06 September 2005

Subject Debate: Scottish Executive's Programme

Scottish Parliament

Tuesday 6 September 2005

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

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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.


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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."


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