10 February 2005

Subject Debate: Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service

Scottish Parliament

Thursday 10 February 2005

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

Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Murray Tosh): Good morning. The first item of business is a debate on the reform of the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, which will be concluded without any question being put.

... ... ...


Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I congratulate Colin Boyd on the achievement of his first lustrum. I was greatly concerned by his tone of voice earlier—I thought that we were about to see a change of personnel, which I would definitely regret. I am glad that we did not hear that. The Lord Advocate has indeed tholed his assize. In particular, I congratulate him on his innovative and correct use of parliamentary opportunities by participating in a members' business debate last year on an issue about which he felt strongly. I hope that he and the Solicitor General will make use of such opportunities in future, where appropriate.

Since I became a member of the Parliament, a considerable amount of change has occurred in the service, almost all of which has been welcome. So much change has there been that, occasionally, newsreaders in London can pronounce the words "procurator fiscal" without stumbling, which is a substantial advance. On the person who holds the office of Lord Advocate, I must say the three words that I hear most often about him, although not always joined together, which are "integrity", "honesty" and "commitment". I congratulate him on his service to date and hope that it continues in a similar manner.

In view of certain comments in a national newspaper today, I apologise to FM—by which, of course, I mean Fordyce Maxwell. I have found a long-sleeved shirt today and I am wearing my jacket. I have brought to this debate the solemnity that certain people thought that I denied yesterday's debate.

Alex Johnstone (North East Scotland) (Con): Hear, hear.

Stewart Stevenson: I see that Mr Johnstone applauds me.

I will say a word or two about information technology modernisation. Members will be aware that I spent 30 years—during which I might have engaged with wider society—as a technologist. I welcome the fact that the accounts appear to show that about £5 million or £6 million has been spent on modernisation, which is a substantial amount. However, although the benefits to the service of IT modernisation are enormous, I hear of a difficulty when I talk to the people who have to input data directly. That was previously done in ways that made it more difficult to share information, such as keeping data on bits of paper or annotating documents. However, although the change benefits others and improves the system's efficiency, we must ensure that we resource the people who input directly to the system, because their workload may increase.

Like other members, my colleagues in the SNP and I substantially welcome the announcements on communication with victims on matters that they will not readily understand simply by looking at them. No pros, reductions in charges and deals are all a proper part of the system, but nonetheless they are often puzzling to victims, who may feel that they reinforce their victimhood. We require an appropriate monitoring system to enable the Lord Advocate to report on the success of the scheme, perhaps through testing the opinions of those who receive communications from the Crown Office. That would allow the Lord Advocate to refine the system as he gains experience and it would allow the Parliament to support him in further efforts.

Many changes are taking place in our courts. I do not know whether we are planning to introduce a supreme court—perhaps Jeremy Purvis was in the United States on the occasion to which he referred.

Jeremy Purvis rose—

Stewart Stevenson: One moment, Mr Purvis.

Like others, Jeremy Purvis admitted to being a comparative novice on legal matters. Being a mathematician and a software engineer, I certainly profess no particular training or expertise, albeit I have thoroughly enjoyed my times on the justice committees. However, help is at hand for Jeremy. The Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service has produced a helpful series of publications to make understanding of the system more accessible to those of us who come to it cold.

Jeremy Purvis rose—

Stewart Stevenson: One moment.

In particular, I commend "Going to Court as a Witness?", which is an excellent document, although I must say that it is for schools and for people who are aged five to 12. However, it is a useful primer for the Jeremys and Jemimas of this world.

Does Mr Purvis still wish to intervene?

Jeremy Purvis: I will intervene as Jeremy. I am sure that that reference work will be useful for Mr Stevenson and that he will find within it the fact that we have a supreme high court of judiciary, in which I served as a juror in an attempted murder case, in the Royal Mile. I am sure that he would wish to correct his error.

Stewart Stevenson: I am told that it is called the High Court of Justiciary. Perhaps the London newsreaders will now be able to pronounce that, too.

Annabel Goldie did not display the commitment to the debate that we expect of all parliamentarians. I welcome the opportunity to have a free-flowing debate on a range of subjects; it does not let the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service off the hook, nor does it mean that the service will not have to ensure that we receive information in the future. I was interested in Kenny MacAskill's suggestion that our courts should sit for 27 hours a day, which I hope the Executive will pick up.

Over the years, we have seen huge change in what is an important part of our criminal justice system. In the previous session of Parliament, the Justice 2 Committee started its work on the subject almost exactly when I became a member of the Parliament and I was happy to be part of that work. Many of the issues that that committee raised are being substantially addressed, but issues remain. We have achieved a lot—we have made progress on victims and on efficiencies—but there is more to do.


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