Election 2021

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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, March 11, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 11 March 2021 [Draft]

Agenda: Business Motion, First Minister’s Question Time, Point of Order, Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill, Portfolio Question Time, Business Motion, Redress for Survivors (Historical Child Abuse in Care) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Motion Without Notice, Redress for Survivors (Historical Child Abuse in Care) (Scotland) Bill, Scottish Biometrics Commissioner (Appointment), Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time


Parliamentary Bureau Motion

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

The next item of business is consideration of Parliamentary Bureau motion S5M-24340, on approval of a Scottish statutory instrument.

Motion moved,

That the Parliament agrees that the Community Orders (Coronavirus) (Scotland) Regulations 2021 [draft] be approved.—[Miles Briggs.]

The Presiding Officer

Liam Kerr wishes to speak against the motion.

Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

I rise to speak against the draft Community Orders (Coronavirus) (Scotland) Regulations 2021.

The regulations will reduce, by 35 per cent, the unpaid work requirements in all community payback orders that were imposed prior to the regulations coming into force. Let me make that real: the latest data suggests that there are roughly 800,000 such hours outstanding, so about 300,000 hours will be written off. In other words, a crime has been committed, a suspect has gone through the court system and has been found guilty, and the judge has seen fit to hand down a community payback order, which includes an unpaid work requirement—a third of which will be written off.

I simply ask what message such a write-off sends, particularly in the context of the Scottish National Party’s presumption against short-term sentences, which seeks to keep people out of prison and to use more community orders. What message will we be sending to criminals—who, it must be remembered, include those who have committed really serious crimes, such as the 363 violent criminals who were handed CPOs in 2018-19—if we suggest that they need not serve their full punishment? What message does that send to society and to the victims of such crimes?

The cabinet secretary told the Justice Committee that if the cut does not happen,

“That could lead not only to the system being completely overwhelmed, but to sheriffs and the public losing confidence that CPOs can deliver justice at all.”—[Official Report, Justice Committee, 23 February 2021; c 49.]

I think that such a loss of confidence will be precisely the impact of the cabinet secretary’s move today. I cannot see how victims of crime can retain full confidence when more than a third of the punishment set by a court order is written off. I cannot see how, in making a borderline decision, a sheriff will not at least hesitate when deciding which judgment will be the most appropriate, because of that write-off.

Nobody disputes that the criminal justice social work teams’ third sector partners and others have done their absolute all to continue to deliver community justice services and related support in the context of necessary public health restrictions. However, it is clear that the cabinet secretary has failed to plan for the expected rise in outstanding unpaid work hours following the public health restrictions, which begs the further question: why on earth, despite the huge increase in the number of outstanding unpaid work hours, has the SNP frozen the budget allocation for criminal justice social work?

The SSI is an extraordinary proposition that I fear could have considerable negative consequences for victims and our justice system. It has not been properly thought through, and I shall vote against it tonight.

The Presiding Officer

Thank you, Mr Kerr. I call the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Humza Yousaf.


The Cabinet Secretary for Justice (Humza Yousaf)

Presiding Officer, thank you for the opportunity to briefly explain why the proposals in the draft Community Orders (Coronavirus) (Scotland) Regulations 2021 are necessary as part of our response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The regulations propose to vary all unpaid work requirements in existing community payback orders by reducing the hours that are imposed in each order by 35 per cent. There are some exceptions for CPOs that are imposed either entirely or partially for domestic abuse, sexual offences or stalking.

The action is necessary to ease pressure on local authorities as the coronavirus pandemic continues. Liam Kerr asks why we did not plan for it. Local authorities have told us that they have not been able to carry out the unpaid work hours simply because the restrictions make it impossible to do so. They cannot put 10 people into a minibus and take them to paint a community centre, clear up allotments or do whatever the unpaid work may be because coronavirus restrictions simply would not allow that to happen.

In fact, Social Work Scotland, Community Justice Scotland, local authorities, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, and the Scottish Association of Social Work all tell us that if we did not implement the regulations, the system would be completely overwhelmed. Due to the coronavirus restrictions being in place, 800,000 hours have built up. If we did nothing, come the summer, the number would be more than 1 million.

On 23 February, I gave evidence to the Justice Committee, which voted by seven votes to two in support of approval of the regulations. The two members who voted against were the two Conservative members. I acknowledge that the regulations contain extraordinary powers—Liam Kerr is right: we would not plan to do this in normal times. However, these are not normal times.

Liam Kerr talks about judicial confidence. I have spoken to members of the judiciary—I do not know whether he has—who tell us that if the system was to collapse, they would have no choice but to send people to prison. Maybe that is what the Conservatives would like to happen.

The draft regulations focus specifically on unpaid work or other activity requirements, with all other requirements remaining in place. I assure victims of crime and others that the justice system continues to hold those who commit offences to account and to keep our communities safe.

I am disappointed, although not surprised, that the Tories contest the regulations. If we took their position, the entire community justice system would collapse. The throw-them-in-jail-and-chuck-away-the-key approach would make us less safe, increase reoffending and increase the number of victims.

We will follow the evidence and make the hard, but right, decisions. I am proud to follow the smart justice approach, as opposed to a populist and arcane justice policy that would make us less safe as a country.

I encourage all members to support the regulations, which strike an appropriate balance between removing enough hours to assist local criminal justice social work services and ensuring that individuals complete the majority of their unpaid work requirements, as imposed by the court.

The Presiding Officer

Thank you, cabinet secretary. The question on the motion will be put at decision time.