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3 October 2018

Justice Committee: Remand

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame): The next item of business is a Justice Committee debate on remand.

14:43
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16:05

Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

I was previously the SNP shadow deputy justice minister, between September 2004 and May 2007, and as such I was responsible in particular for prisons. I am fortunate to have visited prisons in four countries, and I found that they work to very different patterns.

My parliamentary constituency, from the point at which I was elected, included Peterhead prison, which originally opened in 1888. It was a classic Victorian prison that was long overdue for replacement. Now, we have the modern HMP Grampian, which serves very different purposes and is much more of a local prison for a mixed prison population, including remand prisoners.

It is worth making the point that the committee’s report, which is wide in scope, makes many interesting and useful recommendations that have led us to today’s useful debate. I want to start with a few observations on statistics, on which almost every contributor this afternoon has made comment.

In the course of the 270-plus justice committee meetings that I have attended since being elected—it feels like even more at times, Presiding Officer—we have made visits to many different places, and one that I remember in particular was a Monday visit to Glasgow sheriff court. There were eight courts running in parallel, and the court that we were visiting was dealing with the weekend incarcerations. There were 59 appearances in the hour for which we were in that court, and a fair number of them ended up as remands. We have to ask ourselves how much consideration was given to the remand process when the time that was being spent per case was about one minute. That is a good and valid question that we should properly ask ourselves.

It is also worth making the point—this is my judgment, and that is all, although it was shared by other members who were present at the time—that there was not a newcomer among the 59 people. They all knew the system, so I could see where the judge was coming from.

However, I would like to focus on the proportion of people who are subsequently convicted, having been remanded, but are not imprisoned thereafter. That is the part of the issue that might be most susceptible, if it were to be studied in depth, of giving us information. If we were to look at a case in which a judge decided, for whatever reason, that remand was the proper thing to do—part of that reason would, I presume, be the consideration that imprisonment might be the ultimate end—we should be able to see why there appears to be a mismatch between the judgment that was made at remand and the ultimate outcome. That might particularly inform us, and perhaps the judicial system, about remand decisions. The Government might consider getting an academic to look at an appropriate number of cases that fit those criteria.

The committee report, at paragraph 154, discusses what informs a remand decision, and a series of things is listed, but it makes the comment that

“decisions are usually made under significant time pressures”.

I have seen that and I think that the report is spot on. Similarly, the report mentions the fact that there is some data and that some courts have a tick list to record it. As the committee recommends, that could be more widely done.

In evidence, the Sheriffs Association said that

“written reasons for refusal of bail are provided if an appeal is taken”,

but only then. Most of the reasons are given orally.

I have been in court and watched witnesses and accused persons hear a rapid oral delivery of various information about bail conditions and so forth, and it is perfectly clear that people do not absorb all that information. There is a danger that justice is not being served if we do not write information down and ensure that the prisoner and their lawyer get it and know exactly what is happening.

In the short time that I have remaining, I will make a comment or two about health. The committee noted in paragraph 84 that even when remand is someone’s only experience of prison, the mark of prison is left on the person, which carries considerable risk.

In paragraph 98, the committee said:

“The Committee considers that procedures should be in place to ensure that, where appropriate, remand prisoners retain access to prescribed medication”.

I am picking at the committee’s choice of words: I do not know what “where appropriate” means in that context. I would have thought that there would be almost no occasion when a prisoner should be denied access to medication that had been prescribed by a qualified practitioner from elsewhere.

Jenny Marra (North East Scotland) (Lab): A few years ago, the Government decided that the NHS would take over health services in prisons. Does the member share my concern that there appears not to be more seamless provision between health services outside prison and services inside prison as a result of the change?

Stewart Stevenson: With the NHS supporting people in the community and in prison, one might imagine that sharing data would be easier than it would be if other arrangements were in place. That is certainly something that we should look at. I think that there are general issues to do with medical data, which sometimes get in the way of what health professionals do.

On the immediate needs referral, which is being piloted, the Government said in its response to the committee’s report:

“Whilst there is no statutory obligation, where local resources permit, establishments may extend this model to include those on remand.”

I encourage the Government to act on that worthy thought.

The whole issue of the NHS, on which I have just taken an intervention, is covered in the Government’s response.

The report is useful. The Government is listening—I see the minister has been making extensive notes during the debate, and I am sure that she will read the Official Report. I hope that the finance secretary will also read it.

16:12

Stewart Stevenson
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