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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, May 16, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 16 May 2019

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Community Pharmacy Scotland, Portfolio Question Time, Brexit (Impact on Food and Drink), Decision Time


Portfolio Question Time

Justice and the Law Officers

I remind members that questions 4, 6 and 8 will be grouped together. Question 1 has been withdrawn, so we begin with question 2.

Temporary Release

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on when it will bring forward measures to improve the input that victims and their families have into the temporary release process. (S5O-03239)

As outlined in a written answer to Liam Kerr,

“The Scottish Government is committed to improving the information and support available to victims and families when prisoners are released.—[Written Answers, 1 March 2019; S5W-21586.]

The Scottish Government has established a victims task force, which is considering how victims can receive more timely information and have a stronger voice in decisions that affect them. That includes work by the Scottish Prison Service and Victim Support Scotland, which, as of 1 May, enables victims of life-sentence offenders to make representations in person to a member of the SPS on the first occasion that the prisoner is considered for temporary release. Prior to that date, representations could be made only in writing.

It has now been more than eight months—36 weeks to the day, in fact—since the justice secretary promised “concrete action” on temporary release during my members’ business debate on Michelle’s law. In that time, there has been zero action. Indeed, I have a copy of the letter that the Stewart family has written to the justice secretary in which they say that, despite his promises, they have had no updates and are still encountering confusion and miscommunication.

Information and support are not enough, so I ask the minister this: when will the cabinet secretary honour his promise to Michelle Stewart’s family and deliver a specific requirement for the Prison Service to take victim welfare into account, publish reasons for release decisions, enable representations in person for victims and families and make more use of exclusion zones?

I thank Liam Kerr for raising the issue. I believe that the letter that he refers to came this week—I think that it was dated 15 May. Obviously, the cabinet secretary will respond to that letter in a timely fashion when he returns from his paternity leave.

On the asks that were set out in the Michelle’s law campaign, the Government is undertaking a range of actions to improve support for victims, including a number of the things that Liam Kerr mentioned.

Specifically on the welfare of victims, the parole consultation that we published on 19 December 2018 focused on proposals to improve the openness and transparency of the parole process and how to strengthen victims’ voices in that process. That is in line with a commitment that we made in our programme for government.

On exclusion zones, as Liam Kerr will no doubt be aware, the Management of Offenders (Scotland) Bill, which has just concluded stage 2, will improve the electronic monitoring capabilities that are available in Scotland. The introduction of GPS tagging will mean that exclusion zones that apply to people who are being monitored under particular licence conditions and orders can be monitored in new ways.

The Scottish Government has made clear its intention to work closely with a number of justice partners, including the third sector and victims groups, both in developing those technology pilots and in improving the process around things such as exclusion zones and the welfare of victims, which is relevant to the case that Liam Kerr raised.

What is the Scottish Government doing to support victims of crime over the longer term in situations such as the one that has been outlined?

The Government has a positive record on strengthening the rights of victims and witnesses and the support that is available to them. In 2019-20, we are providing £18 million to support victims of crime, including to third sector organisations that provide practical and emotional support to victims and their families. That includes £4.6 million for Victim Support Scotland, as part of a three-year funding package totalling £13.8 million over 2018 to 2021.

Victim Support Scotland’s community-based victim services help people affected by crime to access information, practical help, emotional support and guidance as they go through the criminal justice system. They also provide support to enable victims and witnesses to cope better in the aftermath of a crime and find the strength to move on with their lives.

Community Payback Orders

To ask the Scottish Government how it ensures that community payback orders are fully completed. (S5O-03240)

Delivering community payback orders and ensuring completion of those orders are the responsibility of the relevant local authority. Some 70 per cent of orders are successfully completed, as reported in the criminal justice social work statistics for 2017-18, and individuals will have cases reviewed in court if progress is not satisfactory. Around seven million hours of unpaid work have been carried out since community payback orders were introduced, delivering real benefits for communities.

Updated CPO practice guidance was published in January. The guidance supports effective practice and reiterates the importance of successful completion. The Scottish Government is working with national and local partners, including Community Justice Scotland, to help ensure that orders are implemented as effectively as possible.

Funding of more than £100 million for criminal justice social work supports effective delivery of community sentences, which have helped achieve a 19-year low in reconviction rates.

The latest facts show that a shocking three in 10 community payback orders go ignored. Those are real offenders who have committed serious crimes going unpunished on the SNP’s watch. How can the SNP Government justify its plans to put thousands more criminals on to those orders when it is currently failing to deliver?

Community payback orders are not just abandoned—70 per cent of orders are successfully completed, and individuals will have their cases reviewed in court if progress is not satisfactory. The court will determine the most appropriate next action, including a custodial disposal or another order. We expect local authorities, which are responsible for compliance, to prioritise the completion of CPOs. CPOs are a robust option that is focused on paying back to communities. We know that they work—individuals who are released from a custodial sentence of 12 months or less are reconvicted almost twice as often as those who are given a CPO.

We know that at least the Conservatives in England are looking to Scotland’s smart justice model. Short-term sentences are not effective and community payback orders are a smart justice, evidence-led alternative to custody. [Interruption.]

I ask members not to have conversations while other members are asking questions or while the minister is responding.

The Scottish Tories claim that the Scottish Government’s prison reforms have meant that 10,000 serious criminals are back on the street. I do not know whether that came from the Tory minister for numberacy or somebody else. Not only is it a ludicrously false statement, as the figure is greater than the entire prison population of Scotland, but it is at odds with the position of their colleagues in Westminster. Does the minister think that it is important to point out that the justice secretary David Gauke is on record as supporting our smart justice approach of extending the presumption against ineffective short sentences?

I do.

“I want a smarter justice system that reduces repeat crime by providing robust community alternatives to ineffective short prison sentences—supporting offenders to turn away from crime for good.”

Those are not my words; they are the words of the Conservative Justice Secretary David Gauke in today’s Guardian.

Extending the presumption against short sentences in Scotland will help to ensure that prison is used only where the judiciary decide that it is necessary, having considered the alternatives available to them. The presumption that we discussed earlier is not a ban; it is part of a broader preventative approach to reducing victimisation that has contributed to a 19-year low in reconviction rates.

I remind members that questions 4, 6 and 8 will be grouped.

Divisional Police Officers

To ask the Scottish Government how many divisional police officers there are. (S5O-03241)

The Scottish Government does not publish statistics on the number of divisional police officers in Scotland. The latest figures published by Police Scotland show that there were 1,495 officers providing national support, 3,157 officers deployed across the three policing regions and 12,599 officers in our local divisions. Those resources ensure that Police Scotland has a core complement of officers who are always dedicated locally to community and response policing. In addition, Police Scotland can draw on specialist expertise and resources to support local policing.

That provides the right people in the right place and at the right time to keep people safe and meet our communities’ needs. The latest police officer quarterly strength statistics were published on 7 May and show that there were 17,251 police officers in Scotland on 31 March this year.

The latest figures show that Nicola Sturgeon’s Government continues to dismantle front-line local policing. The number of divisional officers, who patrol our streets and respond to our calls, has dropped by more than 400 since the Scottish National Party created Police Scotland. Is it not time to restore local policing, rather than having more SNP centralisation?

The operational deployment of police officers is a matter for the chief constable. Deputy Chief Constable Will Kerr, who leads on local policing, reported to the Scottish Police Authority on 6 May that the 360 police officers in the Brexit national reserve—I believe that they are the officers Maurice Corry refers to—would return to their normal duties, including local policing, by 10 May, so that should have occurred. DCC Kerr highlighted that, in addition to policing Brexit-related events, national reserve officers had shown significant personal flexibility in assisting with a range of events across our communities, including missing persons cases, high-profile football matches and murder inquiries.

On the wider point, it is unbelievable that a Conservative member should try to score points on police numbers when police numbers have since 2007 fallen by almost 20,000 in England and Wales, where the Conservatives are in power. If police numbers in Scotland had been cut at the same rate as the Conservatives have applied down south, we would have just 14,000 police officers, which would mean 3,000 fewer police officers on our streets and in our communities. I hope that that reassures Maurice Corry that the SNP Government is investing in police numbers nationally and locally.

Police Officers

To ask the Scottish Government by how much police officer numbers have risen over the last year. (S5O-03243)

The quarterly strength statistics that were published on 7 May show that there were 17,251 police officers in Scotland on 31 March, which is an increase of 81 police officers in the past year.

I call the minister—I am sorry; I mean Bruce Crawford.

I used to be a minister.

Given the substantial Tory cuts to Holyrood’s budget, it is a remarkable achievement that police numbers are up and crime levels are at a record low. In contrast, in England the Tories have slashed police numbers. Does the minister join me in calling on the United Kingdom Government to fund fully any policing costs that are associated with its Brexit omnishambles, particularly following reports that up to 400 police officers could be deployed to help to handle the aftermath of crashing out of the European Union without a deal?

I do. The Scottish Government has been clear that costs relating to EU exit should not have a detrimental impact on Scotland’s public finances. We have written to the chancellor to outline that any additional costs relating to policing Brexit should fall to the UK Government. We have committed to ensuring that additional policing costs that are incurred wholly as a result of EU-exit-related preparations are met. In parallel, we will continue to pursue payment of the costs of EU exit from the UK Government.

If I take any supplementary questions, I will do so after all three questions that are grouped.

Police Officers (Ayrshire)

To ask the Scottish Government how many police officers are currently deployed in Ayrshire, and how this compares with May 2007. (S5O-03245)

The Scottish Government does not publish statistics on the number of police officers who are deployed in Ayrshire, but the latest figures to be published by Police Scotland show that there were 826 officers in the Ayrshire division, supported by 1,512 officers who are deployed across the west region and by 1,495 officers who provide support nationally.

Those resources ensure that Police Scotland has a core complement of officers who are always dedicated locally to community and response policing. In addition, Police Scotland can draw on specialist expertise and resources to support local policing. That provides the right people in the right place and at the right time to keep people safe and meet our communities’ needs.

The latest police officer quarterly strength statistics, which were published on 7 May, show that there are 17,251 police officers in Scotland.

It is clear that Ayrshire has benefited from the additional police numbers provided by the Government, as opposed to the situation in England, which has thousands fewer police officers. What has been the impact of those additional officers on crime levels in Ayrshire?

Between 2008-09 and 2017-18, the volume of crimes recorded by the police in Ayrshire fell by 39 per cent, from 25,641 to 15,696 crimes, compared with an equivalent fall of 35 per cent across Scotland as a whole over the same period.

If we focus on Scotland—as we are supposed to do—we see that local front-line divisional officers are down by over 400 since last year. Those are Police Scotland’s figures. Does the minister accept that fact—yes or no?

As I explained in a previous answer to one of the member’s colleagues, there are 360—or were when the information was provided—police officers who had been taken from local policing and moved into a national reserve for Brexit, which Scotland did not vote for, and which the Conservative UK Government is imposing on Scotland against our will. That happened in order for us to be prepared. We are not imminently facing a no-deal scenario, so now that Brexit preparedness has been stepped down a level, those police officers will move back to their normal rotation, which takes a number of weeks to follow through. Overall, police numbers in Scotland are up by 81 officers over the last year and are now higher than at any time during the previous Administration, even prior to 2007.

Family Courts (Children’s Interests)

To ask the Scottish Government what plans it has to review how children’s interests are best served by family courts. (S5O-03242)

The Scottish Government consulted last year on a review of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995, which is the key legislation in relation to parental responsibilities and rights and contact and residence.

The programme for government announced that there will be a family law bill, an aim of which will be to ensure that the child’s best interests are at the centre of family court cases.

I welcome the cabinet secretary’s comments. Having to go to family court can be stressful for everyone. Family courts should try to look at the bigger picture and ensure that children’s needs are met. Too often cases involve lawyer against lawyer, with the family in the middle, one party blaming the other and mounting legal bills. How can we improve the system to ensure that it is less stressful and—most of all—that family contact centres are regulated?

I acknowledge the seriousness of the issues that Mr Lyle raises and the importance of putting the child at the centre of all decision making as we respond to these matters. That fits with the wider agenda of putting the child at the centre of all our decision making whether around education, the justice system or the health and wellbeing of children and young people.

I am very aware of the research that demonstrates that court action in relation to contact and residence can be a stressful experience for children and families. As part of the family justice modernisation strategy, the Minister for Community Safety will look specifically to improve the guidance for parties attending court. One of the key aims of the forthcoming family law bill is to ensure that legislation always puts the best interests of the child at the centre.

We sought views on the regulation of child contact centres as part of the consultation on the review of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995. The responses were strongly in favour of regulation, and we will take those views on board when we consider the areas to be included in the forthcoming family law bill.

Victim Support Service

To ask the Scottish Government how its new victim support service will help the families of victims of crime and the families of people involved in fatal accidents and sudden deaths. (S5O-03244)

Victim Support Scotland’s new service is providing dedicated and continuous support for families who are bereaved by murder or culpable homicide. We recognise that other victims might benefit from that type of support, and we will work with partners to ensure that the lessons learned in developing the new service inform any future changes to its scope.

In 2019-20, we are providing £18 million to help victims. Some of that will go to third sector organisations that provide practical, emotional and financial assistance. The victims task force is also considering ways to improve end-to-end support throughout the criminal justice process and beyond.

Over the years, I have dealt with many local cases in which families who have lost a loved one have said that the level of support that was provided to them was limited or non-existent. Will the minister assure me that immediate family members who have lost a loved one know exactly what help is available locally and can access that support for as long as they might need it, so that they can be helped on their journey to recovery?

We are taking a range of actions to ensure that victims are at the centre of our justice system. Through our investment, Victim Support Scotland provided free and confidential support to more than 50,000 victims of crime in 2017-18. The new service for families who are bereaved by murder and culpable homicide builds on that support to provide a designated key worker to help families with a range of issues such as understanding the prosecution process and attending court.

If the member would like to follow up any specific cases, either I or the Cabinet Secretary for Justice would be happy to meet him to discuss them.