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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, September 6, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 06 September 2018

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Michelle’s Law Campaign, Programme for Government 2018-19, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time


Contents


Michelle’s Law Campaign

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame)

The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-13427, in the name of Liam Kerr, on the Michelle’s law campaign. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes the campaign to introduce “Michelle’s Law”, which seeks to strengthen victims’ rights; acknowledges that this specifically includes the rights of victims being considered paramount in matters relating to temporary release from prison and parole and that they and their families should be able to make representations in person to those deciding to release criminals from jail; notes the view that the authorities should have to explicitly consider the distinct safety and welfare of victims and their relatives when setting conditions for release on licence; understands that the Scottish Prison Service and the Parole Board do not have to publish reasons for releasing offenders into the community; notes the call for this to be reviewed and changed, and further notes the view that exclusion zones for released offenders are an under-utilised power that could alleviate the distress faced by victims and their families in North East Scotland and across the country.

Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

What are the purposes of our justice system? Punishment of criminals, deterrence from criminal activity and rehabilitation of those who have chosen to commit a crime are often suggested. However, there are other aspects, including to protect the safety and welfare of the public, to protect the integrity of community and society and to provide some kind of retribution or closure for victims and their families. Too much focus has been on the first three aspects—those that relate to criminals—and we have lost focus on the victims.

Parliament heard earlier, and is no doubt aware, of an absolutely tragic set of circumstances that illustrates the point. Michelle Stewart lived in Drongan, in Ayrshire. When she was only 17, John Wilson ended her life and took her away from her friends and family for ever. Presiding Officer, I welcome that family to the Parliament today and acknowledge their bravery and courage in being prepared to step forward. I also welcome the Carson family, about whom we heard earlier, and likewise commend their bravery and courage.

It is not appropriate to go into the detail of the depraved attack; the facts have been rehearsed many times in the media. Suffice it to say that the sentence that Wilson received makes a mockery of the system. My party has long been in favour of ensuring that life means life for the worst criminals and I will bring forward a member’s bill to do exactly that, later in this parliamentary session.

However, that is for another time. Today, we are here to ask why killers such as John Wilson get out of prison only nine years into their 12-year sentence with no explanation or input given to the victim’s family, no consideration for their welfare and no restrictions on the locations that he can visit while he is out.

Michelle’s family think that that is unacceptable. They are right. They demand three key reforms relating to the release of offenders from prison both on a temporary basis and on parole. First, victims and their families must be given reasons for an offender’s release and be able to make representations in person to those who are taking the decision. In practice, that means toughening up the victim notification scheme.

Parliament will know that, at present, when the Scottish Prison Service or the Parole Board for Scotland decides to release a dangerous criminal back on to our streets, it is under no requirement to justify that decision to the public. Victims and families who are registered with the scheme simply receive a standard form letter that tells them the date on which the offender will be released, and there is no automatic right to make representations. The only recourse is a letter to the Prison Service or the Parole Board.

The one exception is that, when a so-called life sentence prisoner is being considered for release, the victim or family member may make representations in person. However, we should be under no illusion about that. Those representations are not part of the parole hearing, the person whom they speak to is not a member of the tribunal that is deciding on the case and the right does not extend to temporary release decisions—it extends only to parole. In addition, they do not carry a great deal of weight. Victims and families must no longer be shut out of decisions that are taken behind closed doors. They must be involved in a process that gives them a voice.

The second demand is that the rights and welfare of the victims, the families and those who have been impacted must be explicitly taken into account by those who take decisions to release offenders back into Scotland’s communities. At present, Scottish Prison Service rules state that, before granting temporary release, a governor must assess the risk that the prisoner may pose to the public at large. Similarly, the Parole Board for Scotland looks at the protection of the public in general terms. Neither body is required to assess the impact that its decisions to release will have on the mental and physical wellbeing of individual victims and their families. That cannot be right. Those who are most harmed, most wronged and most aggrieved by the criminal are not individually considered. Our justice system must surely be able to look victims in the eye, explain its decisions and take their thoughts, considerations, health and wellbeing into account.

The final demand is on exclusion zones. Both the Parole Board and the Prison Service already have the power to impose location restrictions when they release criminals from jail, but they are not using it. Why is that power not being used to prevent offenders from coming into contact with their victims? The answer from the authorities appears to be that allowing criminals back into their home communities helps the rehabilitation process. That may be true, but are we really happy to prioritise criminals over victims in that way? Is there no point at which the right of families to live safe and peaceful lives becomes more important?

Michelle’s family have spoken out powerfully about how seeing their daughter’s murderer on their streets has affected them. Can any of us imagine how that must feel—how it must be to see this criminal swanning about their streets getting on with his life? I well recall being consulted several times by a young constituent in my region when she learned that the man who randomly dragged her off the street to rape her was to be released to the very community and the very streets where that had happened. It destroyed any sense of safety and any sense of justice being done, and ultimately traumatised her beyond my understanding again.

This is not right. There simply must be greater use of exclusion zones for those offenders who are released, and here is the thing: that measure would require no change in the law. Exclusion zones are a vital tool and victims demand their use, so the message to those with the power is: let us start using them.

Those are the three things that the Michelle’s law campaign calls for. Each has the clear aim of putting victims at the heart of the justice system rather than their being left outside, looking in. I am grateful to other members of this Parliament for their cross-party support today and for being here to contribute to the debate.

I sought the views of other experts in this field. Dr Marsha Scott, chief executive officer of Scottish Women’s Aid, told me how often domestic abuse survivors voice concerns about their safety when their abusers are released from prison. They tell of decisions to house the perpetrator being taken without consideration of the impact that it might have on the women and children. Victim Support Scotland told me that it is encouraged by discussions on how to include victims and witnesses during the parole process.

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice has, since taking over this brief, exhibited a commendable willingness to listen and to take good ideas on board. I hope that that continues, because the simple fact is that Michelle’s family and others like them up and down the country need more than words; they need action.

Let us be clear—this campaign is not about preventing criminals from ever being released from prison. It is not about preventing rehabilitation, nor is it about excluding criminals from society. It is about a simple desire to tip the balance in favour of the victims, their families and those who have been wronged, and to treat them with the dignity and respect they deserve.

It is time to put victims first; it is time to refocus the debate away from criminals; and it is time for Michelle’s law. [Applause.]

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Thank you very much. Before we move to the open debate, I say very gently that we do not permit applause from the public gallery. I perfectly understand why it is done, but we do not permit it.

12:55  

Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

I apologise to the Presiding Officer and to fellow members for having to leave this debate early due to a long-standing event in my diary that I am hosting.

I thank Liam Kerr for bringing an important debate to this chamber. It raises some important issues about how we deal with transparency, punishment and parole in our criminal justice system. I also thank Michelle Stewart’s family, who deserve so much credit for their activism and for raising the issues in the way that they have, because it stems from deep personal tragedy. They have my deepest condolences and I know that my thoughts and the thoughts of everyone in the chamber will be with them as we speak on these issues through this debate.

I believe that the system can be strengthened only through open discussion of these issues. The justice system often seems to treat victims as an afterthought, with its logic and decisions opaque and its behaviour seemingly cold and unsympathetic. I think that we can do better; I think that we must do better.

However, as we think on these issues, we must also uphold the values of justice. Justice must be swift; justice must be fair; and justice must be consistent. The blindfold worn by Lady Justice is just as important as the sword and the scales that she holds, but we cannot allow Lady Justice to also be deaf to the concerns, views and interests of the victim. That is what we are seeking to discuss.

Much of the Michelle’s law campaign centres around two key themes—victims’ rights to be heard, and transparency. I would like to discuss some issues around that latter point because it is a key issue. I have actively been talking to those in the criminal justice system about transparency and how we can have greater understanding of the workings of justice, because I have long believed that the way we sentence those who are convicted and the way that that is reported do not lead to a strong understanding of the sentence. That is a fundamental problem with our system.

In my view, sentences should reflect three things that society hopes to achieve when we sentence convicted criminals. First, we must deal with the root causes of the crime—for example, addiction or involvement with organised crime. Secondly, we must punish, because those who have committed a crime must pay and atone for what they have done. Thirdly, we must rehabilitate and ensure that prisoners have a measured and safe re-entry into society.

Those are the three aims and if sentences were handed out explicitly with those three aims and were explicitly reported in those terms, we would make some progress. In short, if I can put it flippantly, we need a Ronseal approach to sentencing—a sentence has to do what it says on the tin. At the moment, because we have automatic release after two thirds of a sentence has been served, we have a degree of confusion.

I am not necessarily arguing for an increase in sentences, but it has to be clear how much time will be served in relation to those three core elements so that we can avoid misleading people in their understanding of what will happen and avoid people being imbued with mistrust in our criminal justice system.

There are important points to raise about victim notification, too. It is right that we improve victims’ understanding of when and how people will be released. However, we need to look at the constraints within that, partly around data protection and other principles. It is right that the Prison Service should say when prisoners will be released, but can we say when they might be out in the community, where and what activity they might be doing? Data protection is one issue, but we also have an important principle that, once a person has done their time, they should have the opportunity to rejoin society

We need to think carefully about how we find the balance; the rights of victims and their families are hugely important but we must also preserve the hope of rehabilitation, which is an important component of our criminal justice system.

13:00  

Ruth Maguire (Cunninghame South) (SNP)

At the outset, I extend my heartfelt sympathy to Michelle Stewart’s family and to the Carson family. I am very sorry for your loss and the pain that you are enduring.

I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to Liam Kerr’s debate on Michelle’s law and I thank him for bringing the important topic of strengthening victims’ rights to the chamber.

I support the Scottish Government’s focus on prevention, early intervention and services that support rehabilitation and ultimately reduce reoffending. Those things make our communities safer. However, for a justice system to be truly just, the needs of victims must be at its heart. I share the feeling of campaigners that the voice of victims need to be heard better.

I agree that the distinct safety and welfare of victims and their families must not only be considered, but acted on. That must happen at all stages of the criminal justice process. Providing more help and support for victims of crime and witnesses is key to building a better criminal justice system. Navigating the justice system would be daunting at any time, and at times of trauma and loss it must seem even more so. It is imperative that in making law and policy we recognise the real-life impact on people. We must never lose sight of that.

I acknowledge the work that has been done and the progress that has been made in our justice system in Scotland. However, in the context of today’s debate, which follows a very specific tragedy, I am not going to stand here and list those points.

Moving forward, we will have to work together as a Parliament, being cognisant of what evidence tells us effectively reduces crime and reoffending and makes our communities in Scotland safer.

I reiterate my belief that victims and their families must be considered at all stages of the criminal justice process. That consideration must not end with sentencing.

In the programme for government, as part of on-going reforms, I note that the Scottish Government says that it will strengthen victims’ rights and support. There is also a commitment to increase the openness and transparency of the parole system. That is a welcome development. I ask the cabinet secretary to take the opportunity in his closing speech to expand on that commitment and to share what that will mean with members and the public in the gallery.

13:03  

John Scott (Ayr) (Con)

I begin by congratulating Liam Kerr on securing today’s debate on Michelle’s law—and so early in the parliamentary year.

I welcome the Stewart family to our public gallery today, knowing, as I do, how difficult it is for them to again relive and recall the circumstances of Michelle’s death. I salute their courage in doing so today. I also welcome the Carson family.

When my constituent Lisa Stewart first contacted me on 25 June 2018 about the murder of her sister Michelle by John Wilson in 2008, I was horrified to hear of the circumstances surrounding Michelle’s death and about the premeditated attack that cost Michelle her life. Her murderer, John Wilson, was sentenced to 16 years imprisonment for this heinous crime and that sentence was reduced to 12 years as he pled guilty immediately to killing schoolgirl Michelle.

The initial reduction of 25 per cent in the sentence was a source of dismay to the victim’s family, but one that they had to accept. However, Presiding Officer, you can only imagine the anger of Michelle’s parents, brother and sister when they discovered on 23 June that John Wilson would be walking the streets of Ayrshire—possibly of Ayr—on unsupervised home leave, just nine years after murdering his victim, Michelle.

As we know, Ruth Davidson raised the matter with the First Minister on 28 June, which resulted in the First Minister giving an instruction to her new cabinet secretary Humza Yousaf to meet the Stewarts to discuss their concerns. That meeting took place on 3 August at Russell house in Ayr, with commitments given by the cabinet secretary that the family’s concerns would be listened to and addressed. I attended that meeting with the Stewarts and heard those commitments being given to them.

Imagine, again, the Stewart family’s unhappiness on Tuesday, when the First Minister made only a passing reference in her programme for government to what her Government is prepared to do to recognise the rights of victims in circumstances similar to those of the Stewart family. Since the matter was first raised in Parliament by Ruth Davidson, two other families have contacted me, in similar, dreadful circumstances. That highlighted for me the widespread nature of concerns of hard-working, decent families such as the Stewarts—such as any of us who find themselves victims of crime through no fault of their own.

The Scottish Government must really take heed of those families’ concerns and change its attitude towards the families of murder victims, and victims more generally, in the Scottish justice system. As Liam Kerr said, in Scots law as it stands the rights of victims are almost an afterthought. On behalf of victims in Scotland, I want to hear less said about the rights of criminals and offenders and more about the rights of victims. I want victims to have more say in the justice system.

We need to see more and better use of exclusion zones for released offenders, to stop them coming into contact with victims and victims’ families. We need families to have more input into prison service and parole board decisions, and a more sympathetic and understanding approach taken by authorities towards the fears and needs of families. No longer is it sufficient in the modern interconnected world—everyone is on Facebook or WhatsApp—for victims and families of victims to be told effectively to man up and just get on with life, because it has aye been this way.

Families such as the Stewarts and others, and victims of many other dreadful crimes, will always be victims. Whereas offenders, criminals and, yes, murderers walk free after serving their sentence, the families of those who have lost loved ones never recover. No matter how strong and supportive the Stewarts are for each other, and no matter how much support they receive from their families, friends and local communities, not a day will pass when they do not think of Michelle.

Today, Parliament again asks the Scottish Government to bring about the changes to the legislation sought by the Stewarts and the Scottish Conservatives. I hope that the cabinet secretary will act now to bring those changes about.

13:08  

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice (Humza Yousaf)

I thank Liam Kerr for bringing this important debate to the chamber and thank also those who signed the motion. I welcome to the chamber the Carson family, and Michelle Stewart’s family, who I had the great pleasure of meeting in August. None of us would wish to find ourselves in the circumstances in which they found themselves. It was a really moving meeting that was, on the one hand, inspirational—I will come to that in a second—and, on the other, very powerful. I was affected for weeks afterwards—I am still affected.

It has been a very good debate, with excellent contributions. My job is to give as many reassurances as I can and to tell Parliament about action that we will be taking. However, before I do, I will say that one of the reasons why I found that meeting very powerful was that I got to learn a little bit more about Michelle.

When these terrible and tragic murders happen, those who did not know the family will pick up a newspaper or see a news broadcast and will just see a picture of an individual. All that will be associated with that individual will be the terrible murder. I wanted to know about the person behind the story. I met her father, Kenny, and Josephine Stewart, along with Lisa, Kenneth and Stephen, as well as John Scott MSP. Each of the family members took it in turn to tell me about Michelle. What was so inspirational about her was that she overcame so much adversity in the physical health issues that she had. She never let any of that hold her back. Hers is a life lost far too young. Hearing about her was incredibly important for me. Behind every single one of the homicides and murders that happen unfortunately in Scotland, there is a human story. None of us, whether it be me as the cabinet secretary or any member from across the chamber, should forget the importance of the human behind such a tragedy.

From day 1 of my taking up the role of Cabinet Secretary for Justice, I have made it clear that victims’ rights must be strengthened and put at the heart of our criminal justice system. The programme for government commitments that the First Minister has been speaking about this week reflect that, and I will come to that later. However, I want to get straight into the substance of the Michelle’s law campaign.

I said that the meeting with the Stewart family was inspirational. I do not think that any one of us would have taken any offence or would have been entirely surprised if, after suffering the tragedy that they suffered, the family members chose simply to reflect on and overcome their individual grief. None of us would have faulted them for doing that. They did not choose to do that. They are inspirational as a family because they chose, and are choosing, to ensure that this tragedy has a positive legacy, which is the Michelle’s law campaign. That is why I say that they are inspirational and I praise them for that campaign.

Let me also give them some reassurances about the campaign and the fact that not only are we listening to them and giving them warm words, but there will be some concrete action. I guarantee that, and I will come to that in just a second.

I met the family in early August and we are now in early September. I can promise the family that what they had to say to me at that meeting profoundly influenced what is in this year’s programme for Government. My conversation and the follow-up with the family and the MSPs who are involved directly influenced what is in the programme for government and I will touch on some of that in a minute.

In his opening remarks, Liam Kerr spoke about the three main asks. One of them was that victims and families of victims, as in this case, are given the reasons why the perpetrator is on release and that the victim notification scheme is toughened up. I say to Liam Kerr and, more importantly, to the Stewart family that I am absolutely happy to commit to doing that. That is very much part of the conversation that we will have after the programme for government debates.

As we know, the First Minister announced that a consultation on the handling of parole will be held before the end of the year. I will try to speed that up as appropriate. That consultation will include consideration of the issues that have been raised by the Michelle’s law campaign. I give a 100 per cent guarantee that that consultation will address some of the issues raised about parole by the campaign, including for example, the reason for decisions, and the opportunity for victims and the families of victims to contribute to such decisions. I give Liam Kerr and Michelle Stewart’s family the assurance that those issues will be part of the consultation.

I know that it can be frustrating. As legislators and lawmakers, we understand the process that we have to go through—the consultation, the drafting of the bill, stages 1, 2 and 3—and it can be infuriating for those who are outside the Parliament. However, I promise that no time will be wasted in taking those measures forward.

The second point that was raised by Liam Kerr, and which is part of the campaign, is about the rights of victims and the families of victims when it comes to temporary release. Once again, I am very happy to commit to ensuring that the contributions of victims—and the families of victims, in this case—are taken into account, including their issues and circumstances and the way that they live and work. All those things must be taken into consideration, as they already should be.

I should say that, in my letter to Michelle Stewart’s family, which was referred to during First Minister’s questions, I said that the Scottish Prison Service is carefully considering how to improve the information and support available to victims and families. That will include how to better engage with families at various critical points in sentencing. The need for that came out strongly in the meeting that John Scott was at, and the SPS will take that back and reflect on it. It will also reflect on how individual victims’ circumstances and those of the families of victims are taken into account in relation to temporary release.

Again, I am happy to explore that issue, and when I say “explore” I should stress that there is not a lack of concrete action. Liam Kerr will certainly understand that there are complexities in all the issues that we have discussed. They are not easy. They are the most difficult issues that we have to deal with. There are complexities, and I have to ensure, from my perspective, that when it comes to those complexities I am not doing something that could make the situation worse, as opposed to better, because all of us want the same outcome. I say to the family directly: please do not confuse or conflate that with an unwillingness to listen to what you have to say and to act as best we possibly can to ensure that the Michelle’s law campaign and the issues that you raise are taken forward as quickly as possible.

I am aware that I am slightly over time, Presiding Officer, but I wish to raise a point about exclusion zones—the third point in the Michelle’s law campaign. Liam Kerr’s language, from the beginning of the Michelle’s law campaign until now, has slightly developed, and it is a welcome development. He understands that there is a possibility to have conditions put upon an offender’s release in relation to who he or she can see and where he or she can go. His ask is how those conditions can be used more. Again, I go back to the point that I made a second ago about complexities. The powers are there, and what I will do is give an absolute commitment to assure him, right here and now, that that is something that can and will be looked at, but of course we will have to work with local authority partners.

John Scott

I hear what the cabinet secretary says and I am assured that his intentions are of the first order, but can he give some indication of timescale for those changes that are to be made or for the different guidance that is to be issued?

Humza Yousaf

On my earlier points, the consultation timescale that we are aiming for is the end of the year, but I will try to inject some pace into that as quickly as I can. In terms of the exclusion zones, I am not able to give John Scott a timescale, because although the powers currently exist we are looking to see whether they could be used more widely and how they could be extended or strengthened. I can give him an absolute assurance that there will not be any hesitation in doing that. In fact, it was on the very day that I met with the family of Michelle Stewart that we started to look into the issue with even more pace, once the Michelle’s law campaign became public. We are wasting no time on that, but I can promise John Scott that I will keep him, the family, and other members who are interested up to speed.

My very last point is one that was made by Daniel Johnson, who I realise had to leave the debate early. He made a thoughtful contribution, and I want to end on this point. In our political narrative, there often seems to be a tension between the rights of victims and the families of victims and the rehabilitation of offenders, and that is something that has come out in earlier contributions to today’s debate. Although I completely understand how that perception might exist, it is important for us, in the positions that we are in, to say clearly that the two are not mutually exclusive. There is not necessarily a tension between the two, because the reason that we rehabilitate offenders is to ensure that we have fewer victims of crime in the first place. That way, we will not have to deal with more and more victims and, of course, we want crime to go down.

Therefore, we should never lose focus on both those points, although I hear what the family and even Opposition members say about the need for victims’ rights to be strengthened and be at the heart of our justice system. I give everybody an absolute and unequivocal assurance that that will be the case as long as I am the Cabinet Secretary for Justice under the current Scottish Government. I look forward to meeting the Stewart family shortly after this members’ business debate and giving them those reassurances as best as I possibly can.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I am sure that members who are sitting in the chamber and who heard the debate but did not contribute would wish to extend their condolences to the family. It is a tough road that the family have taken, but it seems to be taking them to some results, although it will never compensate by any means.

13:20 Meeting suspended.  14:30  

Resumed debate.