14 September 2006

S2M-4712 Criminal Proceedings etc (Reform) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

Scottish Parliament

Thursday 14 September 2006

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

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Criminal Proceedings etc (Reform) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

The Presiding Officer (Mr George Reid): The next item of business is a debate on motion S2M-4712, in the name of Cathy Jamieson, on the general principles of the Criminal Proceedings etc (Reform) (Scotland) Bill.


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Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): It is not for Parliament or MSPs to micromanage the criminal justice system, but it is for us to create the environment in which effective management can operate and to hold the Government accountable for what happens in the system. The Scottish National Party will support the bill at 5 o'clock because we want to help summary justice to do its business.

The widely welcomed and successful Bonomy reforms of the solemn justice system have delivered, by and large. The McInnes reforms, as moderated by the Government's views and refined by the Justice 1 Committee and the Parliament at the bill's later stages, must deliver similarly beneficial changes for court cases that are dealt with via the summary justice system before a sheriff or a justice of the peace, which are the huge majority of court cases. I expect that we will hear from MSPs who are former JPs—I am not one—at later stages of the debate.

The bail system is the subject that more than anything else in the bill is debated in the pubs, clubs, streets and homes of Scotland, but it is the system's defects rather than its successes—or rather its perceived defects and failures—that form the subject of common debate. The successes are rarely talked about and are not particularly easy to find. However, individual failures or perceptions of failures too often touch on the subject to which the minister referred, which is that of public safety. I welcome the minister's indication that she will respond to the committee's view that although public interest encompasses public safety, "public safety" is the phrase and the sentiment that we have to bring to the forefront so that the people outside the chamber understand that we are taking things seriously.

Phil Gallie: The member has quite rightly highlighted perceived deficiencies in the bail system, but I can assure him that it has actual deficiencies, too. Does he regret the fact that his party supported the Labour-Liberal Administration's hasty reform of the bail laws, which was supposedly undertaken to ensure compliance with the European convention on human rights? Does he agree that the changes that have now been proposed demonstrate that there was no need for such reform?

Stewart Stevenson: I think that the member will know that among SNP members and, I suspect, members of all parties, apart from that to which Mr Gallie and his colleagues belong, there is firm support for the principle of human rights. For everyone who may be subject to the bail system, there must be a rule that allows them to demonstrate before the court and the sheriff that there is a case for bail. The bill will draw much tighter the mesh of the net through which serious criminals or those people who have been accused of serious offences might escape temporary incarceration in advance of their trial. I am sure that that measure will receive a broad welcome; we certainly welcome it.

It is worth returning to the subject of public interest versus public safety. In the 1700s, John Locke said:

"They who would advance in knowledge ... should not take words for real entities."

Although we agonise about the words that appear in legislation, outside the Parliament public safety is what people are thinking about.

We welcome subsection (3) of new section 23D of the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1995, which clarifies that bail will be granted only in exceptional circumstances when the accused has a previous conviction for drug trafficking. There might be further debate to be had about that because there will be circumstances in which although someone has no previous conviction, orders have been imposed on them that might lead us to conclude that it would be appropriate not to grant bail and to keep them locked up.

The key aspect of the bail proposals that will engage the general public relates to the perception—which is too often the reality—that too many people at the lower tariff end of offences flout bail and fail to adhere to the conditions that the court imposed when it granted bail. When the committee went to Glasgow sheriff court, we found out about a number of people who had committed a long list of bail breaches. In cases in which someone has a track record of bail breaches, bail should not be granted.

The bill will do something to help people who have genuine difficulties understanding what they have been told. We hope that it will ensure that accused persons receive greater explanation and are given a written record of their bail conditions and of when they must appear in court. We support the proposed increases in the penalty for breaching bail from three months to 12 months in summary cases and from two years to five years in solemn cases. We are in favour of the increased emphasis on ensuring that people who are bailed have a better understanding of the conditions to which they are subject.

The speaking-time clock has just jumped forward by five minutes, but I am sure that the Presiding Officer will ensure that I am on time. We welcome the greater use of liberation on undertaking, although the effect that it will have on police resourcing is not clear. We will monitor that as the bill progresses. More details need to be provided to allow us to understand what will happen.

We welcome the idea that more will be done on intermediate diets, although we do not know exactly how that will work, and we must consider whether consequential reforms of legal aid will be necessary.

Finally, I come to fiscal fines and fiscal compensation orders and the presumption of acceptance. Fiscal fines have a role to play. They are already used, but the bill will extend their use and increase the fine limit. That is probably a good idea because it will mean that many cases can be taken out of court. The minister mentioned that a person who was offered a fiscal fine would have the option of going to court—yes, but no: given the presumption of acceptance, if someone does not go back to the fiscal and say, "I reject your offer," they will not have the opportunity to go to court to clear the issue. Further thinking will have to be done on the matter.

I remain somewhat concerned about fiscal compensation orders. Although I do not come home drunk on a Saturday night and kick in a window, rich gits like me could afford to pay the fiscal compensation order, whereas someone who is financially less well set up could not.

In their contributions, my colleagues will develop our position on other aspects of the bill. The SNP will support the motion at decision time, but—and this is critical to our position—we will also seek to improve it at stage 2.


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