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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, June 17, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 17 June 2021

Agenda: First Minister’s Question Time, Portfolio Question Time, Provisional Outturn 2020-21, Law Officers, Drug-related Deaths, Point of Order, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time


Portfolio Question Time


Good afternoon, colleagues. I remind members that social distancing measures are in place in the chamber and across the Holyrood campus. I ask members to take care to observe those measures, including when entering and exiting the chamber. Please use the aisles and walkways only to access your seats and when moving around the chamber.

I ask any member who wishes to request a supplementary question to press their request-to-speak button or enter R in the chat function during the relevant question.

Sandesh Gulhane joins us remotely.

Sentencing Policy (Assault on Emergency Workers)

To ask the Scottish Government what impact the presumption against short sentences has had on the number of people who are sent to jail for assaulting emergency workers. (S6O-00041)

The presumption against short sentences was extended in 2019 from three months or less to 12 months or less and applied to offences committed on or after 4 July 2019. The impact of the extension is being monitored and Scotland’s chief statistician published a second bulletin on 23 March that covers all charges that were disposed of in Scotland’s courts from 1 January to 31 December 2020. At present, however, it is too early to assess the impact of the extended presumption, particularly given the impact of the pandemic on court business since early 2020.

Less than a third of those convicted under the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Act 2005 for assaulting an emergency worker went to prison. Data from national health service boards, which covers only half of this pandemic year, shows that nearly 5,000 incidents of assault were recorded against NHS staff, and Kenny Gibson spoke earlier of the 250 assaults on ambulance crews, which the First Minister said were unacceptable. Those workers have supported the country through a pandemic and put their lives at risk to help, and we clapped for them. They deserve better protection.

Will the cabinet secretary support revoking the presumption against short prison sentences for NHS staff assaults so that those criminals can face true justice?

I remind members that my party and other parties in the Parliament supported the introduction of the relevant legislation; it was opposed only by the Conservative Party. We will therefore not take lessons on the fact that we have to look after our emergency workers. This Government has also introduced an extension to the categories of emergency workers. We are very concerned, but we have a very good track record in using the law to protect emergency workers.

As I said, it is too early to determine the effect of the extension of the presumption against short sentences from three to 12 months. Statistics show that the proportion of people who have been given community sentences for convictions under the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Act 2005 has remained similar over the past 10 years, at around 30 per cent, as Sandesh Gulhane said. Just under a third of the people who were convicted under the act in 2019-20 received a community sentence, which is roughly the same proportion as in 2010-11. The proportion of people who have been given custodial sentences for convictions under the 2005 act increased from 30 per cent in 2010-11 to 32 per cent in 2019-20.

This Government has taken the necessary action to help to improve the situation for emergency workers, attacks on whom are always unacceptable, unlike the party that Sandesh Gulhane represents, which refused to support and, indeed, opposed the legislation that was brought in.

Prosecution System

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to ensure that the prosecution system delivers fairer and more effective justice. (S6O-00042)

Scotland’s prosecution system is, of course, a matter for the Lord Advocate. The Lord Advocate is head of the systems for the prosecution of crime in Scotland and exercises those functions independently of any other person.

The Scottish Government has committed an additional £50 million in this year’s budget to support recovery across the justice system, including increased funding to the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, which reflects our strong support for the vital services that are delivered through those offices. That is in addition to the increased funding that has been provided to the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service in recent years through the annual budget process.

I thank the cabinet secretary for that answer and for the previous commitment to consult on the not proven verdict. There is growing recognition across the chamber that there is a strong case for abolition of that verdict. Will the cabinet secretary encourage a wide range of stakeholders and those with lived experience to respond to the consultation when it is launched later in the current session of Parliament in order to inform the best policy decisions on the matter?

I acknowledge the member’s experience in the area. She will be aware that a broad range of stakeholders, including those with direct experience of the system, played a very important role in last year’s engagement events on the findings of the independent jury research that was commissioned to consider the unique nature of the Scottish jury system. That included survivors with direct experience of the not proven verdict, and some of them gave powerful testimony on the lack of clarity about its meaning and implications. They also testified that they were unaware of or unprepared for the possibility that a not proven verdict might be returned in their case.

I am happy to confirm to the member that we will continue to take an open and consultative approach. As part of the formal public consultation, we will seek to capture the views of a broad range of stakeholders including legal professionals, the third sector and, as the member suggests, those with lived experience of the system.

I thank Elena Whitham for raising this important issue, which we will pursue in the new session of Parliament.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that less than 1 per cent of victims apply to the victims’ right to review scheme when the Crown decides not to prosecute or to discontinue prosecution. The Inspectorate of Prosecution in Scotland recommends that all victims be notified of such a decision. Is the cabinet secretary confident that all victims are being contacted in such cases? If they are, why are so few of them taking advantage of their right to review?

As we go through the questions, we will cover in more depth some of the victims’ issues that the member quite rightly raises. If he is aware that parts of the system do not ensure that a statement is sought, I will be happy to look at the information that he provides. It is possible that we should look in more depth at why it would be the case that more people do not request that. Obviously, a different authority is involved and we have to respect that, but I am happy to look at the issue, find more information about it and share that with the member.

Violence Against Women

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its plans to tackle violence against women, particularly in relation to prostitution and purchasers of sex. (S6O-00043)

The Scottish Government remains committed to tackling violence against women and girls, and that work continues within the framework of the equally safe strategy. We have made £18 million available in 2020-21 to tackle violence against women, and we have pledged to allocate an additional £5 million within the first 100 days of this Government to support front-line services and deal with the demand that has built up during the pandemic. The pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on women, and those who are involved in prostitution have faced increasing challenges that have put them at further risk of harm.

Last year, we took forward Scotland’s first national consultation on challenging men’s demand for prostitution, and yesterday we published the findings and the Scottish Government’s response. It sets out our commitment to develop a progressive model for Scotland to tackle this form of violence against women and a programme of work to co-design services with those who have lived experience so that support services meet their needs and, when the women are ready, help them to exit prostitution.

I know that the minister has listened, as I have, to survivors and those who have experienced prostitution. It seems to me that very few women are voluntarily involved in prostitution; the vast majority are forced to be in it, either by somebody else or by their circumstances. Surely, if men are purchasing sex, they are guilty of violence against women and they should be criminalised.

I would agree with the member. In the equally safe strategy, we set out that prostitution is a form of commercial sexual exploitation and that it is part of what we would consider to be, and would respond to as, violence against women.

I am very interested in taking forward the views that were expressed in the consultation. Obviously, different opinions were expressed. Many respondents favoured a decriminalisation approach such as the one that we find in New Zealand, while many others favoured an approach that is known as the Nordic model, which is particularly associated with Sweden. We are committing to develop a model specifically for Scotland that will reduce the harms of prostitution, support women to exit it and, crucially, challenge men’s demand for purchasing sex.

Commercial sexual exploitation is an aspect of violence against women that we have made very little progress in defeating, and prostitution is a signal of how unequal our society is with regard to women. Victims of exploitation are still criminalised while those who exploit them face no sanction whatever. Will the Scottish Government legislate to change that situation and, in doing so, look at how victims who have been prosecuted can have their convictions erased? After all, such convictions are a huge barrier to their exiting prostitution and starting new lives for themselves.

First, I commend the member for her long-standing interest and work in this area. She is quite correct in some of the points that she has just made.

As the member will acknowledge, this has been the first-ever consultation on prostitution and challenging men’s demand for purchasing sex. I invite her to work with me and the Government as we develop a model that is right for Scotland—one that recognises the lived experience of those who have been involved in prostitution, seeks to challenge men’s demand for purchasing sex and sits within our equally safe framework.

Victim Support

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to improve support for victims of crime. (S6O-00044)

In our manifesto, we set out a range of commitments aimed at ensuring that victims’ rights lie at the heart of our justice system. As a result, we will appoint a victims commissioner to provide an independent voice for victims; we will review the provision of victim services; we will introduce a justice-specific knowledge and skills framework for trauma-informed practice; and we will ensure that restorative justice services are widely available across Scotland by 2023. Over the past five years, we have invested more than £88 million from the justice budget in supporting victims, including £18.2 million this year, and we are developing a new funding regime to ensure that support is available to all victims, regardless of crime type or location.

Victims’ rights should, of course, be at the centre of our justice system, and the introduction of a victims commissioner provides Scotland with a real opportunity to lead the way globally on that. Does the cabinet secretary think that the Scottish victims commissioner could emulate the success of the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland?

The Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland plays a crucial role as the champion and guardian of children’s rights, providing challenge where necessary. In those respects, the role is not dissimilar to that of the Scottish Veterans Commissioner, which I introduced a number of years ago.

The member is right to draw parallels with the role that a victims commissioner could play as an independent figurehead, representing victims’ views and championing their cause while ensuring that policy and practice are considered from a victim’s perspective. We will therefore work closely with victims and victims organisations to develop a role that is tailored to meet the needs of those affected by crime in Scotland, and a key facet of that role will be working with the children’s commissioner to ensure that victims of all ages have their voices heard.

This week, I received a letter from the Parole Board for Scotland, telling me that the violent criminal who committed an attack against me had applied and been rejected for parole. I am one of the lucky ones: I am entitled to this information because my attacker is serving a sentence of longer than 18 months, whereas other victims of horrific crimes, including sexual violence, are not eligible for the victim notification scheme. Will the cabinet secretary consider extending the scheme to include victims in cases in which the offender has been sentenced to less than 18 months?

As the member will know from previous exchanges, the Government is committed to making a number of changes, including in this area. Indeed, some of those changes will reflect some of the proposals that are set out in the Conservatives’ 10-point plan with regard to victims.

Amendments to the Parole Board for Scotland rules that came into force on 1 March include provisions to ensure that the board considers the safety and welfare of victims on release and that victims receive a summary of its recommendations. Further work is being undertaken to rewrite the rules in order to modernise and simplify them, and we plan to consult on those new rules towards the end of the year.

There are commonalities in the approaches taken by the Conservatives and by the Government on this issue, and I make an offer that we work together on it, as it might well be that, with the approaches that are set out in our respective manifestos, we can achieve the same ends. I hope that the member will feel able to engage in the consultation and with the Government to achieve the best outcome.

Victims’ Mental Health (Effect of Trial Delays)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports that delays to criminal trials are adversely affecting victims’ mental health. (S6O-00045)

As I made clear in the Parliament last week, in the “Justice: recover, renew, transform” debate, I recognise the impact that delays and uncertainty have on all those who are involved in criminal court processes, including on victims’ mental and physical health. That is why the Government will ensure that our justice system takes account of the interests of victims, witnesses and, indeed, those who are accused of offences as the backlog in cases is dealt with.

Like all our justice partners, I remain committed to addressing the current court backlog, which is a consequence of the Covid pandemic, assisted by the additional £50 million of funding that we have provided to support recovery. On top of existing funding for victims organisations, we have committed to providing an additional £5 million this year to support front-line services that support victims of violence against women and girls, to deal with the outstanding demand that has built up during the pandemic.

The latest quarterly criminal court statistics show that the backlog has more than doubled, and Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service modelling estimates that it will not be cleared until March 2025. The resulting pain and mental health problems for victims are horrifying. We know that the backlog of domestic abuse trials in courts such as that in Aberdeen has caused victims untold anguish.

SCTS modelling states that expanding trial court capacity to 25 could clear the High Court backlog by March 2023. The cabinet secretary’s motion in the debate last week said that there was a need to address the backlog, so will he commit to making that expansion?

We have already announced and implemented a number of changes that seek to reduce the backlog and stop it increasing, not least of which are the remote juries that we have established in locations across the country, which I mentioned last week. The £50 million that I mentioned previously will be used—and is being used now—to ensure that we can scale up significantly the sheriff courts in September this year. That should further help to address the backlog.

We have seen almost the same number of solemn and criminal cases taking place as took place prior to the pandemic, which has required a huge amount of effort by the partners—Liam Kerr mentioned the SCTS, but others have been involved as well. We are very grateful to them for that.

It is in all our interests to minimise the backlog, and I hope to work with Liam Kerr to achieve that over the coming years.

An accused person may not be held in custody for trial for more than 140 days unless the trial has commenced, but that period may be extended by a judge on cause shown. Prior to the pandemic, there were significant delays to High Court trials. Is the cabinet secretary satisfied that the use of cause shown is a high enough test to prevent court delays, or will that become meaningless if it is going to take such a length of time to get back on track? Will the cabinet secretary make a full assessment of the impact of delays on victims—especially victims of rape and serious sexual assaults?

I am happy to come to the chamber at any time to give updates on the extent of the situation in the courts and the impact that that might be having on victims. Members can, of course, propose questions, motions and debates in the Parliament for that.

I acknowledge that remand, in particular, has been an issue because of the backlogs that we have seen. That causes concern and we want to take early initiatives to address that, in addition to the ones that I have already mentioned. However, I am happy to answer future questions on the subject from Pauline McNeill.

To be perfectly honest, I want to get a bit more information about the specific question that Pauline McNeill asked and to find out from those at the front end of the system what their experience has been. However, I am happy to work with Pauline McNeill on those issues.

Paul McLennan is joining us remotely for question 6.

Cashback for Communities (East Lothian)

To ask the Scottish Government how many projects have been funded by the cashback for communities programme in East Lothian since the initiative was launched. (S6O-00046)

Since the cashback for communities programme was launched, in 2008, young people in East Lothian have benefited from 40 projects and £1.5 million of investment. That has delivered more than 65,000 activities to support young people from East Lothian into positive destinations and divert them from potentially criminal behaviour.

Cashback for communities is a transformative initiative, and it is heartening to hear that so many organisations and young people in my constituency have benefited from it. Can the cabinet secretary share with the chamber some of the findings from the evaluation of the latest phase of the programme, specifically regarding the impact that involvement in the scheme has had on young people’s lives?

I agree with the member, because I have seen the impact of the initiative in my own consistency. The evaluation of phase 4 of cashback for communities, which ran from 2017 to 2020, was published in December last year, and, during that phase, the initiative reached more than 100,000 young people. Involvement in the programme was found to have directly improved the wellbeing of more than 80,000 young people; to have moved 35,000 young people on to a positive destination such as a new job or further education; and, specifically, to have reduced the antisocial or criminal behaviour of more than 80,000 young people. More than two thirds of the young people who were involved were from the most deprived areas in Scotland.

A quote from one of our cashback for communities participants in the Action for Children behavioural change, wellbeing and inclusion service demonstrates the impact that the programme has on the young people of Scotland:

““I wasnae doing anything with my life … now, seven months down the line, I’m in my first year of training and I’ll be starting an apprenticeship ... In four years, I’ll be a fully qualified electrician.”

The story of the success that we are having with those initiatives to divert people away from a life of crime is not told often enough.

Age of Criminal Responsibility

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its plans to raise the age of criminal responsibility to the international minimum. (S6O-00047)

Section 78 of the Age of Criminal Responsibility (Scotland) Act 2019 requires the Scottish ministers to review the operation of the act. The review is to cover the operation of the act generally, looking at, for example, whether it has achieved its objectives and whether all the provisions are operating as intended. In addition, the review is to consider raising the age of criminal responsibility further.

The act requires that the review take place in the three years following section 1 coming into force. A report will be prepared following the review, which must then be published and laid before the Scottish Parliament. In addition, the age of criminal responsibility advisory group, which the Minister for Children and Young People chairs, considers that process as part of its on-going remit.

As long as Scotland sets its age of criminal responsibility at 12, we shall forever fail in our ambition to lead the world on children’s rights. We are in the basement, below Russia and China. Our progress to lift our age of responsibility from eight to 12 in the first place was glacial, but it started with a move to end the criminal prosecution of those aged under 12, which required no legislation. Will the minister work with the new Lord Advocate to end the criminal prosecution of those under the age of 14 and pave the way for us to finally lift the age of criminal responsibility to the international minimum?

The member has mentioned a couple of countries, and, when we consider other countries, it is clear that the age of criminal responsibility means different things in different places. It often means the minimum age of prosecution or an age that provides protection from explicitly punitive sentences. In many countries, children of all ages can be subject to the various interferences of the criminal justice system, bar prosecution. I think that the member would agree that the balance needs to be right in the system, so focusing on individual international comparisons does not give due consideration to flexibility.

The Scottish Government is committed to examining that area, and I have set out a review process that the Scottish Parliament unanimously agreed when the legislation was passed, in 2019—I believe that the member was a party to that decision.

Police Scotland (Officer and Staff Numbers)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the number of divisional officers working in each local division as detailed in the latest publication of Police Scotland’s officer and staff numbers. (S6O-00048)

I would first like to thank the police officers and police staff throughout the country for their hard work and dedication throughout the pandemic.

The member will know that the deployment of officers is a matter for the chief constable. However, it is worth saying that we have a higher number of officers than we had at any time during the previous Administration. We currently have 17,283 officers—an increase of 1,049 police officers from the position that we inherited in 2007.

It is right that the chief constable should keep the size and shape of the policing workforce under review in the light of changing demands. Local police divisions have a core complement of officers who are always dedicated locally to community and response policing, and they can additionally draw on specialist services and resources at regional and national levels, providing the right people in the right place at the right time to keep people safe and meet the needs of our communities.

If the cabinet secretary takes a closer look at the most recent figures, he will see that they show the scale of the cutbacks in the number of divisional officers since the Scottish National Party’s police merger. More than 700 front-line officers have been lost from Police Scotland’s local divisions since the national force was created. Does the cabinet secretary have any plans to reverse the local cuts and increase the number of front-line officers in Police Scotland so that it can get on with the job of tackling the rising level of violent crime that we saw before the pandemic?

We remain committed to having the greater number of police officers that I mentioned, which is more than 17,000. That commitment is shared by the chief constable. I am not sure whether the member is suggesting that the chief constable should be instructed to move police officers around the country on the basis of what we think is the best solution. We do not agree with that approach—it is a matter for the chief constable.

It is also worth mentioning that some of the divisional officers that Dean Lockhart referred to have gone on to look at national priorities, such that the division in Fife, along with divisions in other parts of the country, can call on those national facilities, amenities and resources when it is necessary for them to do so. That is the chief constable’s responsibility.

There are more than 12,000 police officers in our local divisions, and, as I mentioned, there are more than 17,000 in Scotland. In Scotland, we have around 32 officers per 10,000 of the population, compared with 22 officers—10 fewer—per 10,000 of the population in England and Wales. As has been the case since we came into office, we will continue to have more officers and to pay them at a higher rate than officers elsewhere in the United Kingdom are paid.

That concludes justice portfolio questions. We will have a brief pause to allow members to change seats.