opportunities for purposeful activity closes off routes to rehabilitation.

On top of that, we now know that more than 2,000 of those who are being held in Scotland’s prisons have not even been convicted of a crime. A Scottish Liberal Democrat freedom of information request revealed that the number of untried prisoners who are being held on remand has risen by 40 per cent in the past three years alone. That is unacceptable and unsustainable. It also places pressure on staff and prisoners, leading to, among other things, increased mental health issues.

The Scottish Government response so far has been high on promises but, sadly, low and slow on delivery. Meanwhile, to be trauma informed, our justice system must ensure that the voices of victims and survivors are heard, and their experiences improved. Victims often speak of secondary victimisation, and some have described the experience of the justice system as worse than the crime itself. Listening to the lived experience of victims allows us to make targeted changes to improve their experience, such as by introducing a right to anonymity for victims of sexual crimes. Scottish Liberal Democrats would also give victims a voice, using feedback from support organisations on the victims task force.

We also need acceleration of incorporation of the barnahus model for child victims and witnesses, to which the cabinet secretary referred. We should treat domestic abuse survivors more fairly by building in a presumption that perpetrators will be required to leave the shared home. Those policies could be enacted with relative ease, and they would help to deliver, rather than simply describe, a new vision for justice. Scottish Liberal Democrats are committed to working with others to achieve such an outcome.

I move amendment S6M-03098.2, to insert at end:

“, and urges the Scottish Government to publish a route map with milestones for increasing the provision of throughcare support and purposeful activity in prisons, the lack of which has increased the likelihood of people reoffending and causing damage to communities.”


Audrey Nicoll (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)

In the short time since the new parliamentary session began, the challenges that the justice system faces have featured prominently in chamber business, and rightly so. Justice touches absolutely everyone, and in the words of Martin Luther King,

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

The motion that is being debated today is timely and welcome. It sets out a vision for a justice system that is fair, transparent and meets the needs of modern and contemporary Scotland. However, it recognises the magnitude of the task and the work that will be required to sustain the downward trend in recorded crime and improve the experiences of victims, while breaking the cycle of offending for those who are caught in the revolving door of crime, and holding those who offend to account, whether through custodial or community justice options.

Last year, the Criminal Justice Committee took evidence from experts, and those working in and coming into contact with the sector. Although we heard evidence on a wide range of subjects, a unifying theme was the urgent need for reform in many areas. Some of that linked to the pandemic, but many of the issues that were raised significantly predated the pandemic and are complex and multifaceted.

As a critical friend to the justice sector and the Scottish Government, our report asks the Government and key partners to grasp the nettle and take bold action to improve outcomes in the sector. Therefore, I am pleased that the motion outlines the new vision for justice, which will support the Government in continuing to transform our justice system. The motion is, by necessity, comprehensive, and rightly reflects the commitment that is required to improve the experience of victims, putting trauma-informed approaches front and centre.

I will pick up a point to which Pauline McNeill alluded and of which I have an example from just last weekend. I spoke to a survivor of high-tariff domestic abuse, who had been referred by her local women’s aid service to a solicitor who had undergone domestic abuse training, only to find that the firm did not offer a legal aid option. That is a frustrating example of an unintended barrier to services that exist but are not joined up.

From a personal perspective, I am pleased that the motion includes the need for a safe and secure environment for those in custody and for those working in prisons, no matter how counterintuitive that seems to many who believe in the notion of tough justice. Scotland’s prison population is among the highest in western Europe and, although society rightly demands that offenders be held to account and, where appropriate, imprisoned, it is incumbent on us to reconsider the role of custody in a much broader context.

I recall a conversation that I had with a highly vulnerable young man whom I had just arrested, and not for the first time. He compared his cycle of offending to having fallen off a cliff only to find an ambulance at the bottom. For young men like him, I want us to drive the ambulance back up to the top of the cliff.

Of course, the budgetary landscape across all areas of Government is extremely challenging. In our recent budget scrutiny report, the Criminal Justice Committee outlined what we feel is a strong case for an overall increase in the budget for the criminal justice sector.

I am pleased that the justice sector will see a total investment of more than £3.1 billion in 2022-23 to strengthen and reform services. Within the new strategy, I hope that the cabinet secretary will look at whether there is scope to use existing expenditure as effectively as possible through, for example, alternatives to custody, extending or introducing innovative practices, and recycling underspend for use elsewhere in the system.

I thank each and every person working across our justice sector, for whom life has not been easy over the past couple of years. They have worked so hard to make life a bit better for others. We need them more than ever.


Alexander Burnett (Aberdeenshire West) (Con)

We would all like to see an ambitious strategy and much-needed improvements to Scotland’s criminal justice system. There are many things in the new vision that I agree with but, once again, the SNP Government falls short on delivery. All that we have seen under this Government is broken promises; strategies and recommendations that end up in the gutter; budgets that are slashed; prisons that are overcrowded; and police numbers that continue to fall.

The Scottish Conservatives have repeatedly called for reforms to overhaul the SNP Government’s current soft-touch approach and put victims at the centre through our proposed victims law.

I recently put a series of questions to the Government on gender-based funds after being contacted by students who want to know what action is being promised to make people feel safer in their communities. In its response, the Government pointed to its equally safe strategy, which focuses on early intervention and prevention. I welcome the strategy and any campaigns that challenge dangerous and predatory behaviour, but those responses are just warm words. The equally safe strategy was first published in 2014 yet, in September last year, the Crown Office statistics showed that in 2020-21 domestic abuse charges had increased by the largest amount in a single year.

Domestic abuse charges have now reached their highest level in five years and, shockingly, many charges involving domestic abuse see no further action.

Will the member take an intervention?

Alexander Burnett

No, I will not.

Those statistics are completely unacceptable. The SNP Government must commit to doing more and to introducing policies that will reduce crime and support victims who are seeking justice, because many victims are not getting justice.

The criminal court trial backlog currently stands at nearly 45,000 trials and may not be cleared until 2026, yet the Scottish Government has only provided an extra £4.2 million.

Will the member take an intervention?

Alexander Burnett


That is not even a third of the £13.2 million that was identified by the courts as needed to help tackle the backlog. It is yet another blow to victims who do not have a trial in sight.

The SNP Government’s new vision looks to other forms of justice to reduce pressure on our prisons. However, there is currently no appropriate alternative to custodial sentences. The justice secretary recently stated that other options need to be “credible and consistent”, but he makes those claims after the SNP has written off more than 262,000 hours of unpaid community work.

One in three community sentences are never completed under the SNP. A record number of criminals are no longer being prosecuted for their crimes, as diversions rose by 12 per cent to the highest level in seven years. Community sentences are becoming easier for criminals to complete, because fewer than ever contain an element of unpaid work. That “work” is trivial at best, including knitting, preparing flowerbeds and making bug hotels, bat boxes and hedgehog dens.

Will the member take an intervention?

Alexander Burnett


Although some of those activities may have a rehabilitative effect, they will not satisfy victims and their families who are seeking justice.

Where appropriate, offenders should take part in purposeful activities that will serve their communities, give them future prospects and, importantly, reduce reoffending rates, because the reconviction rate in Scotland has just recorded its largest year-on-year increase. Twenty-eight per cent of offenders released in 2018-19 went on to commit another crime within 12 months, and that has now come to a head under the SNP Government’s Covid measures.

In the 2020-21 annual report, Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons for Scotland said that

“too many prisoners were locked up with too little to do before the pandemic and the situation was then exacerbated by the response to the pandemic.”

The report said that, during Covid,

“Many prisoners have been denied”

the chance to start

“programmes that were part of their sentence”,

which would have allowed them

”to lead successful, crime-free lives.”

More opportunities need to be available in prisons to enable residents to learn new skills, take up work experience and reintegrate back into society once they have finished their sentence.

Just this week, the UK Secretary of State for Justice, Dominic Raab, spoke of the importance of providing prisoners with the chance to earn money doing honest work and to pay their dues to society. For example, they could learn how to drive lorries, which is beneficial to the individual and the country as we overcome a labour shortage. There is a great need for that approach in our Scottish prisons to give residents practical work and knowledge that can plug Scotland’s skills shortage.

The reality is that the Scottish Government is either too ignorant or too slow to enact vital reforms and its assurances for change do not inspire confidence. The statistics on remand, rehabilitation and reoffending are shocking. We need to put victims at the heart of our justice system, and the SNP’s new vision for justice fails to do so.


Collette Stevenson (East Kilbride) (SNP)

The new vision for justice will help the Scottish Government in its on-going work to transform the justice system, ensuring that it is fair and transparent and that it meets the needs of modern society.

Much progress has been made in recent years under the SNP. Crime is down by almost a half since 2008-09, including a 39 per cent cut in violent crime. Automatic early release has been ended, so long-term prisoners who pose an unacceptable risk to public safety will serve their full sentence. The reconviction rate is at one of its lowest levels in recent decades. The cashback for communities programme has resulted in £110 million from the proceeds of crime being committed to projects that benefit young people across Scotland.

Many possible reforms have been or are being consulted on, including a bail and prison release bill, options to extend digital practices in justice and reform of the three-verdicts system. The SNP manifesto and this year’s programme for government set out the basis for many improvements in the justice system. A new community justice strategy will be developed, underpinned by investment to substantially expand the available services. The police budget will be protected, supporting the police to tackle crime and keep our communities safe. A victims commissioner will be appointed, providing an independent voice for victims, championing their views and ensuring that victims’ rights are front and centre.

The commitment to trauma-informed and trauma-responsive public services will be so important in the justice sector and will put victims at its heart. I have no doubt that that development will benefit victims of crime so that they are given the best support and advice possible.

We must do everything to support victims of crime, but we must also work to cut crime and reduce reoffending so that there are fewer victims. The cabinet secretary has stated the importance of addressing inequality and its far-reaching consequences in tackling crime. The cross-party Criminal Justice Committee recommended that alternatives to custody, such as bail supervision and residential rehabilitation, be considered.

On reducing reoffending, the evidence shows that reconviction rates for those receiving community payback orders are lower than the rates for those receiving short custodial sentences, so the policy change to a presumption against short sentences is clearly a tool that can help to cut future crime rates and, ultimately, keep our communities safe. Of course, individual sentencing decisions are for the courts to make and will depend on the crime committed.

In its report, the committee discussed Friday releases, which can cause issues for both perpetrators and victims. Research shows that perpetrators who are released on a Friday are at higher risk of reoffending, given that less support—or none at all—is available at the weekend. We must also consider the impact on victims. If a perpetrator is released on a Friday and their victim is informed that day, the victim could be left with no support services over the weekend. A rule against Friday releases will provide better outcomes all round.

The Tories recognise that the backlog in the justice system is due to the impact of the pandemic, but they are against the Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Bill, which aims to tackle the backlog by allowing certain hearings to be held over audio or video link and providing greater flexibility in the programming of court business.

On the Tory amendment’s reference to police numbers, I think what the Tories wanted to say is that, every year, the SNP has kept its manifesto commitment to have more police officers on the beat. Officer numbers fluctuate throughout the year and, between the pandemic and the use of the police college for police officers who were in Glasgow for the 26th United Nations climate change conference of the parties—COP26—there have been limits on capacity. I am sure that everyone in the chamber will welcome the expected 300 new recruits who are due to start their training in a few weeks’ time. Let us remember that there are almost 1,000 more police officers in Scotland than when the SNP entered government and that we have 50 per cent more officers per capita here than there are in England and Wales under the Tories.

Under the SNP, there are more police officers and crime is down. The pandemic has brought new challenges, but the new vision for justice will help to make Scotland’s communities safer and will transform the justice system so that it is fair and transparent and meets the needs of modern Scotland.


Foysol Choudhury (Lothian) (Lab)

The motion before us looks unremarkable on the surface, but it does not address many of the systemic problems in the justice system.

Two years ago, justice systems worldwide were brought into close focus after the murder of George Floyd in the United States. The question of equality took centre stage. It was a time for introspection and, to its credit, the Scottish Government recognised that.

Here in Scotland, that resulted in the creation of the cross-justice working group on race data and evidence. I applaud its existence, but its output is telling. It tells us that there is a lack of data on the experiences of black, Asian and minority ethnic people of the police and the justice system in general, and a lack of content on lived experience in existing studies of the justice system. One of the community participants said:

“For the number of years that Scotland has had .... a very diverse ethnic population ... that you’re still finding gaps, it’s horrific!”

I agree.

That raises a question about the very basis on which the Scottish Government is approaching its new vision for justice. That vision cannot be complete if we are blind to the lived reality of people like me—black, Asian and minority ethnic people. I say to the Scottish Government that the simple existence of the cross-justice working group is not enough. Its findings must be listened to and addressed if we are to increase trust in the justice system among minority communities. I do not pretend that getting data is a simple task, but it is an essential first step towards seeing the problems that those communities face in accessing justice. Only then can we address those problems fully.

Last year, there was another telling statistic. Hate crime remained stable between 2014 and 2020, with around 7,000 incidents recorded each year. Most of those incidents—62 per cent—had a racial component. There was a welcome increase in the number of hate crime charges in the same period, but justice must include prevention as well as punishment. Surely, as a society, we can hope for more than to maintain a stable level of hate crime.

The motion calls for a whole-Government approach to those problems, but we see very little evidence of that in practice. The approach requires funding for services and areas that have all too often been cut and neglected in recent years.

Hate crime is just one aspect of crime in which poverty and social realities come into play long before someone reaches the criminal justice system. We must address the conditions that allow events to develop, as well as dealing with them promptly once they happen and ensuring that victims are supported.

Social justice and educational questions are involved here, just as much as questions of policing and prosecution. The motion acknowledges that socioeconomic circumstances matter, but that is not a new vision. The Scottish Government has been aware of the problems for more than a decade, yet they continue on its watch.

As our amendment notes, that is an unfortunately common theme across the justice system. HM chief inspector of prisons said that “entrenched problems” in our prison system, including overcrowding, remain unsolved. Those long-standing issues cannot be blamed on the pandemic, and it seems that only good fortune has prevented them from turning into a catastrophe during it.

The pandemic has of course caused additional problems, including by adding significantly to the court backlog. Our amendment rightly sees tackling the backlog as the highest priority, because its impact on remand prisoners and those who are awaiting justice only adds to the entrenched problems that I mentioned a moment ago.

The motion may set out a vision, but it neglects the reality of the justice system as people find it today. The Scottish Government must ensure that justice is accessible to all our communities, and it must act on the priorities that are set out in our amendment. Only then will we be able to restore confidence in our justice system and see that justice is promptly and effectively applied in the wake of the pandemic.


Rona Mackay (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP)

I am pleased to speak in this debate, which is being held at a time when Scotland’s justice system is on the verge of some exciting and transformational changes. Of course there will be disagreements across the chamber on certain aspects of those changes and on policy detail, but it cannot be disputed that the Scottish Government and the judiciary know that change must come in order to make our legal system fit for purpose in today’s changing world. We know that centuries-old traditional practice can make the wheels of justice move slowly in adapting to change, but it must happen if we are to keep pace with reality and the basic human right of access to a fair and rehabilitative justice system.

The Government’s motion states that we are transforming the justice system

“to ensure that services are person centred and trauma informed”.

As co-convener of the cross-party group on the prevention and healing of adverse childhood experiences, I am delighted by that progressive trajectory. We are also focusing on early intervention and improving outcomes, which will make our communities safer and improve the quality of life for so many people. More than half of the young people in the United Kingdom have experienced ACEs, which all too often lead to offending and incarceration.

As convener of the cross-party group on women, families and justice and the cross-party group on men’s violence against women and children, I know that urgent action is needed to improve the experiences of women and children and to ensure that the voices of victims and survivors are heard and acted upon. Gender inequality, child poverty, mental ill health and addictions are all being addressed within the Scottish Government’s new vision. We know that many women who are in prison for low-grade offences have suffered domestic abuse or head injuries, or have mental health or addiction problems. Prison is no place for them. It wrecks families and exacerbates the existing issues that led the women there in the first place. Early intervention and holistic support are the only ways to alleviate that.

Equally, prison is no place for children and young people. I am pleased that the Government recognises that and will take steps to stop young people being held in adult prisons. The balance must be shifted to ensure that custody is used only when no alternative is appropriate and that greater use is made of alternative options in communities.

Violence against women is the scourge of society, not just in Scotland or the UK, but globally. During the Criminal Justice Committee’s private evidence sessions with victims of domestic abuse and sexual offences, we heard moving and disturbing accounts of women’s journeys through the justice system.

Last year’s review by the Lord Justice Clerk, Lady Dorrian, highlighted a number of areas where improvements should be made, and I am pleased that the Scottish Government has committed to giving serious consideration to all the recommendations, including the introduction of specialist courts and allowing victims to pre-record their evidence.

In the Scottish budget, £4 million has been dedicated for victims services, measures to tackle violence against women and girls, and support for the justice system to respond to victims’ needs. I do not disagree with Jamie Greene that victims’ voices need to be heard, but I believe that the measures that the Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans has outlined in the vision will enable that to happen.

Let us be clear about the direction that we are going in. In the first 100 days after winning the election, the Scottish Government directed £5 million of new funding to rape crisis centres and domestic abuse services in order to help to cut waiting lists. There is also a programme for government pledge to invest more than £100 million over the next three years to support front-line services and focus on the prevention of violence against women and girls from school onward.

We have launched a public consultation on the not proven verdict, and I await the findings with keen interest. My long-held personal view is that the not proven verdict should be scrapped for crimes of sexual violence in the first instance. I believe that it is having a detrimental impact on convictions. I also believe that the requirement for corroboration is largely to blame for the poor level of convictions in rape trials. Almost one quarter of trials for rape or attempted rape result in a not proven verdict. Only 43 per cent of rape or attempted rape trials result in a conviction, in comparison with an overall conviction rate of 88 per cent. Recent high-profile cases of victims being denied justice in a criminal court and having to go down the civil route exemplify why the system needs changing.

The overall crime rate is down 46 per cent since 2008, and the 2022-23 budget provides a total investment of more than £3.1 billion in strengthening and reforming Scotland’s criminal justice system. Our new vision puts victims at the heart of the justice system, and I am pleased that, with the move to alternative sentencing, there is increased investment of £47.2 million for community justice, which is a crucial part of that transformation.

With the exception of serious offenders—from whom the public must be kept safe—prison simply does not work. No good can come of locking up people who have lost their way in life, often through adverse experiences. We must look towards a humane and rehabilitative system of justice, and I believe that, finally, we are on the right track for that with our new vision for justice.


Maggie Chapman (North East Scotland) (Green)

The way that we experience crime is a product of inequality and imbalances of power, of social and economic pressures, and of assumptions and intersecting injustices. It is clear from the evidence and data that have been collected by the various parts of our justice system, and from extensive research both here and elsewhere, that bringing someone into the criminal justice system—even if that does not result in a caution, in a charge being brought or in a conviction—makes it much more likely that that person will be sucked further into the system, with negative consequences for them and, very likely, for their family and the wider community.

That is why I firmly believe, and am pleased to see it stated in the Scottish Government’s motion, that tackling crime must be a trauma-informed whole-government mission, and that it must be rooted in human rights. We cannot deal with crime through the justice system alone. With the new vision for justice, I hope that we can develop and sustain cross-departmental working that enables a renewed focus on areas such as youth work, community development and support for new parents. The police should not be used as a replacement for skilled and experienced youth workers or community workers, yet that is so often what happens, and it sucks people into a system that is dehumanising and deeply damaging. Of course, we also need to address that issue of the system, and I will come to that shortly.

Evidence also shows that there are significant generational and intergenerational relationships in criminal behaviour, which calls on us to think much more holistically about prevention. As part of our work towards the new just and caring Scotland that we want, we must provide appropriate non-siloed support for so-called “troubled families”, which would also result in health and social care benefits for those families.

The whole-government approach should not be focused only on prevention and early intervention. We must ensure that we support appropriately the people who come out of the system. So often, prisoners are released into homelessness, and that just perpetuates injustice.

I turn to our prison system. We need to be clearer in making the distinction between punishment and public safety. Prison tries to do both those things, but that is not always appropriate. We must act to reduce the numbers of non-violent prisoners, but we must also explore a different kind of public safety approach for dangerous people. It is right that dangerous people are kept away from the public, but that does not mean that the framework should be one of punishment. Indefinite sentences are not good. Post-punishment, there needs to be an alternative.

We also need urgent action to address the level of people who are on remand. We need to ask ourselves serious questions as to why remand numbers are so high if prison numbers are falling.

We need a complete transformation of our prison system. Improving the prison estate is all very well, and is important in ensuring that the human rights of those who are incarcerated are secured, but a serious effort is needed to tackle the culture of bullying, violence, self-harm and suicide that we know exists and that damages prisoners and prison staff. Radical culture change is necessary, and prisoners and staff must be included in that process.

In the same way that tackling crime must be a whole-government mission that involves working across departmental silos and with public and third sector agencies, so must the offer that we provide victims, survivors and witnesses of crime seek to address not only issues of support, communication and compensation, but those of restoration, reconciliation and healing. Our current processes do not often achieve that.

We have a responsibility to ensure that there is meaningful engagement with and support for victims, survivors and witnesses—perhaps especially women and children. We have much work to do to ensure that their voices are heard, and that they have the support, information and involvement in processes that allow them to be free from fear and hopelessness.

There is much more that I want to say about the different elements in the vision, including violence against women and Lady Dorrian’s recommendations, the proposed victims commissioner and Covid recovery, as well as the absence from it of civil justice, which Pauline McNeill noted. There is so much more in the vision to talk about.

I end with a plea for collaboration and engagement. Over the coming months, as we develop delivery and implementation plans for the strategy, we also need to involve wider society. The profound culture change that underpins the vision needs citizen discussion and engagement.

I look forward to working with the cabinet secretary and others across the chamber and beyond to create and develop spaces that combine expert and public understanding of the issues, which will enhance support for transformational change. We need to find ways to provide richer information to our citizens, catalysing conversations with people from all walks of life and garnering their contributions to inform the radically different state structures that we need to implement.

Radical reform, perhaps particularly in justice, is often viewed with suspicion and distrust, but that need not be the only story. A better justice system means a safer society for us all, and direct citizen engagement can help to make that a reality.

I call Fulton MacGregor, who joins us remotely, to be followed by Sharon Dowey.


Fulton MacGregor (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)

It is a pleasure to speak in the debate as a member of the Criminal Justice Committee and a former criminal justice social worker. It is clear to me that the Scottish Government’s new vision for justice will equip us with the ability to transform Scotland’s justice system into one that is fair, that can be held accountable and that meets the needs of the people of our country.

As others have said, one of our main focuses is improving the experience of victims in the criminal justice system. As we have heard, the Criminal Justice Committee has been working on that for some time through various means. We remain committed to ensuring that our justice system considers the needs of victims at all times through a trauma-informed response that promises to consider the voices of victims, and to building a new framework that will help victims in a compassionate manner.

I welcome the proposed appointment of a victims commissioner, who will give victims an independent voice. I am particularly passionate about the needs of children who experience crime, and I am glad that we are taking a specialised approach, so that the trauma that children experience will be treated head on. The fact that £4 million has been dedicated for victims services, measures to tackle violence against women and girls, and support for the justice system to respond to victims’ needs shows our dedication in that area.

I am particularly pleased about the steps that are being taken to ease trauma for children and vulnerable witnesses in our justice system. The formation of a bairn’s house—or children’s house—is one such approach that would be radical for these islands, and it builds on evidence from our Nordic and Scandinavian neighbours. I was fortunate enough to be on the Justice Committee in session 5, which went to Norway to see a bairn’s house in action. It really is something. That would be a transformative approach to how our justice system deals with children, young people and vulnerable witnesses.

Another aspect that I am pleased about is the recognition of the strong case that has been made for the abolition of the not proven verdict. The consultation on the verdict was opened on Monday 13 December last year and seeks to capture the views of a broad range of stakeholders, including legal professionals, the third sector and those who have lived experience of the system. Our three-verdicts system is unique, as we have heard, which is why gathering opinions from the public, as well as the legal sector, the third sector and those with direct experience of the justice system, will give us an overall idea of how to proceed. The consultation will run until 11 March this year and, as I have done before, I encourage any of my constituents who are listening and have an opinion to take part, please.

The £3.1 billion that we are investing in 2022-23 is incredible; that is exactly the level of funding that is needed to provide reforms, while ensuring that the system bounces back from the Covid pandemic. A 7 per cent increase in funding shows that we recognise the vital role that the justice sector plays in our society. That is why I have every faith in our SNP Government. We are delivering for justice. The fact that crime has gone down by 46 per cent since 2008-09 is testament to that.

As members know, I am a strong advocate for the presumption against short-term sentences, which has meant greater uptake of community sentences. Community sentences are a proven way of rehabilitating offenders and people who are involved in offending, and they offer the chance of rehabilitation in the community. The reduction in the use of short sentences is a positive step forward for the Scottish Government, as it has been shown that people who are given a custodial sentence of one year or less are reconvicted nearly twice as often as people who are given community payback orders.

The recent announcement of more investment in our criminal justice social work services was welcome. I hope that there will be a focus on enabling more joined-up working between agencies that are involved in community payback orders.

I want to end by giving a shout-out to my former colleagues in the criminal justice social work sector. They work day in and day out with people on community payback orders, helping them to change their behaviour and make reparation to victims and communities, often with great success that we do not hear about.

Criminal justice social workers might also work on domestic abuse programmes such as the Caledonian programme. In this Parliament, we talk a lot about domestic abuse, and rightly so. We have introduced radical legislation to do with prosecuting offenders in domestic abuse cases. However, we do not talk as much about the people who work with those who commit domestic abuse and their success in getting those men—it is mainly men—to change their behaviour, so I want to give them a shout-out, too.

Criminal justice social workers deal with many other aspects, such as poverty, deprivation, youth work and much more.

As, I am sure, you can imagine, Presiding Officer, I fully support the motion.


Sharon Dowey (South Scotland) (Con)

We have heard a great deal from members about the challenges that Scotland’s justice system faces, from backlogs in the courts to the rampant drug use and violence in Scottish prisons. It is clear that members all around the chamber think that improvements are needed.

At first sight, I welcomed the new strategy on the vision for justice in Scotland. I hoped that it would be full of exciting ideas, plans and reforms that would tackle Scotland’s crime problem, put more bobbies back on the beat, deliver justice to victims and ensure that criminals receive the time that they deserve. However, I found lots of warm words but not much substance in the document. There is much in the document on which I could comment, but I am aware of the time, so I will focus on the police.

Our police have done an admirable job during the pandemic. They were called on to go above and beyond the call of duty. Police Scotland officers—and indeed all emergency service workers—weathered the challenges that were thrown in their faces with patience and compassion but often at great cost to their mental health.

The police deserve and have the support of the Scottish Conservatives, but they need it from the Scottish Government, too. Let us consider equipment, for example. The police have been calling for body-worn cameras for months. Cameras would have been really useful during the height of the pandemic, but when Police Scotland asked for 10,000 devices, it received only 311. Given that assaults on police staff increased by 6.3 per cent last year, with a staggering 6,942 attacks recorded—including spitting attacks by people with Covid—we might assume that cameras would have been a top priority for the Government, but as far as I know, the police are yet to take possession of the full number. If the minister wants to correct me on that in her closing speech, that is fine.

Processing the footage from cameras requires decent information technology infrastructure, but the police lack decent IT. The Association of Scottish Police Superintendents went as far as to say that police information and communications technology systems are

“largely not fit for purpose”.

Given the increase in cybercrime, outdated computers are the last thing that we need.

Things get worse when we look at the force’s fleet of vehicles. The Scottish Police Federation has said that Police Scotland’s fleet is ageing, with more than half the vehicles more than five years old and with 150,000 miles on the clock. Only last week, newspapers reported that Police Scotland is using vehicles that date back to the 1980s, with one car turning 33 this year and more than 500 vehicles in their 10th year of service. While Scottish criminals are driving Porsches and Lamborghinis, our police are being sent out to do their job in cars that date from the fall of the Berlin wall.

It is not just the IT systems and the vehicles that are ageing; the police estate is ageing, too. There is mould on the carpets, and there are buildings that are not windtight or watertight. They have sections that are mothballed because they are in such a decrepit state. It has got so bad that a quarter of Scottish police buildings are now rated as being in poor condition. That is the reality that our police officers have to deal with on a daily basis, and that is not to mention members of the public who deal with them. No wonder the police are asking for £85.7 million in capital funding from the Scottish Government. However, they were left disappointed, as they have received only £53.7 million.

Keith Brown

Sharon Dowey has not yet mentioned whether the police deserved a pay rise. The police in Scotland got that, but elsewhere they did not. In the budget that the Tories will propose, how much more should go to policing? Where will that money come from?

Sharon Dowey

There is a lot of wasted money. We could save money if we were not wasting money on ferries and £700,000 on civil servants looking at the independence referendum. Malicious prosecutions have already been mentioned. There is money that we could put towards the police.

That is before we include the £218 million budget shortfall in the police’s five-year strategic plan. To add insult to injury, Police Scotland received only a £2.5 million increase in capital funding from the Scottish Government last year. Even that was only as a consequence of UK-wide police reform. Given those numbers, it is little surprise that, in the Criminal Justice Committee pre-budget scrutiny consultation, the Scottish Police Federation said:

“The police service remains ...chronically underfunded”.

Perhaps the greatest problem overall is the issue of front-line police officers, who are overworked, overstretched and underfunded. Whichever way the SNP tries to spin it, it is a fact that the number of police officers in Scotland has fallen to its lowest point since 2009. Twelve out of 13 local police divisions have seen their officer numbers cut since Police Scotland was formed, and nearly 650 fewer local police officers are on the streets or responding to calls. Meanwhile, crimes such as sexual assault are on the increase.

The Scottish Government has a choice to make. Should it support our hard-working police officers and provide them with the funding and equipment that they need, or should it continue to make more unreasonable demands of them and rob Peter to pay Paul, as one policeman put it?

Will the member take an intervention?

Sharon Dowey

No. I am sorry. I am just about to finish.

The new justice strategy was a chance to tackle crime at source, set out a plan for fair police funding and reset relations between the Scottish Government and the force. Sadly, there is little in the document that will be of comfort to the police officers out in the streets tonight trying to keep us safe.


Liam McArthur

I started by exhibiting offending behaviour towards Jamie Greene and his amendment. Let me rectify that by commending Mr Greene and, indeed, his Criminal Justice Committee colleagues for an excellent piece of work. The analysis that is put forward in the report and the evidence that the committee heard covered a wide-ranging selection of issues. I very much enjoyed my time on the Justice Committee in the previous parliamentary session. Although it is clear that some of the issues have moved on, the Criminal Justice Committee covered a lot of familiar territory, and I wish Audrey Nicoll and her colleagues well in taking forward that work.

There is familiar territory, and it is fair to say that progress in some areas has been either glacially slow or non-existent. There is a difficulty for the Scottish Government in having built up a bit of a reputation for announcing and retreating—or, as Audit Scotland points out from time to time, a mismatch between rhetoric and delivery. Nevertheless, it would be unfair to disregard the progress that has been made in a number of significant and important areas.

Members across the chamber have acknowledged that domestic abuse is a core focus of the work that the Parliament needs to do. Progress was made in the previous session of Parliament, particularly in relation to the provisions in the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018 around coercive and controlling behaviour. Important steps forward were also made in relation to the prosecutorial services and the concentration of expertise to ensure that cases that came to the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service were dealt with as professionally as possible. That goes some way towards explaining the level of convictions that we have seen in recent times, reflecting not necessarily an upsurge in the number of cases but the ability of our justice system to reflect what is happening in society.

That is not to say that there is not more to do: Pauline McNeill and others have talked about the issues in relation to civil legal aid, and I would certainly support efforts to make progress in those areas. Further, the number of debates that we have had recently on violence against women and girls exemplifies the amount of work that needs to be done in that regard, and the amount of work that needs to be done by men. Nevertheless, I think that progress has been made in that area.

On the debate around the not proven verdict, I echo the sentiments of Rona Mackay. However, as I have done previously, I voice a bit of anxiety about us marching down the route that we went down before on the abolition of corroboration.

Likewise, progress has been made on vulnerable witnesses and on the adoption of the barnahus model, although I want to see the progress of its roll-out to be accelerated.

On electronic monitoring, we avoided the risks in relation to up-tariffing. I think that there is an opportunity to expand that further, and I am interested to see developments in relation to the diversions on bail and away from incarceration at that point.

In passing, I support Colette Stevenson’s call for an end to release from prison on Fridays, given all the problems that arise as a result of that.

I am pleased to see the presumption against short sentences in place, as it is something that I and others advocated consistently throughout the previous session. However, the benefits of that approach will be seen only if there is more investment in community measures and if work is done to give the judiciary the confidence that they need to refer to those methods. All the evidence shows that, in the vast majority of cases, they are a far more effective way of reducing rates of reoffending.

As I touched on in my initial speech, the re-establishment of throughcare and purposeful activity in our prisons is essential. That was the focus of my amendment and of Maggie Chapman’s comments.

In a situation in which we are dealing with a prison population that is much higher than prison populations anywhere else in Europe, we have to get serious about prison reform. Nobody could argue that Scots are more genetically predisposed to offending behaviour or to committing crimes than other people, yet our prison population is out of step with that in all other European countries.

Keith Brown

I have a great deal of sympathy with the member’s amendment and the proposals that he makes in it. However, we cannot support it today because it would jump ahead of what we are doing with the forthcoming bill on the reform of bail and release from prison arrangements. I am sure that things such as the route map and the milestones that he talks about in relation to throughcare will be covered at that time. That is the only reason why we cannot support the amendment; we are supportive of the sentiments behind it.

Liam McArthur

I thank the cabinet secretary for those sentiments. I am disappointed that the amendment cannot be supported, but I am sure that the issues that it deals with will be the subject of further discussions.

I will finish on the subject of funding. There has been quite a bit of debate about that this afternoon. As I have said before, funding must be increased in relation to community sentences.

In policing, for some time Police Scotland and the Scottish Police Association have been arguing that capital spend in particular is insufficient at the moment. The mend-and-make-do approach is storing up big problems for the future.

We are seeing a similar approach to legal aid, where further crisis is brewing. I point again to the threat of legal deserts in places such as Orkney, which I represent.

On prison reform, as well as bringing down the population, we need to see the roll-out of the women’s estate and, as Pauline McNeill suggested, progress needs to be made in relation to Barlinnie, too.

There is common agreement on the vision, although we will have our disagreements. It would be a risk to oversimplify the causes of crime, but it would also be a risk to oversimplify the remedies. Opposition MSPs—and, I would argue, the Government’s back-bench members—have a challenge function. However, let us move away from talk of soft justice and tough justice; we should all be talking about effective justice.


Katy Clark (West Scotland) (Lab)

I welcome the debate and the strong contributions from all sides. I also warmly welcome the Government’s motion. Like others, I suspect, I have not had the chance to read in detail all the documents that were published today, but I welcome the direction of travel that is outlined in the new vision for justice. It shows how far we have come that there is a consensus that services should be person centred and trauma informed, with a focus on prevention, early intervention and making communities safer.

However, it is important to debate the gap between the policy and aspirations set out by the Government and the reality on the ground, which a number of members referred to. It would be interesting to hear from the Government why it has not always been possible to deliver the types of changes that were outlined in previous policy documents, what the pressures are and what resistance to change there is. That is helpful for the Parliament in ensuring the delivery of what we discuss in the chamber.

It is clearly a matter of consensus not only that the pandemic has exacerbated long-standing problems but that the justice system needs significant reform. Some of the practices that have been developed during the pandemic, such as the use of virtual courts, might help to bring about some of the changes that are needed. No doubt we will debate that in great detail over the coming months.

Many of the challenges in the legal system are clearly a result of underfunding, but they are also a result of changes in society, an increase in the reporting of certain crimes—such as sexual offences, which include large numbers of historical cases—and, sometimes, a failure to deliver on Government policy.

Currently, 27 per cent of the prison population in Scotland is on remand. That is one of the highest figures in Europe. Scotland’s use of remand is historically high and compares unfavourably with other countries. For example, in England, it is 15 per cent; in Spain, it is 16 per cent; and in Germany, it is 20 per cent.

Liam McArthur spoke in some detail about the high level of prison use overall in Scotland. That is a significant challenge and a cultural issue that we need to address. We need to consider why we have so many people in jail in Scotland who, in other countries, would be dealt with in another way. It is difficult to justify such large numbers of people being in custody for offences of which they have not been convicted and might never be convicted. In many cases, they will either be acquitted or get a non-custodial sentence at the end of their period on remand.

Those are long-term challenges. We have a crisis in the number of people who are on remand, but we must understand that judges feel that they have little option but to use remand in certain situations, given the pressures on them and the fear that the accused will not attend court. However, the fact that remand is used to such an extent is causing massive problems for an ageing, overcrowded and ill-equipped prison service.

The huge number of people in prison in Scotland need to be addressed. It is not a simple issue and I do not suggest that it is an easy challenge to tackle, but the Scottish Government and all of us need to grapple with it. There are situations in which prison is the only option but, as the cabinet secretary said, community-based disposals are often highly effective—more effective than prison sentences—and better at preventing reoffending.

Another significant concern is the number of women who are in prison in Scotland. That number has also risen in recent decades, again despite a political consensus that prison is often the wrong disposal for women offenders.

Scotland has one of the largest female prison populations in northern Europe, with usually about 400 women in prison—about 315 are sentenced prisoners and 85 are on remand. It is estimated that about 65 per cent of those women are mothers.

New community justice legislation was enacted in 2016. I was not an MSP at that time, so I was not involved in the debates about that legislation, which is one of the actions that the Parliament has taken to shift sentences from prison to community service and other community-based disposals. However, the proportion who received a community sentence fell from 59 per cent in 2016-17 to 55 per cent in 2018-19, before rising back to the original 59 per cent in 2019-20. It would be interesting to look at previous initiatives that the Government has taken to deal with the challenges that we face from the large prison population and at why those initiatives have not been as effective as the Parliament would have hoped.

The debate raises serious challenges for all of us. I look forward to hearing the Government’s response to members. Labour will support the Government motion and the Liberal Democrat amendment at decision time.


Russell Findlay (West Scotland) (Con)

Justice is a subject that is close to my heart. Not only did I spend many years reporting on some of the most extreme and appalling crimes in Scotland, but I have been the victim of a targeted violent attack on my doorstep. My journalistic experience and that horrific attack have given me useful insight into Scotland’s criminal justice system. That is enhanced by representing victims of crime as an MSP and being married to a front-line police officer, which serves as a daily reminder about the reality and the dangers of what happens on our streets.

Earlier in the debate, the Minister for Community Safety attempted to engage me in a private conversation about police numbers. There is lots of spin, claim and counterclaim, but it is worth putting it on the record, as my colleague Sharon Dowey did, that police numbers are at their lowest since 2009.

My colleague Jamie Greene eloquently articulated many of my party’s concerns about the SNP Government motion. I agree with his observation that, although the Government talks a good game about justice and victims, those lofty words are rarely matched by meaningful actions.

Last night, I read the Scottish Government’s newly published and grandly titled document “The Vision for Justice in Scotland”, on which the debate is based. It certainly looks the part—there is the arty abstract cover, which includes a saltire of course, and it is packed with statistics and graphics.

I will read a brief excerpt:

“Achieving our vision requires a fundamental change. Iterative reforms and changes to our existing structures and processes will not take us far enough on the journey. We must transform our justice services, ensuring services are designed for and by those who need them.

Our justice services will be for you, with you at heart.”

I mean, seriously—come on, who writes this stuff? It sounds like the marketing spiel of a Tenerife timeshare salesman. I often disagree with the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, but I do not think that he is guilty of this crime of jargon.

One of the document’s most striking aspects is the blurring of lines between criminals and their victims. No distinction is made between those who fall victim to crime and those who perpetrate it—they are all lumped together as equal participants in the justice system.

Since becoming an MSP, I have begun to appreciate how dominant that thinking has become. A lobby of middle-class professionals would have us believe that all thugs, thieves, sex offenders and other crooks are simply misunderstood. In the world of such professionals, criminals are victims, and victims are of little interest. They believe that every criminal is a by-product of life experience, which has some truth, but only up to a point.

Will the member take an intervention?

Russell Findlay

I will plough on, thank you.

Personal responsibility seems to be an alien concept. That attitude risks making excuses for criminal behaviour and is offensive to those who did not get a good start in life but do not resort to crime.

Will the member take an intervention?

Russell Findlay

I have to make some headway.

The report further states that

“people are the experts in their own lives”

and that

“People will be treated with empathy and kindness and provided with the support they need to thrive.”

You would not know it, but the people whom the report is talking about there are criminals: those who inflict misery and fear on our communities. I am all for rehabilitation, but has the balance shifted too far? In 36 pages, the world “criminals” does not feature once; in 36 pages, there is one reference to “punishment”; and in 36 pages, there is not a single mention of organised crime—not one. Yet we know that Scotland is infested with more than 100 high-level criminal gangs, most of which are based in the region that I represent. Most of them have access to firearms and deal in drugs, and many deal in the trafficking of broken and desperate people.

An estimated 2,500 criminals flood our streets with their pills and powders, and their dirty money is laundered through front businesses, creating a vast parallel economy. Last year, an organised-crime terror campaign forced a politician to flee his home and quit his job. We should remember that in 2020, a record 1,339 Scots were killed by drugs, yet those parasitical gangs do not merit a single mention in the document. It is called a vision for justice, but it is in fact completely blind to the misery that is caused by crime.

Another historical blind spot in the Scottish justice system has been its scandalous failing of victims of gender-based violence. Eleven years ago, Denise Clair was raped by two men, and she has never received a satisfactory explanation for why they were not prosecuted. To be frank, the case stinks. With immense bravery and determination, Denise waived her anonymity and was forced to seek justice in the civil courts.

Since then, as Pauline McNeill and Rona Mackay mentioned, at least two other rape victims, Ms AB and Miss M, have had to take the same do-it-yourself route, and I commend each of them. Despite all the SNP rhetoric and hand-wringing, and weighty reports such as the vision for justice, victims of rape are still being betrayed every single day. For almost 15 years, this Government has been in charge of our justice system. It has spent more than a decade talking about the not proven verdict, which is used disproportionately in rape cases, but—as with so much else—it lacks the gumption to take action.

My party has put forward proposals for a victims bill, which would truly put victims at the heart of the justice system. It would scrap the not proven verdict and ensure that all crime victims like Denise are told why their cases have been dropped. I see that, according to the document, the Scottish Government does not intend to introduce any dedicated victims bill, so I hope that it will back our proposal instead, but that is for another day.

Jamie Greene’s amendment is common sense, and I am confident that most people across Scotland would agree. I therefore whole-heartedly urge members to support it today. As much as my party agrees with much of the Labour and Lib Dem amendments, we cannot support them, as they would simply add to, but not amend, the Scottish Government motion, which we do not support.


The Minister for Community Safety (Ash Regan)

Today has been an opportunity to get up to the strategic level and debate the future direction of justice in Scotland because, after all, our choice of direction reflects us and reveals who we are as a society and what we believe in and value. Labour and the Liberal Democrats have engaged constructively with the discussion. The Conservatives, however—probably quite predictably—passed up on the opportunity, which reveals their lack of engagement with the substance of the debate that we are trying to have in the Parliament about the future of justice. Liam McArthur summed it up when he said the Conservatives were not making a contribution to the debate.

Jamie Greene

I am holding up a copy of my amendment—it is quite lengthy, and there is a lot of substance in there. Which bit of it does the minister disagree with? Which bit of putting victims at the heart of the justice system does she disagree with?

Ash Regan

I do not disagree with that at all. We absolutely want to have victims at the heart of our justice system, and we are making an immense contribution to making that so in all the work that we do. If the member read “The Vision for Justice”, he would see that that comes through in the whole document—it is an integral part of it.

I do not accept the Conservatives’ suggestion that the Government’s focus on rehabilitation and shifting the balance towards greater use of community-based justice poses a risk to safety, because victims’ safety and public protection have always been, and will always be, at the heart of any policy that the Government implements.

If we take a step back and think about it, if we want to make transformational change—and there is support for that, from what I am hearing—we must move towards a smart justice approach that is compassionate and includes evidence-based approaches that we know work to reduce reoffending. That is the way in which we will address those issues.

With a few exceptions, the debate was useful and there were some good speeches. I note Collette Stevenson’s contribution about the police. Audrey Nicoll’s metaphor about falling off the cliff and finding the ambulance has stayed with me, and I note Rona Mackay’s emphasis on women’s justice. In the time that I have, I will address as much as possible of what was raised in the debate. Pauline McNeill raised the issue of access to justice and rape convictions, which was also a focus of some other contributions. She mentioned the testimony of many survivors and campaigners, such as Miss M. I have also met Miss M and I listened carefully to what she had to say. I thought that she was very compelling in pursuing her goal.

I reiterate that the Government is committed to driving progress in that area.

Will the minister take an intervention?

Ash Regan

I am probably about to answer the question that the member will ask.

We have reforms planned in a number of areas, including the management of sexual offences. Lady Dorrian’s review suggests a number of proposals for modernisation, with which we are moving forward. If that does not answer the member’s question, I will give way.

Pauline McNeill

Given that we have heard the testimony of women victims who said that they felt like criminals, will the Government give any thought to what reforms of the system could address that issue? I am not convinced that the victims commissioner is the answer. Will the Government give some thought to how we deal with that point?

Ash Regan

I will give that some further thought and come back to the member.

Remand was rightly mentioned by a number of members, including Jamie Greene, Pauline McNeill and Liam McArthur, and we recognise that it is an area in which change is urgently needed. We have consulted on reforms in that regard, and we intend to introduce legislation before summer recess. We have also increased funding for alternatives to remand.

Pauline McNeill and Liam McArthur asked about electronic monitoring. Over the coming months, we plan to extend the availability of electronic monitoring, which will be used as part of bail conditions, community payback orders and conditions for temporary release from prison.

Rona Mackay spoke about improving women’s experience of justice, which is really important, and the Government is committed to taking action to do that. I am determined that, in my role, I will strive to drive forward as much action on the matter as possible. The time to act is now, so I am pleased to be leading new work to develop a strategic approach to women in the justice system.

Last month, I held the first meeting of the women’s justice leadership panel. The panel brings together expert women from all aspects of the justice system to discuss the experience and the unique needs of women, and what that means for the criminal justice process. We know that, often, the system has not been designed with women in mind, and the panel is tasked with examining that further.

The work builds on a call for evidence that the Scottish Government commissioned at the end of last year. The evidence from the call found that women were more likely to experience victimisation and trauma, hold primary caring responsibilities and carry the weight of others’ imprisonment. It also raised key areas of interest, such as the lag between policy and practice, the blurred line between victimisation and offender status, stereotypes and biases in the justice system, and intersectionality. The work will be dedicated to exploring those themes in more detail in order to create a better understanding of the impacts on women and build the case for fundamental system change to better reflect their needs. Outputs from the panel will inform and complement the work that is being progressed under our justice vision.

I will move on briefly to legal aid. I refute Jamie Greene’s characterisation of the Government’s action in that area. We will be introducing a bill on legal aid to create a system that is flexible, is easy to access and meets the needs of those who use it, which is really important. I engage regularly with representatives of the legal aid profession, to listen to all the concerns that are raised. The latest legal aid fee rise of 5 per cent will be in place shortly.

Setting out a vision is beneficial, because we need to know what our aspirations are, what our goals are, and where we as a country are trying to go and why. Moving forward as a country on some of the key issues in justice is bold. Incremental changes can be good, but the time is right for—and I believe that we have heard from Parliament today that there is support for—transformation and boldness in how we look again at some of our key challenges and how we go about addressing them.

Our vision for the justice system is for more effective justice, and for a system that is trauma informed and person centred.