16 June 2005

S2M-2775 Management of Offenders etc (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

Scottish Parliament

Thursday 16 June 2005

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

Management of Offenders etc (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

The Presiding Officer (Mr George Reid): Good morning. The first item of business is a debate on motion S2M-2775, in the name of Cathy Jamieson, that the Parliament agrees to the general principles of the Management of Offenders etc (Scotland) Bill.


... ... ...


Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I start by welcoming the aims of the bill. The real question is whether it will make a difference in practice. There is a shared belief, in Parliament and in society, that we must reduce reoffending. Whether we do that is the absolutely key test of sentencing policy and practice. The minister alluded to the fact that in 2000, 30,000 people in Scotland were convicted of crimes, nearly 20,000 of whom were already offenders. As I said during my intervention on sex offenders, that is only the tip of the iceberg because we will not detect all those who reoffend and we will certainly not reconvict all those who reoffend.

It is important that we keep in mind the fact that sex offenders are uniquely difficult to reform. We might be able to put them through programmes to reduce their tendency to offend, to help them detect any return to offending behaviour and to seek the appropriate help, but we are unlikely to change sex offenders from people who have aberrant attitudes to sexual matters into people who have normal attitudes. Generally, however, there is more hope for prisoners.

Are we making progress? Our prisons had, on average, 300 more prisoners inside them in 2004 than in 2003. At £35,500 per year per prisoner, that had better work. At some point in 2004, more than 7,000 Scots criminals were banged up. We must indeed be a lawless nation, although we are clearly not a nation without laws. The bill is yet another attempt to add to our laws, but will it subtract from our prison costs and will it reduce crime? Only Portugal, which has 127 prisoners per 100,000 population, and England and Wales, which have 124 prisoners per 100,000 people, lock up more people than Scotland, which locks up 115 people per 100,000. The last resort, imprisonment, has for rather too long seemed to be our first response.

Imprisonment does, of course, protect society—for a while. If six out of 10 prisoners say, as Oliver Twist did,

"Please, sir, I want some more",

we have to question whether prison actually works. The minister has a target of reducing reoffending by 2 per cent. That is welcome, but I must say that it is modest.

Cathy Jamieson: I assume that the member has been following the evidence during the Justice 2 Committee's deliberations and is aware of how difficult it is to set a target and to make it meaningful in practice. International experience confirms that. Will the member agree, as I hope he will, that although 2 per cent is the target that has been set, it would be for the proposed national advisory board to consider whether that is the appropriate target for the future, and whether further targets should be set at a later date?

Stewart Stevenson: I welcome the fact that there is a target, and I thank the minister for her intervention. I suspect, however, that the target's modesty will continue to exercise us for a while. The bill can deliver its bit, and that is a good enough reason to support it.

I turn to community justice authorities and home detention. My colleague, Tricia Marwick, who is on the case as far as this subject is concerned, will talk in particular about the Colyn Evans case, in which she has a special interest.

Miss Goldie: Does the Scottish National Party have any concerns about the practical effect of the bill, in that it will let certain convicted criminals out of prison even earlier than is the case now?

Stewart Stevenson: The home detention curfew will let people out up to 135 days earlier. If that aids their reintegration into society, reduces estrangement from their families—which is a key element in their remaining part of society—it will be good news. That must be balanced, as I am sure the Conservatives will be aware, against the level of protection that comes from the knowledge that people are banged up away from society. The argument must be about the balance of increased risk and increased advantage. So far, we are quite convinced that the earlier we reintegrate people into society, the greater the benefit will be.

We welcome the minister's change of heart on community justice authorities. She was persuaded by the vociferously expressed opinion of local authorities in particular that she should not proceed with a national community justice authority, but instead go for local justice authorities. The establishment of a national authority would have been seen as yet another centralising move, which would run counter to the Local Government in Scotland Act 2003, through which we delivered more power to local authorities to take control and to deliver against local needs. The minister's response to those opinions is welcome.

However, do we need a chief executive and extra staff—however few—to undertake responsibility for all those community justice authorities, given that fire boards and joint police authorities can be managed simply by integrating responsibility for those bodies into the responsibilities of senior local government office bearers? I would have to give a not proven verdict on the current suggestions, but that matter can be addressed as our consideration of the bill continues and is no reason to oppose the bill. We will hear what the ministers have to say on the matter.

Other countries—Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland spring to mind—have structures that bring prison and community offender services together, and we welcome moves to build on that experience. Such structures can improve lines of communication, enhance information sharing and build more coherent and organised structures to help offenders and the community as a whole.

The CJAs must do what it says on the tin. The different cultures, structures and skills mixes of local authorities, police, the national health service, the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, the Scottish Courts Administration and registered social landlords and the vital role of the voluntary sector can be melded to increase effectiveness or—if we get it wrong—merged in a Pol Pot-style year zero situation that will set back the cause of community justice for a decade. I am inclined to believe that we will achieve the former, but we must be alert to the danger of the latter.

Ministers will know that I have been a vigorous critic of the Scottish Prison Service and I share much of the frustration that ministers have experienced with it. The bill may represent an opportunity to do something about its performance.

I turn to home detention curfews. Maggie Thatcher—the Tories should listen up—said that prison is an expensive way of making bad people worse. HDCs might help. Of course, Jonathan Aitken, a former Tory, has some experience of them, so he might give the Conservatives advice about their worth. The evidence from England on whether they work is mixed.

The bill is a work in progress, rather like too many bills that we have seen of late. We can see that at least one minister is finding the ministerial seat quite hot today. My whip will not let me take my jaicket off whatever the temperature.

Alternatives to prison can work, but that is far from automatic. Reform in society is just as important as reform in the criminal justice system, so we have to address societal needs. Finland, with its low offending and incarceration rates, has much to teach us about handling crime and on how and when criminals and countries take responsibility for their affairs and improve their performance.


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