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29 September 2005

S2M-3317 Youth Justice

Scottish Parliament

Thursday 29 September 2005

[THE DEPUTY PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 09:15]

Youth Justice

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Murray Tosh): Good morning. The first item of business is a debate on motion S2M-3317, in the name of Miss Annabel Goldie, on behalf of the Justice 2 Committee, on its 9th report in 2005, "Inquiry into Youth Justice". ... ... ...

09:15


... ... ...

10:16

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I come to the debate as a grumpy old man.

Hugh Henry: Hear, hear.

Stewart Stevenson: Thank you, Hugh. That is because I, too, had my travel interrupted. I left Linlithgow at 6.02 am and got here at 7.40 am, so perhaps the disruption did not intrude too much.

Reading the Justice 2 Committee's report, I am reminded of a quotation from Barnett Cocks:

"A committee is a cul-de-sac down which ideas are lured and then quietly strangled."

Let me illustrate my grumpiness on that. When I looked at the summary of conclusions and recommendations, I played the game that I often play when I want to get a quick sense of what is in front of me: hunt the verb. Among the various recommendations, I see one on coterminosity. It says:

"effective planning ... must therefore be developed."

That is not too bad. Another recommendation is on the role of local authorities. It uses the phrase:

"we invite the Executive to consider".

The recommendation on the involvement of the voluntary sector says:

"We recommend that the Executive asks each ... group to explain".

For the role and remit of strategy groups, the wording is:

"we suggest that the Executive considers".

We read that:

"education services have a critical role".

That is good. Under the heading "Multi-agency delivery arrangements", the report says:

"We invite the Scottish Executive to undertake some evaluation".

And so it goes on. That is a bit light on solutions, although there are a lot of suggestions for new work for the Executive. That will make the Deputy Minister for Justice very happy because, of course, he is underemployed and needs such suggestions.

I return to the point that my colleague Kenny MacAskill made. The challenges are genuinely difficult. What the Justice 2 Committee has come up with reflects that difficulty, which we all face.

Article 24 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, which was signed on 2 December 2000 in Nice, is on the rights of the child. Paragraph 2 states:

"In all actions relating to children, whether taken by public authorities or private institutions, the child's best interests must be a primary consideration."

I should also mention article 15, which is headed "Freedom to choose an occupation and right to engage in work". In many respects, we are all failing our children in relation to meeting our duties under the charter and our obligations to wider society. In fulfilling those duties, we benefit—we benefit from children who are engaged.

The numbers are interesting. I am slightly surprised that other members, particularly the minister, have not already cited them, because they contain some good news. The number of prison receptions went down by 22 per cent in the period from 1996 to 2004 and the decline was continuous. The figures for young offenders are even better: over the same period, the number fell by 38 per cent, to 1,908 from 3,058. Interestingly enough, receptions for drug offences are down by nearly half. Therefore, there is good news out there. Even receptions for fine defaults are down by 40 per cent for adults and by 61 per cent for under-21s in that period. That is something to build on. However, the average numbers in prison have gone up—we are putting more serious people away for longer. That is against the background of the suggestion on page 27 of the report that there are perhaps half a million no-offence referrals, in which children touch the system. Others have mentioned the need to act at that point.

I agree with what Margaret Mitchell said about the need to address people's literacy and numeracy when they come into contact with the justice system. I think that the issue should be addressed earlier, because it is clear that low levels of literacy and numeracy will cause problems for children later.

The national standards for Scotland's youth justice services, which were developed and published in the minister's name, illustrate much of the problem of multi-agency working, because they include long lists of targets and of the interactions that there have to be between the police, the Scottish Children's Reporter Administration, social work, the reporter again, the children's hearings system and the council.

The danger is that, by looking at things in that way, we might lose sight of the fact that we are dealing with a young person. The key thing that we lose sight of is responsibility. We lose sight of who is responsible, who has to do what and who has to deliver to support our young people and to ensure that they do not get into trouble. We also lose sight of what that costs us to do and, equally important, what it will cost us as a society and in our budget if we do nothing—the problem, as well as the solution, has a cost. I am not terribly clear what the balance between those costs is.

I smell something of the classic comment from The Economist 10 years ago:

"The British Civil Servant - a man"—

or woman—

"who cannot be bribed to do wrong nor persuaded to do right."

I believe that the report is somewhat symptomatic of that approach. I do not know who gets fired if things do not work. Political accountability is clear, but the minister does not run things; he sets the strategy, but who gets fired if things do not work on the ground? I am still no clearer.

10:23

15 September 2005

S2M-3233 Family Law (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

Scottish Parliament

Thursday 15 September 2005

[THE PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 09:15]

Family Law (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

The Presiding Officer (Mr George Reid): Good morning. The first item of business is a debate on motion S2M-3233, in the name of Cathy Jamieson, on the general principles of the Family Law (Scotland) Bill.

09:15

... ... ...

09:27

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): Today we debate the role of the state in supporting families and family structures in modern Scotland. Stability and comfort come through enduring relationships, with the finance and the leisure time with which to enjoy them. Our communities as a whole share the benefits derived by individuals in such stable and comfortable relationships. By contrast, chaos and lack of stability in families lead to lack of social cohesion and of shared purpose in our communities, and damage far too many beyond the problem family with difficulties. A bill that aims to increase stability without compromising individual freedom ought to be one that gains wide support.

We should prefer the enabling that is implicit in a well-designed, well-structured, liberal family law bill. That is entirely consistent with the discomfort of many members at the previous focus on punitive control measures—antisocial behaviour orders and the like—designed to deal with the failures in too many families. Therefore, we welcome the move to positive support for families and, to some extent, away from punitive measures to address issues with families and offspring.

Children are at the heart of almost all couples' aspirations, so I welcome the emphasis on children in Hugh Henry's comments today. However, the first thing that I must say is that the proposals in the bill are strangely silent about children. We can glimpse the effects on their lives in some of the proposals—in the area of relationships post break-up, for example—but the core policy intentions for children, which have been articulated fairly clearly, are far from clear in the bill. However, the bill in its current form is the basis on which we can address and resolve those matters in subsequent stages of our consideration.

The Executive is in a hurry. Across the political parties, committee members have felt under considerable and perhaps unnecessary pressure to complete consideration of the bill. Indeed, we hear that the Executive would like stage 3 to happen before the end of the year, which is ambitious. I do not criticise the Executive for being ambitious, but is that unrealistic? Will it devalue and debase the bill that we ultimately pass? The distant sound of the tambours of election war already clamours in the Government's ears, to judge from the indecent haste with which the—as I shall argue—ill-developed legislation is being pursued. The consultation on which the bill is founded stretches back over a decade, so why there should be so many areas of uncertainty, continuing debate and change in the bill is a little bit of a mystery.

I will attempt to answer three questions. First, is the bill needed? Secondly, are the changes proposed necessary, sufficient and beneficial to—in order of priority—children, couples, society and the state? Thirdly, are the risks of the proposed changes high enough to sound alarm bells that we should take notice of?

Clearly, the bill touches on issues of personal morality, belief, religion and lifestyle, so the Scottish National Party will not be applying a party whip and I expect that the contributions from our benches on some of the proposals will reflect a range of views. I hope that my colleagues will largely support the onward passage of the bill, and I speak in the belief that most, and perhaps all, of them will do so, but I also speak from a position of personal involvement with the issues through the committee and elsewhere.

It was appropriate that Hugh Henry acknowledged that there will not be a universal welcome for the bill. Cardinal Keith O'Brien's submission to the committee restated the Catholic Church's position, stating that the

"Church opposes divorce in principle".

Of course, the cardinal is therefore unhappy with the proposed reduction in the periods required for divorce. He quoted Pope John Paul II as saying:

"What is missing in non-marital cohabitation is trusting openness to a future life together".

That is not a view that I hold, but it is one that will be important in our future consideration of the bill. We must take account of all views.

The minister will know that I have suggested that we should respond to lobbying from the Catholic Church by ensuring, for example, that when unmarried couples are registering their first child they are made fully aware of the options for building on and strengthening their relationship for the benefit of the child. Perhaps the state could make that information available to people in the hope that more people will enter into civil partnerships or progress to marriage to protect the future of the child. We would have to make people aware of the range of options.

I turn to some of the detailed comments that the committee has made. We certainly share the minister's concerns about the uncertainty surrounding marriage by cohabitation with habit and repute, in so far as it may exist. We support the idea of an informational campaign and recognise the need after the bill is passed—which I assume will happen—to raise awareness of the effects of its provisions. At the same time, we must ensure that marriage is also explained to the general public.

The minister will know that family support services are something in which I have taken an interest in the past, and I welcome what he has said about the Executive's objective of building capacity in the services that support family relationships, notably counselling and mediation. The reference to independent local voluntary bodies is entirely appropriate, and I would counsel that we need more support for them and perhaps less focus on the national bodies. That is of concern to my local bodies, which are already working together, collaborating and sharing premises, and are showing good practice for elsewhere. Local authorities have a role, but we must not let that role be to suppress the initiatives that are taken in the voluntary sector.

The minister's comments on the Protection from Abuse (Scotland) Act 2001 are welcome. The committee and I consider that that is a good basis for consolidating an increasingly confusing use of interdicts to protect people in relationships. The bill contains good, helpful provisions on parental responsibilities and rights. There are some difficulties with cohabitation. The Matrimonial Homes (Family Protection) (Scotland) Act 1981 already gave a definition of cohabitation, and we now have a new, different definition. As we move forward we might consider whether, by considering the definition within the context of a family law bill, we might be excluding some people who have relationships that are not familial in the conventional sense. For example, brothers who are bachelors and who live together might have similar interrelationships to the ones that are described and might reasonably expect to have similar protections. There are other examples. In other words, sex is not the only important factor and determinant.

We welcome the focus on long-term and enduring relationships. Financial interdependence, which the Executive is now focusing on, is a useful clarification of where we are going and how we should recognise cohabitation. On page 17 of the minister's response to the Justice 1 Committee's report, he talks of a couple who have given their energies and emotional and financial resources to a relationship and whose choices, particularly self-denying choices, are driven by expectations of a joint life. That is a useful clarification and one that I welcome.

Despite the clarifications about the distribution of assets at the termination of a cohabitation through death or break-up of the relationship, I continue to have concerns that the new way in which the fixed pot of money is to be redistributed in some circumstances will disadvantage children. The minister has pointed to some flaws in the committee's working on that issue but we must continue to watch it with great care.

I said that there were three important questions. Is the bill needed? Yes, I believe that it is needed and that it is time for an update. Are the proposed changes necessary, sufficient and so on? For children, the changes may be necessary and, to some degree, sufficient, although not necessarily to all degrees; for couples, they are necessary and, to some degree, sufficient, but the risk remains, particularly in reducing the time to divorce, that we may inadvertently be devaluing and destabilising relationships and attacking marriage, although I accept that that is not what we are trying to do. Society will benefit from greater clarity on and the extension of protections to people who are cohabiting, so the state and all the people in it will benefit. Therefore, I will support the bill at decision time. I hope that many members across the chamber will join me in doing so.

09:38

7 September 2005

Subject Debate: Scottish Executive's Programme

Scottish Parliament

Wednesday 7 September 2005

[THE PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 09:30]

Scottish Executive's Programme

Resumed debate.

The Presiding Officer (Mr George Reid): Good morning. This morning we continue the debate on the Scottish Executive's programme.

09:30

... ... ...

11:28

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): The First Minister made justice and respect the watchwords for his Government's programme for the coming year. However, across the chamber and throughout the debate, today's theme has clearly and properly been children. That is the thread that links almost all of today's speeches. The SNP entirely agrees with that emphasis. It does the Parliament credit that we look to those who will live in our future and dwell less on the past. Aims, objectives and targets for the future—as we can see them—are the essence of today's discussion because our future depends on how well children are prepared for their future. However, much of the programme is little more than a palimpsest—a writing over of much that has gone before.

As ever when he speaks on children, Scott Barrie made an interesting, engaging and widely enjoyed speech. I hope that he continues to do that, because he has knowledge and experience that few members share.

Peter Peacock, as ever, struck a balance between selling the programme and conceding that there are areas in which challenges remain. In particular, I focus on his statement that the gap between rich and poor remains too great. Everything that he and his colleagues do to close that gap will have support from SNP members. We encourage him to make the greatest possible efforts in that area.

I was especially pleased by the reference to mental health, an important issue in which Adam Ingram, who is sitting behind me, and I take a particular interest.

Euan Robson came up with a useful catchphrase that we should retain—hidden talent. He spoke with real passion about those, particularly among our young, who are currently excluded from making a contribution to our society. We must focus on them, as they are the people whom we must re-engage. Doing so will take money, but it will also take much more: engagement on our part. The Executive has some way to go to convince us that we are on track.

Duncan McNeil, the most improved speaker of recent times—it is a double-edged sword—made an impressive bid to be recognised as the boilermaker's Jacob Bronowski. I wish him well in his future endeavours in that regard.

I turn to one or two issues that are not included in what is before us and that are signal omissions on which we should focus. The First Minister's statement is but a keyhole view of what is planned. The draft budget for 2006-07 gave us a broader picture. Mike Rumbles will be particularly interested to note that there are eight targets for health and community care but that, for the fourth year in a row, there is no target for dentistry. Not only that, but there are a mere 120 words—a single paragraph—relating to the subject, on page 79 of a substantial document. If we doubt the Executive's commitment to making a real difference on dentistry, we have the evidence in front of us.

Many of the changes that have been made in the health service over the past year are probably well intentioned, but flawed in implementation. I see no word anywhere about NHS 24. I say to Mr Kerr that the idea has merit. However, in the absence of an electronic patient record that is available whenever a patient contacts the health service, to inform and guide efficiently staff of NHS 24 in particular, the introduction of NHS 24 in its present form has made the health service less efficient, although it may be more effective. The paragraph in the draft budget for 2006-07 on the single patient record—it appears on page 80—is even shorter than that on dentistry.

I close by stating the obvious. The Executive's programme has been well and truly rumbled. Mike Rumbles adumbrated a Liberal-free Government in future. I come from a Liberal family. My father's cousin was in Lloyd George's Cabinet in 1916. My great-uncle was Lord Provost of Edinburgh 75 years ago and my father was Lloyd George's election agent when he stood for rector of the University of Edinburgh. I have arranged for a membership application to be posted to Mike Rumbles, so that he can cross this way as well.

11:34

6 September 2005

S2M-2712 Autistic Spectrum Disorder

Scottish Parliament

Tuesday 6 September 2005

[THE DEPUTY PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 10:30]

… … …

Autistic Spectrum Disorder

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Trish Godman): The final item of business is a members' business debate on motion S2M-2712, in the name of Karen Gillon, on autistic spectrum disorder. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes that, according to the latest census publication, Pupils in Scotland, 2004, there are 3,090 pupils diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder who have a Record of Needs and/or an Individualised Educational Programme in primary, secondary and special schools in Scotland; further notes that, as it is a spectrum condition, children with autistic spectrum disorders have a range of abilities with some having complex needs; believes that a range of provision is required to meet the needs of each child appropriately and that this may include support from other agencies, and considers that the Scottish Executive should ensure that the needs of children with autistic spectrum disorders are appropriately met so that they can benefit from education and learning.

17:08

… … …

17:16

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): It is excellent that so many members signed Karen Gillon's motion—I congratulate her on her efforts. We must focus on the needs of those with the condition and, more critically in many instances, on the needs of their families. When someone does not get the support that they need, that has a wide effect. I am sure that I am far from being the only member who has had people at surgeries seeking to have the needs of their offspring met. There is more than a passing suspicion that, in the system, support is constrained by finance rather than determined by the needs of the person with the condition.

In particular, people with the condition require stability and are upset and set back even by small changes. Three-year funding cycles often exist in the voluntary sector, which means that, at the end of the three years, the way in which support is delivered from the voluntary sector may change, which creates the real risk that someone with the condition may be set right back to the beginning, or perhaps even further back. I hope that the Executive will give thought to that issue.

The Deputy Minister for Education and Young People (Robert Brown): On the resource issue, does Stewart Stevenson accept that about £200 million extra has gone into special needs education, on top of the approximately £4 billion that has gone into education resource generally in the past two years?

Stewart Stevenson: That is true—credit where credit is due—but the money is not necessarily reaching all the people that it should. People with the condition often have intensive and expensive needs. Some of the decisions that have been made in my constituency and in other members' suggest that there are issues at the front line in getting the money to people with particularly intensive needs.

Another issue that Karen Gillon touched on and which will echo with all members is that of achieving the right balance between exclusion and inclusion. An issue arises for those among whom someone with a condition is included. When a primary school class has added to it someone with the condition, we must ensure that all the pupils have the right support. It is beneficial to children to see the condition and the needs of someone who is less fortunate than they are and to learn how to deal with that. However, equally, we should not push people with the condition into situations in which they will simply go backwards because the change is too great.

There are no magic answers, but I am interested to hear what the minister has to say in response to the debate.

17:19

Subject Debate: Scottish Executive's Programme

Scottish Parliament

Tuesday 6 September 2005

[THE DEPUTY PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 10:30]

… … …

Scottish Executive's Programme

The Presiding Officer (Mr George Reid): Good afternoon. The next item of business is a debate on the Scottish Executive's programme.

14:30

… … …

16:40

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): It is easy for members to agree that there should be justice and respect. However, I am reminded of the first substantial piece of legislation with which Jim Hacker had to deal when he came to office. Sir Humphrey Appleby and Bernard Woolley were discussing the freedom of information bill that was to be brought before the Parliament in Jim Hacker's name, and Bernard Woolley asked Sir Humphrey why the bill was called a freedom of information bill. The answer was that getting the difficult bits out of the way in the title means that nothing has to be done about them in the detail. As I have listened to the debate and to what the Executive has said in it, I have wondered whether justice and respect—which underpin the First Minister's programme—will map into actions on policy, legislation and funding that will deliver anything remotely like justice and respect. Sir Humphrey Appleby has much to teach us. I suspect that he is still alive and well.

The issue of sex offenders has run as a distasteful thread through the debate and will continue to challenge members in all parties in the chamber. There are no easy answers to the problem—anyone who tells me that there are does not understand it.

I want to draw on my experience from three years ago, when I visited Bapaume prison, which is some 50 miles north of Paris. Initially, I was told that the French prison service thought that there was a sexual component to the crimes of more than 50 per cent of male prisoners. The figure here is under 10 per cent. I challenged the French justice system on the matter on a couple of occasions and received entirely consistent responses. Are the figures explained by the French being more successful at finding sex offenders than we are? Is their culture totally different from ours, or is the power ratio between men and women different in France from that in our society? The reason for the difference in the figures may partly lie in such things or in none of them, but the difference tells us that the issue is probably not well understood by us and possibly not by the French.

We talk about offenders. Paul Martin referred to the horrendous crime that Stuart Leggate committed in his constituency. Essentially, that crime sprung from inadequate supervision of a sex offender who was released into society after completing their sentence. We can do much more about such matters as supervision and we can do better.

We should not let what I say blind us to there being probably ten times as many sex offenders whose names we do not know. So far, we have not sought to help children to detect and avoid paedophiles, but we must start to consider doing so. I am the son of a general practitioner who was—I suspect—rather enlightened. My father told me about such things when I was a primary schoolkid and I knew the people in my town whom my father thought were a potential danger. They were nowhere near the criminal justice system and were unlikely ever to be near it.

Children can protect children. We must help them to do that. That is one of a number of glaring omissions in the proposals before us today.

Another omission can be found in the draft budget for 2006-07, where we see that the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority has a flat-line budget of £28.4 million. By contrast, the Scottish Prison Service is putting aside £44 million for potential claims and for compensating prisoners for the conditions under which they are held. That sits uneasily with the public, as it does with me and with many members in the chamber. We can respond to that discomfort by taking steps to ensure that, if money is to go into a prisoner's bank account, it is ring fenced while an opportunity for the prisoner's victims to take action to sue the prisoner for the money is put in place. If the money goes through to the victims, where appropriate and where the courts decide so, that would have broad support, and I am saddened that the Executive's proposals have nothing to say on the subject.

Rosemary Byrne commented on the lack of rehabilitation for drug users, and I entirely agreed with the general point that she made. However, she focused particularly on harm reduction and seemed to say that that is far more useful than abstinence.

Tommy Sheridan: Will the member take an intervention?

Stewart Stevenson: I do not have time.

Professor Neil McKeganey has just done a piece of research on the views of addicts who seek help. More than 50 per cent of them say that they want to move to abstinence; less than 5 per cent say that they want to maintain a safe level of drug use. That is not the whole story, but it certainly tells us that we must be wary of thinking that methadone is the only way of dealing with the issue.

We look forward with interest to, and potentially will support, many of the measures that the Executive will introduce. I have highlighted some of the gaps.

We have heard the old chestnut from the Tories—that if we lock up more people there will be less crime.

David McLetchie: True.

Stewart Stevenson: If the Tories can show me the research that proves that view, and how the documents issued on prison statistics and the people we lock up support it, I will believe them. The documents contain an international table and we can see that there is absolutely no correlation whatsoever. There is no sustainable argument for that view.

I close by saying that I am deeply disappointed not to have had George Burns, our own dear Deputy Minister for Justice, telling Gracie Allen, the lead in the show, "Say goodnight, Gracie."

16:48

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