MSPs pass Community Justice Bill amid ongoing concerns over funding
Legislation paves the way for eight community justice authorities to be scrapped while new national body will be created
Legislation to overhaul the delivery of community justice in Scotland has been backed by MSPs, sparking fresh warnings over funding for the new system.
Holyrood passed the Community Justice Bill yesterday, paving the way for Scotland’s eight community justice authorities to be abolished in favour of arrangements delivered at individual local authority level.
A new national body – Community Justice Scotland (CJS) – will also be established with the intention of providing national leadership, oversight and support for community justice services.
Minister for Community Justice and Legal Affairs, Paul Wheelhouse, said the bill will “instil our communities and Scotland’s judiciary with greater confidence in community justice”.
However, local government umbrella body COSLA claimed the bill as passed contains “shortcomings”, citing “deep concerns” over resourcing and the powers handed to CJS.
The bill has endured a contentious passage through parliament with former justice secretary Kenny MacAskill labelling the provisions a “recipe for obfuscation, if not disaster”.
The new arrangements for the delivery and oversight of community justice services in Scotland is intended to come into force next April.
Wheelhouse said: “We have worked closely with stakeholders to design this model which puts decision making into the hands of people who know their communities best and understand the problems that are unique to their area. These local arrangements will be complemented by leadership at a national level.
“We have allocated nearly £770m to local authorities over eight years and will continue to ring-fence that funding under the new model, in the face of significant cuts from the UK Government. Significant funding is also being made available to support the transition to the new model.”
Transitional funding of £1.6m will be provided each year to local authorities through to 2017-18, said Wheelhouse, who urged Cosla to provide evidence of how it is used in order to “reveal whether there are any bottlenecks or constraints that we can help to address”. Scope for further funding will be reviewed following the Holyrood election, he added.
COSLA community wellbeing spokesperson, Councillor Harry McGuigan, said structural reform of the community justice system was “long overdue” but claimed the bill contained “weaknesses”, after a number of amendments proposed by the umbrella body failed to pass.
“Despite some assurances from the minister, our deep concerns remain over the powers of the national body and the potential lack of resources and legislative footing available to the local partnerships,” he added.
“Good local work to reduce reoffending will now need to happen and much needs to be done to ensure that the new structures work better for our communities. Despite the shortcomings of the bill we will continue to work with Scottish Government to overcome these challenges.”
Meanwhile, a number of amendments - including one brought by Scottish Labour MSP Margaret McDougall to ensure victims' organisations are consulted in the planning of community justice - were passed by MSPs.
“I am still concerned about the level of transitional funding to implement the bill,” McDougall added. “It is £1.6m over the next three years, split among the 32 local authorities, which might not be enough to support the changes. That is even more crucial now that we know that local authority budgets are being cut again.”
An amendment agreed in committee to extend the meaning of community justice to include “persons identified as at serious risk of first time offending” was also overturned, a decision that Scottish Conservative MSP Margaret Mitchell labelled a “retrograde step” running counter to a focus on prevention.
Scottish Liberal Democrats MSP Alison McInnes said: “Many of the judiciary have, until now, been reluctant to use community sentences properly. It is to be hoped that Community Justice Scotland holds the key to unlocking greater confidence in community-based services and innovative approaches such as restorative justice.”
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