27 June 2017

S5M-05389 Online Exploitation and Abuse of Children

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani): The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-05389, in the name of Gillian Martin, on not on my screen. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament recognises the concerns raised by people in Aberdeenshire East and around Scotland regarding the online exploitation and abuse of children; commends the efforts of the International Justice Mission (IJM) in highlighting child slavery and exploitation overseas; understands that this abuse is supported and enabled by online purchasers in western countries, including Scotland; commends Police Scotland and the National Crime Agency on their work with the IJM to identify and prosecute the buyers and enablers of online child abuse and cybersex trafficking, and further commends them for raising awareness of the problem at a national and international level in order to stop this abuse of children.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

I congratulate Gillian Martin on bringing this important topic to us today.

I thank the people who helped to brief me. Barrister Annabelle Turner came to see me yesterday and briefed me on behalf of the International Justice Mission. It is worth having a wee think about what the IJM is about. Ms Turner is one of many professionally qualified people who work for the organisation and provide services to it entirely pro bono—without any financial benefit accruing to them. It is indicative of a caring society that people are prepared to do that, but the subject is one that properly motivates people to do their very best to deal with it.

Cybersex trafficking is not an easy subject to discuss. The people who are involved are very nasty people indeed. Until comparatively recent times, I had in my constituency Peterhead prison, which was Scotland’s serious sex offenders prison. Sex offenders who were sentenced to four years or more in prison were sent there. There were 300 or so of them and they were, in essence, cut off from friends, family and people elsewhere.

It is worth having a little think about the people who are in that prison. They are quite a different kind of criminal from the one that we would meet if we went to Saughton or Barlinnie. They are much cleverer, much more socially competent and much more convincing. They are able to use their social skills, knowledge and expertise to perpetrate their foul crimes. They are able to suck in other people to protect them and to create a cocoon around their offending behaviours. I know of one sex offender who was in Peterhead prison whose parents were so convinced of their son’s innocence that, before the police arrived at a particular locus, they were cleaning the blood off the walls and repainting rooms. We would have thought of those parents as being the most upright members of society, but they had been caught by the duplicity of a criminal who was involved in sexual abuse—albeit that it was not online in that particular case.

We have heard references, most recently from Finlay Carson, to technical measures that we might take, such as getting ISPs—all our traffic goes through internet service providers—to look at the traffic that is going through and to detect what is happening. The honest and unfortunate truth, however, is that that would simply not work. If someone encrypts what is going through, we do not know what is in the encrypted package. Yet encryption is an important part of protecting certain kinds of data on the internet, so we cannot ban it on the internet. That is simply not possible.

I suspect that we will go back to the Al Capone approach. Al Capone was a gangster in Chicago, which was a very corrupt city, for some seven years until, in 1931, it was concluded that the only way to get him was through the fact that he had not been paying his tax bills on his ill-gotten gains. The one way in which we might be able to make some progress is by tracking the money and where it is going, because it is difficult to transmit money without a mechanism for doing so. There is not time to go into the issue of bitcoin and the chains that go with it, but, even there, it should be possible.

I, too, very much respect what is being done by the Internet Watch Foundation in taking down sites, but we must go right back to the genesis of the sites and make it economically unviable for people to run them. Last week, I met Kristof Claesen from the IWF, as did others, and I was very interested in what he had to say.

I have no magic solution. None of us here does. However, having a debate such as this at least alerts us to the problem, and that is a good start. I commend Gillian Martin for bringing the issue to our attention and allowing us to explore this important topic.


S5M-06356 Railway Policing (Scotland) Bill

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame): The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-06356, in the name of Humza Yousaf, on the Railway Policing (Scotland) Bill.

... ... ...

Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

I was disappointed to hear Oliver Mundell attacking many of my constituents who work for the Ministry of Defence police and look after the St Fergus oil and gas terminal. They are effective, as policing across Scotland in all our forces is effective. The police are part of the reason why offending in Scotland is at a 42-year low.

Let us talk about borders. Claire Baker raised the issue of cross-border policing. We might have slightly forgotten that the British Transport Police is not a UK-wide force but a Great Britain police force. The Police Service Northern Ireland shares responsibility with An Garda Síochána for the policing of the railway system in Ireland. That involves a border between two states and the performance of policing there is no worse, being broadly similar to the performance of policing here. There are organisational models that we can choose and, when we look at that as an example, there is absolutely no reason to believe that we will have any difficulty.

Claire Baker also reminded us of the Smith commission, which was the genesis of the discussion that we are having today, and the unanimity of the view that the powers should be transferred to Scotland.

If a member of the public sees someone in a police uniform, they do not ask what police service they work for; indeed, they will not be aware of which service they work for. They simply recognise that they are a policeman or a policewoman and they will go to them for succour, information or assistance or to report problems, regardless of which police force they are with. A unified system that looks after Scotland has significant advantages, removing difficulties at interfaces.

There is not a huge amount of crime on the railway. The British Transport Police deal with about 10 offences a day in Scotland, which equates to 5.5 crimes a day—I am not sure why the figures are different.

The point has been made that, if we are to take on responsibility for railway policing, we should not do it now. However, I am reminded of the old saying that one should repair the roof of one’s house when the sun is out. In other words, we would be under the most immense criticism if we were to look at reorganising this facet of our policing in response to a crisis. Frankly, it is far better that we do it in a measured way that has taken place over several years.

Railway policing is not new. The Metropolitan Police opened for business on 29 September 1829 and the railway police started three years earlier. They have been around for a long time indeed.

I congratulate Neil Bibby on what has been a positive engagement. He has done something that Opposition members do not always get to do: he has managed to amend a Government bill. It took me about four years to succeed in doing that, despite my considerable efforts. He has done a good and useful thing.

We have had a great debate about personal track safety certificates. Whenever a police officer is close to an operational railway, it is important that they have the proper training. I have complete confidence that the chief constable will ensure that such training is provided to officers who have to be close to operational railways.

The bill is an excellent step forward, and I will be happy to support the Government come decision time tonight.


22 June 2017

S5M-06201 Limitation (Childhood Abuse) (Scotland) Bill

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani):
The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-06201, in the name of Annabelle Ewing, on the Limitation (Childhood Abuse) (Scotland) Bill at stage 3.

... ... ...

Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

I will begin by talking about my colleagues in the chamber. I have always thought that all of us who stand for Parliament and elected office, whatever our political traditions and beliefs, come here—with almost no exceptions—wanting to do good for the people whom we are elected to represent. That does not change the fact that I will disagree with members in other parties on matters that are important to me. However, as we reach the conclusion of the Limitation (Childhood Abuse) (Scotland) Bill, I am gratified to find that we are likely to find ourselves of a single mind.

I have no difficulty with the motivation behind Oliver Mundell’s amendment. Indeed, after the stage 2 amendment fell in committee, I had discussions about precisely how a new amendment might look. At the end of the day the amendment was not quite there—but that is only a personal opinion and does not matter greatly in the big scheme of things.

I pay tribute to Johann Lamont, who, like me, has been here for some considerable time. She has been a tireless campaigner—on occasion, an extremely irritating, but proper one—on the rights of the disadvantaged in our society. Although we heard some pretty robust words today, we should utterly respect the motivation behind them. We are of one mind in supporting the bill.

The debates and disagreements that we have in Parliament will not be understood in any shape or form by the people whom we seek to help. Their attitude is simple. They want us to get on with it and do something. I think that that is where we have got to.

In committee, we heard from people who suffered childhood abuse. Their stories were moving beyond belief. I say that as someone whose general practitioner father—I always refer to my history—had to deal with childhood abuse. He was the GP responsible for pupils in a boarding school, and he came across some examples of abuse in that context. The issue was discussed around the dinner table, because it was thought that we children should understand what goes on. Indeed, my father sought our views.

However, nothing that we discussed around our dinner table compares with the stories that committee members were told. The stories did not quite move me to tears, but only for the reason that I did not want to let down the person who was telling their story by crying. I felt like crying—I really did—and I know that other members were in the same position.

What we do today is a noble and proper thing, which has been needing to be done for a long time. However, let us not imagine that by putting words on a page in the statute book we will have completed the job. That is not the case. We must ensure that the resources are in place—I signed up to the part of the committee’s report that said so, and I am confident that that will happen.

There are new threats coming over the horizon, with which we will have to engage. Immediately before this debate, I had an hour’s briefing from the Internet Watch Foundation, which is involved in addressing child abuse on the internet. We must remain alert to the new threats and protect future generations from them, as well as properly addressing abuse that took place in the past.


21 June 2017

S5M-06186 Agriculture

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame): The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-06186, in the name of Peter Chapman, on agriculture.



Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

I start by declaring a relevant interest. NFU Scotland provides me with its magazine, Scottish Farming Leader, at no cost. The cover price is £3.50. I thank the NFUS for that, which helps me to stay in touch, and I will come back to that. I also declare that I have a registered agricultural holding of less than two hectares from which I derive no income.

The Leader helps us all to stay in touch. A different publication, Farmers Weekly, caught the situation in which farming finds itself in relation to farm payments in its 10 February edition. It said:

“The department’s record of failure when developing systems to support subsidy payments to farmers does not inspire confidence in its ability to cope with the challenges with Brexit that lie ahead ... At the same time taxpayers continue to be hit in the pocket by financial penalties arising from the government’s failure to deliver the scheme properly.”

The penalties to which it refers are of £0.5 billion. The failures that it describes are, of course, the Tory failures in supporting the CAP payments system in England.

That those in England are also in difficulties does not let us in Scotland off the hook—far from it—but it allows us to compare the Tories’ rhetoric here with their record south of the border, which does not much favour my colleagues on the benches to my left. Westminster’s Public Accounts Committee is chaired by a Labour MP, and Tory MP Richard Bacon has been its deputy chairman. He was withering on the Tories’ record; in fact, he has even written a book called “Conundrum” on the nature and causes of overspending, delays and failures in his Government’s schemes and the failures of other Governments.

In contrast, our Government has fessed up and acted on legitimate concerns. A loan scheme has been introduced to protect the cash flows for farmers. In England, there has been no comparable action.

The motion asks us to note Audit Scotland’s June findings. Let us do that. The report says that

“significant changes to leadership ... brought renewed effort to ... respond to the risks.”

Thank you, cabinet secretary. The report continues:

“Online applications for 2017 opened on time on 15 March, and no major system problems were noted over the application period.”

Thank you, cabinet secretary, and thank you to all the hard-working staff at the agriculture and rural economy directorate.

None of that should be news to Mr Chapman or to me. We were both present at a parliamentarians’ meeting with NFUS members that took place at Thainstone mart on 28 April, when we both heard confirmation from active farmers that the application system was working and usable. That does not mean that the whole system is working, but the bit with which farmers interact was working.

We also heard that farm incomes had declined; we know of the serious pressures that there are. I welcome the assurance from the UK Government that funding for CAP will continue into 2020 but, in the light of the withholding of more than £100 million of convergence funding, I am a bit sceptical about the outcome.

Today’s Queen’s speech at Westminster said that the Government hopes to

“maintain the scope of devolved decision-making powers immediately after exit”

and refers to

“discussion and consultation with the devolved administrations on where lasting common frameworks are needed.”

An agriculture bill has been proposed, and I am going to be quite radical. Why not have a joint committee between this Parliament and the Westminster Parliament to look at that bill?

As a computer person, I will make an important point on back-up systems, on which Peter Chapman is entirely wrong. It is only the heritage or legacy systems that are not backed up, not the new CAP system and all the data, which confirms that it will be okay.

I end with July’s edition of Scottish Farming Leader, which I have here. It has 66 pages and not a single word on CAP information technology systems or any of the failures. Farmers have moved on and the Government is moving on with them.

The Tories are out of touch again. Thank you, Presiding Officer.


S5M-06126 Freedom of Information Requests

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani): The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-06126, in the name of Edward Mountain, on freedom of information requests.

... ... ...

Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

I start by welcoming the Government’s announcement, which takes the public accessibility and availability of information relating to FOI requests—information that is in official hands—to new heights.

I want to talk about the Tories—the party that lodged today’s motion. They have not always been the most enthusiastic supporters of FOI. In the stage 1 debate on the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Bill on 17 January 2002, Lord James Douglas-Hamilton described the bill as

“a costly experiment to tinker with what he”

the then Minister for Justice—

“calls a culture of secrecy.”

Lord James went on to say that

“The Executive seems to be intent on forcing through unnecessary measures.”

David McLetchie reinforced the Tory antipathy to the very concept of an FOI bill by saying:

“If the bill has been shoved down the list of priorities, the people of Scotland, aside from a few political anoraks, will not shed many tears.”

I see that Murdo Fraser is in the chamber. He said that the bill

“does us no credit whatever.”

My own contribution to the debate was to say that

“A desire to keep information is always an expression of someone’s self-interest”.—[Official Report, 17 January 2002; c 5467, 5469, 5480, 5494, 5499.]

I am strongly in favour of freedom of information, to the extent that when officials in the Labour and Liberal Executive prepared guidance to civil servants on how to implement the bill, I was delighted to discover, as the result of an FOI request, that they quoted from my speeches.

In government, and subsequently, I discovered that operation of the 2002 act places a genuine and proper burden on our public servants, whether they are employed or elected.

There have been many ministers in this Administration and in previous ones, and as one of them, I found myself responding to a significant number of FOI requests.

On many occasions we found that although the information was available, it was dispersed around so many different areas that it took a substantial effort to retrieve, organise and present it. It was there for the benefit of the administrator, not necessarily for the inquirer.

I ceased to be a minister on 6 September 2012—nearly five years ago. However, for years after that I was still being asked to confirm the contents of responses to FOI requests because they touched on my time as a minister. Under the ministerial code, I am not permitted to retain any ministerial papers. It is fair to say, “Mea culpa”, and I accept that a lot of the delays are down to me as a back bencher not always responding quickly enough to civil servants looking for information. That process is not yet finished, by the way. I have been summoned to appear in front of the Edinburgh trams inquiry, so I will have to come down for a full day to be briefed on what I did between 10 and seven years ago. The reasons for delays are diverse.

Sir Humphrey Appleby in “Yes, Minister” reminded us that the Official Secrets Act is not there to protect secrets; it is there to protect officials.

FOI is an important part of civic Scotland’s weaponry to ensure that citizens can hold officials to account.

I welcome the Tories’ new-found support for FOI. Let us hope that, across all the Administrations in which they might be involved, they properly implement the required principles and practices.


06 June 2017

S5M-05982 Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh): The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-05982, in the name of Margaret Mitchell, on behalf of the Justice Committee, on the committee’s inquiry into the role and purpose of the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service.

... ... ...

Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

In many ways, our prosecution service works similarly to how prosecution has operated for centuries, but society, and the crimes committed by some in it, have changed.

In my spare time, I am studying the life of John McFeat, who was found guilty of housebreaking and the theft of a coat and a bottle of whisky on the night of 22 to 23 August 1830. The court papers show that the 17-year-old young man had left home after falling out with his father, a chair maker at 36 Leith Walk, after he had refused to give him money for clothes.

McFeat had stayed in lodgings with some other young people for about a week. The precognitions—17 of them—show a young man obviously at a loose end and perhaps egged on by his peers. He broke into the house of his father’s neighbour to obtain drink and stole a coat opportunistically. He and his friends appear to have been larking about on Calton hill and then retired to their lodgings to consume the whisky.

His trial, on 11 November 1830, saw 41 jurors summoned. His guilt was quickly determined—perhaps more rapidly than justice today might demand—and he was transported to New South Wales for seven years. He never returned to Scotland, so that was one Scottish crime wave dealt with.

The story could be reflected in similar activities carried out by similarly bored young people today, and the response—involving police, fiscal, prosecutor, court, witnesses and the method of prosecution—has changed surprisingly little, but today there is scrutiny of a different order, and properly so. The focus is more on reform of the criminal, not merely on punishment, and on supporting all those who are affected by the crime. For the COPFS, there are complexities that were not present in the 1830s, and the arrangements for the accused to have access to legal advice are also much wider. As far as I can see, Mr McFeat had no such advice.

How are we doing? The number of crimes has fallen to the lowest level in 40 years, and our prosecutors make a substantial contribution to that, as do police, societal change, prisons and many other things. At a time of change, staff in the system feel under pressure. Cases are becoming more complex, there is closer attention to process in order to deliver efficiency, which inevitably removes what might be thought of as slack time. Such changes are not always welcome.

Let me address the subject of change. Oliver Mundell argued at some length against change, so I point him to what is now known as the Hawthorne effect. Over an extended period, changes were made in one part of a Western Electric Company factory in Cicero, Illinois, while the other part remained unchanged. After every change, productivity rose and absenteeism dropped. At the end of the trials, the factory was returned to its previous state while the researchers considered their findings—and productivity rose again. It was concluded that the process of change, rather than the nature of the change itself, was the source of benefit to the employee and the company. The Hawthorne effect is now also described as the observer effect and derives simply from taking an interest in people. Well-managed change is good.

The convener referred to court delays. Unhelpfully, perhaps, she failed to develop all the sources of such delays—in particular, that defence counsel can also come to court unable to proceed. Like the prosecution, its difficulty can lie with reluctant witnesses.

Some parts of the system are startlingly efficient. As a member of a predecessor Justice Committee, I visited Glasgow sheriff court on a Monday. We saw an astonishing 50-plus cases moved on in the course of an hour. Was that efficient? Very. Was it effective? Rather less obviously. There seemed to be no novice offenders and engaging the whole panoply of the sheriff court seemed overkill.

The reform of which we heard during the inquiry was, among other things, focused on making better use of court time, which I welcome. In turn, that should create more space for preparation by all involved. I welcome in particular a planned reduction in the use of temporary staff.

In his book “The Mythical Man-Month”, Professor Fred P Brooks posed the question: how do you make a project later? The answer is: add staff. The reason for that is that there is a cost to existing staff of integrating new staff into the team, providing them with knowledge of the local operation and methods and pushing them forward to be fully productive team members. It is not simply that external training is required; the existing team members carry a burden. A reduction in staff churn takes two burdens off the system. There is less time wasted on integration and a larger proportion of the time that staff spend in the service is productive. A further benefit that can be derived comes from staff seeing a task through to its completion. Time taken picking up and putting down items of work is wasted time.

The convener is correct when she points to frustration in delivering improved computer support across the public sector. There was the London Ambulance Service failure under the Tories in the early 1990s and the Scottish Qualifications Authority computer failures under the Labour and Liberal Democrat Administration in the 2000s, and members on the SNP benches have had our failures too. However, the private sector can and does find it difficult to make computer changes too.

Douglas Ross raised court closures as a source of difficulty, but the system appears to be more efficient since the closures. There have been higher throughputs without a corresponding increase in the resource being required to achieve them.

Douglas Ross: Will the member take an intervention?

Stewart Stevenson: In one moment.

Although we heard from some deputes that they felt constrained by the existence of a central unit for marking, others pointed out that it was not a new process and that they did not feel constrained.

Douglas Ross: The member said that I said X, Y and Z about court closures. Will he accept that I was quoting evidence from the bar associations, which highlighted the impact that they see on courts around the north-east of Scotland and the central belt, and that they believe that court closures are having a direct impact on the service that we are providing in Scotland?

Stewart Stevenson: That is a useful clarification and I accept what the member says, but we also heard balancing views.

Rear-admiral Grace Hopper of the US Navy, who retired aged 80 as the oldest-ever regular member of the navy, said that we should act first and apologise later. She means that we should assume that we have the power, and accept that we will be held to account for how we use it, until we are told that we do not.

Mr Ross also rightly spoke of witnesses’ frustrations about delays. I welcome the programme of reform, one of whose outcomes must be to serve the interests of all those who contribute to the delivery of justice. In the early 1980s, I served as a juror in Linlithgow sheriff court in a two-day trial of two accused, each facing seven charges. It was a relatively simple case compared to child abuse, domestic abuse and financial crime—I genuinely wonder how we can help juries make decisions that they will feel more comfortable about in those more complex cases.

We took no evidence from jurors, because what goes on behind the jury room door is secret. For the solemn cases—the most serious—jurors are an important part of the system. In 1830 George Sutherland, a painter and glazier, John McDonald, an innkeeper, and Joseph Astley, a chemist, were jurors in John McFeat’s trial. A similar diversity prevails today.

We saw that support for witnesses today far exceeds that given even 20 years ago. Without witnesses, there can be no trial. Also, where victims could once have been almost invisible, we now have support for them.

The inquiry has been of value in throwing light on a vital part of our criminal justice system and in enabling us on the Justice Committee to hold all responsible for making the system work in future. My understanding—and, I suspect, others’—has been extended and my preparation for my committee role enhanced.

I thank all involved in delivering justice in Scotland. While the optimist in me hopes for an end to the need for any criminal justice system, the realist in me knows that we shall continue to depend on it for time immemorial.

Liam McArthur made a plea for no sentences of under a year. In 1830, no sentences were longer than a year, because if someone was guilty of something worthy of incarceration for longer than a year, they were either taken out and hung or sent to Australia.

I welcome the report and hope that it is a useful contribution to the debate.

The Deputy Presiding Officer: I was listening, Mr Stevenson, but I do not know whether you were advocating such a change in penal policy.


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