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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 17 September 2019

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Credit Unions, Family Migration, Business Motion, Decision Time, Macmillan Cancer Support’s World’s Biggest Coffee Morning


Topical Question Time

Scottish Prison Service

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the Auditor General’s comment that “the Scottish Prison Service faces a combination of severe pressures on many fronts; this poses a threat to operational safety, effectiveness and financial sustainability.” (S5T-01787)

I take very seriously the pressures that Scotland’s prisons face, and especially the rise in the prisoner population. I have been working closely with the Scottish Prison Service to see that robust measures are in place to ensure the safety of staff and of the prisoners who are in our care.

As successive independent inspections have highlighted, we must never take for granted the good order that is maintained in our prisons. The most recent annual report by Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons for Scotland notes that she is reassured that, despite a rise in prison populations, staff and prisoners reported feeling safe.

As the Auditor General’s report stated, the Scottish Government has also confirmed the allocation of additional revenue funding to the SPS in the current year, to help to meet the costs of the increase in the prisoner population and the other pressures that were highlighted. Additional capital funding has also been committed to the prison estate, including the new female estate and the development of a replacement for HMP Barlinnie.

I will reflect on all the issues that the Auditor General’s report raised and will address them in conjunction with the SPS. That process will also involve all members looking at the factors that drive Scotland’s high rate of imprisonment. It is the highest in western Europe, so it is important that we, in the Parliament, work together to back progressive justice reforms.

The Auditor General’s report is, indeed, stark. It highlights issues such as overcrowding in prisons, budget shortfalls and the unavailability of fit and well prison officers. Those issues have been made worse by a 12.5 per cent reduction in the operating budget from 2014-15 to 2018-19 and a 60 per cent increase in the number of officers who are on sickness absence. It seems to me that the Government is short on answers. What specific actions will the Government take to address the budget shortfall and the increase in the number of prison officers who are on sickness absence?

I thank James Kelly for his question. I give him an absolute assurance that the Government takes extremely seriously the Auditor General’s concerns and those that have been raised generally regarding the prison population and the prison estate. At the root of the vast majority—if not all—of the concerns raised by the Auditor General is the fact that our prison population is far too high. That adds to the pressure that exists on finance, on staff and right across the prison estate. We must reflect carefully on that root cause and address it so that we can address each of those areas in which there is pressure.

On James Kelly’s specific questions, I mentioned in my first answer that we have allocated additional revenue and capital to the SPS. Regarding allocations for the following year, we will, of course, look carefully at what the Auditor General has said. I will have conversations with the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work about the future spending review.

James Kelly’s second point was about staff sickness. A key issue in the pay award that was recently agreed with the Prison Officers Association Scotland was tackling staff sickness and absence. However, clearly, if we could reduce the prison population, that would make a big difference to the pressure that prison officers face.

One of the options that was previously available to the Government in trying to reduce the prison population was the use of the throughcare service, which, unfortunately, was suspended in July. This morning, the Justice Committee heard about the benefits of that service from organisations such as Sacro and the Wise Group. When will the throughcare service be re-established and the 42 officers to support it reintroduced?

I thank James Kelly for asking that important question, and I confirm to Parliament that representatives of the third sector will meet the SPS tomorrow. Negotiations are at an advanced stage to allow the third sector to step into that space while the temporary suspension of throughcare support is taking place.

Why is it being suspended?

The third sector should be able to cover the service, which is a very positive outcome. However, it is hoped that that will be a temporary measure and that, if we can reduce the prison population, the throughcare support officers who were previously doing that job can be relieved of the duties that they are currently doing.


Presiding Officer, I hear Johann Lamont chuntering from the sidelines. I say to her that it is a serious suggestion that the third sector should come in and provide that service. It is a good outcome—indeed, it is the preferred one for all of us who want to see throughcare support being re-established in our prisons. The fact that that sector might be able to step into that space is a very welcome development. The i’s still have to be dotted and the t’s crossed, but, once I have absolute confirmation that the third sector will be able to provide such support, I will ensure that James Kelly—and, indeed, anyone else who is chuntering from the sidelines or has a more serious interest in the issue—is kept updated.

Five members wish to ask supplementary questions. I do not think that we will get through them all, but I encourage succinctness, as usual. I call Liam Kerr, to be followed by Rona Mackay.

The report confirms that the number of assaults in prisons has rocketed, although it has been rising for some time. Has the Government initiated a review of the precise causes and triggers of that violence in order to find solutions to better protect prisoners and officers?

We know that one of the reasons for the assaults is the increased prevalence of psychoactive substances in our prisons, which Liam Kerr has written to me about. A number of pieces of equipment are being trialled and piloted in our prison estate to identify what is, for a variety of reasons, a very difficult substance to detect. That is part of the solution.

I go back to what I said about the root cause of the concerns in my answer to a previous question. If we can reduce the number of people in our prisons, that will reduce the pressure on prison officers and staff. I hope that it will also have the effect of reducing violence in our prisons. We know that a number of prisoners are having to share cells where previously they did not have to and that prisoners have less recreation time. Those things add to the stresses and strains in our prison estate.

There are a number of factors. If Liam Kerr wants more detail, I am more than happy to speak to him after topical questions.

Will the cabinet secretary outline what impact the presumption against short sentences will have on female prisoners, in particular, many of whom are serving sentences of less than one year?

This is an important point. There are a number of things that we can do—and have recently done—that will help to reduce the prison population. The presumption against short sentences is one of those things, and we will look to tackle the remand population. Revising the guidance on home detention curfew on the back of inspectorate reports might be another.

The presumption against short sentences will have an impact. It will help to reduce some of the churn that we see with people coming in and out of our prisons, and—to answer Rona Mackay’s direct question—I note that it will have a disproportionately positive effect on the female custodial estate, given that about 90 per cent of females who are in custody are in for less than 12 months.

The report builds on the annual report by HM inspectorate of prisons for Scotland, and both reports talk about the significant additional costs that have been incurred through the acquiring of additional places from private prisons. HMIPS says that that

“will inevitably impact adversely on other planned investments.”

What is the cabinet secretary going to do to stop the situation whereby private companies are profiting at the expense of the inefficiencies in the wider prison estate?

I have no plans to build more prison estate, if that is the suggestion.

I say to John Finnie—I know that he understands this—that the decisions on measures that have been taken, whether it is the purchasing of private spaces at quite a cost or the withdrawal of throughcare support officers, although I hope that we have mitigation for that, have not been taken lightly by the prison service. It has done those things to maintain the good order that exists in our prisons. That is why successive inspectorate reports have mentioned that there is good order in our prisons.

We will look to any solution that can help to ease the current tensions in our prison estate and maintain public safety. If that means having to use the private spaces that are available, then so be it, but these decisions are not taken at all lightly.

The report points to the fact that the use of supervised bail has fallen by almost a third since 2005-06. Given that 20 per cent of our prison population is on remand, which is twice the rate in England and Wales, what steps and investments will the cabinet secretary make to avoid the use of remand as the default option for people who are awaiting trial?

I thank Daniel Johnson for asking an incredibly important question. There are a few things that we can do. We will continue to increase our investment in alternatives to custody and remand, including bail.

It is important that we see the issue in the round. Recently, I have had some very positive conversations with some sheriffs principal, whose decisions on whether to grant bail are hugely important, and I am very keen that the justice board and our justice leaders network come together to look at the matter in a holistic way. Also, we passed legislation recently that will, we hope, allow us to explore other technologies such as GPS.

There is a whole range and suite of measures that we can help to introduce, but the conversation will involve others as well as the Government. I agree with Daniel Johnson’s assessment that our remand population is far too high, particularly in comparison to that in England and Wales. Therefore, the Government definitely sees tackling the number of people who are on remand as part of the solution in reducing our prison population.

I have seen the minutes of a health and safety meeting at one of Scotland’s prisons, where the categorisation of new psychoactive substances will stop and they will be recategorised as unknown substances. Might that be the reason why a 1 per cent fall in drugs misuse is reported in the Audit Scotland report at a time of a staffing crisis and prison overcrowding? Will the cabinet secretary investigate the change in categorisation? Staff fear that the prison service is manipulating the figures.

I will have a look at the issue that Neil Findlay raises and will investigate the reasons for any recategorisation. I give Neil Findlay an absolute assurance that, in all the meetings that I have had with the Scottish Prison Service, the Prison Officers Association, the Prison Governors Association and the many other trade unions that are involved with the prisons, nobody—including the prison service itself—has once attempted to downplay the damage that psychoactive substances are doing not only to the prisoners but to the staff. If Neil Findlay wants an assurance that the issue is not being downplayed, I give an absolute assurance that that is the case. I will investigate the reasons for recategorisation as he has asked me to.

Unresolved Criminal Cases

To ask the Scottish Government how it will address the reported backlog of unresolved criminal cases. (S5T-01783)

As at today, the number of criminal cases in which no initial decision has been made is 17,342. That represents somewhere between four and five weeks of work in hand.

The Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service has a target of taking initial decisions in 75 per cent of cases in four weeks. The current work in hand is consistent with meeting that target by the year end. Following the allocation of additional resources, staffing in the unit that is responsible for that work is higher than ever before, with a view to reducing the amount of work in hand at any given time.

To many people, 17,000 cases sitting waiting for a decision to be made will seem very much on the high side. The cases are reported to include allegations of the most serious crimes, including rape and attempted murder. While those cases are locked in a holding pattern, victims who are waiting for a decision can often feel further traumatised. One victim is reported as saying earlier this week:

“I felt like I was the accused ... it was an arduous experience, and I would never report a crime again.”

In the light of those figures and such comments, does the Solicitor General believe that the Crown Office has the resources that it needs to carry out the work that it is charged with undertaking?

The COPFS is absolutely committed to reducing the time that it takes for cases to progress through the criminal justice system, for the reasons that Liam McArthur has just explained. As a result of the Scottish Government allocating an additional £5 million of funding to the COPFS, Scotland’s prosecution service is on track to have its highest ever number of staff.

Given the specialist nature of the work that we do—the decisions to prosecute, the assessment of whether there is sufficient evidence to bring charges, and the decisions about whether further inquiries of specialist reporting agencies are needed—and an increasingly complex and specialist case load, it is going to take some time for the full benefits of the increased resource to feed through. However, incremental improvements can be expected in the interim and, crucially, the COPFS keeps its processes—including the critical initial decision process—under review. The position is monitored weekly, and the COPFS will respond to its changing case load and progress the whole of its work as effectively as possible.

The backlog in unresolved criminal cases has echoes of delays in fatal accident inquiries, as highlighted by my party and others over recent months.

Following earlier research by the Scottish Liberal Democrats, the Inspectorate of Prosecution in Scotland has concluded that FAIs are characterised by

“lengthy intervals of unexplained delays”

and “periods of inactivity”, which

“have the potential to devalue the purpose of the FAI.”

The inspectorate also cited overstretched workloads and inefficient collaboration with other agencies.

Does the Solicitor General accept that that is further evidence that the Crown Office does not have the resources that it needs and that, as a consequence, access to justice is not available to everyone in Scotland who needs it?

The COPFS has identified a need for resources to address its ever-changing case load. As Liam McArthur will be aware, although the absolute raw number of reports received has declined in recent years, there has been a significant increase in the number of more serious and complex cases, including deaths investigations.

In response to that changing case load, the COPFS is committed to improving its service performance, particularly in relation to deaths investigations, where it is accepted that, although the majority of cases are dealt with and concluded within reasonable expectations and on target, some cases—very few—have taken far too long. In securing the additional resources, the Lord Advocate has made it plain that the COPFS is implementing an improvement plan, which aims to reduce the journey time of all High Court cases, particularly those that involve children and young people, and to front load work on the large and complex cases that come through. More serious organised crime cases than ever are being detected by the police, reported to us and successfully prosecuted. The additional resources will be committed to meeting the expectations set out in the High Court practice note on the management of lengthy or complex cases.

The additional resources will also be committed to implementing a programme of improvement work with a view to reducing the duration of some of the more complex deaths investigations. I am sure that Liam McArthur understands that those few cases can call for complex factual and legal issues to be investigated before they get to a fatal accident inquiry, and for expert evidence, which, in our experience, can be commissioned from a wide variety of jurisdictions, not just here in Scotland. The reduction of the journey time to FAI in deaths investigations is absolutely at the heart of the overall improvement programme and is what the additional resources are being committed to.

Cases are often delayed through being returned to the police because of errors or missing evidence. Will the Crown Office now start to record those cases so that data on them and the specific breakdowns can be made available?

Cases can be returned to the police for a wide variety of complex reasons and I am not sure that it is all that easy or straightforward—or in the interests of time—to categorise them as errors or misinformation. It is the nature of our unique system for the investigation and prosecution of crime in Scotland that the prosecutor gives directions to the police. I say again that all of us in the criminal justice fraternity are facing a changing and increasingly complex case load of serious organised crime, serious sexual offending and homicide.

Our priority is to work with the police on the submission and resending of individual reports and to drive up standards, to express our expectations and to discuss the standard and sufficiency of evidence, and thus embrace our continuous improvement programme.

Universities (No-deal Brexit)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the newly-released Universities UK survey, which claims that Scotland’s universities will lose staff and students in the event of a no-deal Brexit. (S5T-01782)

The survey further highlights that a no-deal Brexit is utterly unacceptable. Half of Scottish respondents report difficulties in retaining or recruiting European Union staff, and one third say that demand from EU students has fluctuated. We know that more than a quarter of Scottish university research staff are EU citizens. Scotland has the highest proportion of EU university enrolments in the United Kingdom.

The reality is that the UK is not, and cannot be, ready for a no-deal EU exit on 31 October. The UK Government must take no deal off the table. Our commitment to supporting eligible EU students commencing courses in academic year 2020-21 is a clear example of our determination to mitigate the effects of the UK Government’s deeply damaging position, and to keep Scotland an open and welcoming nation.

The minister will undoubtedly join me in expressing relief that, after seven years of campaigning by our party, last week the UK Government performed a much-needed U-turn on its decision to remove the post-study work visa. Has his office assessed the impact that the past three years of pre-Brexit chaos, and a Tory Government that wants to end freedom of movement at all costs, have already had on the sector in terms of funding and in terms of recruitment and retention of staff and students?

I welcome the return of the post-study work visa, which the UK Government has announced in the past few days, and I pay tribute to the campaigning by the higher education sector in Scotland—our institutions and student organisations—and, of course, by colleagues in the Scottish Government who have worked in partnership with them ever since the original visa was scrapped. We welcome the fact that it has been replaced.

Gillian Martin asked about the impact of Brexit on our higher education sector. The findings of the survey that formed the subject of her first question correspond with the Scottish Government’s understanding. In that survey, 50 per cent of respondents said that they had already lost existing or potential staff to overseas universities, which they could directly attribute to the prospect of a no-deal Brexit; 40 per cent said that they had experienced fluctuations in collaboration among EU partners; and one in three said that they had already experienced fluctuations in demand from EU students. That chimes very much with the evidence that the Government has received on the damage that the threat of Brexit is doing to research projects in the higher education sector. In addition, key staff who are EU nationals are looking to return to their home countries; I have heard of many examples of that happening from many universities.

Any kind of Brexit would be deeply damaging to Scottish further and higher education and science, and a no-deal Brexit would be an absolute body blow to the sector.

Scottish universities have, as far as they can, done a tremendous job in working with their staff and students from other EU countries to prepare for Brexit, but given that one in five academics in Scottish universities originates from another EU country, what can the Scottish Government do to ensure that they continue to want to work here? Does the minister agree that freedom of movement must be put back on the table by Boris Johnson as he speaks to his counterparts from the rest of the EU?

It is absolutely the case that the removal of freedom of movement will make it very difficult for our universities to compete with the rest of Europe in a range of ways. I do not have time to go into all of them now, but I referred to some of those impacts in my previous answer. I absolutely support any calls for the UK Government to reinstate a commitment to freedom of movement and to a much better deal, if Brexit happens. Of course, the best outcome would be for there to be no Brexit at all, in which case we would have continuity of freedom of movement for students and staff in Europe, which would protect our universities.

The Scottish Government has reached out to institutions and to other European Governments to convey the message that Scotland will remain a welcoming and outward-looking internationalist country. That message has been warmly received by institutions across Europe and by European Governments.

Today, during a visit to the University of the Highlands and Islands’ Perth college, I spoke to overseas students who are studying languages there, who said that they had received that message and that they feel very comfortable living and studying in Scotland. Of course, they want our on-going support to make sure that that continues to be the case.

We have gone over time, but I will take a brief question from Oliver Mundell.

Given that the sector highlights the uncertainty that exists, will the Scottish National Party commit to supporting a future Brexit deal? Does the minister regret the fact that his party’s members of Parliament at Westminster voted against the withdrawal agreement when it could have secured certainty back in March?

I urge Oliver Mundell and his Conservative colleagues to get their heads out of the sand and recognise the damage that is already being caused to our Scottish further and higher education and science sectors before Brexit has even happened. If Oliver Mundell cared about the future of our students, our knowledge economy and our universities and colleges, he would stop campaigning for Brexit and start campaigning against any kind of Brexit and support what would be the best outcome for the viability of Scottish further and higher education.