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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, October 8, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 08 October 2020

Agenda: First Minister’s Question Time, Portfolio Question Time, Mental Health Transition and Recovery Plan, Reducing Covid-19 Transmission, Trade Bill, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time


Portfolio Question Time

Frontline Policing Resources

To ask the Scottish Government what additional support it is providing for front-line policing in light of the impact of reduced income streams from areas such as football and airports. (S5O-04673)

Police Scotland has been at the front and centre of the response to Covid-19 in Scotland. I thank all its police officers and staff for the immense and incredible work that they have done. Police Scotland continues to work closely with partners, including local authorities and the national health service, to support that response.

This year, the Scottish Government has increased funding for policing by £60 million to more than £1.2 billion. However, I recognise that the Scottish Police Authority set its budget for 2020-21 before the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic was known and I acknowledge that Covid-19 has had an impact on the policing budget in a number of ways, including those that Sarah Boyack mentioned. The Scottish Government will continue to work closely with the Scottish Police Authority and Police Scotland to monitor and manage the financial impacts of Covid-19 on the policing budget, and any specific financial ask from Police Scotland will be considered.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that there has been a rise in domestic violence during the pandemic, an increase in assaults on shop workers and more burglaries of shops, and all alongside the impact of the coronavirus restrictions. What additional conversations is the cabinet secretary having with Police Scotland about the need to fund areas that have additional requirements to protect the public?

Sarah Boyack makes a hugely important point, because it has been business as usual for crime and we are starting to see pre-pandemic levels of crime. On top of the core business that Police Scotland has to deal with day in and day out, it has pressure in relation to the Covid regulations, the potential for disorder in relation to Brexit and the continuing planning for the United Nations 26th conference of the parties—COP26—even though that has been postponed. There are therefore huge amounts of pressure on Police Scotland, which is why I continue the budget discussions with the SPA and Police Scotland. In fact, I facilitated a meeting between Police Scotland, the SPA, the finance secretary and me; in that quadrilateral, we discussed the financial pressures and challenges for Police Scotland. Those pressures will be at the forefront of my mind as the budget discussions continue, and I know that the finance secretary is also aware of them.

To try to get through all questions, I remind members to keep supplementary questions brief and I ask for brief responses, if possible.

As well as financial support, what welfare support and/or counselling is being offered to front-line police officers and their families in recognition of their health and safety concerns and the associated risks and anxieties following the implementation of emergency Covid powers to police indoor gatherings and house parties?

I did not quite get the last part of Margaret Mitchell’s question, but she will know that the chief constable takes the matter of officers’ mental health extraordinarily seriously. I am reassured that Police Scotland has taken proactive steps in relation to minimising the risk of virus transmission among its officers and staff; and I agree with Margaret Mitchell that there will also be concerns for their families around Covid.

A range of services are available to care for police officers’ physical and mental health, including Police Scotland’s your wellbeing matters programme. Police Scotland is also one of the first police services in the United Kingdom to implement mental health and suicide intervention training for all officers. There is a range of other initiatives in relation to mental health for police officers that, for brevity’s sake, I will not go through, but I am happy to write to Margaret Mitchell with further details of those interventions.

Police Custody Support Services

To ask the Scottish Government how Police Scotland ensures that people held in custody have access to all appropriate support services that they require. (S5O-04674)

The care and welfare of persons held in police custody are, of course, of paramount importance to Police Scotland. That is an operational matter for the chief constable.

Police Scotland always aims to provide the highest standards of care to persons held in custody, operating under the terms of the “Care and Welfare of Persons in Police Custody Standard Operating Procedure”, which provides guidance to officers and staff; the “Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 2016 (Arrest Process) Standing Operating Procedure”; and the Police Service of Scotland solicitor access guidance.

A detailed vulnerability and risk assessment takes place at the point of processing into a custody facility and, where appropriate, any referrals will be made to the national health service, or to other appropriate support services, depending on an individual’s needs and circumstances.

A constituent has contacted me with concerns about disparities in how addicts receiving methadone are treated in different police custody suites. NHS Grampian, which covers Moray in my region, has said that it will not provide opiate replacements to people in custody. That is different to the position in much of Scotland and, apparently, runs contrary to wider NHS guidance. Regardless of individual views on such prescribing, does the cabinet secretary consider that there is the need for a national approach to support addicts in custody?

I am certainly happy to look into that issue. I think that we trust our health boards and local partners to make decisions that are suitable for their locality. Notwithstanding that, if there is an issue that is causing a concern to Mr Halcro Johnston’s constituent, I am more than happy to look into that in more detail offline.

The Scottish Liberal Democrats worked hard to secure a commitment from the Government to increase the mental health workforce, and it has promised that an additional 800 mental health professionals will be made available in accident and emergency departments, general practitioner practices, police stations and prisons. However, in March, only nine additional full-time equivalents were in place in custody suites. Can the cabinet secretary update me on the current figure, or at least write to me with more details on the progress being made?

Yes, progress was being made in relation to additional mental health workers in our prisons and custody facilities. The member will forgive me, but I do not have the most up-to-date figure to hand. I will, of course, write to him with the details.

Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on whether the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill will give increased protection to people of any religion. (S5O-04675)

My view is that, yes, it will. The bill creates new offences relating to stirring up religious hatred. We know that behaviour that stirs up hatred is corrosive and it can leave entire communities feeling isolated and vulnerable to attack. The bill extends protection to people of any religion from those who seek to stir up hatred against religious groups.

As per my statement on 23 September, I will amend the threshold of the bill’s new stirring-up offences, so that they are committed only where the accused intends to stir up hatred.

It should also be said that, of course, we have freedom of expression sections in the bill, one of which refers to the right to religious practice and expression of faith. I hope that that gives reassurance to religious groups.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that it is a bit ironic that some religious groups oppose the bill because they think that they will lose some of their freedom of expression, whereas in fact the bill will give extra protection to people with a religious background?

I simply say this to those groups. I know that the concerns that they express are genuine and I will engage with them. There are concerns around, for example, the section in the bill on the possession of inflammatory material. Again, I hope that my earlier statement to the chamber on moving the threshold of the stirring-up offences to apply only where there is intent would help to calm and mitigate many of the fears that some have expressed.

I will continue to engage with religious groups and other stakeholders throughout the bill process, just as I have done from the very beginning.

Victims of Crime (Covid-19)

To ask the Scottish Government how it is supporting victims of crime during the Covid-19 pandemic. (S5O-04676)

This year, we are investing £18.7 million to help victims and witnesses, including funding Victim Support Scotland and other support organisations.

In response to the pandemic, we increased the victims fund from £30,000 to £100,000. I welcome Victim Support Scotland’s announcement yesterday that it is able to use more of its current Scottish Government grant to add to the fund. Victims are accessing support worth up to £3,000 for food vouchers, help with bills and practical assistance for domestic abuse victims who may have to leave their homes urgently.

We are particularly aware of the risks for women and children experiencing domestic abuse and have provided an additional £5.75 million since lockdown to organisations working on the front line across Scotland.

Analysis of the impact of the Covid-19 restrictions on women and girls who have suffered violence has highlighted frequent reports of victims losing faith in the justice system. Delaying or rescheduling court cases can be a significant cause of anxiety and concern for them. Does the cabinet secretary accept that failure to address the court backlog successfully will have severe repercussions for victims? How will he ensure that they continue to have confidence in Scotland’s justice system?

I agree with the substance of Rhoda Grant’s point. Even in normal times, outwith the pandemic, the changing of a court or trial date would undoubtedly cause severe anxiety to—and potentially retraumatise—many victims of violence against women, whether such incidents involved sexual offences, domestic abuse or other forms of violence. With the coming of the pandemic, the backlog and the fact that jury trials were suspended for almost seven months will, of course, have added to such trauma and anxiety.

I assure Rhoda Grant that we are investing to ensure that High Court trials can begin and that sheriff and jury trials can resume. Summary trials in which evidence is led should return to up to 80 per cent of pre-Covid levels. I hope that that will provide some reassurance. I will also continue to work regularly with women’s organisations to tackle all violence against women.

Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill

To ask the Scottish Government for what reason part 2 of its hate crime bill does not require the consent of the Lord Advocate before proceedings for stirring up offences may be instituted, when similar sections of the Public Order Act 1986 and Public Order (Northern Ireland) Order 1987 require the consent of the attorney general or director of public prosecutions, and whether it will amend part 2 to include this safeguard. (S5O-04677)

In Scotland, all public prosecutions are brought by prosecutors within the system of prosecution for which the Lord Advocate is responsible. It is a matter for the Lord Advocate, as head of that system, and acting independently of any other person, to prescribe prosecution policy and to issue such directions as the Lord Advocate considers appropriate in relation to prosecution of any particular offence or category of offences.

In England and Wales, many public bodies in addition to the Crown Prosecution Service prosecute crime. As a result, there are a number of criminal offences for which, as a legislative safeguard, the Attorney General’s consent is required before a prosecution can commence.

The distinction between the jurisdictions is routinely recognised in the drafting of offences. For example, the Public Order Act 1986 does not include provision requiring the Lord Advocate’s consent to prosecute the current Scottish offence of stirring up racial hatred.

The Scottish Government recently outlined a significant change to the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill by clarifying that intent would be required for the offence of stirring up hatred to be committed.

I welcome that change, which will provide much-needed clarity and will reduce the possibility of the freedoms of speech and of expression being undermined. However, as far as I can tell, the issue that I have raised today has not been discussed. It is important that it be discussed and addressed at the earliest possible stage.

In England and Wales, offences of stirring up hatred—

No, Mr Lyle—this is not a speech. Can I just have your question, please?

Will the Cabinet Secretary for Justice rectify that omission? If he will do so, I will then be happy to support the bill.

I do not agree with Mr Lyle’s characterisation of that as an “omission”. As I have explained, there is no requirement to obtain the Lord Advocate’s consent before a prosecution, because all public prosecutions in Scotland are brought by prosecutors within the system of prosecution for which the Lord Advocate is responsible, independent of the Scottish ministers.

That is in contrast with the position in other jurisdictions in the United Kingdom, in which, as I have said, prosecutions can be brought by many other bodies. That being the case, providing that prosecution of certain offences requires the consent of the Attorney General ensures appropriate oversight of those other bodies. That is not the case in Scotland, so I suggest to Mr Lyle that the provision that he seeks is not required.

The bill has provoked unprecedented responses from fundamentally different sections of Scottish society and, as more and more views are published, it is clear that the majority of passionately voiced opposition is to the stirring up hatred offences in part 2. Does the cabinet secretary concede that, by not even considering removal and reconsideration of part 2, he is ignoring public opinion and, ultimately, that he risks undermining the important purposes that underlie the bill?

I think that Liam Kerr ultimately undermines the decision of the Parliament by suggesting that.

When he secured a debate on the issue, using his Opposition debating time to do so, the motion was to scrap the bill in its entirety. As we know now from press reports of his leaked emails, that was not his preferred strategy, but was, nonetheless, the strategy that he proposed to the Parliament. It was roundly rejected, so I suggest that Liam Kerr put the victims at the heart of his considerations, rather than politicking around this important issue.

If he were to do that, he might well listen to the victims who say that the stirring up hatred offences being extended to them is hugely important. He has every opportunity in the parliamentary process—I am due in front of the Justice Committee later this month—to create and lodge amendments, if he wishes to strike out entire sections of the bill. We have a parliamentary process, so let us engage in it, but my plea to Liam Kerr is that he think about the victims in all this.

“Recorded Crime in Scotland, 2019-20”

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the 2019-20 “Recorded Crime in Scotland” statistics. (S5O-04678)

The stats show that recorded crime in Scotland remains at one of the lowest levels since 1974, and is down by 41 per cent since 2006-07.

The stats also highlight that almost 1,700 new crimes were recorded following implementation of the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018. That is welcome, because it demonstrates that victims are coming forward to access justice.

On a like-for-like basis, the figures show that violent crime fell by 5 per cent between 2018-19 and 2019-20. That complements the long-term picture of huge reductions in violent crime. Let me clear, however, that any crime of violence is, of course, unacceptable. Such crime will not be tolerated, and we will continue to tackle it through tough enforcement and, importantly, by addressing the underlying causes of violence.

The stats actually show that violent crime has been rising for the past five years. It is now at an eight-year high, so will the cabinet secretary admit that a soft-touch approach to crime, such as the Scottish National Party’s ban—or what is, in effect, a ban—on short sentences, has contributed to that rise?

As I have already explained to Graham Simpson, the reason for the rise this year is the new domestic abuse offences. If we take them out, the figures show a 5 per cent reduction in violent crime compared with the year before.

Graham Simpson might have seen the reconviction stats that came out this week, which show a 21-year low in reconvictions. The number of reconvictions per offender is also down. The evidence that was released this week also shows that short custodial sentences are more likely to lead to reconviction than a community sentence is.

If people are reoffending less, we have fewer victims. Despite Graham Simpson and I having different approaches to the justice system, we undoubtedly both have victims at the forefront of our minds, so I respectfully suggest to him, and to other Conservative members, that although it is easy to play to the hang ’em and flog ’em brigade, I will—as Graham Simpson should—follow the evidence. The evidence is unequivocal: if we invest in alternatives to custody, people are less likely to offend, reoffend or be reconvicted, which means fewer victims of crime.

As the justice secretary has just said, reconviction levels are at a 21-year low. Can he outline how the Scottish Government is investing in community justice in order to reduce reoffending and keep our communities safe?

We have increased our funding of community justice initiatives. Our presumption against short sentences is a demonstration that we believe that there are better options than custody, so we will continue to invest in those alternatives. Shona Robison made the point well. I hope that that will disproportionately affect women, because we see far too many women in our criminal justice system.

We will continue to make this a debate not about hard justice versus soft justice, but about smart justice and following the evidence.

Prison Population

To ask the Scottish Government what the prison population is, and how this is projected to change over the next 12 months. (S5O-04679)

Prison population figures are published weekly by the Scottish Prison Service. On 4 October, the prison population was 7,488 in custody and 69 on home detention curfew, which is 7,557 overall. That is a reduction from a population of over 8,300 last year.

Although that represents a reduction, the cabinet secretary will be aware that the prison population has been rising in recent weeks and months. In particular, the number of prisoners who are awaiting trial is now 80 per cent higher than it was at the low point just after lockdown. Concerns have been raised by Hannah Graham, among others, that that is a consequence of the courts’ backlog. Can the cabinet secretary set out how the issue will be addressed and how potential issues arising from overcrowding will be averted?

I note that Daniel Johnson and Dr Hannah Graham, whom he mentioned, have taken a keen interest in the subject over the years. Mr Johnson is right about the figures and, really, he answered his question in asking it. The single most important way to reduce the current remand population is to get the criminal courts operating more normally, and at pre-Covid levels. Our £5.5 million investment in external jury centres so that High Court trials can resume, and our £6.5 million funding to extend external jury centres to sheriff and jury trials, with a focus on and priority for custody cases, will help to reduce our prison population.

As the member knows, I am keen to ensure greater use of alternatives to remand, including use of electronic monitoring for bail. My officials and I are progressing that at present.

“Transforming Parole in Scotland”

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the action it is taking to implement the measures for victims outlined in the 2019 report, “Transforming Parole in Scotland”. (S5O-04680)

The Scottish Government is progressing, at pace, three victim-centred measures that will come into force in early 2021. They are to expressly provide that the Parole Board for Scotland may take the safety and welfare of victims into account when deciding on release of a prisoner, and requirements for the board to publish decision summaries and for it to include a process to allow permitted victims to attend parole hearings as observers.

As the cabinet secretary will know, two years ago the family of murder victim Michelle Stewart launched a campaign to improve victims’ rights. However, Michelle’s father recently slammed the “zero” action that has been taken in implementing Michelle’s law. Why does the Scottish National Party continue to let down victims of crime with empty promises, thereby causing considerable distress for victims and their families?

Again, I disagree with the premise of the question. I have just outlined some of the work that we are taking forward.

Annie Wells referenced Mr Kenny Stewart, the father of Michelle Stewart. I have met the Stewart family on a number of occasions. Directly after one meeting—literally hours after it—Mr Stewart was on the BBC “Drivetime” programme. I have the transcript here, and I will quote him directly. When asked about the meeting, he said that it was “a positive meeting”, and he acknowledged that the changes would “take some time”. As I said, I am quoting Mr Stewart because Annie Wells referenced him in her question. At the end of the interview, he said:

“I think it seemed pretty positive—yes, I was pretty pleased with the information I got today.”

Therefore, Annie Wells’s characterisation is, perhaps, incorrect. We are taking forward work in a number of areas. I will keep the Stewart family and other families—as well as the Parliament, of course—updated on changes to parole. Ultimately, I will say to her what I said to Graham Simpson and Liam Kerr: instead of playing politics with these issues, it might be better if she keeps the victims at the forefront of her mind.