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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 15 January 2019

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Carbon-neutral Economy (Just Transition), Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time, Paisley


Topical Question Time

Prison Population

To ask the Scottish Government what its projections are for the prison population, in light of statistics showing that the majority are at or above capacity. (S5T-01435)

After a number of years of relative stability, the average prison population has increased over the past year. Scotland currently has the highest imprisonment rate in western Europe, with around 144 per 100,000 of the population incarcerated.

The most recent projections suggest that, over the next 12 months, population levels are likely to average around 8,000. Scottish Government officials are working with the Scottish Prison Service to consider the immediate issues that are associated with that. In addition, we have committed to take action to reduce the numbers of people entering prison for short-term periods. In the budget, we confirmed additional funding to local authorities to increase the availability of alternatives to remand. We have also increased funding over recent years to support the availability of community sentences.

Once provisions in the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018 come into force from April this year, we will also bring forward the necessary secondary legislation to extend the current presumption against short sentences from three months to 12 months.

I thank the Cabinet Secretary for Justice for the candour of his response and for his confirmation that, as was the case back in June, the Government is

“committed to reducing the use of imprisonment”.—[Written Answers, 12 June 2018; S5W-16923.]

Fast forward six months from that parliamentary answer and the average prison population is up by around 300, meaning that the number of prisons operating at or over capacity has more than doubled. Prisons are jam packed and staff are warning of the impact that that is having.

The Scottish Government has said that it has acted on “almost all” the recommendations of the decade-old Scottish Prisons Commission, but the experts then were critical of a prison population of just over 7,000 and wanted to see a reduction to 5,000. As the cabinet secretary has confirmed, the number of prisoners is now 8,000. Can he therefore explain the reason for that failure?

Let me in turn thank Liam McArthur for the general tone of his question. I know that he takes the issue seriously. Around the chamber there is quite a lot of consensus that we do not want the highest imprisonment rate in western Europe—it is not a statistic to be proud of.

There are complex reasons for the rise in the prison population—one relates to the types of offences that we see, for example. There are more and more sexual offences coming to our courts, and more people are being found guilty and going into our prisons. There are a number of reasons for that, which I will not go into. However, the behaviour of the judiciary must also be taken into account. For people who are given long sentences—particularly life sentences—the punishment part is now substantially longer than it was a decade ago. There are also more recent trends. At this morning’s meeting of the Justice Committee, we talked about the changes in home detention curfew. Of course, the less that that is used, the more the prison population rises.

There is a lot that we will do to tackle the issue. If it passes through Parliament—on which I will look to the Liberal Democrats for support—the presumption against short sentences of 12 months or less could be a significant tool to help us to reduce the prison population.

I turn to the women’s estate. Last year, Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons for Scotland, David Strang, warned that because the new female prison estate would hold only 230 prisoners,

“much work is still required to reduce the number of women in custody ahead of the new prison’s opening in 2020”.

The female prisoner population currently stands at 381. It is little wonder, therefore, that organisations such as the Howard League Scotland, Sacro and others are so concerned.

Will the cabinet secretary now confirm that the timetable has slipped and that three of the community custody units will not even be started by the 2020 deadline initially set by his predecessor for the completion of the new estate? Will he confirm how many women will benefit from the new estate in 2021?

I will look to provide the member with fuller detail as a follow-up, as I do not have it all in front of me. However, the Scottish Government is absolutely committed to learning lessons from the variety of reviews that have taken place of the specific issue of female offending. We know that women offend and are imprisoned for very complex reasons that can often be quite different from those that apply to the male offending population. Our plan for CCUs right across Scotland is taking shape. We have planning permission for units in Glasgow and Dundee, which is an important step forward.

From the numbers and the data that I have seen, the presumption against short sentences will have a disproportionately positive impact on the female offending population in comparison with the male offending population. However, that is just one measure that we wish to implement. We have to look at the male offending population as well—of course, men make up the vast majority of the prison population—to see what radical measures we need to introduce to reduce the prison population. It is important that we, as a society, do not get comfortable—and we, as a Government, certainly are not comfortable—with just imprisoning people and seeing the prison population continuing to rise.

There is a lot of interest in the subject: five members wish to ask questions. We will try to get through them all if members and the cabinet secretary are able to make progress.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that, in light of the fact that the Ministry of Justice is considering banning prison sentences of less than six months in England and Wales, the whole chamber should get behind the presumption against short sentences, as he outlined in his answer to Liam McArthur?

Yes. I was interested to hear Rory Stewart’s commitment. In some ways, it goes further in that we would have a presumption against short sentences whereas he is talking about banning short sentences. The United Kingdom model relates to sentences of up to six months whereas, under our model, there would be a presumption against short sentences of 12 months, so there are differences. However, Rory Stewart and I agree that it is inarguable that the data and the empirical evidence show that a community payback order or other alternative to custody will do a lot more for the individual in terms of reducing offending and rehabilitation than a short custodial sentence would do. I hope that the chamber can get behind that.

My party would have concerns about plans to reduce the prison population if the practicalities of doing that were not taken into account. How can the cabinet secretary seek more use of community sentences when the current statistics show that a third of such sentences are never completed and that a third of work placements fail to start within the required seven days?

The member makes the very valid point that we need to ensure that the public, politicians, and I, as the cabinet secretary, have confidence in our community payback orders. Despite some of the difficulties and flaws in the current regime that he has pointed out, the evidence speaks for itself. Someone who is serving a short sentence is twice as likely to reoffend than someone who is on a community payback order. The evidence is indisputable. The UK Government has acknowledged that, given its proposals to ban short sentences of six months or less, except for violent and sexual offences.

If all the political parties are on board and agree that the prison population and the rate per head are far too high, let us put our minds together and think about what other radical steps we can take. It is not only ourselves that we need to take on this journey; as the member’s question alludes to, we also need to take with us members of the public, who might not consider alternatives to custody to be a particularly robust sentence disposal at the moment. There is a lot of work for the Government to do but, equally, there is a role for all of us to play collectively.

I thank the cabinet secretary for being as candid as he has been, which contradicts the response that I got when I raised these issues in the summer. There are consequences of prisons running at above capacity, particularly in relation to double-bunking in cells. How many prisoners are in cells that are operating beyond their designed capacity in so-called double-bunking conditions?

I do not have the exact figures to hand, but I will provide them to Daniel Johnson.

I would go further on the member’s point: overcrowded prisons—prisons that have more people in them than they were designed to have—have an effect on rehabilitation. There are only so many members of staff who can take prisoners on rehabilitative programmes. Overcrowding also has an effect on morale in a prison. For example, it will affect the amount of time that prisoners have out of their cells. Frustrations can build up and there can then be issues for staff safety. Therefore, there is a range of reasons why we do not want our prisons to be running above their designed capacity.

We will do a lot to tackle the issue, such as introducing the presumption against short sentences and other measures. However, if we want to make the change, which might take 10, 15 or 20 years, as was the case in Finland and the Netherlands, which successfully made the change, we will need to work collectively and take the public with us on the journey. We need to put the appropriate safeguards in place and look for some radical solutions to how we reduce the prison population.

The cabinet secretary enjoys cross-party support in looking for robust alternatives to custody. There are a range of options, including restriction of liberty orders, drug treatment and testing orders, community payback orders, sexual offence prevention orders and, most recently, home detention curfews. All those measures require an active role for criminal justice social work. I noted carefully what the cabinet secretary said but, nonetheless, the local authority budget is being cut. Is that compatible with his fine words?

It is compatible because the £100 million for that work is protected in the budget, as was outlined by my colleague Derek Mackay, so the resource is available.

However, I do not get away from the central point that, if we are going to use alternatives to custody, they have to be resourced. Actually, from an economic point of view, they are cheaper, so there is an economic argument why we should want to use them. That should not be the primary argument, of course. The primary argument should be about public safety, the reduction in reoffending and the rehabilitative nature of alternatives to custody, but there is an economic argument to be made.

I will continue that conversation with local authorities and third sector organisations. I note that my colleague Derek Mackay is in the chamber and I am sure that he was listening carefully to the remarks that the member made about adequate resourcing.

The cabinet secretary will be aware of the importance of rehabilitation when it comes to prisoners maintaining contact with their families—something that itself has consequences for prison numbers in the future. Given the extreme difficulty and expense that island families face in visiting prisoners, what can the Scottish Government do to be of help to families in this situation in Scotland’s islands?

The member raises a very good point. I am, of course, aware of these discussions from my previous ministerial role as Minister for Transport and the Islands. If the member would like, I can give him information on the assisted prison visits scheme, which helps those who have to travel a distance with the travel costs. Making more use of technology is also hugely important, and the Scottish Prison Service is doing that. Of course, it does not replace face-to-face, physical visits, but nonetheless it can play an important role in family contact. A range of work is being done. If the member would like, I will furnish him with further details in writing.

Rent and Mortgage Arrears (Support)

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to support the reported increasing number of people who are struggling to pay their rent or mortgage. (S5T-01438)

A decade of austerity, alongside the United Kingdom Government welfare cuts and benefits freeze, and the impact on local housing allowance and housing benefit, has taken its toll. That is one of the reasons why we established the financial health check service last year to support low-income families to maximise their household incomes.

We are also supporting people through a number of other actions. This year alone, we are investing over £125 million to mitigate the worst impacts of welfare reform—including, in effect, abolishing the bedroom tax—and to support those on low incomes.

In housing, our Private Housing (Tenancies) (Scotland) Act 2016 has improved security for tenants, limiting rent rises to one per year with at least three months’ notice. It also provides tenants with the power to challenge unfair increases.

Since 2007, we have helped more than 28,000 households to buy their own homes through shared equity schemes. Vitally, we have delivered more than 80,000 affordable homes since 2007 and we are on track to deliver on our 50,000 affordable homes target for the current session of Parliament—a commitment that the UK Government’s approach to Brexit could jeopardise.

We, of course, do not want anyone to have to worry about paying their rent or mortgage or any other bills, and I urge anyone who is struggling to seek independent advice as soon as possible.

I thank the cabinet secretary for that comprehensive reply.

New research on behalf of Shelter Scotland found that 12 per cent of respondents were struggling to pay their rent or mortgage, which is equivalent to 200,000 households. Recent figures show that the cost of private rented housing has soared above inflation in many parts of the country. In a year, the rent for one-bedroom properties in Glasgow increased by an average of 4.2 per cent, the rent for two-bedroom properties in Edinburgh and the Lothians increased by an average of 6.5 per cent and, staggeringly, the rent for four-bedroom properties in the Borders increased by 25.6 per cent. Does the cabinet secretary agree that it is time for more radical legislation that restricts high rents in order to protect ordinary people from such exorbitant increases?

I am well aware of the report and the research that Shelter carried out, which has some very important messages for everybody in this Parliament. I echo what Shelter says in its report about making sure that people seek advice as soon as they possibly can if they have financial worries.

Pauline McNeill is right to point out some of the imbalances around rent in the private rented sector. That is why I pointed out some of the legislation and work that we have taken forward to ensure that rent increases are limited to one in 12 months.

I also point out, though, that the latest data from the Office for National Statistics shows a 0.5 per cent annual increase in rents to November 2018 across all private tenancies in Scotland, which is lower than the annual increases that have been seen in England.

She is also right to point out the disparities between different parts of the country—she mentioned Glasgow and Edinburgh. Again, that is why we have provided local authorities with discretionary powers to apply to ministers to designate areas of high rent increases for existing tenants as rent pressure zones. That approach allows local authorities to cap rent increases at a minimum of the consumer prices index plus 1 per cent.

We must consider the basket of measures. I will be happy to work with Pauline McNeill to explore ideas that she might have. The Government has made a commitment to deliver 50,000 homes in this parliamentary session as well as taking forward the other measures that I set out in my answer to her original question, such as the 2016 legislation. If she has ideas about where we could do more, I will be happy to hear them. We have taken forward a comprehensive package of work to try to protect people in the private rented sector as best we can, but if Pauline McNeill wants us to do more I will be happy to have that discussion with her.

I thank the cabinet secretary for her offer to work with me on some ideas. She must now agree that the rent pressure zones policy has completely failed. It might have been right at the time, but it is no longer right. The City of Edinburgh Council has said that rent pressure zones have not been designed in a way that will work effectively and has asked for a review of the policy. Shelter found that currently no data sources are available that provide the information that is needed for a rent pressure zone application. Whatever the intention behind the policy, it is not working; it has failed.

Given the issues, on which I think that the cabinet secretary and I agree, is it time for a more radical approach and to revise the legislation, to enable ordinary people to stop exorbitant rent increases by making applications as individuals, instead of having to rely on their local authorities?

The policy should be viewed in the context of our target to deliver 50,000 affordable homes, many of which are for social rent. I hope that the Labour Party views that target as important, along with the £800 million that is in the budget to deliver on it, and I hope that Labour members will support our approach in their budget negotiations with Derek Mackay, because it is important to ensure that people have security through the social rented sector as well.

I have set out the package of legislative measures that we have taken to protect tenants, and I will be happy to explore areas where we can do more. The most recent statistics show that annual rent increases are lower in Scotland than they are in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Of course, that does not take away from the fact that, in the here and now, people are struggling. That is why the issue is linked to our work to tackle austerity and to mitigate the worst impacts of welfare reform and to our work to address people’s financial concerns through the financial health check service, which helps people on low incomes to maximise their incomes and manage their household budgets.

We are doing a huge amount of important work, across many portfolios, to help people to deal with the challenges that they face in the here and now. I again offer to discuss with Pauline McNeill what more we can do, if she thinks that there are other solutions that we can take forward on top of all the work that we are doing at the moment.

Pauline McNeill mentioned rent pressure zones. So far, not a single council has applied to have a rent pressure zone. It might be worth the cabinet secretary’s while to look at why that is.

The cabinet secretary has said that the Government is “on track” to deliver 50,000 affordable homes, but last year just over 5,000 homes were built, and if we continue at that rate, the Government will not meet its target until 2026. What is the cabinet secretary doing to get things on track? Can she pledge to build—not “deliver”—50,000 affordable homes during this parliamentary session?

We can get caught up in semantics here. My priority is to deliver 50,000 houses in this parliamentary session. The policy is backed up by £800 million in the budget and by £3 billion over the session. I hope that that garners support from members of parties across the Parliament, because we are on track to deliver that considerable and significant housing stock for the people of Scotland.

It is worth pointing out that, between 2012 and 2017, more council houses for social rent were delivered across 32 local authority areas in Scotland than across 326 local authority areas in England. That shows the success that the Government has had in housing and in delivering affordable housing for the people of Scotland. Graham Simpson might want to get caught up in the language, but I will get busy with ensuring that we make good on our ambitious target.