13 January 2005

S2M-2241 Victims and Witnesses

Scottish Parliament

Thursday 13 January 2005

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

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Victims and Witnesses

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Murray Tosh): The next item of business is a debate on motion S2M-2241, in the name of Hugh Henry, on victims and witnesses, and two amendments to the motion.


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The Deputy Presiding Officer (Trish Godman): I call Stewart Stevenson.

Stewart Stevenson rose—

The Deputy Presiding Officer: I am sorry. I call Margaret Mitchell.


… … …


Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I had a sense of déjà vu a few minutes ago. In our SNP candidate training, we role-play from time to time, during which we ensure that all the parties are represented. It is confession time—all too often for my comfort, I am selected to play the role of a Tory. Do I get time off for good behaviour and can I plea bargain? Had I been invited to sum up on behalf of the Tories, my speech might have come out just a little different. The differences between the SNP and the Tories are long standing and well known. I will revisit some of them.

In his speech, Hugh Henry referred to restorative justice and how it is not yet clear that it is delivering for adult offenders in England in particular. I hope that we can persist with the idea and find ways to make it effective. In relation to children, whether they are 18, 16, 14 or 12—I throw that back into the debate—restorative justice appears to play an important role in returning children to a path of probity and commitment to society.

I was slightly surprised when the deputy minister appeared to say that the Protection of Children and Prevention of Sexual Offences (Scotland) Bill specifically addresses grooming, although he may take this opportunity to clarify what he said. The bill certainly does not refer to grooming, although it may deal with some aspects of it. We will give the bill a fair wind and I do not seek to criticise it, but there may be more work to do on that subject. I suspect that members of all parties on the Justice 1 Committee will assist the minister with that.

Annabel Goldie made an astounding claim about Stuart Leggate, who was responsible for the horrendous sexual murder of a young boy in Paul Martin's constituency. Annabel Goldie said that early release was somehow directly responsible for Stuart Leggate's offence. I am interested to know the argument for that connection. I was unable to intervene on Annabel Goldie, as she made the comment within 35 seconds of having to sit down. Stuart Leggate was understood to be an evil person, both when he was in prison and thereafter. The real issue with the Leggates of this world—there are others of similar character—is supervision.

Miss Goldie: My point was that the two individuals whom I mentioned were free to commit more crimes because they were released early.

Stewart Stevenson: Had they been released later, they would also have been free to commit their crimes. My point is that there is no connection between release date and commission of crimes. Annabel Goldie's point does not help to promote good argument on the issue.

Colin Fox had, of course, a rather different approach. He came up with one insight that I should mention when he talked about the slowness of justice. I disagree with him slightly in that I do not think that the speed of justice is the primary issue. Justice should be faster, but the key point is that we should search for ways to make the progress of the justice system more predictable for all those who are involved. For example, if victims and witnesses had to attend on 14 February and knew that something was to happen then, they would not willingly trade that for thinking that things might happen on 31 January. We must have speed, but if increased speed must be traded against reduced stability and predictability, I suspect that most people would go for predictability.

Colin Fox seemed to say that, in a capitalist society, socialists have no duty to society. That is an interesting concept for him to articulate, given that we have previously thought that socialists, even if we disagree with them, espouse more strongly the concept of society than do we lesser mortals.

Colin Fox: Will the member give way?

Stewart Stevenson: Sorry; I am running out of time.

I have a few suggestions as I head towards my conclusion. We use professional witnesses in civil cases, particularly in housing matters, and there is a case for examining whether professional witnesses have a role in the criminal justice system.

I want to highlight some statistics on where crime happens, which I understand will be published in the not-too-distant future and which were requested by the Scottish Prison Service. The statistics show that 25 per cent of the total prisoner population on 30 June 2003 came from just 53 of Scotland's 1,222 local government wards, and that 50 per cent came from just 155 wards. In other words, there is a concentration of criminality, which makes witnesses vulnerable in those areas. Furthermore, there is a direct relationship with deprivation. In communities in the bottom decile of deprivation—the most deprived areas—953 out of every 100,000 people are in prison, whereas at the top level, the figure is 4 out of every 100,000.

There are actually 269 local authority wards in Scotland that have no one in prison. We also have densities of people in prison from many of our local authority wards that exceed the density of people in prison per head of population from Harlem and the Bronx. The figures are made up mainly of young men. That concentration creates real problems—even threats—for people who engage with the criminal justice system, report crimes and be witnesses.

Plea bargaining has been referred to a few times during the debate, in particular by my colleague Bruce McFee. I would like to pose a thought, not make a proposal. Plea bargaining involves the offender and the offender's representatives. I wonder whether there could also be a role for the victim and the victim's representatives in that process, particularly in relation to serious cases. I do not know whether that is done anywhere else but, after all, the analogous processes in civil cases would involve both sides of the argument.

I make no apology for returning to the subject of fines—as the SNP has done over a number of years—and to the suggestion that it is time that we considered relating fines to the income of the offender. A fine might represent a small amount of an MSP's income, but the same fine might represent a much more significant penalty for someone with a lower income status. If the offence is the same, the conviction should be the same.

The Prisons Act 1839 gave prison the purpose of reforming criminals. It is amazing that that purpose was put at centre stage so long ago. Our criminal justice system must continue to hold that principle at the centre of what we do after we have convicted people. There is no point in simply convicting people if we do not seek to reform them as part of the process.

My late mother-in-law had the misfortune to be the victim of theft when two young men took her cash card and withdrew money from a cash dispenser. It was a great comfort to her, however, that one of the sentences that was passed by the court was for compensation and that one of the two young men paid that compensation. Financially, the measure was not of great importance but in terms of her ability to feel that the criminal justice system had dealt properly with her case, it was important.

Victim support for mental health is one of the elements of the strategy that I particularly commend. We will, of course, be supporting the Executive's motion, but we hope to see support for our amendment as well.


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